A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries, by Tony Benn, Hutchinson, RRP£20, 320 pages
The phrase “national treasure” has gone from novelty to cliché in the British media in no time at all. It denotes a figure in the entertainment or allied trades, usually elderly, who has become so beloved as to be beyond criticism.
Tony Benn, the embodiment of the British left, was chosen on a list of such characters in the rightwing Sunday Telegraph in 2008. As he noted in his diary: “If I’m a national treasure in the Telegraph, something’s gone wrong.”
It certainly has. In his day, Benn was hated by the bourgeoisie – and large sections of his own Labour party. Now most of the causes he espoused are so out-of-fashion as to render him harmless. But he survived, with all his marbles (or, some would say, as many as he ever had) into a sentient old age, maintaining his amiable disposition, smoking his pipe (also unfashionable) and keeping the faith.
His most concrete achievement came in the early 1960s, when he was thrown out of the House of Commons because his father had died and he had inherited a peerage: he railed against his fate for three years until a Conservative government agreed the situation was insane and changed the law. His diaries were achievement No 2. They were started in 1940 when he was 15 and maintained until 2001, when he left parliament and began to suffer the first infirmities of age.
But in 2007, at 82, the urge came upon him again and stayed until a further bout of illness two years later. Hence this eighth and apparently final volume. Autumn sunshine? Up to a point, yes.
Benn’s diaries were never as lusciously readable as, say, Alan Clark’s – he was a politician first and foremost. In his pomp the diaries’ power comes from his enduring role at the centre of events, sometimes in government, mostly at the heart of opposition. This book is different: he was too distant. What we have instead is a remarkable, charming and often very touching account of old age.
On the one hand he is often lonely – his adored wife Caroline had died in 2000; he frets about his health; sometimes there are hints of self-pity. A minor radio interview might be the highlight of his day. His vanity and penchant for name-dropping are no greater than those of most politicians. It is, however, part of his Bennishness that he lets the diaries reveal them: there is a particularly sad account of meeting Bill Clinton.
But against that, he has his zest, his optimism, a great deal of mellowness, very little overt hate. And his self-respect: a more pliable politician would have cheerily taken a life peerage even after renouncing his hereditary one (the former prime minister Lord Home did, as did the near-PM Lord Hailsham), which would have given him an extra pension, a nice club to visit and a ready-made platform. For Benn this was unthinkable.
He also has plenty of fulfilment, especially as a proud patriarch: there are four children and nine grandchildren, and in these years his son Hilary is in a Labour cabinet, continuing a dynasty started by Tony’s father. His teenage granddaughter gets adopted for a hopeless seat, the first step to making it four generations of ministers.
Mind you, Hilary doesn’t seem to tell his old man much. The fiery father brought forth one of the blandest and most discreet of the Blairites. Not a lot of help to a diarist. Sometimes Tony is still very sharp, though. On Margaret Thatcher, with reluctant admiration – “a political signpost, not a weather-vane”; on party leaders in general – “The Tory Party give all their leaders a 10-minute standing ovation and then put a knife in their back when they fail, but in the Labour Party we elect leaders, argue with them until the day they go, and they go the day they want to go.” But if you still want a diary that reveals one version of what Tony told Jack about Gordon, this is not the book for you.
It represents something more significant: a chance to contemplate Enoch Powell’s maxim that all political careers end in failure, and also old age in general. Even for this most political of men, sharp pains, bad nights, a leaking roof and an intractable computer start to loom larger than the news.
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist