The first time I remember hearing the name "Tony Benn" was in 1975. I was discussing with my father how to vote in Harold Wilson's referendum on whether to remain in "the Common Market". This was my first vote and I was terribly serious about it. Given a lethal combination of youthful idealism and an attraction to cheap French wine (whatever happened to that benefit of the EU?) I was going to vote "Yes". My father said he had planned to vote "No" but, learning that would put him on the same camp as Tony Benn, he had decided he must be wrong. "Generally speaking," he said, "whatever that man says, you should believe the opposite."
I was a young lefty then and rather shocked by his approach, but over the years (except over the EU) my father's rule of thumb would have worked pretty well. Even though I was then on his side, politically, I didn't like the man. There's something rather patrician and condescending about him; in a way no patrician who was not of the Leftist Establishment would dare.
A couple of years ago, I bought a DVD of one of his one-man shows. I rather enjoyed it. I have to confess that, while still infuriatingly condescending, he has a certain personal charm. Most politicians do, up close (how else would the rogues get elected?). He certainly has a way with a friendly audience. My surprised comment to Mrs P. about how much I enjoyed it was relayed to her Northern Labourite mother. The result was that I was given the latest volume of his diaries for Christmas. Ever the optimist, my mother-in-law probably thought she could help me towards her dead-but-still-poisonous 19th Century ideology. I smiled at this thought (I love her dearly, despite her manifold political delusions) and added the book to the bottom of my "to read" pile
Finally, I have read it. Again, he has surprised me. Contrary to what I have thought all these decades, he's not a bad man at all. He may even be rather a good one. Making allowances for the fact that his more recent diaries are self-consciously for publication (one way to have him like you, it seems, is to tell him how much you enjoyed the earlier volumes) he's a sincere, kind, familial human being. He's not a villain at all, but an absolute fool.
How could a fool have progressed so far and done so much? It's not so unusual. I have met a lot of successful fools at the head of business and the professions. They all share one feature with Benn. They never dreamed they were not entitled to success. They never doubted their right to be a leader. Benn remembers his father fondly, mentioning in his diary that, "Had he lived, Dad would have been 120 today" (almost as if he were fool enough to think that - with more NHS funding - it might actually have happened). His father was a politician and a man of the Left. Growing up with political leaders around him, Benn was not in awe of them. He seems never to have questioned his own abilities or ideas. In this life, you are often bought at the price you set on yourself. Coming from Labour's educational wastelands, I wasted half my career building up confidence in my right to some kind of success. Benn, too stupid to know his own limitations, hit the ground running.
Lest you think my assessment prejudiced, let me point you to the evidence. It is to be found in his own published words, where only the most foolish of fools could have left it. Finding himself at a literary event, he remarks that he hardly ever reads. From his diaries it is apparent that he never stops writing. What intelligent person writes more than he reads? It's like being a newscaster with no supporting journalists and researchers. Only a fool would do it. Only a great fool would admit it.
Secondly, he is remarkably credulous; displaying neither the capacity nor the inclination for critical thought. I have changed opinions a great deal in my life. There's nothing wrong with that, but it is no daily occurrence and usually involves some new insights and/or study. Yet, time and time again, Benn reports that someone said something to him that was (perhaps because he doesn't read much) a surprise. He accepts it as gospel (if it accords with his general world-view) and within days incorporates it into one of his speeches. He never questions or doubts the source; he simply takes it as a given, whether it came from one of his nearly-dead Union buddies, or the driver who picked him up from the station on the way to his next engagement. He has repeatedly said on television that Britain has no capacity to launch a nuclear strike without American permission. At a party, he met two civil servants who told him that he was wrong. If Britain nuked someone without American permission, our systems could be closed down within 18 months if they refused to supply parts. He mildly observes that what he has been saying publicly for years is "half wrong" (a generous assessment) and is completely unconcerned.
Perhaps his best example of a fool's weather-vane intellect also illustrates his political cunning. He reports watching The Great Global Warming Swindle
when it was screened on Channel 4. Of course, immediately his previous
belief in Anthropogenic Global Warming is shaken. He resolves not to
change his public stance, however, for fear of upsetting all those
"nice young people" who believe in AGW. How his editor slipped this
confession of political dishonesty into the published version is a
puzzle. Perhaps his not reading extends to the proofs of his own
His diary is often interesting for its accounts of people one thought long-dead. Benn is often at the funerals of leftists I had thought long gone. His essential kindness comes out in his agonising over the best things to write or say to the widows and his consultations on the subject with younger members of their families. His foolishness comes out in his recollections of the "achievements" of the deceased. It seems he didn't have a friend who didn't deface our history.
Most of all though, his tenacious grip on an ideology long-discredited proves him an fool. In the 20th Century more than half of mankind lived under Socialism. Millions suffered and died in attempts to implement his ideas. Yet still the fool persists - and in an unreconstructed way that allows him to believe in the merits of Castro and Guevara. He comments that Guardian journalists at one of that newspaper's parties were ill-informed for thinking that the British Communist newspaper The Morning Star had folded. I suspect they thought him a major-league dimwit, not only for taking an interest in its continued existence, but in actually writing for it. If you think that this blog has too few readers to be worth the effort, compare and contrast!
As he makes his dimwitted but stately progress around his unusual circles (interviewing Saddam Hussein immediately before the invasion of Iraq; attending parties on the anniversary of the Cuban "revolution") Benn reveals himself to be living in a dream world. He remarks, on reluctantly attending a dinner in the City of London, that he feels like he is on another planet. In a way he is right, but opinions might vary as to who is the alien.
To his weirdly limited circle of acquantance, he is a living national monument. He seems to live for their flattery; drinking it in as only a true fool can, and dissolving into sentimental tears at Labour and Trade Union events. He is the most appalling name-dropper too, actively pursuing good ones to drop and even using his son, Hillary, then rising steadily through Ministerial ranks to get to them. Interestingly, this famous man of principle reports feeling the need to stop embarrassing the government when his son makes it into the Cabinet. I wonder which of Blair, Brown or Campbell was Machiavellian enough to make that calculation?
Rather like my mother-in-law, Benn is a decent but naieve person. Unlike her, he had the opportunities to do damage. He is kind and wants to improve the condition of ordinary people. I believe he has never acted from corrupt motives, which fact alone distances him from many political careerists. He is even on the side of the angels when it comes to civil liberties (though the foolish inconsistency of holding that view, when his idea of a good society is Cuba is fairly astounding).
As a good man, the waste of his life on political trash is sadder than that it would have been were he the scoundrel I always thought him. I suppose I am glad he's not a cad, but 'tis pity he's a fool