HUTCHINSON Â£16.99 (278pp) | Â£15.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Dare to be a Daniel by Tony Benn
A national treasure accounts for childhood
Friday 01 October 2004
Many years ago, Harold Wilson commented that Tony Benn "immatures with age", and he has gone on immaturing ever since. For a time, the former boy scout and technological whizz-kid reborn as a fundamentalist socialist was the most dangerous man in British politics, hated almost more in the Labour Party for rendering it unelectable than feared by the Tories, to whom he was a wonderful all-purpose bogeyman. With his disclaimed peerage, his chummily shortened name, and an air of slightly demented reasonableness, to say nothing of his trademark pipe and outsize cups of tea, he was a gift to cartoonists and opponents intent on portraying him as an eccentric renegade aristocrat.
In fact, his background was thoroughly middle-class, his father - a middle-ranking Cabinet minister - having been given a peerage in the days before the invention of life peers.
Benn was no more an aristocrat than Michael Foot - but equally an hereditary politician. Not only his father but both his grandfathers were MPs, and all he ever wanted was to follow them into the Commons. His speeches are peppered with recollections of meeting Ramsay MacDonald and Gandhi as a boy; and to that extent this brief, artless memoir merely repeats familiar stories. He is utterly the product of his upbringing who has taken on the habits and characteristics of his father, from political radicalism and teetotalism to his meticulous record-keeping. Nearing his 80th birthday, he is still the small boy forever telling us proudly about "my dad".
Possibly less familiar is the extent to which he is moulded by Christianity, and specifically Nonconformity - an inheritance derived from his mother, who lived until 1991. Though he long ago rejected Christian theology, his politics remain firmly rooted in the language and moral teaching of the Bible. He perfectly embodies the old aphorism that British socialism owed more to Methodism than to Marx, which is why it seemed disingenuous that he apparently could not see that his hard-left followers in the 1970s came from a very different tradition.
The greatest drawback of his upbringing was that he grew up as a philistine, due largely to his parents' Protestant work ethic which "made the enjoyment of anything suspect". He has never read much, nor had any interest in art or music. His cultural hinterland is confined to half a dozen favourite films ( Brief Encounter, The Railway Children). He claims that he has lived all his life "in the oral tradition", which is "far stronger in history than the written tradition". But he admits that when he hears his grandchildren play or sing, he feels "most inadequate". He pokes fun at the narrowness of his education, particularly his pompous teenage innocence about girls, without seeming fully to realise how deprived it really was.
The book is padded out with his last parliamentary speeches, which encapsulate his stimulatingly iconoclastic views on democracy, patronage and the betrayals of New Labour. Though Benn is now recognised - by dint of longevity - as a harmless national treasure, his final incarnation is to be the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes.
John Campbell's 'Margaret Thatcher: the Iron Lady' is now in Pimlico paperback.
Tony Benn will appear at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on 8 October. (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk)
|Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 2 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 3 Alton Towers crash: Four seriously injured and 16 guests trapped as Smiler ride carriages collide
- 4 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 5 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Black Angel: Lost Star Wars precursor to be made into crowdfunded feature film
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers