The latest volume of Tony Benn's diaries is published this week. It's called More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001-2007. As with its predecessors, it's quite a diverting and revealing book, but almost invariably for unintended reasons. Benn writes knowingly of my friend Nick Cohen: "He sounds to me like a right-winger pretending to be on the Left!"
Note that this thoughtful and original sentiment comes from a politician who urged in the 1960s and 1970s a fundamental shift in the balance of wealth away from working people and their families, in the form of a huge taxpayer subsidy to rich people travelling by Concorde. As Benn noted in his diary entry for 31 July 1974:
[Foreign Secretary] Jim Callaghan was making his statement on Cyprus and I followed with my statement on Concorde. I got some hostile questions, some friendly ones, and the Bristol MPs spoke. It was really exciting: I have saved Concorde and that is now off my chest.
Judging by the press Benn gets these days, there must exist some collective gene for sentimentality concerning public figures of advanced years. I like to believe I'm immune to it, but I fear that the nature of the Web - where one's words from years past return without warning - indicates I'm as susceptible as anyone. As this is bound to be quoted back at me one day, I'd better disclose it now.
Long before I started writing a blog or anything else for public consumption, I posted a comment on a BBC forum, for the Westminster Hour programme, about Tony Benn's then (2001) imminent retirement from the House of Commons. I was amazed at the uniformly saccharine public treatments, so I wrote:
Tony Benn is clearly a personally charming and decent man. As a politician, however, he has been a failure and a corrosive force in British public life. His ministerial career was undistinguished by anything other than a naive enthusiasm for technology and a refusal to give up the trappings of office even when (so he later claimed) he was in disagreement with the policies of the government he served in. In opposition, he mounted a concerted campaign to ally with groups of doubtful democratic (or even, as with the Militant organisation, overt totalitarian) credentials, and pressed upon Labour a crude nationalism, an anti-Americanism apparently motivated by nothing more elevated than drawing-room snobbery, and an economically illiterate programme of mass nationalisation and deficit spending. The outcome, predictably enough, was an unelectable Labour Party. Having been active in the Labour Party at the time of his campaigns, I recall with particular distaste his invincible belief that those who disagreed with him on, for example, nuclear disarmament, were dishonourable and dishonest men. The ill temper and extremism of that time were largely his doing. I wish him a happy retirement, and regret that it has been so long coming. Oliver Kamm, UK
Yes, I did write this, and I'm ashamed of it. How could I have written that Benn was "clearly ... a decent man"? There was already enough evidence in the public domain to cast doubt on that observation, and the definitive refutation was provided, aptly enough, by Nick Cohen in his Observer column a couple of years later:
You didn't need to know too much about the dark side of the Left to shudder and think 'Oh no, not again' when Tony Benn flew to Baghdad and played straight guy to a monster with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands. (Benn: 'I wondered if you would say something direct to the peace movement that might help advance the cause they have had in mind.' Saddam: 'We pray to God to empower all those working against war and for the cause of peace.') Benn's subsequent insulting of an Iraqi woman in London as a 'CIA stooge' made the comparison perfect. Reports from Stalin's death camps were dismissed as fabrications of the capitalist press in the 1933: the cries of Saddam's victims are dismissed as CIA 2003 propaganda.
I'm relieved to recount that more recently, and for reasons still better than Benn's genuflection before Saddam, I wrote on this site: "Most political commentators have warmed to Benn since his near-destruction of Labour as a credible party of government 25 years ago. I find that my contempt for the man only deepens."
It does still.
UPDATE: A joke explained is a joke thereby admitted to be feeble, and the same goes for an allusion. But here goes anyway. My comment about a "fundamental shift in the balance of wealth" was intended to be an allusion to the best known line written by Tony Benn, which made its way into the Labour manifesto in the February 1974 election: "It is indeed our intention to ... bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families."
When you consider that Benn's principal achievements in government were his championing of Concorde and half-baked schemes for workers' control, you will acknowledge the pathos exemplified in his public service. There have been many useless ministers in postwar history, but Tony Benn is surely the most enthusiastically uncomprehending of his place in that pantheon.