Tony Benn: A Biography

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. For 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 for the 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 take 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.

You can buy Tony Benn: A biography (revised 2011 edition) by Jad Adams from Amazon here.

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11 Comments

  • “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”

    I don’t see any contradiction there at all to be honest. Politicians as a whole are not known for being a pleasant bunch. He could well have been charming and charismatic but disliked either out of jealousy, because his involved style and outspoken humanitarinism made his colleagues look bad (sort of the same thing), or because his political opinions were unpopular with his colleagues.

    You raise a few points like this in the article which you lable as ‘contradiction’s, but which really aren’t objectively speaking. It’s possible to be a good and charming person and simultaneously be hated, the fact that you believe this isn’t the case is merely a subjective viewpoint which belies a sense of naivity.

    Whilst I found this article interesting and informative I must say that I think it was poorly written and a bit rambly. It repeated itself somewhat in the points it tried to make as well. A good article but not one of your better ones by a long chalk.

  • Where I wrote ‘belies’ I meant ‘betrays’. My comment certainly wasn’t well written! (but I am dyslexic, so have an excuse)/

  • I don’t think that Tony Benn was a supporter of the Militant Tendency as such, it was just that he was opposed to party expulsions and McCarthy-style witch hunts.

    Tony has always been a courteous and accessible politician. He posted material to me when I wrote to him, and when a friend of mine was doing some research he gave him access to his home and library. However, I remember him most of all for two truisms – that politics should be about policies not personalities, and that most significant change comes about from pressure outside of Parliament rather than inside it.

  • Much prefer reading his diaries. He was the first political I became truly interested in. I was about 15/16 when I saw a speech of his at Glastonbury festival about trade unions. Now I’m 19 I can proudly say I’ve heard him speak every year, met him, quizzed him on electoral reform and read his many wonderful diaries dating back to wartime! He is truly a delightful man who fights for civil liberties and is a true believer in democracy. I dont agree with him on much else other than that but he intrigues me to this day.

    He really does have a way with words whether its his infamous QT appearances or the heartbreaking accounts of his wifes death in his book. I hope he lives for many years more so he can release another book! Although seeing the frail state he was in this year it seems unlikely, which is sad.

  • I didn’t always agree with Mr. Benn, but he has always been a hero of mine. A man with real convictions, who always put conscience before party loyalty or popularity. Most politicians of all parties could learn a lot from Mr. Benn’s commitment to his beliefs. He never changed his mind for political gain like the current lot seem to do all the time.

  • I’m going to dissent from the “Tony Benn is wonderful” consensus. I’ve been at small and large meetings where he’s spoken, and he’s mesmerising, and even when most of the audience has a different political view to his they leave feeling a fuzzy warmth towards him. I’m sure he’s a really nice human being, but as a politician he’s as slippery as they come. He has an ability to make everything he says sound utterly reasonable, even when he is talking the most egregious baloney. This is summed up for me by one of his stories about his time as MP for Bristol South East: he was at a public meeting to discuss local issues, and a resident raised the problem of local youths kicking footballs around at an inappropriate place on the estate. The residents had tried without success to get the council to take action. Benn asked the man who had raised the issue what his job was: “Sign writer” came the reply. “Then solve the problem yourself”, advised Benn. Community politics in action, or a licence for every jumped up little obsessive to impose their views on the wider community? The latter in my view. And in case Tony reads this, I have to confess that I don’t have a tape recording of what he said, although I’m sure he does, and I therefore have not got the story word perfect, but the thrust of it is correct. I also find it impossible to forgive him for his role in the nuclear power industry and Concorde, although his ability to exculpate himself and blame others for his actions make Clegg on tuition fees look like an amateur.

  • Tony Benn was the product of his time, His views on the Soviet Union were no more contradictory than Churchill’s views on the empire and race were to his opposition to fascism. Some people hold conflicting or even dubious beliefs but still basically support good causes. Other’s look great on paper, say good things and don’t actually stand up for anything.

  • Simon McGrath 30th Jul '11 - 3:54pm

    He was one of the leaders of the No vote in the Common Market referendum
    He wanted to nationalize large parts of industry
    He was in favor of letting Galtirei keep controls of the falklands
    Opposed t o secret ballots in strike votes
    Showed little interest in civil liberties while in Govt
    Almost single handedly kept mrs t in power by making Labour unelectable

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