Published On: Sat, Mar 22nd, 2014

Dare to be a Daniel

No politician in history has left such a comprehensive account of himself and his times as Tony Benn. From his mid-teens until almost the end of his life, he kept, with one short break, a daily diary of the events he took part in, the people he met and the thoughts that ran through his mind. The full archive runs to an estimated 20m words. The published diaries, extracted by his devoted editor Ruth Winstone, fill 11 volumes. Winstone also edited a brief but revealing memoir of his early life and family.

What do these publications – a small fraction of the total archive – tell us about Benn and the influences that shaped his political career? In particular, what do they tell us about his ambitions and his failure to attain, as many expected and some hoped, the leadership of the Labour party and, by extension, the prime ministership? How badly did he want to reach the top?

It is almost immediately apparent from the diaries and memoir that, for him, only two things mattered in life: politics and family. He adored his American wife, Caroline, to whom he was married for more than 50 years, and grieved for her every day after her death from cancer in 2000. He delighted in his four children and later in his grandchildren. Though he frequently regretted that, for many years, he put politics first and didn’t give his wife and children enough of his time and emotional energy, there was no real conflict between the two. It was a political household. Caroline was a firm socialist before she married him and knew she was marrying into politics as surely as Kate Middleton knew she was marrying into royalty.

Tony Benn family
Benn with his wife, Caroline and children Joshua and Melissa. Photograph: Daily Mail /Rex Features
Benn’s paternal grandfather was a Liberal MP, initially elected for an east London constituency in 1892, and later became chairman of the London County Council. His maternal great-grandfather served on Paisley council, while his maternal grandfather was elected a Liberal MP in Glasgow in 1911. Benn’s father, William Wedgwood Benn, became a Liberal MP in 1906, and a Liberal minister in 1910, but left office during the first world war, enlisting in the Middlesex Yeomanry even though both his age (37) and his membership of the Commons would have exempted him from military service. He served throughout the war, fighting at Gallipoli and twice refusing offers to rejoin the government. Having long been on the radical wing of the Liberals, he then crossed the floor to join Labour in 1927, but immediately resigned his seat because, his son wrote, “his constituents had elected him as Liberal and he thought it immoral to remain as a Labour MP”. He returned after a byelection the following year and went on to become a minister. Remarkably, he enlisted again in the second world war. It was a daunting example to follow.

Nonconformist religion also ran through the Benn line and, to the collective family mind, there was no real distinction from politics; they were just different forms of service to others. His paternal great-grandfather Julius Benn was a minister in the Congregationalist church, where each congregation makes its own decision about its affairs, including the election of a minister, without reference to higher authority. His grandfather and father, though “in no sense pious” according to Benn, remained in the dissenting tradition. His mother, too, became a Congregationalist in 1949 when she left the Anglican church because of its failure to allow the ordination of women. His much-loved elder brother, Michael, intended to become a church minister before he was killed flying an RAF plane in the second world war.

As was often the case with non-conformist families of that era, there was room for little in life except work which, in William Wedgwood Benn’s household, largely meant politics. Neither time nor money was to be wasted. As a child, Tony Benn was required to keep an account book showing how he spent his pocket money each week and then have it audited by his father’s secretary before he received more. He was also required to keep a time chart, as his father did. His father’s chart, the son recalled, contained no time for meals, conversation or any social life.

Tony Benn on the May Day rally
Tony Benn on the May Day rally. Photograph: Thomas B Claydon
One chapter of Benn’s childhood memoir was headed “How I Became a Philistine”. “No attempt,” he wrote, “was made to develop the artistic, musical and literary side of life.” The family’s London home was next door to the Tate Gallery, but he never visited it, nor could he recall being taken to the theatre more than once or twice. The family never went on holiday except to a holiday home at Stansgate in Essex, which was not, as newspapers often implied, an ancient castle or mansion but a prefabricated house bought by his grandfather for £600. Even reading wasn’t particularly encouraged. “I was never a great reader at school,” he wrote, “and I cannot remember many books being read to me as a child.” He had “lived in the oral tradition, learning from listening and watching rather than from reading, and communicating by speaking rather than writing”.

“What moves me?” he once said to his fellow MP John Reid. “It isn’t bloody books. I hardly ever read them.” He never developed an interest in fiction. “I don’t know much about Great Expectations or Dickens,” his diary records in 1999. His diaries reveal even more startling gaps in the knowledge of a leading politician with an Oxford PPE degree. In 1973, he asked a fellow Labour MP and former university lecturer to give him tutorials on the English revolution. He was astonished to learn about the Levellers and how they had “called for universal manhood suffrage”. He had not read The Communist Manifesto or anything else by Marx or Engels until his wife put it in his stocking for Christmas 1976. “I feel so ignorant,” he confided to his diary, “that at the age of 51 as a socialist politician … I should never have read that basic text before and I am shy to admit it.” Only when he had read and pondered on these and other texts did his political direction become clear to himself and others.

His upbringing gave Benn, at least by the standards of the upper-middle-class to which he belonged, an unusually limited outlook, comparable to Margaret Thatcher’s, whom he resembled in other surprising ways. His diaries contain few significant references to music, theatre or art. He rarely watched TV until his later years and, though he had some interest in film, his tastes were largely middlebrow: “I like happy endings,” he wrote. Nor did he have much interest in sport, architecture, food (taken to a posh Notting Hill restaurant, he merely records that one course was equivalent to a pensioner’s weekly income), drink (he was a teetotaller), clothes (Caroline bought them for him) or the natural world. He only occasionally attended parties or dinners. Yet he was assiduous in attending political rallies and meetings across the country – they occupied most weekends – and he never missed the Durham miners’ gala where, he confessed, he always wept. He continued the family tradition of taking holidays at Stansgate, the only exceptions being visits to his in-laws in Cincinnati, where, on one occasion, he spent the “holiday” campaigning in a US byelection.

Benn admitted his narrow range of interests and limited reading were “a serious disadvantage”, but did not elaborate on how. Perhaps he thought his lack of a hinterland made it hard for him to switch off and get some perspective on events and on his career. He is less likely to have understood that his single-minded focus helped to create the slightly deranged, obsessive air of a fanatic which, however removed from the truth, was skilfully exploited by his opponents to damage his political career. Equally, though, his lack of the cultural baggage carried by many politicians of his class made it easier for him, at least in his own mind, to talk on equal terms with working-class people. After all, their traditional culture, too, was largely oral.

There was another aspect of Benn that did far more to prevent him becoming leader, and it was something which few contemporaries, least of all journalists, fully understood: the driving force of his life was Christian socialism. He stood in a high-minded tradition that went back to Keir Hardie, co-founder of the Labour party, George Lansbury, its leader in the early 1930s, and the historian RH Tawney, its most important intellectual influence in the early 20th century. It went still further back to Victorian figures such as Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, and even to the Old Testament. “For Benn,” David Powell, an early biographer wrote, “the entire socialist venture is rooted in history, a continuum reaching back in time to its biblical roots”.

As we have seen, dissenting religion was deeply embedded in the Benn family history. His mother read him Bible stories – struggles between Old Testament kings and prophets in which the Benns were naturally on the side of the latter – and at nights they prayed together. At Westminster school, divinity was his best subject. The young Benn went to church “and took very seriously the obligations of Holy Communion after I was confirmed”. When his brother died, he recorded in his diary at that time, he prayed in the station chapel (he had also joined the RAF) “where before and beside God … I began the task of pulling together the shattered fabric of love and companionship”. When, aged 25, he stood successfully in 1950 for the Bristol seat previously held by Stafford Cripps, the former Labour chancellor wrote to the electorate that Benn was “as keen a Christian as I am myself”.

He drifted away from religion but not from Christian principles. In his memoir, he wrote: “I certainly was not influenced by atheistic arguments, which were extreme and threw doubt on the value of the Bible and the historical truth of Jesus’s life.” He specifically rejected the label “humanist”, saying in 2005 “I’m a Christian agnostic … I believe in Jesus the prophet, not Christ the king.” He objected to how the established churches used power structures to build their own authority and particularly to the doctrine of original sin, which was “destructive of any hope that we might succeed together in building a better world”.

On the walls of his office, he hung a Salvation Army hymn that had been sung to him by his parents:

Standing by a purpose true,

Heeding God’s command,

Honour them, the faithful few!

All hail to Daniel’s band!

Dare to be a Daniel,

Dare to stand alone!

Dare to have a purpose firm!

Dare to make it known.

Dare to be a Daniel was the title chosen by Benn for his early life memoir. According to the Biblical story, Daniel braved and survived a night in a den of lions rather than renounce his faith. This sense that one must remain true to one’s faith and bear witness whatever the odds is the key to understanding Benn’s political career, its failures as well as its successes. The lesson he took from his upbringing – and particularly from his father, whom he adored and admired – was that he must always do and say what was right, regardless of whether or not it left him alone in the world. David Runciman’s argument, in his book Political Hypocrisy, that “liberal democratic politics are only sustainable if mixed with a certain amount of dissimulation and pretence” would have been incomprehensible to Benn.

What is striking from the Benn diaries is how readily he turned against colleagues, particularly party leaders, even when they should have been natural allies. As his biographer Jad Adams put it, he was “loyal to principles in politics, not people”. The compromises of power were not for him; he “would not bend his principles,” wrote Adams, “for the power brokers in the Labour party, nor for the media, nor even for the electorate”. Though he was as ambitious as most politicians, he was incapable of making the necessary alliances and therefore failed not only to become prime minister – as many at Westminster, not least Harold Wilson, expected him to do – but even to hold one of the great offices of state: chancellor, home secretary or foreign secretary.

The most bitter feuds of Benn’s life, where his diary entries take on an edge of personal hostility lacking in his comments on other Labour figures, were with Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock who should have been (and, in Foot’s case, was at one stage) allies on the left.

After Wilson’s resignation in 1976, Benn stood as a leadership candidate. In the first ballot, he got 37 votes to Foot’s 90. He then stood aside in favour of the latter. In that same year, Foot introduced him at a miners’ gala as a future prime minister.

By 1977, however, when Benn was holding unauthorised meetings of junior ministers to discuss a bill for elections to the European parliament, Foot was accusing him of being “bloody crooked”. Foot later apologised but Benn wrote in his diary that “my links with him are severed completely”. Though Benn voted for Foot in the 1980 leadership election, and didn’t stand against him, their relationship worsened still further. “Michael Foot is hopeless,” he confided to his diary and their relations reached a new low when Benn chose in 1981 to stand against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership. As late as 2002, the two men were exchanging insults over the telephone about Benn having his diaries serialised in the Daily Mail. “I thought, bloody hell, that man joined in the witch-hunt of the left, with the full support of all the right-wing papers,” Benn recorded.

Tony Benn tea
Photograph: Andy Butterton/PA
As Kinnock emerged as a young rival on the left, Benn’s diaries reveal withering contempt. Kinnock was “not a substantial person … a media figure really”, Benn recorded in 1976. The effect of his leadership, he noted in 1992, was to destroy the Labour party “financially, as well as politically, morally and intellectually and organisationally”. During that year’s election campaign, he viewed him as “grinning and arrogant, and strident and raucous”. After Kinnock left the leadership in the wake of the election defeat, Benn recorded: “I really thank God that man was never Prime Minister.” His hostility to Kinnock made him, if only briefly, sympathetic to Tony Blair when Blair succeeded to the leadership. “I must not get into the business of being seen as critical of the new Leader,” he told his diary.

His relations with political opposites, by contrast, were often extraordinarily intimate and cordial. He was, for example, a long-standing friend of Enoch Powell, reassuring him in 1959 – Powell had resigned as chief secretary to the treasury the previous year over plans for increased public spending – that “his sheer ability and lucidity would carry him upwards”. Benn’s initial reaction to Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, as recorded in his diaries, was not so much to condemn as to observe that Powell was of “working-class origins” and had “never been accepted in the Tory Party”. Another opponent for whom Benn, a Sinn Féin supporter, had a soft spot was Ian Paisley. He described him in 1997 as “a very nice guy … a good constituency Member … [with] a good class sense … an amusing guy”. He found Norman Tebbit “terribly soft and good-natured” and “really a rather decent guy”. John Major was “such a nice guy”, a victim of “the Establishment” which mocked him “to prove to itself that it was right to transfer its loyalty from the Tory Party to New Labour”. Benn was “rather fond” of Edward Heath, with whom he shared views about Blair’s foreign policy. “I greatly value my friendship with you,” he told him in 1998.

Benn liked, even admired, such men because they came from humble backgrounds and could be categorised as victims of the dreaded “Establishment”. They had not tried to dissemble or smooth out their rough edges in order to make themselves more popular or acceptable. Benn empathised with their “outsider” status, even if it was acquired after they held high office. Reflecting in 1994 on the growing distance between himself and Labour colleagues, he recorded that “I remind myself of Enoch Powell in his latter days.” After receiving “a sweet letter” from Paisley in 2008, he recorded that “he has openly and honestly argued in favour of what he believed to be the interests of those he represented” and “in politics, I think you have to say what you mean and mean what you say, and I think Ian did that”.

Link to video: Tony Benn: ‘It’s questionable whether we have a democracy’
But what did Benn mean? Where did he stand? The answer now seems obvious but it wasn’t always so. On his 23rd birthday in 1948, he was asking in his diary: “Is politics really my place? … Just where do I stand politically? Am I a socialist? … Am I insincere?” Benn was often accused of careerism – initially climbing the ministerial ladder from a conventional centrist position and then switching to the left when it seemed to offer the best chance of becoming leader – but his diaries give little evidence of such calculations. As early as 1958, he resigned from the Labour frontbench as No 2 spokesman on defence because party policy then favoured the H-bomb “and I could not conscientiously be the spokesman of a policy with which I was in disagreement”. Cynics may say that Benn wanted to ride the unilateralist tide which was then flowing strongly but, in 1960, he tried to make peace between the party’s warring factions, only to find himself being treated with angry distrust both by Hugh Gaitskell, the pro-bomb party leader, and Frank Cousins, the anti-bomb union leader. When Labour’s national executive, to which he had been elected the previous year, rejected his peace proposals, he resigned. Hardly anybody, not even Caroline, thought he had done the right thing.

He did not use the resignation device again. When Wilson moved him in 1975 from the industry department to energy – in effect, a demotion, carried out, it was widely assumed, at the behest of the City – he decided “there was no principle in resigning over being given a different cabinet job”. Moreover, as he told colleagues a year later, the Movement (for Benn, it always had a capital M) wanted the policies changed, not the government or its leading members, to whom it demanded loyalty. “I mustn’t bring the government down,” he later told his diary in the wake of public spending cuts, “because if I do the responsibility will be put upon the left.”

By then, with what he called “my education” considerably advanced, thanks to his discovery of the Levellers, he knew where he stood. There had been a lost decade in his political development. At the beginning of the 1960s, still in his mid‑30s, he seemed genuinely unsure about which way he should move, just as he had been 12 years earlier. There followed three years in which he campaigned to have the law changed so that he could renounce the peerage he had inherited from his father, who died in 1960, and retain his Commons seat. When that project ended successfully, a general election campaign was close. Ministerial office, in what were essentially technocratic positions beyond the frontline of partisan politics (postmaster-general and minister of technology) occupied the rest of the decade.

In 1970, after Labour lost power, he was eagerly speculating about his leadership chances: “If I am going to make any sort of bid … I shall have to begin soon”. He stood unsuccessfully for the deputy leadership in 1971. But he then embarked on his belated education in which he read more widely. He resolved, reflecting on Wilson’s sad example, that if he was to become leader, he should stand for something that was clear and constant. When he returned to government at the industry department in 1974, he told his permanent secretary that “my work as manager or a minister is nothing like as important as my work as an educator and spokesman”. In 1977, Frances Morrell, his special adviser, told him that the only thing worth his doing was to become party leader. “I said there was another choice, to influence the Party, and she said there was no real influence except as Leader. But I’ve seen so many lives wrecked by ambition and I don’t intend to do that.” Though he stood twice for the leadership and once more for the deputy leadership, he did so, not so much in hope or expectation of victory (his diaries show that, in his 1981 conference contest with Healey for the deputy leadership, he saw a chance of victory only on the eve of the conference) as with the intention of giving a higher profile to the policies he so passionately favoured.

At least that was what he told himself. But there were regrets. “I suppose I should have played my cards differently,” he mused after he had lost his Bristol seat in 1983, and found himself out of parliament during the contest for Foot’s successor. In 1991, after re-reading his earlier diaries in advance of publication, he reflected: “All that time wasted on Militant when they really aren’t a part of the normal mainstream of the LP … On the one hand, you have got all these people who are simply concerned with power; and on the other, you’ve got sectarians who are simply concerned with ideological purity; and somewhere in the middle somebody has to try … to bring it all together for the good of the people we represent”.

That same year, Geoffrey Goodman, a veteran Daily Mirror journalist, discussed with Benn why, as Goodman put it, “you threw it all away” and never became leader. “A bit of compromising,” said Goodman, “and you would have got there and it would have made a difference.” Benn wife’s Caroline and the academic (and father of the present Labour leader) Ralph Miliband, one of his closest friends, would agree, Benn reflected. But if he had become leader, he would have done so “on what I called Kinnock’s terms”, presenting a programme to modify and perhaps jettison some of the party’s most fundamental principles. “I wasn’t prepared to settle for that.”

No whiff of financial or sexual scandal ever touched Tony Benn, despite journalists’ best efforts. He was, to be sure, accused of political ruthlessness and manipulation and, in the early 80s, of tolerating intimidation among his extra-parliamentary supporters, a subject on which the diaries of the time betray not the slightest sign of concern or even awareness (only much later did he recognise Militant as “an impossible crowd of people”). But as Jad Adams put it, perhaps a little incongruously, he “preserved the Benn brand”, which Adams described as “old-fashioned, even Victorian values, of earnestness, integrity and hard work”. What Benn never grasped was the mindset of those who cared more than he did about life beyond politics: houses, cars, holidays, good food. Because, as Adams observed, avarice was not part of his own make-up – partly because modest family funds from both sides of the marriage helped him and his wife to live comfortably if far from extravagantly – he failed to recognise its importance as a motivation for others. Even his political interests were oddly narrow. On education and health, for example, he had little to say beyond calls for more funds. “What do you do?” was his usual question to anyone he met for the first time. He frequently recorded the answers in his diaries. He did not record what they said about their hopes for their future, their ambitions for their children or how politicians could help them. Did he even ask?

His career was, by normal standards, a failure. He held only four ministerial positions, the most senior of them (secretary of state for industry) for just a year. By the time he held that post, he had completed his strangely belated political education and worked out what he believed and wanted to achieve. He moved not to the premiership but to a life as a teacher, preacher and prophet, which he pursued, despite the frailities of old age and chronic illness, until almost the end of his life. He remained true to Jesus but never quite resolved, in his own mind, whether this outcome amounted to success or failure.

Years of Hope: Diaries, Papers and Letters 1940‑1962 (Arrow), Out of the Wilderness, Diaries 1963-7 (Arrow), Office without Power, Diaries 1968-72 (Arrow), Against the Tide, Diaries 1973-6 (Arrow), Conflicts of Interest, Diaries 1977-80 (Arrow), The End of an Era, Diaries 1980-90 (Arrow).