November 11, 2007

Book Review: More Time For Politics by Tony Benn

More Time For Politics: Diaries 2001-2007
by Tony Benn
Hutchinson, 400pp, £20

A succinct indication of Tony Benn’s remarkable revitalisation as a national figure comes when The Mail on Sunday ask him for an article on Iraq. He points them towards his weekly column in the Morning Star and they like what they see. And so, Benn remarks, “for the first time ever, The Mail on Sunday will reprint an article from a communist newspaper.” These diaries, Benn’s eighth volume, show his political range to be more expansive than ever. His speeches have been set to rap on record, and live to folk. Glastonbury Festival has become as much of an annual event as the Durham Miners’ Gala. Frequently humorous and always thoughtful, Benn’s diaries are a spirited account of an intensely political life adjusting to new forms.

Having left the Commons in 2001, Benn throws himself into campaigning as President of the Stop the War Coalition. The mass of demos, meetings and petitions come with attendant strains. His confession that he only drinks “an eggcup full of tea” before big demos, for fear of needing the toilet later, conjures up the image of Benn desperately dashing from the platform, leaving a cluster of stone-faced Trotskyists to placate the crowd.

Aside from politics, he is sustained by his other great love, family. He relies on the company of his four children and ten grandchildren ever more in the wake of the death of Caroline, his beloved wife of fifty-one years. Particularly in early passages, Benn is wrought with existential angst, “I sobbed and sobbed all the way to Stansgate…I wondered where Caroline was. Had she disappeared into thin air?”

Beyond the usual comrades of the Campaign Group, CND and the trade unions, Benn is buoyed by some surprising friendships. He has far more time for Ted Heath than any equivalent Labour figure, and the two unite in mutual loathing for Bush and Blair. Benn remarks on the frequency of presidential assassinations in the US, only for Heath to shoot back, “not frequently enough as far as the present one is concerned”. As for his social outings with the actress Saffron Burrows and the BBC’s Natasha Kaplinsky- they are sure to attract the envy of readers a good deal younger than Benn.

Harold Wilson once acidly remarked of Benn, “He immatures with age”. Benn himself argues he moves to the left with age. There is little sign of the former. A teetotaller and a vegetarian, he maintains a disciplined lifestyle, swiftly flooding any white space in his diary with meetings, articles and broadcasts. Nor is there all that much sign of the latter. His politics are more complex than the doctrinaire socialism some would presume, remaining an eclectic combination of Fabian gradualism, Christian ethics and anti-capitalism. He visits Highgate Cemetery to commemorate Marx, but also hails “Jesus the prophet, and not Christ the king”, and cites the Bible and Das Kapital as his favourite books. After the collapse of the fraudulent WorldCom, Benn argues, “it is actually the very nature of capitalism”. Yet he remains convinced that there is no alternative to progressive reform through the Labour Party.

His critique of the Iraq war, which dominates the political sections of the book, has proved prescient. Amid the hubris that accompanied Saddam’s fall, Benn emphasises the dangerous precedent of uncontrolled looting. The much-criticised interview with Saddam was done out of pure motives. But his usual eye for irony and hypocrisy was absent on this occasion. In any other situation Benn would surely see the absurdity of asking the man who invaded Iran, Kuwait and massacred hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, if he could advance the cause of the peace movement.

His famous distinction between personalities and policies throws up some unexpected encounters. Alistair Campbell, a bête noire of the left, is depicted in charming terms and despite Benn’s support for Sinn Fein, he cheerfully attends Ian Paisley’s birthday party. This distinction is soon pushed to its limits with his relentless excoriation of Blair. Blair is “fundamentally undemocratic” and speaks like an “imperial president.” At one point Benn fantasises about putting cushions in front of the teleprompters, to “destroy the speech.” Such persistent focus is to the neglect of some of the wider social forces at work.

The only respite comes when Blair promotes Hilary Benn. Indeed, some of the most revealing sections arise when family and politics collide. Benn curses those MPs voting through New Labour legislation, but of Hilary’s strong support for the Iraq war, he remarks matter-of-factly, “Hilary obviously had to vote with the Government, and there you are.” One is reminded at such points of Albert Camus’s assertion that, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”

Following Benn’s professed desire to return to Parliament one looks for signs in the diary, but the extracts are ambiguous. Having been granted the Freedom of the House he exists in a halfway state, sometimes walking out in disgust at PMQs, but longing to be back on the floor during the height of debate on the war.

Yet it would be unwise to bet against Benn’s return; as these diaries show, the man once shunned by the mainstream left as a sectarian, and demonised by the right as a dangerous radical, has become our national socialist.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 08/11/07

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