I’m currently working my way through Tony Benn’s 1991-2001 diaries, Free at Last!, which I picked up on Monday. I greatly enjoyed Benn’s 1980s diaries when I read them in the early nineties – back when my main objection to the Labour Party was that it was too right-wing – and the latest volume is equally well-written and stimulating.
Tony Benn certainly has his faults: like most politicians he is wildly egocentric at times, and his judgment can be pretty wayward: he describes Mao as the “greatest man of the twentieth century”, and has this bizarre obsession with insisting on smoking in non-smoking compartments on trains, to the extent of carrying around a “Smoking” sticker to put over any “No Smoking” sign while he lights up his pipe!
But you’ve got to admire his commitment to democratic principles (his admiration for Mao notwithstanding), and there is something heartening about the continuing verve and energy of the man, even as he moved into his seventies. He retains an infectious, almost childlike enthusiasm – for example, when he is eagerly describing the new video camera he has bought (“instead of having a viewfinder, you watch it on a screen about three inches in diameter. It’s very, very good”) so that he can go round the Houses of Parliament making an unofficial “behind-the-scenes” film for schoolchildren – he the veteran MP, former cabinet minister and Privy Councillor, behaving like a young boy launching into a school project with his new gadget.
To be honest, that continuing mental liveliness alone is almost enough to persuade me to return to socialism. Otherwise I can just picture myself in fifteen years time, giving patronisingly tolerant but worldly-wise advice to my sons about how “It’s all very well supporting Labour when you’re young and don’t have any responsibilities, but once you start paying your taxes you’ll soon discover the world doesn’t quite work like that”, and quoting Margaret Thatcher’s line at them about how “The facts of life are invariably Tory”. And so on, as my sons roll their eyes and get angry with me as I used to get angry with my father for saying just the same things.
OK, yes, I’m having one of those early-thirties aargh-I’m-turning-into-my-father moments, but I do find my heart stirred when I read things like Benn’s summary of a short speech at the Labour Party conference in 1994:
I spoke for exactly three minutes: a very short speech saying that the Labour Party represented the use of the ballot box to redress imbalance, and we should liberate labour and make capital democratically accountable, have more democracy and raise hope.
Certainly that line about the need to “make capital democratically accountable” makes me think. OK, yes, I know what that often ends up as in the end. But it’s a reminder that capital has enormous power over how we live, and it’s a power over which we have very little real democratic control. Perhaps, in the end, capitalism is (to paraphrase Churchill) the worst way to run an economy apart from all the others, but it would still be a shame to lose even the very aspiration of greater democracy in the economy and the workplace.
On the other hand, perhaps I should just vote Conservative on the grounds that I am being a good Marxist and voting on the basis of my class interest. 😉
Finally, it has to be said that one comment made by one of Benn’s friends some time in 1991 has proven rather more prophetic than Benn would have wished: the friendly warning that he risked becoming seen as an “eccentric old socialist gentleman”. My wife’s parents went to a “literary luncheon” in Aldeburgh earlier this year at which Tony Benn was the guest of honour, and they suspected they were probably the only people in the entire audience who were (i) under 60 and (ii) Labour voters. The man whose very name struck fear into the hearts of the middle classes for a quarter of a century has become a National Treasure. “Those whom the gods would destroy they first make loveable.”