BOOK REVIEW / Wheeze after wheeze: The end of an era: Diaries 1980-1990 - Tony Benn, ed Ruth Winstone: Hutchinson, pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
IT WOULD be a mistake to think of the Rt Hon Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn as Citizen Tone. The man who emerges from this very human, melancholy and surprisingly gripping final volume of a monumental series of diaries is not some crude revolutionary but a cultivated, quirky, mildly paranoid but often delightful old gent - an amiable, eccentric aristocrat (the second Viscount Stansgate of Stansgate, who disclaimed his peerage on a matter of principle back in 1963) and a serious but undemonstrative Anglican of an old- fashioned, pipe-smoking, boy scoutish kind.

On one hand Mr Benn is a domestic fellow, happy pottering about, rather unsuccessfully fixing fuses and putting up shelves. He delights in periodic retreats to the family seat at Stansgate on the Essex marshes. On the other hand, like some Wodehousean rural dean, he is driven by a nave sense of radical duty and obligation. The vegetarian, teetotal Mr Benn writes, unaffectedly, of 'a tremendously strong inner voice saying what I should do at any one moment'.

This certainty gives him considerable power - but it also means that he cannot leave well alone. The fellow never stops producing policy initiatives. In the 1980s, as socialism crashed about him and the Labour Party was taken over by grey men in grey suits, the increasingly marginalised Mr Benn came up with wheeze after wheeze: disestablishing the Church one day, abolishing the monarchy the next. There is of course a strong element of Pooterism about Labour's lost leader. Effortlessly self-confident, he lacked, and still lacks, any sense that he - as opposed to other people - might on occasion look ridiculous. In January 1983 he submitted to his Parliamentary colleagues perfectly sensible plans for the reforms of the office of Speaker of the House of Commons. But by then many of his natural allies were fed up: Ernie Ross, MP for Dundee West, a down-to-earth working-class radical, would not support him because, he argued, people were bound to say 'The loonies are playing silly buggers again'. Thus had Mr Benn devalued his own coinage in a crucial period.

Take another example: during the run-up to the Iraq war, he records that he wrote a round robin to Kenneth Kaunda, Willy Brandt, Robert Mugabe, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Pierre Trudeau, Rajiv Gandhi, Andreas Papandreou, Ben Bella and all the other progressive old lags, advocating a peaceful resolution to the dispute. The only reply he records to his initiative is a cold and formal acknowledgement from Mr Mandela ('Dear Mr Benn, The ANC supports any efforts which will avert a war situation in the Gulf . . . '). It is reproduced in full and without apparent embarrassment, as if it constituted an achievement and not a snub.

The Benn of this volume combines modesty and consummate good manners with an arrogant certainty that not merely should he do the right thing, but that he is doing it. His ideological self-righteousness is lightened by a mischievous sense of humour. At one point the 68-year-old Privy Councillor records how he phoned Robin Blackburn, the self-important Trotskyist who founded the New Left Review. Posing as a BBC executive with a thick Scottish accent, Mr Benn persuaded Blackburn that he, Blackburn, was being invited to deliver the Reith Lectures on the future of world socialism. Mr Blackburn eventually declined, suggesting that Tony Benn would do a better job. 'I had real fun this morning,' Mr Benn notes.

He also revels in debate and the exchange of ideas. He is pleased when he runs across Enoch Powell or Keith Joseph in the lobby of the Commons. (Other representatives of the hard left would have cut them dead.) It is hard to reconcile such civilised behaviour with Mr Benn's largely uncriticial support of the lumpen Marxism espoused by members of the Militant Tendency, who deliberately entered the Labour Party with the intention of subverting it.

But Benn, increasingly, came to embrace and romanticise the most extreme option available. When he met Joe Slovo, the South African Communist leader, in 1986, Mr Slovo commented that Stalin and Mao had seriously set back the cause of socialism. The remark was, one might have thought, uncontentious to the point of being platitudinous. Mr Benn, however, found it 'a rather harsh judgement'. Similarly, during the Wapping print dispute, Mr Benn was told by one of his print union contacts that Fleet Steet was 'riddled with gangsters and mobsters'. The reaction of the MP for Chesterfield? 'But the question still is: whose side are you on?'

The downwardly mobile Mr Benn sees class conflict and conspiracy everywhere, but he reserves his venom for the airheads and the apparatchiks, the time-servers and the place-seekers of the Labour Party. (His account of the battles within Labour's ruling national executive committee is the most complete yet available.) No wonder he found himself increasingly out of place at the courts of King Neil and Lord Protector Foot, both of whom he came to despise.

In recent years the Labour Party has produced two other diarists - Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle - whose monumental output is of academic interest. For the general reader, the Crossman diaries have not worn well because they display so little of the man. Lady Castle's diaries are more personal but they now seem a little shrill and obsessive. I suspect this volume will better stand the test of time and will be read for entertainment as well as for edification by our children and grandchildren. It is an unexpected delight.

(Photograph omitted)