Andrew Whitaker: Reassessing the value of Tony Benn

THIS month has seen the publication of the final volume of the series of political diaries by veteran Labour left winger Tony Benn. Due to ill health three years ago, the former cabinet minister, now aged 88, ended his famous practice of keeping political diaries – begun before the Second World War.

Tony Benn has acquired the reputation of a 'national treasure'. Picture: PA

However, the latest volume, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: the Last Diaries, which chronicles the fag end of New Labour’s years in power, is likely to be one of the more interesting publications from a politician in the bookshops in the run-up to Christmas.

Alex Salmond might even be among those taking a look at the diaries, particularly as an entry describes the First Minister as a “bright lad” following a meeting between the two at Holyrood back in 2008, when Mr Benn gave the Scottish Parliament’s weekly “Time for Reflection”.

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Since stepping down as an MP in 2001, Mr Benn has acquired the reputation of a “national treasure”. And he is equally well received at literary events in areas often associated with Tory support such as Cheltenham, as well as in his more natural political constituency such as the Durham Miners’ Gala.

But arguably, it’s for much of his far-sighted political campaigning over many decades that Mr Benn deserves to be best remembered.

There is of course the famous legal battle in the 1960s fought by Mr Benn to renounce his peerage, which would allow him to remain as an MP, that saw the law changed to allow the renunciation of peerages.

But there were also the changes Mr Benn helped champion within Labour that saw ordinary members allowed to vote in the election of party leader, as well as reforms that saw Labour MPs made more accountable to the party whose platform they were elected on.

Prior to Mr Benn’s intervention in this area in the early 1980s, the Labour leader was elected solely by the party’s MPs, who were very much part of a job-for-life culture at Westminster.

It was no accident that 28 Labour MPs, some of whom were facing re-election battles with their local parties, defected to join the breakaway SDP in the early 1980s.

There are also the interventions on Northern Ireland during the troubles in the province when Mr Benn, along with fellow left-winger Ken Livingstone, attempted to initiate peace talks with Sinn Fein, over a decade before the moves by the UK governments.

And despite his current “national treasure” status, it’s worth remembering that he was regularly vilified by parts of the press during the 1980s, when he championed such causes as the striking miners and anti-war movements.

However, now that Tony Benn’s diaries have reached the final chapter it would be worth political opponents of yesteryear, including those in his own party, taking a fresh look at the impact the politician, who served in all the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s, has really had.