I met Tony Benn once. Though it feels like I met him thousands of times – through the famous diaries, the ninth and final volume of which is somewhat different to those that have gone before. No longer at the heart of politics, no longer driven past any intimation of fatigue by the fierce fire of his convictions, no longer a politician, the political has given way to the personal. This is still a diary of ideas but, contrary to an entry in which he deplores his self-obsession, this is very much a diary about friends and family.
The political principles still weave through the text: socialism; the commitment to democracy as the only means to organise life; the support for the Palestinian cause; the relentless opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the trust in trades unions.
Criticism of Benn as a champagne socialist is unfair and trite, though one can’t help thinking of the line about enjoying one’s grandchildren more than one’s children (because you can get away from them when it becomes too much). Benn’s sentimental vision of the working class is (in the eyes of this writer, who has observed it up close and personal) underpinned by the townhouse in Holland Park Avenue, the Palace of Westminster and some very non-working class friends. I’m left with the impression that he loves the working class like a grandparent loves their grandchildren – though it’s no less real for that.
He despises Tony Blair and, not without a pang of sadness, comes to despise Gordon Brown too, as New Labour flounders in the absence of its Charismatic Leader and in the backwash of the crash of 2007-8. He’s not above a few “I told you so”s – and why shouldn’t he be – remarking, not for the first time in the diaries, that there’s always money for war and for The Establishment in crisis. He remains disdainful of the need to spin and compromise in the furtherance of electoral ambition – he still prefers to win the argument, rather than the majority.
In his mid-80s, he’s become more interested in his friends, his family and the little struggles that make up life at an advanced age. He glows with pride at the achievements of his (now middle-aged) children and their children, thinks often of his brother, dead at 22 in the War, and apologetically relies on the Benns to fix his computer, cook Christmas dinner, clear his gutters. Friends – glitzy and glamorous like Saffron Burrows and Natasha Kaplinsky and the less well known, but equally valued brothers and sisters from political battles past and present – pop up for conversation and company. As ever, his loyal editor, Ruth Winstone, goes far beyond the call of duty – something for which readers too are grateful. Amongst so many friends and family, one feels, for the first time since the diaries began in 1940, that Tony needs their company more than they need his – and that he knows it.
Inevitably, his body is breaking down – though not as much as a dedicated and unrepentant smoker might expect – but, his mind betrays him only a little (the usual forgetting of names etc). He is tired often and – what a change for the man who barely slept at all in his Cabinet years – he stays in bed more than he would like (though he’s still not afraid of a 5.00am alarm for a 6.30am taxi). Slowing down – like so much else – is relative.
The time I did meet him was about five years ago. He arrived at London College of Communication alone, slightly doddery on his legs but ready to speak to the students. I had wondered what I should say on greeting him and knew that there was one thing I definitely did not want to say. I shook him by the hand and said. “Mr Benn. I have read all your diaries and I want to thank you for them. They taught me much about politics and history.” And then, almost automatically, I said what I was determined not to say. “They also taught me about what it is to be a man.”
I’m not sure which of us was the closer to tears.