Dare to be a Daniel by Tony Benn

A national treasure accounts for childhood
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The Independent Culture

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)

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