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Tony Benn: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine:



Nearly a decade ago I remember buying a copy of the first volume of Wedgewood Benn's memoirs for a friend, also called Tony, and standing in a queue where Benn was conducting a signing. When it came to my turn he asked me, as the custom is, how he should inscribe the book. “How about from Tony to Tony?” I asked rather thoughtlessly. His smile disappeared. It was clear that there was only one Tony in town.

Since then Benn produced eight more volumes via his dictaphone and hard-worked editorial team: this one proved to be his last. On his recent death this much reviled politician was redefined as something of a national treasure. There was nothing he could have done about that but here, perhaps aware of his senior status, he often records a certain pleasure when he is publicly recognised. Not though by the lady who he claims propositioned him at a left wing rally in Trafalgar Square. “Are you a prostitute?” he asks her. She confirms it and asks him what he does. When he replies that he is a Labour politician and explains why, she “wanders off”.

Throughout the diary Benn's single-mindedness is absolute. He himself admits that he is a political obsessive. He says at the outset that he has no interest in art or culture, and that is certainly clear. Later he adds interest in food as something else that has never concerned him, and he entertains his visitors in the local Pizza Hut. He has no hinterland except that of friends and family, and even this is momentarily tested when his son Hilary accepts a post offered by Tony Blair (a third Tony) in the New Labour government. Benn detests Blair, but he loves his son. At one point he remembers that he has eighteen close relations still living and is still in touch with nine of them. He grieves for the loss of his wife Caroline, an American who conducted her own career in educational politics and died in 2000.

Bereavement is for Benn, as for all who live long, one of the burdens of age. In Benn's case comfort lies in the affection of grandchildren to which, like any old codger, he responds with unqualified pride. He needs regular help with his computer which he gets from 'Joss' (a grandson), and there is a panic when his broadband breaks down, leaving him with three hundred unanswered messages. The one-time Minister of Technology's skills are limited to the design of a clip to fasten his bus pass to his jacket, and unrealised plans for a combined folding chair and suitcase for use on railway journeys. He writes of these inventions with some pride.

Benn stood down from his parliamentary seat at Chesterfield in 2001, as he famously said “to give more time to politics”. This in fact marked his withdrawal from mainstream politics. It also marked the rise of New Labour for whose adherents, great and small, he shows increasing contempt. He detests those who, like Patricia Hewitt, have taken their talents – and special knowledge – into the private sector and leaps at the opportunity to castigate Hazel Blears when she is in difficulties over her expenses: “I personally was very delighted because I greatly dislike her”. One senses that he has given up on Parliament, while continuing to insist on its constitutionality, at least theoretically, as a constraint on those who disregard its principles. But, like a retired university professor, he finds friendship and affiliation now in meeting small groups to whom he readily responds to calls to speak, amongst selected trade unionists like Rodney Bickerstaff and, above all Jack Jones. It is with them, rather than with the new generation of M.P.s that the Labour party's true inheritance lies. When Jones dies aged ninety-six he writes, “I felt really, really bereaved. He was a lovely man, absolutely true… and all they [the Today programme] did say was... ‘he brought Thatcher to power’.”

Tony Benn suffered from a serious stroke in July 2008 and after that there could be no more diaries. Instead his final chapter is devoted to reflections on the events that followed the Labour defeat in 2010: the consequences of the defeat for the party, the financial crash at home; the Islamic revolutions in the Middle East, and western reaction to these events. There is neither scandal nor style in his recollections: in that sense the diary reads more like Diary of a Nobody, even on occasion more like Adrian Mole than Alan Clark. He is as ever uncompromising in his judgements, and rarely feels the need to reconsider. But for those of us who believed that politics mattered in the final decade of the twentieth century they are a storehouse of reminiscence, and throughout I found myself intrigued by their unravelling of the personality of their author. Antony Wedgewood Benn died earlier this year, and surprisingly, in his death, became an affectionately remembered national figure. He would surely have seen the irony of that.

Alan Shelston