By Paul Sillett
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Age Shall Not Weary Him

This article is over 17 years, 9 months old
Review of 'Dare to be a Daniel', Tony Benn, Hutchinson £17.99
Issue 290

The title refers to an old hymn encouraging conviction when under attack, a hymn that Tony Benn has got continual solace from. Unlike another TB (Bliar), Benn isn’t sanctimonious when expressing his faith and conscience. The raison d’être for Benn’s ideas is clear. He wants to free society from malignant multinationals and media moguls, and redress the deep distrust in mainstream politics.

Benn’s recent moving oral tribute to Paul Foot, placing Paul in the ‘dissenting radical tradition’, applies equally to himself. Speeches aired here bring the book alive. They are a model for ‘patiently persuading’, though remedies for United Nations reform or talk of New Labour’s near death throes are less than persuasive.

This is no conventional autobiography. Benn is candid, particularly about his late wife, Caroline. You can almost touch what he expresses about his deeply lamented soulmate: ‘She taught me how to live and how to die – you can’t ask more than that.’ Benn expresses great tenderness about his early family life. Insights into the absurdities of his private education are acute.

Conscious that the establishment likes to portray him as an eccentric, safe old uncle figure, Benn’s radicalism is upfront. Like many of his generation, his socialism developed from an understanding that Christian values weren’t enough. Forever a non-conformist (in the general sense), ‘honest doubts’ led him to question religion.

Fascism’s rise and the Second World War taught him that ‘conventional wisdom’ and authority must constantly be scrutinised by ‘those underneath’. His political education proper began in the war.

Labour’s 1945 landslide election victory and the creation of the welfare state gave Benn belief that fundamental change could come via his beloved parliament. Like his dad, he moved leftwards in later life as cabinet experience rocked his modernising, mainstream Labourist thinking. Jim Callaghan caving in to huge IMF cuts in the late 1970s sickened him, and led him to seek new allies on the party’s left in and outside Westminster. His heart is on his sleeve while discussing whether he should have stayed in the government.

‘Blessed are the rank and file for they can turn the world upside down’ became his touchstone, as he battled against Labour’s conservative battalions. Huge working class audiences rallied round his stand for deputy leader. Tony Blair was also an enthusiast. In a book so open, it would have been illuminating to learn his views as to why the ex-Bennites polluting today’s cabinet became such grotesque lickspittles to capital. To his credit, Benn never allowed disillusion at the party’s direction to dampen his activism. A post ‘Battle of Seattle’ parliamentary intervention demolished ‘neo-endogenous growth theory’ (‘Brown’s bollocks’), celebrating instead extra-parliamentary resistance. His Commons speech before the first Gulf War is prophetic in the light of today’s imperial fiasco.

Benn often despairs at Westminster’s strong whiff of ‘old fartism’, but he still reveres certain antiquated features (eg the Speaker’s succession). Such contradictions apart, his great strength is that what guides him is the idea that ‘progress comes from below’. He is at his best when inspired by agitation.

Tellingly, after a 50-year Commons career, his last speech argued that hope lies in the movement born at Seattle. Long may his ‘old age seem as far away as ever’.

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