Weighing in at 550 pages, including a long and detailed index, Jad Adams’s biography of Tony Benn is just the sort of traditional and detailed work of biography that befits a politician who was an MP for half a century and who became a government minister, won promotion to the Cabinet and served his last day as a minister all before most of the current generation of ministers were even in Parliament.
Tony Benn’s career was not only lengthy, it was high profile and – at least before the twilight years as ‘the nation’s favourite retired politician’ – deeply controversial. This newly revised biography does a good job at telling the story, albeit in a slightly unusual style. The narrative has a friendly account of Benn’s career based on Benn’s own records and interviews with himself and his supporters, studded with critical comments from others. The reader is left with plenty of information on how unpopular Benn was with many of his Labour colleagues, let alone those in other parties, but it makes for a slightly disjointed picture as Jad Adams only rarely tries to reconcile the two conflicting accounts. Thus, for example, we get a picture of Tony Benn as a warm, charming, charismatic and intelligent man and also one of a man who repeatedly found his career undermined by a lack of popularity amongst his fellow Labour MPs. It is a shame the book does not do more to try to reconcile these sorts of contradictions.
Largely unexplained too are the contradictions in Benn’s approach to events in foreign countries, being both in his early years a frequent opponent of abuses by the ruling establishments but becoming in his later years much more known for his opposition to action against such abuses, not only most famously (and least controversially) over Iraq but also taking far more controversial stances such as supporting the Serbs. Through this time too he seems to have had a very forgiving attitude towards abuses – if carried out by the Soviet Union, for he was willing to write “Congratulations on everything” in the visitor’s book at the Soviet embassy, only subsequently half-apologising by saying he didn’t mean quite everything.
Was there a consistent humanitarian streak running through his views, did they change over time or was it a matter of the wrongness of abuses and the rightness of intervention being determined by where on the political spectrum the two sides were? The reader in the end is left no clearer at the end than at the start of the book.
What the reader is left with is a picture of a man whose in his earlier ministerial career was a moderniser, pushing policies on areas such as transport that may have been controversial at the time but with hindsight often look to have been the right ones. Compulsory provision of seat-belts in cars, the MOT and more are now uncontroversial and widely accepted; they were not when Benn was campaigning for them. A good account is given too of his early grasp of the importance of a modern approach to TV by political parties and his role in overhauling Labour’s party political broadcasts, helping pioneer an active style that was soon widely copied.
His subsequent move to the left means that as he got older, his political views became more controversial. There are occasional hints of why he was quite so unpopular with some contemporaries, as in the account of his ‘spontaneous’ decision to resign from Labour’s National Executive Committee: “The air of spontaneity about Benn’s resignation was somewhat spoilt by his calling a press conference immediately afterwards and reading a prepared statement”.
Benn’s switch from loyalist supporter of the Labour right to left-wing rabble rouser certainly didn’t help with his popularity with colleagues many of whom viewed the switch as convenient careerism. The book puts the case for the defence on this too, arguing that Benn saw policies such as nationalisation as a natural extension of his earlier modernising approach – in this case to sweep away old fashioned and inefficient private management practices.
There is a telling sign of just how long Benn’s political career was in an early story of his constituency work. Benn was at the time rightly seen as a conscientious constituency MP, yet back in his early years as an MP that meant “he would visit every month, attending a public meeting on Friday, opening church bazaars and performing other functions of a public man on Saturday, then holding a constituents’ surgery for two hours followed by a social, which would take place in a different ward each month. There was a meeting with party officers on Sunday”. Now that once a month visit would count as a light weekend for most MPs. Times have changed greatly.
At times the book assumes the reader has a fairly good knowledge of the times through which Benn lived. If you do not recognise the “desiccated calculating machine” political quote, then this is a book to read with the internet close to hand to look up such references. Those familiar with events of the time will, however, find a bonus in the book because due to Benn’s views at the time this is one of the rare accounts of Labour’s infighting under Hugh Gaitskell that is written from a perspective largely unfavourable to Gaitskell and his battles with his party over nuclear weapons and clause four. Accounts of this period published in recent decades have been dominated by those such as subsequent Labour defectors to the SDP or those who remained in Labour but were on the right; in other words, from Gaitskell supporters. This book provides a very different perspective.