June 04, 2009

Ian Jack on Tony Benn a biography to be read but not revered.

This biography of Tony Benn by Jad Adams written in the early 1990'sis of one of Britain's most interesting politicians. . Tony Benn had a parliamentary career stretching around half a century. He was at the centre of major events including the Wilson administration cabinets, the crisis he predicted that allowed peers to renounce their seats to. He is one of the most important politicians never to become Prime Minister or a party leader in the last half a century-and is also an amazing survival. A man who was elected to parliament succeeding Sir Stafford Cripps under Atlee was a leading left wing rebel under Blair. In between he precipiptated reform (rather slight) in the early 1960's Lords and was a technocratic cabinet minister under Wilson organising many important chants in UK life. In the 1970's and 1980's he emerged as a leader of the "left" followed by a time as leader of the "hard left" of the Labour Party.

This biography has many virtues. The author is sympathetic to Benn's politics without quite sharing them (arguably the best position for an author). At a guess I'd state the author has politics very close to those of the Guardian newspaper- "bourgeois" and not quite as radical on foreign policy as the late Benn but otherwise very left wing on the British political spectrum. He had a great of access to Benn, his family and his friends-getting some fascinating insights into Benn and his life ( i particularly liked the 1970's "demonstration" against him not doing household chores by his daughter-he organised a counter one!) . I get the distinct impression that Adams is completely honest- huge rarely pulls his punches (and when one does I thick one can mostly tell.

He provides some good insight into Benn's personality including some that might surprise the casual student of Benn. For example he notes that Benn rarely reads (though conscientious when reading is part of his work) and tends to work through oral contact. Similar he points out that not only when Benn born in the 1920's but his (remarkable -the wikipedia entry is sadly inadequate ) father was old when he was born-so in some ways Benn is something of a late Victorian in personal attitude and approach. He also gives some feel for Benn's obvious enormous charisma and his enormous debating skill.

He does an excellent service in puncturing old myth about Benn particularly personal one. Though Benn's old enemy Lord Rodgers may be right he is biased in Benn's favour he makes some very good (and mostly convincing point). For example he punctures the myth of the enormous American wealth of Caroline Benn ( though he ignores the obvious fact it was still rather wealthier than the average Tory or Labour voter). He shows that far from being a later affection he was always known to his friends as "Tony" and that his family strangely actually called him James! At the same time he does a great deal showing the biased and inaccurate shocking level of so much press coverage of their hate figures- with the telling of lies to a Psychiatrist being only an extreme example.

He also provides information - I learnt a lot about the whole of Benn's life apart from the early 1980s. I did know till I read these books that he invented our current system of post codes for example. He goes into the affair of the pirate pop music radio station of the 1960's and Benn's obsession with crushing them- for motives that could barely be more different than suggested in this film.

There is an understanding of the tragedy of Tony Benn- the prime minster who came about because he managed to allow renouciation of peerage was not Benn but Sir Alex douglas-Home, his changes to the labour election rules managed to help Neil Kinnock and arguably Tony Blair and Thatcher-but his only bid for the leadership under them they actually further reduced what would have already been a pathetic share of the vote.

However this book is not without flaws. Two are very common for biographies particularly though from exclusively or invariably journalist ones. These are is a lack of appreciation for the wider context-and linked a lack of appreciation for those who disagree or fall out with Benn. A classic example of both is his (very interesting) description of Benn's visit to the United States in the late 1940's as a debtor. He records Americans believing that austerity was purely the deliberate result of Socials policies-and Benn's understandable annoyance. However he neglects to point out that there was at least an element of truth in this position-rationing was kept partly to prevent social inequality and to promote planning. Perhaps the most obvious proof of this-was it was removed years earlier in Germany (where contrary to British myth the damage of the war was much greater) where there was a much more right wing and free market government (who indeed liberalised over opposition for the Americans) There were all kinds of arguments for this- for example social equality but the Americans were exaggerating not hallucinating.

Even in terms of Benn's life there are some important gaps. I was enormously disappointed to learn so little about the early 1980's for example- this is partly because much less is devoted to it than say his role in the 1960's. But it was arguably in terms of the impact on political life his biggest impact on the British nation. The labour party seems to surge to the left and then the right like Brownian motion-no notion of agency is given. He fails to explain clearly enough in what ways he differed from the left minority of the Labour party in the 1950's (he was arguably on the left of the Labour party as he claims strenuously even then-but that's different from being part of its left wing minority)

Even in terms of Benn's internal life there seem some big gaps. one gets the distinct impression his remarkable wife Caroline Benn has had a huge impact-for example in making Benn an enemy of private education and a supporter of feminism (at least politically speaking). But very little impression of her views or reasons for them is given outside some individual policies (particularly the House of Lords). I suspect Benn's ideological journey owes a great deal to his religion. Very pious when young he seems to have lost a great deal of his personal belief in the supernatural around 1950 without any explanation being given (it seems to me suspiciously close in time to his marriage but that is not stated as a reason). He identified very strongly with the nonconformist tradition whilst being an Anglican. All this goes unexplored and the complexities and how they affected his politics are not really explored.

Finally Adams's own political inclinations cause a great deal of bias. Where Benn agrees with him (or Adams at least has sympathy) then there is who0le surge of support (e.g. during the Gulf war-in fact one of the most popular wars the UK has ever thought). If Adams strongly disagrees with Benn on the other hand then the public is invariably against him. After the defeat of the push for UK withdrawal Benn is condemned for continuing to advocate it 9as I said Adams's politics are very Guardian). Leaving aside issues such as the inaccuracy of some of the "neutral" information or Benn's desire to achieve a planned economy-it's important to note that very rapidly public opinion turned back towards Benn's position-you would not gather this from Adams.

Indeed when a dirty tricks leaflet about Benn was traced back to a copying machine of the European Movement (open too many of their volunteers rather than just staff) Adams very strongly indicates this must have been a cover for elements of the secret services-since obviously the European movement would now have no cover for Benn. This rather naive position ignores that a) the Europe issue was far from dead (besides anything else many members of the European movement wanted much further integration-a goal they have since achieved) as the elections tomorrow for the European Parliament will probably indicate) the secret services presumably have access to more secure copying machines. This is just one example. I'm not seeking to deny the possibly of secret service involvement merely to give you some idea of the absences of the book when discussing such situation –these points are scarcely difficult ones but Adams’s biases seem to blind him to them.

Having said that this books is fascinating, well written, honest and fairly extensive. It's well worth reading-but as I've just said not revering.


James Higham said...

Not all books need to be revered, Tiberius.

Sulla said...

it's sulla but it's definiely agreed-very interesting read but a bit misleading unless you know a lot about the context.