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books: A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine

RICHARD BAGLEY finds Tony Benn in reflective mood in his last diaries

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine

by Tony Benn

(Hutchinson, £20)

Tony Benn needs no introduction to Morning Star readers. Nor will his diaries, which since 1940 have provided a unique chronicle of events.

His final diary provides a bitter-sweet and deeply reflective finale to this sweeping personal history of a politician who has seen the heart of power and whose resolutely independent train of thought has always shone through.

Picking up from More Time for Politics, which detailed the tumultuous events after the 2001 attacks on the United States and Benn's life after Parliament under the Blair government, A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine contains often very personal entries encompassing the dog-end of new Labour and the genesis of the Cameron "austerity" onslaught.

Its broader backdrop is the capitalist crisis that began in 2008.

The entries cease poignantly after 69 years on Wednesday July 29 2009 as Benn recuperates from an operation that was to deal a further blow to his health. The final chapter is a short appraisal of events since.

More so than his previous release, the diary entries reflect mounting frustration as age reduces his ability to mentally and physically maintain the momentum that has sustained this political animal's activism into his eighties.

Entries detailing political reflection and social engagements are punctuated by short notes relaying a bad night and the realisation that death looms ever closer.

Many of the more politically focused entries imply a growing sense of alienation as the centre-stage moves elsewhere, and Benn's own ability to intervene reduces.

But it is nevertheless a compelling read - not least because the diarist himself is such an engaging individual.

Benn's power of analysis and explanation, albeit less prominent, remains impressive.

He is able to articulate with crystal clarity practical alternatives, such as a sweeping proposal following the banking bailout that would surely have brought true change to the lives of millions instead of the current austerity misery.

In this case his solution - to use state control of banks to fund local development and employment plans drawn up by authorities across the country - makes infinitely more sense than the market-driven offerings of the cuts-obsessed right.

It is such an ability to see beyond the mainstream doctrine and present alternatives that placed Benn in the Establishment's crosshairs when it feared he may have been within reach of power.

But Benn is not just scathing about Brownite Labour and the traditional right's obsession with neoliberal economics.

He also rounds on the seeming unwillingness of then trade union leaders to properly oppose Labour's right wing.

And he bemoans the sectarian divisions that have seen the power of the left diminish.

These candid criticisms are clearly born of frustration rather than malice, reflecting Benn's growing fear of the direction of the Labour Party and Britain's battered parliamentary democracy as the Establishment, at home and abroad, steam-rollers through its will.

He is at his happiest when in the bossom of the labour movement and at his most alienated when, for example, following a Guardian bash he writes: "They just are the Establishment. It is a society that suits them well."

He adds: "They're not interested in me any more because they don't think I have any power, and I can't say I'm very interested in them, except as exhibits in a zoo."

Benn's no saint, neither does he expect to be seen as one, but he remains a staunch socialist and believer in democratic power.

His diaries remain one of the most fascinating and warmly rewarding reads in the political canon.

The close of its final chapter brings with it a lasting sense of sadness at the fact that this is Benn's last self-penned volume.

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