More Time for Politics

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(319)

Tony Benn, Hutchinson, £20

When Tony Benn left parliament in 2001 after 50 years service as an MP, he followed his late wife Caroline's advice and famously announced that he was doing so to "spend more time on politics".

As we all know by now, he wasn't kidding. His diaries of the period 2001-2007, extracts from which have just been published, are a record of political struggle in the front line, not of a placid retirement. Indeed, no serving MP - George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn being the two exceptions - could produce a similar story of campaigning endeavour over these tumultuous years.

And neither of them are in their 80s, an age when anyone could reasonably put their feet up without feeling they are letting anyone else down. So these diaries are a story of a remarkable passage in the life of a remarkable man.

Of course, Tony could not have known, when he brought down the curtain on his distinguished parliamentary career, that the world was within a few months of being plunged into the "war on terror". Tony Benn's central involvement in the great movement against the Bush-Blair war has proved to be an unexpected coda to a political lifetime which ensures that his reputation will stand still higher than it would have done anyway.

Here is a personal memoir of reactions to the main events of the "war on terror": of meetings addressed, demonstrations led and arguments conducted. It is all informed by disgust at the government's policy and the lies which promoted it, by alarm at Tony Blair's regal - even imperial - pretensions, and by immersion in the movement, a commitment which led the Stop the War Coalition to unanimously elect Tony as its president.

His reflections on the movement begin on 11 September itself, when he dryly records a Labour Action for Peace meeting which doggedly pressed on with its pre Twin Towers agenda without making room for a discussion on the momentous events unfolding until Benn prodded them to do so.

But these diaries are not all politics, of course. They are written in the shadow of the grief and profound sense of loss which followed his wife Caroline's death in 2000, feelings he is unashamed to record ("I'm lonely actually. The truth is I'm very lonely" - 7 August 2004) and of a house which seems to have more than its share of structural and plumbing problems. The entire entry for 7 December 2004 reads: "There was no hot water this morning, so I didn't have a bath."

His anger against almost everything New Labour says or does is balanced not just by his loyalty to the Labour Party but by the fact that "I've got to think of Hilary [Tony's son and cabinet member], because not only do I not want to endanger Hilary in any way, but Caroline would reconstitute herself out of her ashes and strangle me if I did anything to endanger him", as he writes in April 2004.

There are many other such political and personal insights, along with vignettes and almost invariably kind reflections on his contemporaries, including bitter political opponents. Like every preceding volume of his diaries, these are a wonderful read. Historians will perhaps find them less of a treasure trove than the diaries from his years in parliament, but they remind those of us in the anti-war movement how fortunate we are that this extraordinary and much-loved political leader was serious when he decided to give more time to his politics in 2001.