Life of the Struggle

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Review of 'Free at Last!', Tony Benn, Hutchinson £25

Tony Benn is equally loyal to socialism and the Labour Party. The latest edition of his diaries, covering the last decade, describes a period when the rightward gallop of Labour brought those two loyalties into greater conflict. The decay of Westminster politics is so great, Benn jokes, leaving parliament leaves him 'free at last' to be involved in politics.

Benn is there as the corporate takeover of Labour begins--under Kinnock, not Blair, nearly a decade before Labour's sticky relations with businessmen become headline news. He reports a 1991 Labour National Executive Committee where the 'High Value Donor' scheme attracting the rich to Labour is launched by 'Julia Hobsbawm who must be the daughter of Eric, the old Marxist historian--which is an indication of the state we reached'. Asked about ordinary members, Labour's officials suggest a raffle 'so some ordinary working class people could attend the dinner with rich people to raise money.' After the death of the Daily Mirror's crooked proprietor, Benn records, 'National Executive this morning, where we stood in silence for Robert Maxwell, which I found a bit much.' By 1994 he is invited by Labour MP Janet Anderson to a champagne reception celebrating the launch of Sainsbury's new cola--neither the firm nor the MP see any irony in celebrating cola for the many with champagne for the few.

Whereas Benn always emphasises politics from the bottom, he takes a top-down view of the old Soviet Union, and is left with an unappealing beauty contest between Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the generals. Benn believed the Soviet system remained a positive force long after the workers' state of 1917 was replaced with the Stalinist bureaucracy. He writes that the 1945 reforms happened because 'the Russian Revolution created an anti-capitalist superpower and forced the Western establishments to make concessions to the working class'. After the collapse of the Soviet Union he admits, 'It's very hard to make sense of it all. The old socialist arguments, class war and so on, don't really fit the facts. With the collapse of socialist analysis, and its disappearance as a force, nationalism, fundamentalism, xenophobia, racism, fascism are all beginning to appear again.'

Sinking, he is buoyed up by fightbacks. Benn helps organise the enormous protests against pit closures in 1992, only to see the wave of anger allowed to dribble away by Labour's limp leaders. He is enthused by the occupation of University College Hospital in 1993. First he addresses a union meeting with a minor worry that the hospital 'has a reputation for having a Trotskyite trade union branch'. He soon finds the mass meetings 'thrilling really' and 'a bit like St Petersburg in 1917'.

Benn has a back door to Blairism: his son Hilary is a modernising junior minister. The sons of his friend, socialist historian Ralph Miliband, are advisers at 10 and 11 Downing Street. While proud of their boys' achievement, the two men commiserate over their politics. A night with the boys leaves Benn despairing over 'part of my own party which saw itself as being absolutely separate from, and superior to, anyone else'. A Labour Students meeting is made up of those who 'saw the Labour Party as a quick ladder to the top'.

With Labour abandoning even moderate reform, he muses, 'It may be that, as has happened in New Zealand, a Green/Socialist party will have to be set up. And if for any reason I was thrown out of the Labour Party, I think I would probably stand for that.' Sadly Benn would never jump from the party--and he wasn't pushed. He begins the decade defending the left but worrying that the Militant Tendency 'are an impossible crowd of people,', and 'removing the SWP posters' at a Chesterfield defend the miners rally. By the end Benn admits, 'The more I think of the SWP, the more I realise how important that element is in any successful political movement.'

While Benn abhors the idea of being a loveable eccentric--the 'final corruption' he calls it--the diaries display his charm. We find him popping sweets in his mouth from overcoat pockets that turn out to be mothballs, defacing 'no smoking' signs on trains in a display of militant pipe-smoking.

Unfortunately, Benn allowed the 'Daily Mail' to serialise these diaries--the 'Mail's interest is precisely to make Benn a charming duffer while using him as a stick to beat Blair. The linked '"Daily Mail" Literary Luncheon' where the vile Lynda Lee Potter introduced Benn over a £40 per head dinner must be a low point. The 'Mail', conscious of their ageing readership, were also drawn to Benn's diaries as what they call 'a study of old age and death'. While the entries dealing with the death of his wife and mother are moving, the diaries should be read as a record of the life of the struggle.