I am reading Tony Benn’s latest, and last, diaries: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine. They make poignant reading, charting his growing frailty and his focus on ageing as well as his extraordinary day-to-day commitment to his socialist causes. You feel he needs to stay engaged because it is extrinsically as well as intrinsically worthwhile; it literally keeps him going. He is refreshingly reflexive and honest about all this.
In the entry for 29th September 2008 he quotes from Labour’s 1945 Manifesto, Let us Face the Future:
The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces; they were sure and certain results of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interests of their own bureaucratically run private monopolies, which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic state. They had, and they felt, no responsibility for the nation …
The nation wants food, work and homes; it wants more than that, it wants good food in plenty, useful work for all, and comfortable, labour-saving homes that take full advantage of the resources of modern science and productive industry. It wants a high and rising standard of living, security for all against a rainy day, an educational system that will give every boy and girl a chance to develop the best that is in them.
These are our aims. In themselves, they’re no more than words. All parties may declare that, in principle, they agree with them, but the test of a political programme is whether it is sufficiently in earnest about the objectives to adopt the means needed to realize them. It’s very easy to set out a list of aims; what matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine, workmanlike plan, conceived without regard for section or vested interest, and carried through in a spirit of resolute concentration
There is much here, Benn rightly insists, of relevance to the present, and how eloquently expressed! Of course it is one thing to list ends and to emphasize the need for resolution in realizing them, and quite another to act with awareness of enduring and obdurate social structures of class, command and so on. Nor are these are propitious times, as Benn recognizes.
I recall a brief conversation with Benn after one of his lectures a few years back. I told him I agreed with all he had said, but that power is rarely ceded voluntarily: it usually has to be taken. What kinds of means had he considered in relation to his ends? Bless you, he replied benignly, leaving me confused. Quite possibly his hearing had let him down. But he leaves the impression in his diaries that he is most comfortable emotionally, if not intellectually, in the parliamentary arena; and change, as Ralph Miliband acknowledged, is unlikely to be triggered there. This is not a criticism. Long may this icon of the left be celebrated among us.