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Tony Benn: A Biography.

As a child Anthony Wedgewood Benn, now Tony Benn, used to dress in workman's clothes made by the family nurse and played at being a workman. Perhaps unkindly, Joel Barnet, now in the House of Lords, once criticised his habit of drinking tea out of a large mug, no doubt on the assumption that he was still playing the same game.

Tony Benn was born into the Liberal establishment. He is a totally British phenomenon. There is the mixure of the high-minded Gladstonian ethic with a Christian Socialist tradition. Temperance, care for the oppressed and the minorities, non-conformist religious conviction and a touch of feminism is part of that political philosophy.

He is the Left's equivalent of Enoch Powell on the Right in the political wilderness. They curiously share the same distaste of an 'alien' Europe threatening the independence of British parliamentary democracy.

Tony Benn may be looked upon as a saint and this hagiography written in very readable prose is also prosaic in failing to analyse the real and complex personality and motivation of Tony Benn. His determination to escape the shackles of his peerage was his finest hour and reflects the obsessional nature of his personality in pursuing ideas. It is also one example of the rather personal way in which he fights his corner becoming the idea itself and therefore demonising those who oppose him, albeit unintentionally.

His achievements do not match the promise which he showed. In Constitutional reform, according to the author, |Tony Benn's three greatest achievements are the Peerage Act, the referendum over Europe and the democratisation of the Labour Party'. The first of these does not affect 99.999% of the people. The second was an unfortunate precedent undermining representative democracy and blew up in his own face. The third merely shifted a portion of power from the parliamentary Labour Party to the already overwhelming power of the Trade Unions and democratisation in the form of one man, one vote has yet to emerge.

Many of Benn's measures were idealistic but impractical. He certainly brightened up the Post Office and negotiated a good deal on North Sea oil. As opposition spokesman on transport he had far sighted ideas on road safety. He did little for industry and his main achievement has been to act as a catalyst in provoking the discussion of ideas.

Certainly Benn produced enormous antagonism from those who knew more of the realities of industry than he. He has been unfairly pilloried by the press. His habit of holding a seminar rather than addressing a meeting from afar is endearing as he sits on a table, sleeves rolled up with the proverbial mug by his side. There is something of the evangelist and pilgrim in Tony Benn. His brother was destined for the clergy before his tragic death.

I shall vividly remember three personal pictures of Tony Benn. Prior to my own selection I heard him speak in Manchester. I was spellbound. His very presence radiated reassurance. He did not possess the oratorical virtuosity of a Nye Bevan. Instead he pursued logic and appealed to idealism. I came away convinced that I had heard a future Prime Minister. I remember the day in the House of Commons tea room when I happened to impart to him the news that the Conservatives were having a free vote on Europe. His face went ashen and he uttered the unfathomable words, |Call that democracy?' I have still to understand what he meant. Finally, I was walking through Cardiff on a murky Sunday afternoon a year or two ago when I saw a somewhat dishevelled figure carrying a curiously large overnight bag with a shoulder strap, shuffling towards the station. He seemed lost in his own thoughts. This was the lone evangelist -- a saint or pilgrim spreading a message that is too easily sneered at in this age of materialism and selfishness.

My instinct tells me that he saw the European issue as the road to power -- and all politicians crave power. It proved to be a cul de sac to him. In another sense it was also the unmaking of such figures as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams and those of us who took what we considered to be the principled path. The tragedy is that that internecine battle set many sincere people at one another's throats and the wounds have never entirely healed.

The reader will learn a great deal of factual information from this biography and there are occasional useful insights. However, I suspect that we will have to wait for some time before a more probing and critical analysis of Tony Benn's role within the Labour Party casts light upon that lonely figure I saw trudging through Cardiff.
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Author:Rose, Paul B.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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