Tony Benn: a Biography
Biteback, 560pp, £14.99
“Most Labour politicians start on the left and end up in the House of Lords," Tony Benn is fond of saying. He then adds (referring to the peerage he briefly inherited from his father), “I did it the other way round." That pretty much defines the pattern of his life: born into the liberal establishment, elected to parliament aged 25, 11 years in the cabinet and then, somehow, transformed into a serial dissident before finally, in old age, being reincarnated as a national treasure, filling theatres in the Home Counties with people who would have run a mile from the Benn of old.
This is an updated version of a biography first published in 1992. At that time, Benn's political career appeared to be all but over. From the early 1980s, he had suffered periodic bouts of ill-health. Against the advice of his wife, Caroline, and just about all his closest friends (myself included), he insisted on contesting the Labour leadership in 1988, and attracted just 11 per cent of the vote. In 1993 he lost his seat on the party's National Executive Committee; by the late 1990s he was no more than a voice in the wilderness as the New Labour machine swept all before it. In 2001 he stood down from parliament in order, as he put it at the time, "to devote more time to politics". A good line, but no one (perhaps not even Benn) could have anticipated that he would remain a fixture in the political landscape for another decade.
To what does he owe his resurgence? The turning point was undoubtedly Iraq, when he emerged as a leading opponent of the war. The decline in New Labour's fortunes and the collapse of the global financial system, coupled with his willingness to bash the government, made him friends across the political spectrum.
The irony is that, had Benn stuck to the centre ground that he occupied for his first 20 years in parliament, he might well have become Labour leader and prime minister. As a cabinet minister in the 1960s, he boasted an energy, intelligence and relative youth that all seemed to mark him as the coming man. What went wrong?
The first signs of a radical Benn began to emerge in the early 1970s when, after the disappointments of the Harold Wilson governments, he championed an industrial strategy which, to the irritation of his senior colleagues, appeared to repudiate all that had gone before. What really set him apart from his colleagues in parliament, however, was his decision to take the side of members against the party establishment in the long struggle to democratise the Labour Party. This came to a head in the 1981 campaign to unseat Denis Healey as deputy leader, which ended in Benn's defeat by the narrowest of margins. From then on, it was downhill all the way, until he regained his sense of direction two decades later.
Jad Adams has written a well-researched and sympathetic biography - though not a hagiography - about someone who will live for ever in the pantheon of Labour heroes. Here is a man capable of arousing great and contradictory passions among friends and foes alike, by turns inspiring, infuriating, courageous, irresponsible, right about some of the big issues of the day and sometimes just plain wrong.
How will he be remembered? To be sure, he has considerable achievements to his name - not least his role as energy secretary in the mid-1970s in facing down the oil companies, obtaining for the UK a much fairer share of North Sea oil revenues than that bequeathed by the Heath government. (Margaret Thatcher later squandered the proceeds on tax cuts and unemployment benefit.)
In the end, however, he may be remembered as the Labour leader who never was, a man who traded power for influence - as Adams puts it, in "a sort of reverse Faustian pact". The last word should go to the author:
Benn's great continuous achievement is the endurance of his challenge to authority. With calmness, politeness and eloquence . . . he gave people faith in their own power to bring about change. The personal achievement is as great . . . he retained his gaiety and humanity. He was always true to himself, and no sacrifice made a stone of his heart.
Amen to that. l
“Decline and Fall", the second volume of Chris Mullin's diaries, is newly published in paperback (Profile Books, £9.99)