Paul Foot

Late Developer

(February 1985)

From London Review of Books, February 1990.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980–1990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 125–131.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Review of Against the Tide: Diaries 1973–1976 by Tony Benn.

For nearly a century, Labour MPs have been going to parliament to change the world, but have ended up changing only themselves. Tony Benn is unique. He went to parliament to change himself, but has ended up determined only to change the world. This extraordinary conversion has taken place not on the backbenches, where a young socialist’s revolutionary determination is often toughened by being passed over for high office, but in high office itself. Indeed, the higher the office Tony Benn occupied, the more his eyes were opened to the horror of capitalist society, and to the impotence of socialists in high office to change it.

The unique journey from right to left adds enormously to the value of Tony Benn’s Diaries. His contemporaries Dick Crossman and Barbara Castle have also published diaries. Others have written autobiographies. All are full of evidence of the impotence of office. Even Denis Healey in his recent popular autobiography admits that the notorious ‘IMF cuts’ in 1976 were probably based on a false prospectus presented to him by international bankers who knew they were deceiving him. But in all these cases the former Secretaries of State have a basic belief in what they were doing. ‘We tried to change the world’ is their theme. ‘We had a little bit of success, and would have done more if it hadn’t been for bankers or, as Harold Wilson used to call his hidden enemies, “speculators”.’ Only Tony Benn, even as he was signing papers in the red dispatch boxes, travelling round in chauffeur-driven limousines and dining at Lockets, began to realize that he was playing a lead part in a grim charade whose chief effect was to hypnotize and paralyse the people who voted Labour.

In his foreword, Benn says he has included whole passages which embarrass him today. We have to trust him and his editors when they say that the editing of what he read into the tape evening after evening has not been influenced by what has happened since 1976. It does not seem as if it has. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this volume is the open and apparently unembarrassed way in which Tony Benn’s conversion – from career politician to committed socialist – lumbers from contradiction to contradiction: here leaning backwards to his careerist past, here leaning forwards to his campaigning future, and here stuck in between, not knowing what to think or which way to turn. The volume starts rather curiously with the final year of Labour in opposition, during which Tony Benn’s ideas were increasingly winning the votes at Labour Party conferences and among the rank and file. There runs through all the diary entries of this period a tremendous confidence. At a CBI dinner in October 1973, he rounded on the gloomy industrialists, telling them: ‘You’re licked, pessimistic. There is more vitality on the union side than there is on the management side. We have got to have redistribution of power and establish a new social contract.’ None of the guests, it seems, could manage a reply. Industrialists, bankers, rich Tories of every description felt that the day of doom was nigh. John Davies, Secretary of State for Industry in the Tory Government and a former Director-General of the CBI, called his children round the hearth to tell them this was the last Christmas of its kind they would be enjoying together. Tony Benn, his planning agreements and his Social Contract were in the ascendant.

The Tories lost the election of February 1974, and Tony Benn went straight to the Department of Industry as Secretary of State. In April, his diary glowed with confidence:

Sunday April 28. As I look at it, I can see my way through now in breaking industry’s resistance to my policies. I shall win over the managers and the small businessmen, and I shall get the nationalized industries to welcome the planning agreements; I shall isolate the big Tory companies, then show how much money they have been getting from the government, and if they don’t want it, they don’t have to have it.

Very quickly, however, he began to find that he and his government depended on quite a different kind of confidence. At another dinner with bankers and Stock Exchange officials the same April, he was told, sternly: ‘We must restore confidence.’ ‘What is the price of restoring confidence?’ countered Benn. ‘Well,’ replied the Stock Exchange chieftain, ‘You have got to have better dividend distribution, otherwise equities will collapse.’ The confidence which mattered could be measured only by the flow of dividends. Benn replied with some heat, but as the months went on, the same argument started to be used by his own colleagues in the Labour cabinet.

He reports Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, saying at a meeting of top ministers which had been called to water down the already weak proposals of his Industry Bill: ‘The whole of our future depends on the confidence of businessmen.’ Healey’s policies were bent in every particular to building up that confidence. The climax comes at the end of the book, when, at a cabinet meeting on 7 December 1976, Healey proposed yet more cuts in public spending – he had already cut savagely, in 1975 and in the 1976 Budget. Benn reports: ‘Denis had a new paper to present and he was now asking for £1,199.25 million in 1977, which was nearly £200m over the billion proposed by the IMF. Crosland pointed this out but Denis said that confidence had been undermined by leaks and therefore we’d have to make more cuts in public expenditure to prevent further loss of confidence.’ Hospitals, schools, social security benefits, parks, swimming pools, public transport – all the things which had been at the centre of Labour’s programme – now had to be cut, not even because the IMF said it made sense (which, it later appeared, it didn’t), but because there were inaccurate leaks of what the IMF might have said.

All Tony Benn’s own confidence had vanished by the end of 1974 – even though in October Labour won another general election with an overall majority. He mused, to his top civil servant, just after the election: ‘I’ve been in the Department for seven months and I’m not aware of having done anything, made any progress at all.’ The steady chip, chop at his precious Industry Bill, and the Prime Minister’s continued insistence that he stop making public speeches which annoyed the City of London, drove him to reflect, as early as November 1975: ‘I am afraid that somehow, without quite knowing how it happens, I will slip into the position that I occupied between 1964 and 1970 when I went along with a lot of policies which I knew to be wrong.’ He could see perfectly well what was happening. His diary for the first few months of 1975 -the end of the honeymoon period between the Labour government and what Prime Minister Wilson called their ‘bailiffs’ – is far more perceptive than Barbara Castle’s (or even Denis Healey’s – though he had the advantage of hindsight): ‘The Tories now think that Wilson, Healey and Callaghan are doing their work so well that they don’t want a coalition government. Better to let the Labour Party do their work for them.’ This analysis led him to a startling prediction. On 11 May 1975, he wrote: ‘A coalition has been born without being formally declared: it is broadly the Tories and Liberals throwing their weight behind Callaghan, I think. They won’t touch Wilson. They’ll get rid of him just as they got rid of Heath ... I wouldn’t be surprised to find a Callaghan government formed within the next couple of months.’

He was out by only eight months. Wilson resigned in mysterious circumstances in March 1976. Callaghan was elected leader of the Labour Party and formed a government. From then on, the retreat which Benn had identified continued, through the grovelling to the IMF in 1976 to the coalition with the Liberals in 1977, and the long weary stumble to defeat. Before the end of 1976, he identified what he called ‘Thatcher’s Private Argument’:

That the Labour government are doing to the trade union movement what the Tories could never do: that in doing it the government are getting profits up and holding prices down and therefore restoring the vitality of the capitalist mechanism; and that by doing so they will disillusion their own supporters and make it possible for the Tories to return.

He could see what was happening all right, but what was he doing about it? From early on, he started to think about resigning from the government in protest. All his most reliable political friends – Dennis Skinner, Audrey Wise, Ken Coates, most of the activists in his Bristol constituency, even his son Stephen – advised him to do so. Benn’s own belief, often expressed here, that the power and influence that mattered came from below, from the shop stewards and socialist trade unionists, led logically to a resignation and a return to the rank and file. But he did not resign. In the summer of 1975, as the Labour government collapsed under the biggest run on sterling ever, he humbly accepted his demotion to Secretary of State for Energy. He sat through the cuts of 1976, opposing them in cabinet, but necessarily keeping his mouth shut outside it. His reasons for this – chiefly that resignation would be seen as disloyal to the government – are unconvincing, even apologetic. Doubt, hesitation and pain replaced the glad confident morning. On one page, for instance, he reveals his ambition: ‘If I want to do anything other than frolic around on the margins of politics, I must be leader and prime minister.’ On the very next page, he is not so sure: ‘If you set yourself that target, it is bound to begin the process of corruption.’ As the book goes on, the balance seems to tip against his ambition, but he still remains in office, and there is another volume to come which must somehow explain how he stuck it out right until the bitter end – until the Tory victory over a punch-drunk Labour movement which he had so accurately predicted. But even in 1975 his clinging to office was disturbing his sleep.

Friday, 10 October: I had a dream that Harold called me in and said: ‘I want you to be Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household with a seat in the House of Lords in charge of boxing under the Minister of Sport.’ He told me this in the great Cabinet room, which was full of people. ‘I’m afraid this doesn’t mean a place in the Cabinet for you,’ he said. I replied, ‘Harold, I must think about it,’ and Sir John Hunt said: ‘Boxing is very important. We must preserve the quality and excellence of the Lonsdale Belt.’

The book is full of political treasures. There is a host of stories, for instance, to prove what is now established fact: that MI5 or sections of it were using their vast and secret powers against the government they were meant to be serving. Benn was constantly at the sharp end of this. He proved on more than one occasion that his home telephone was tapped – but he, a senior secretary of state in the cabinet, could do nothing about it. When he complained to the general secretary of the telephone engineers’ union, Brian Stanley, Stanley said he thought his own phone was tapped too – by his own members. Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, the ‘terrible twins’ of the trade unions in the period which toppled the Heath government, became the leading spokesmen for wage restraint and cuts during the Labour government, and were rewarded by being blacklisted by MI5. Benn confirms that he wanted Jones on the National Enterprise Board but Jones was banned after hostile MI5 reports, which also, initially, knocked Hugh Scanlon off the Gas Council.

Tony Benn’s household was the subject of repeated press inquiries, mostly at the dead of night, about his son Joshua being in hospital. At least five times in two years, the Benn family was shattered by this dreadful news, conveyed usually by a concerned reporter from the Daily Mail. Each time, the information was entirely false. Joshua was not in hospital. When, after one specially unnerving inquiry, Benn rang David English, Daily Mail editor and Thatcher knight, to protest, he was told that the editor was at home, and could not be disturbed. Such double standards are the stuff of national newspaper editors. But where did the rumour originate? Perhaps from the same intelligence source which replied to Tony Benn when he complained about the sacking of a chiropodist in the civil service. The woman, said the reply, ‘may be a fairly regular reader of the Morning Star, the newspaper of the Communist Party’. Of course, she may not have been, but even if not, ‘she is known to have been interested in holidays arranged by the Young Communist League and in a sea trip to the Soviet Union’. To compound this scandal, ‘there was a reliable report in 1974 that her father also reads the Morning Star’. The intelligence officer’s report explained that ‘we would prefer to err on the side of caution in this case.’ The chiropodist remained sacked and there was nothing a secretary of state could do to reinstate her.

Benn has a sense of mischief which keeps his story rolling along. His sharp comments on his colleagues have stood the test of time. Of Tony Crosland: ‘For him informality is a sort of substitute for radicalism.’ Of Shirley Williams: ‘the most reactionary politician I know’. Of Neil Kinnock: ‘not a substantial person. He is a media figure really.’

The central fascination of these diaries is the gradual transformation of the bright young dynamic dinner-party careerist of the early sixties into the powerful and committed campaigner of the eighties. It emerges in fits and starts, but its progress is persistent, almost dogged. It shines most clearly on the rare occasions when Benn discusses what he has read. One of the insidious ways in which reformers are broken when they become ministers is by the denial of time to read. Reading anything outside red boxes or blue books is frowned on by literary civil servants, who encourage their minister to concentrate on the job in hand. Benn’s Diaries suggest that he started to read real books for the first time when he was a minister in the 1974–79 Labour government. As he declares his childlike zeal, say, for the Levellers or the Diggers in the English revolution, he gives the strong impression that he had never heard of any of these people before he met and quarrelled with Sir Anthony Part at the Department of Industry. The civil service mandarins seem to have driven him back to a glorious time when the King had his head chopped off and all his civil service supporters fled for their lives. Even more remarkable is his sudden discovery at the age of fifty of the socialist theory which inspired the movement which put him in parliament in the first place. The whole book bears warm testimony to the closeness and affection of the Benn family, and it is, apparently, to Caroline Benn that we owe the most gratitude for her husband’s conversion. At Christmas 1976, the Secretary of State hung out his Christmas stocking (as he had done for the previous fifty years or so). In it the next morning he found a copy of the Communist Manifesto. He read it on Christmas Day, and it led him to this remarkable, and moving confession – the real key, I suspect, to his extraordinary political development:

There is no doubt that in the years up to 1968 I was just a career politician and in 1968 I began thinking about technology and participation and all that; it wasn’t particularly socialist and my Fabian tract of 1970 was almost anti-socialist, corporatist in character. Up to 1973 I shifted to the left and analysed the Left. Then in 1974, at the Department of Industry I learned it all again by struggle and by seeing it and thinking about it, and I have been driven further and further towards a real socialist position. I record this now while I am reading all the basic texts in order to try to understand what is going on.

I don’t really care whether it is Sir Anthony Part or Caroline Benn or Marx that we have to thank for that, but British politics of the last ten years has been the richer for it.

Last updated on 2 September 2014