The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies by Andy Beckett - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

London Calling

The Searchers: Five Rebels, Their Dream of a Different Britain, and Their Many Enemies


Allen Lane 560pp £30

The five central figures in this book – Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Tony Benn – are finished. Corbyn, Livingstone and Abbott have been thrown out of, or suspended from, the Labour Party. McDonnell is still a member but will never again sit on the front bench. Tony Benn’s fate was most terrible. By the time of his death in 2014, he had been designated a ‘national treasure’ – one of those people, like the late Queen Elizabeth II or David Attenborough, whose function is to increase the already considerable capacity of the British for feeling smug about themselves.

The five represented various kinds of alternative. They all knew each other – Corbyn and Abbott briefly lived together. They are, though, different kinds of people. The sharpest division among them is a generational one. Tony Benn began his adult life training as a pilot with the RAF during the war, in which one of his brothers was killed. He was first elected to Parliament, at the age of twenty-five, in 1950, before McDonnell or Abbott was born. For the first decades of his political career, Benn belonged to a modernising current that cut across the parties. His campaign to be allowed to renounce his inherited peerage (and thus stay in the House of Commons) was followed with sympathy by many Conservatives. 

For Benn, the student protests of 1968 brought about a midlife crisis that turned him to more radical politics. For the other figures in this book, 1968 was the defining experience of their youth. It accounts for their internationalism and moral earnestness. Corbyn worked as a volunteer at a school

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