Out of The Wilderness: Diaries, 1963-1967 by Tony Benn - review by Paul Foot

Paul Foot

Lost in the Post

Out of The Wilderness: Diaries, 1963-1967


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The iron law of British Labour is that its politicians move from Left to Right. Take a trip any day to the House of Lords bar and you will find there scores of socialists who went to Parliament to change the world but ended up changing only themselves.

Tony Benn is the only prominent Labour politician of our time who has moved in the other direction. For that alone he is, in my view, admirable. And it is his slow, steady conversion against all the streams and all the precedents which make his carefully dictated and contemporaneous memoirs far more fascinating than anything else of their kind.

There is precious little else to excite the reader from this, his first volume. Anyone interested in an ‘inside story’ about top people will be disappointed. The serialisers must have been hard put to it to squeeze from here the slightest scoop, either personal or political. Tony Benn’s style is dull, his subject matter even duller. The sarcasm and humour which accompanies his speeches in the 1980s is altogether absent in the 1960s. There is none of the gossip and spite which sparkle through the memoirs of his cabinet colleagues, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle. These diaries’ merit is deeper, more philosophical. How did the immaculate, wealthy, impressionable young man who started out on a safe political career along paths beaten out by illustrious and aristocratic ancestors become the tough, committed socialist we know today?

The Benn we all know can be found at once in this volume’s short introduction. Here we read of the ‘State power, entrenched in our constitution and reflected in the organisation of the civil, military and security services which has prevented Labour Ministers carrying through any but minor changes in Britain’s political and social system’; of ‘the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by the crudest form of economic pressure’; of the ‘power of the media’ which ‘ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of view of those who enjoy economic privilege’.

His conclusion is dramatic: ‘Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means for securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact’. His hope is that the British people will one day discover how little political power they exercise through the vote; and that ‘some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum’.

Between this introduction and the voluminous diaries which follow there is a huge gulf. The introduction was written in 1987; the diaries start in 1963, when the Tory administration, 13 years old, was dying and when Tony Benn, 38, was rushing round London and Bristol in a seemingly endless round of parties and lunches, preparing to take office in a new Labour administration. When he is told that he will become Postmaster General in the new Labour government he feels ‘like a revolutionary who has been told by the insurgent general that when we capture London, I am to take over the Post Office’.

He was not a revolutionary at all of course. He was only marginally a socialist. His tradition was rooted in the Liberal aristocracy, and his politics were entirely bounded by Parliament. He was as much at home with right wing Labour politicians of his time like Shirley Williams or Christopher Mayhew as he was with those on the centre Left like Peter Shore or Tommy Balogh. He cherished his high office in the Fabian Society almost as much as he did his position on Labour’s National Executive. When he did arrive at the Post Office (not at the head of revolutionary stormtroopers but in a huge limousine) he was irritated by the pomposity of his officials, but fascinated with the trappings of office. At a lunch with Lord Thomson, millionaire proprietor of the Times, he meets a ‘distinguished crowd of guests’.

‘I enjoyed it,’ he confesses. ‘This was a top Establishment meeting and I suppose now I must expect to find myself among its members’. When he met the legendary hate-figure for the Left at the time, Ted Geneen, the boss of the vast American corporation ITT, he was ‘impressed … by his passion for efficiency and improvement’. He was plainly exhilarated as all such politicians are by the ambience of office, and the deference of great men of every description. But what were his political achievements?

At the Post Office between 1964 and 1966, he fought only one mighty battle – a battle which dominates the first three quarters of this book. He was determined to improve the design of British stamps, and he sent out to some of the country’s top designers for their ideas. Some of these insisted that their freedom of design would be greatly enhanced if they could leave out the Queen’s head. To this grand aim, therefore, the young Postmaster General set his considerable powers of concentration. He fought with his civil servants. He fought with the flunkeys of the Palace. He even raised the subject with the Queen herself, grovelling before her on a Palace floor as to her increasing embarrassment he pressed her with more and more facsimiles of his precious new stamps.

After a year of this battle, he was annihilated: not by any of these people, but by his own Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. ‘She is a nice woman,’ Wilson explained, and Tony Benn at once capitulated. He wrote in his diary: ‘It’s much more important to keep in with Harold and it would be silly to run any risk of a row politically’.

Stamps, as I say, dominate the book. Great political issues of the day – Vietnam, immigration controls, the first, fumbling deflation of the summer of 1965 – all these are dismissed in a single sentence, and the government policy on them is accepted with hardly a murmur. So obsessed is the Postmaster General with his ridiculous stamps that even the most outrageous shifts in Labour policy are ignored. Eventually, inevitably, his inspiration leaves him. In June 1966, he reflects: ‘I care much less about the Queen’s head issue than I did’.

The book’s title, as so often, is exactly wrong. Out of the Wilderness should have read Into the Wilderness. When the young Tony Benn was out of office he was full of clarity, drive, idealism. In office, he became a zombie stumbling from defeat to ignominy, and knowing it. ‘One of the most unattractive features of my job’ he ruminates ‘is that I have to go to the House of Commons week after week and defend incompetence and failure by a huge department’.

Not only the main title is wrong. The last part of the book, which covers Labour’s runaway victory in March 1966 and Tony Benn ‘s elevation to the Cabinet in June of that year, is subtitled ‘From Office to Power’. On the evidence presented here, ‘From Office to Impotence’ would have been more appropriate. At least while Tony Benn was Postmaster General the Labour government was moderately successful. Soon after joining the Cabinet it went into steep decline, never to recover. First, there were the July measures in 1966, in which pretty well every economic and welfare promise was casually overturned. At the Cabinet, Tony Benn reveals, he argued for devaluation to accompany public spending cuts. But he never for a moment contemplated resignation, as did the much more openly right-wing George Brown. The government’s support for the American rape of Vietnam increased in pace. Harold Wilson offered the illegal Prime Minister of Rhodesia Ian Smith almost everything he wanted (and was saved from humiliation only by Smith’s intransigent refusal to accept). All these matters diverted the young Secretary of State for Technology for hardly a moment. He was, once more, indeed far more than in the Post Office, utterly intrigued with the panoply and gibberish of his Department. Of Sir Arnold Hall, chairman of Hawker Siddeley (who landed the Ministry of Technology with one of the nastiest financial scandals of the age) Benn wrote: ‘He is an extremely able and cultivated man and I like him very much’. The swearing-in ceremony by the Queen on taking his oath of office, he found, ‘didn’t offend as much as last time’. He was enthralled by the nuclear power stations under his command, and entirely in support of the government’s efforts to join the Common Market – in the interests of more and better technology.

It must have been intensely embarrassing for the veteran campaigner against deflation, American imperialism, nuclear power and the Common Market to prepare these diaries for publication. All the more credit to him that he has done so frankly, and as far as l can tell (with the possible exception of the Bristol Siddeley scandal and the plan to put British shipyards into the hands of the most reactionary families in the business) without serious omission. Nor are the diaries, even at this early stage, entirely free of the doubts which came to haunt him much more ferociously later on. As early as September 1965, long before Peter Wright had declared himself and his MI5 gang for the overthrow of a Labour government, Tony Benn was writing: ‘There is no political control whatsoever over the security services.’

Nearly a year later, on the day after ‘Black Wednesday’ when his government ushered in the July 1966 cuts and freezes he wrote: ‘I realise that I am getting precious close to saying that parliamentary democracy, which is our proudest boast, in not working in the country, but on reflection I find it hard to escape that conclusion. The answer of course is a really dynamic political party that is elected knowing that difficulties that will face it and determined to get hold of the Whitehall machine … I just don’t believe that this impetus exists within the Labour Party or the Labour Cabinet, and it may well be that it does no exist anywhere and that we arc going to go on floating… ‘

Tony Benn still had another ten years ‘floating’ in high office before he came to the convictions which he holds today. There must be many thousands more pages in which this extraordinary conversion becomes clearer, and I look forward to them with mingled admiration, scepticism and wonder.

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