Review: The Best of Benn by Ruth Winstone

December 11, 2014
The Best of Benn: Speeches, Diaries, Letters and Other Writings edited by Ruth Winstone (Hutchinson, £20)

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Political prophets are mocked or loathed until their views became part of a fashionable consensus. That was the view of Tony Benn who saw himself as a prophet-like political teacher. In the year of his death his own once explosively contentious views are indeed part of a consensus, even if it is taking hold in the Conservative Party rather than on the left. In a bizarre twist some Conservative MPs have become ardent followers of Benn. Ruth Winstone, who skilfully edited each weighty volume of Benn’s diaries, completes her mission with a short and illuminating anthology of diary extracts and speeches. Taken in such a concentrated form, Benn’s politics become clearer. Above all he was gripped by questions relating to democracy and accountability. Who elected whom and how can we get rid of them? Such questions shaped his opposition to the European Union, narrow forms of media ownership and private monopolies. Here he is in March 1975: “Continued membership of the Community (EU) would mean the end of Britain as a self-governing nation and of our democratically elected parliament.” Some Conservative MPs have become followers of Benn precisely because they share his obsession with democratic accountability, one that fuels their opposition to the EU and dutiful sense of loyalty to their local party memberships rather than the national leadership. Benn made many mistakes and was impossible to lead, but on virtually every page in this highly readable book I am struck by how many of his insights were willfully misunderstood at the time, how relevant they still are and how they will be for decades to come.