This week has been the saddest of weeks. First the death of Bob Crow on Tuesday of a heart attack and now the passing of one of the true greats of left-wing politics, Tony Benn.
His greatest testament are without a doubt, his own words. The interview below was originally published in the Guardian by Stephen Moss. He will be greatly missed.
“The Sunday Telegraph had a whole page of ‘national treasures’ nominated by their readers,” writes Tony Benn in his latest – and last – volume of diaries. “I was chosen. If I’m a national treasure in the Telegraph, something’s gone wrong. All is forgiven as you get old.”
Benn is now both a national treasure and unquestionably getting on. He is 88, has just come out of hospital, is coughing after a bout of what he thinks was pneumonia, and has broken his front two false teeth. He walks a little unsteadily. “Watch him, he falls easily,” says Pearl, who looks after him in his west London flat – just round the corner from the large house in Holland Park in which he lived for 60 years. I might describe him as “frail”, except that he hates that word.
This final diary covers the period from 2007-9, and describes a mad schedule for an eightysomething – whizzing all over the country, giving speeches, attending demos, performing his one-man show to adoring audiences. Then at the end of July 2009, the entries suddenly stop. What should have been a routine operation leads to complications; he has what is diagnosed as a stroke – though he disputes the diagnosis – and the past four years have been a battle against increasing infirmity. “I hope I can cope on my own again one day,” he writes defiantly in an epilogue to the diary. “I would like to be independent.”
This new volume is called A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, but there is quite a lot of darkness in the book. “Depressed, extremely tired,” he says in July 2008, “I feel that perhaps my diary and my archives are an attempt to prolong my life in some way.” So which is it, I ask when the photographer has left and the physio has been asked to come back on Monday, autumnal sunshine or wintry chill?
Tony Benn canvassing in Bristol in 1950. Photograph: PA
“A blaze of autumn sunshine was a phrase my father used when he was 82,” explains Benn. “He gave an interview to the BBC about his life, and it struck me at the time as a wonderful phrase, so I decided to use it for this book.” But the recurrent depressions he records? “I was learning to be old,” he says. “This is a book about getting old. I had to come to terms with it, and I found it very difficult.”
There is a pneumatic drill pounding outside – he is concentrating so hard on his answers that he says he doesn’t hear it – and I ask him how he is finding living in this block specially built for older people. “It’s very convenient,” he says. “It’s near where I lived before. You go to all the same shops, I know the shopkeepers, and a neighbour looks in every morning to see if I’m still alive. Boris Johnson’s mother lives here, so it’s very desirable.” Does he miss his former home? “Going by the old house, which I do every day, I still have a strong feeling, because it’s where I lived for 60 years and brought up all my children. But a leaking roof and stairs and nobody else living there was quite a challenge.” His wife, Caroline, died in 2000, and it is clear from the diary he misses her greatly. “I met Caroline in Oxford in 1948,” he tells me. “I was very shy – I didn’t propose to her for nine days. We had 50 years together.”
In the diary, he calls himself an “angry old man”. Does that really sum him up? “When something is done that I think is unfair, that makes me angry,” he says, “but in general I’m quite a gentle person.” He is, though, a surprisingly good hater. “You have strong feelings about things, and a diary gives you an opportunity to set out what you’re really thinking at the time,” he explains. Tony Blair, Hazel Blears and even the Guardian’s saintly Simon Hoggart are among those excoriated, though he tells me he has forgotten what originally prompted his distaste for Hoggart.
It is Blair who provokes the fiercest criticism. “New Labour was a Thatcherite group, and Blair was basically a Thatcherite,” he tells me. “When Mrs Thatcher was asked what was her greatest contribution to politics, she said: ‘the invention of New Labour’. That summed it up. He was a very successful leader in terms of winning, but he was never a part of the Labour tradition.”
Benn is a little warmer about Gordon Brown. “He was quite courageous in dealing with the world recession, but saw it as very much a temporary intervention; he didn’t see it as representing a long-term change.” I ask him what he makes of Brown’s curious disappearance. “Ex-prime ministers go into a very dark period, and having wanted to be in No 10 as badly as he did, he must find it very difficult to be a backbench member of parliament.”
Tony Benn discussing politics with Ralph Miliband at the Socialist Society Conference, Chesterfield in 1988. Photograph: John Harris/reportdigital.co.uk
He believes Labour is now back on track after the disasters of the Blair-Brown years. “I’ve got a lot of time for Ed Miliband. He used to work with me as a student. He’s taken a strong line saying he would abolish the bedroom tax, and his defence of his father was very vigorous.” Benn knew Ralph Miliband well, and continues to be close to his wife Marion. “I greatly respected Ralph, and he was very kind to me. To accuse him of hating Britain was a ludicrous statement to make, and Ed dealt with it very well.”
As we talk, Benn is toying with his pipe, pushing the tobacco into the bowl but never quite igniting it. I wonder whether I should let him take a break. Sensing I am fretting, he explains that the preparation is always lengthy. “Pipe smoking,” he says, “is an occupation.” In the diary, there are some amusing sections – the book, despite the occasional darkness, is often very funny – where he has to circumvent the law in order to smoke. “To be allowed to buy a substance quite legally and then be told on the packet ‘Smoking kills’ is fairly radical,” he says.
Benn’s political career had a peculiar trajectory: technocratic minister under Harold Wilson in the 60s, leadership contender in the 70s, leftwing firebrand in the 80s. Why did he defy convention and move left as he got older? “Being in a cabinet,” he says, “it became quite apparent that although it was a Labour government, it wasn’t really engaged in changing society, but just winning points in the parliamentary agenda.” Benn opposed the cuts the International Monetary Fund demanded of chancellor Denis Healey in the mid-70s, put forward an alternative economic strategy, opposed membership of Europe, and campaigned for greater party democracy.
Tony Benn outside parliament in 1961. Photograph: Philip Jones Griffiths
But what did he achieve? In the diary, he refers on several occasions to the failure of his political career. “Enoch Powell said that all political careers end in failure,” he says. “I say mine ended in failure earlier than most. A lot of people said I was wrecking the party. That had a depressing effect on me.” Are there things he would now do differently? “I made a lot of mistakes and tried to learn from them, but I never presented myself as the answer to the party’s problems. I was simply someone with a point of view, which I put forward regardless.”
At one point in the diary he suddenly rounds on himself for egoism. “I’ve been so obsessed with myself all the time – Benn, Benn, Benn, Tony Benn – and actually I’m just not interesting.” Isn’t he being too severe on himself? “As I got older I came to see that the most important thing to do was to try to influence public thinking.”
I suggest that, as the son of a secretary of state for India and the product of Westminster and Oxford, he romanticises the working class, perhaps out of class guilt. “I didn’t romanticise them,” he says. “I had a strong sense of justice. If you look back over history, most progress has come about when popular movements have emerged led by determined men and women. They take tremendous punishment from the establishment, and then if they stick it out they win the argument.”
We pause for more tobacco-tamping, and then suddenly he fills the silence with a brief but touching political aria. “How does progress occur? To begin with, if you come up with a radical idea it’s ignored. Then if you go on, you’re told it’s unrealistic. Then if you go on after that, you’re mad. Then if you go on saying it, you’re dangerous. Then there’s a pause and you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have been in favour of it in the first place.” It strikes me that his belief in this process must have sustained him during the long periods in which he was mocked and marginalised.
He was never tempted to leave Labour to set up an out-and-out socialist party. “I don’t believe in the idea that you can build a new socialist party,” he says. “There have been lots of attempts to do it, and they’ve all failed. There is a radical element, and that element ought to be able to live within the Labour party. Rival organisations under individuals don’t survive. Arthur Scargill’s party didn’t survive.”
Tony Benn smokes a pipe outside at the Labour party conference in 2007. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian
Labour, he says, is at its best when it is a coalition. “That coalition allows in people who in other parts of the world would be expelled from the party. The development of the Stop the War movement [of which he is president] and the campaign against austerity has influenced the thinking of the Labour party, and when that happens it begins to influence the thinking of the public. Those in the party who are now working to build cooperative relationships with single-issue groups are the people to watch. When I said I left parliament [in 2001] to devote more time to politics, that’s what I really meant.” The diary is full of visits to meetings and festivals, notably his annual pilgrimage to Glastonbury, where he celebrates getting in touch with the political grassroots, the young and energised. It is those encounters, those ideas, he says, which keep him alive.
The financial crash will, he believes, eventually force a change in strategic thinking. “What happened in 2007-8 is now used by the government as an example of the failure of the Labour party. But the changes that were brought about led to a need to think about something more radical, and more radical ideas – on, for instance, public ownership and education – would win popular support if they were presented to the public.” Having been deemed mad and then dangerous, Benn reckons the moment when his ideas are claimed by others is coming.
An hour has passed and the publicist is looking concerned that I am tiring Benn. Selfishly, I argue for more time, but a paroxysm of coughing brings a necessary end to the conversation. What an epic life he has led. As a boy he met Lloyd George and Gandhi; he was an MP for 50 years; has been part of every battle in the Labour party since the second world war; and has a long enough memory to argue that the seeds of New Labour were sown under Hugh Gaitskell in the 1950s.
As I am leaving, Benn tells me he is looking forward to reaching 90. I ask him how he manages, despite the infirmities and the occasional bleak moments, to remain so positive. “In some ways,” he says, “the test of politics is whether your mind is fixed on the future or the past, and I always try to keep my mind fixed on the future.” Now, if the coughing subsides, he may at last be able to light his pipe.