On Reading the Diaries of Tony Benn, Britain’s Greatest Labour Politician

Photo Source André Cros | CC BY 2.0

I received the Tony Benn Diaries as a gift last Christmas, and have been working my way through them a few pages at a time each day.

Tony Benn (1925-2014) was Britain’s most enduring and influential postwar socialist politician. Born into an aristocratic family, he first made his name for his long and ultimately successful effort to renounce his title as Viscount Stansgate in order to pursue a political career in the elected House of Commons (peers are barred from sitting in the modern Commons).

After wartime service as a Spitfire pilot in Africa (he never mentioned this publicly), he was elected to parliament in 1950, and remained there until 2001.

Though a contender for the Labour party leadership on a number of occasions, and a highly effective minister in the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s, he never became party leader.

A number of reasons account for this disappointment: his party was on its long drift rightwards from the 1960s, culminating in the leadership of “New Labour” by the Tory-lite Tony Blair (Benn writes that “New Labour” had nothing to do with the Labour party); the collapse of the postwar social-democratic consensus– not that Benn had the stomach for its inbuilt and oftentimes sordid compromises– led to the erosion of the party’s leftwing base that was his natural political home; and finally, there was the man’s personality.

His deep socialist impulses notwithstanding, Benn was also hugely ambitious. A brilliant speaker and debater, with a mastery of television and scorning the need for a teleprompter, he wiped the floor in debating most of his opponents (as I recall from watching him on TV on countless occasions), but the gleaming-eyed ambition was always there, and somehow lessened the effectiveness of his otherwise bravura performances.

It was only when he gave up parliamentary politics, in order as he said “to spend more time on politics”, that he reached his prime. Freed from personal ambition and the constraints of parliamentary politics, Benn became a political colossus.

What do the diaries tell us about Benn and the politics of his time?

The reader of the diaries is struck by how right Benn was about the major issues of the day. This reader made a check-list of what he got right.

The monarchy is essentially parasitic, and renders Brits subjects instead of citizens. The queen holds the show together for now, but her heir Prince Charles is an unimaginative stiff (or words to that effect).  A bad parliament is always better than a good queen or king, because an absolute monarch can always do what they want on a mere whim.

Socialism is international, hence South African apartheid had urgently to be overthrown, and freedom struggles everywhere (including those of Cuba and the Palestinian people) supported.

Dictators– Pinochet, the Saudi tyrants, et al–  should not receive support from the UK.

Bureaucratic-command communism was bound to fail, because no major industrial power can be run like the Vatican. Benn was a frequent visitor to the Soviet Union.

The UK’s “special relationship” with the US is a one-sided fiction (Benn was married to an American from Cincinnati).  Benn opposed Britain’s Trident nuclear “deterrent” for just this reason–  Britain “owned” Trident, but once launched Trident relied totally on the US’s satellite-based targetting system.  In a word: Trident could only be deployed on America’s say-so.

The Northern Irish “troubles” could only be resolved through a negotiated settlement. Ditto the UK’s dispute with Argentina over the Malvinas islands.

Unless undertaken in self-defence, invasions of other countries–  such as Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which Benn opposed vigorously) – violate international law and end-up being counterproductive for the invader. Benn wanted Blair to be put on trial at The Hague for his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq.

The EU exists overwhelmingly to provide goodies for corporations and sinecures for eurocrats. Benn was opposed to its earlier version, the EC, from the beginning.

Thatcher was a very effective politician who sensed correctly that the postwar compromise had run its course, but her agenda for dealing with its demise was a protracted disaster for Brits who did not belong to the elite.

After the immediate postwar Labour government which instituted the welfare state, Labour steadily lost its way in search of an increasingly elusive electoral success, until with Blair it ceased to be a socialist party.

Blair’s mission was purely and simply to show he was better at managing capitalism than his Tory opponents.  Politics was reduced to marketing under his leadership.

All impediments to democracy have to be resisted (even some Tories acknowledged Benn’s unwavering commitment in this respect), and a syndicalist socialism attuned to extra-parliamentary forms of activity is the best way potentially to achieve this democracy. Benn rejected the official rose-tinted descriptions of the role of parliament, and instead saw it as an instrument of “control” (his words).

Benn never made much in public of his religious leanings, but he was deeply influenced by his Methodist-theologian mother. He called himself a “Christian agnostic”, and had no time for institutionalized religion–  when it came to “Jesus the prophet or Christ the king”, the latter was a non-starter for him. But those close to him said his politics owed more to Methodism than to Marx. Benn was a lifelong teetotaller, and from 1970 a vegetarian.

Benn was vilified for decades by the British media, from the BBC to the overwhelmingly rightwing press (most of it owned by foreign-domiciled tycoons). Even The Guardian, which professes to take the high-road by distancing itself from the gutter journalism of the tabloids, would put the boot in on Benn.

He developed a carapace for dealing with newspaper headlines which called him, almost daily, a “loony”, “cultist”, “Soviet agent”, “commie puppet”, “enemy appeaser” (for being on the side of striking union members), “traitor”, and so on, but the diaries make it clear that Benn was sometimes crushed by the sheer weight of the lies thrown at him by the media. He gathered himself and went on nonetheless.

Especially important for someone interested in the British politics of that time are Benn’s accounts of the debates and battles on the key issues of the day that took place behind the scenes in the Labour party.

Jeremy Corbyn, the current Labour leader and a lifelong ally of Benn’s, features in the diaries increasingly from the 1980s onwards.

The diaries have an interesting entry in 1988 mentioning Corbyn (see photo below). On a trip to Moscow Benn was asked who on the UK left would be potential leaders. Most of those mentioned by Benn are either dead or no longer in politics (except for Corbyn and Dennis Skinner, the legendary Beast of Bolsover).

The UK media have consistently depicted Corbyn as a nonentity who somehow became Labour’s “accidental” leader.  Benn certainly did not share this assessment.

Also revealing is an entry from 1996 (the year before Labour won the general election), when Benn had a conversation with Corbyn. Corbyn had been invited by a TV channel to do an interview, and Blair’s office got wind of this. The TV channel was told that if they went ahead with the interview Blair and his shadow cabinet would boycott it in future. Corbyn’s invitation was withdrawn.

Blair and his lackeys have done their best to undermine Corbyn’s leadership of the party, and it is curious to see that this animus began more than two decades ago.

Benn had to put up with endless character assassination, and Corbyn continues to do so, as he seeks to take Labour back to its socialist roots.

Photo credit Kenneth Surin.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.