Just read that Tony Benn has died. Very sad. A wonderful man who managed to combine weirdness, ostentatious eccentricity with a strangely compelling skill as a diarist. I found his books compulsive reading.
I once reviewed Against the Tide, the volume dealing with 1973-76. He wrote half a million words about three years, and apparently the manuscript was edited down from ten times that length!
Here is a passage I quoted as an example of Mr Benn’s gossipy way of writing. It was immediately after Harold Wilson had resigned as Prime Minister and some of the left-wing members of the Labour party, which was then in power, were pressing Benn to stand for election to replace him.
Everyone had left except Frances, Francis and Joe and Joe said, “You must stand. You’ll get a lot of votes.” Frances and Francis agreed.
Political gossip does not come much more exciting than that. But the odd thing is, however much he droned on and on about the minutiae of yesterday’s politics, he rarely got boring. That is a tremendous skill.
And on a more serious note, he did write one of the greatest truths about government in Britain today (unfortunately I cannot give a reference from memory): “Whitehall governs Britain like the last colony in the Empire.”
The other great British political diarist of modern times was Alan Clarke. No two men could have been more different. Yet Clarke makes essentially the same point in his books: how impotent politicians are in the face of the bureaucracy. Both had been Ministers. Both knew. We should all take notice.RIP Tone the Drone. You will be missed.