Tony Benn sees his 60-year archive, soon to be in the British Library, as a way of setting history straight. Kam Patel met him
Tony Benn lights his pipe and strolls into the tiny kitchen of his London office to make the first of several mugs of tea, chatting away amiably. Back in his study, he proudly shows off a simple, lightweight table made out of a large cardboard box, the top a bit of plywood stuck down and finished with some green baize. "I made that," he says, grinning with satisfaction. Mugs, tape recorders and files pile up precariously on the makeshift table, which remains resolutely upright.
Benn has shouldered many a heavy load himself - his enemies would say often of his own making. The Labour MP for Chesterfield is defiantly anti-new Labour; Blairites dismiss him as being all out at sea, "off-message". An outspoken critic of the recent bombings of Iraq, Benn's darkest decade in politics must have been the 1980s, when he was charged by many with making Labour "unelectable" because of his uncompromising left-wing politics and supposed association with the Militant tendency.
Shunned by colleagues, he became a media bogeyman. The experience left its mark: "The persecution was extremely unpleasant. To begin with I thought, 'My God, there must be something wrong with me', then I realised the attacks were about what I said and not about me at all... that they had set up a demon they were killing on a daily basis. The demon wasn't me but it didn't make it any easier," he says.
In such an atmosphere, there were inevitably run-ins with those who wished him the worst - blokes in fast Rovers who picked up his rubbish every morning in the hope of getting incriminating material. Stories appeared that one of his children was having private hospital treatment, in an attempt to discredit his political stance.
But now, aged 74, Benn says he is old enough "not to give a damn what anybody thinks". Sitting in his study, he seems at ease. "It is nice not to be persecuted," he says laughing. And he bears no ill-will. "If I had a chip on my shoulder, I would have enough chips to open up a fish and chip shop."
Indeed, he gives the impression of being re-energised and this can perhaps be explained by his gargantuan archive having recently become semi-public. The most notable published offerings from it so far are the widely acclaimed six volumes of political diaries and their single volume companion published in 1995.
Edited by Ruth Winston, the diaries are a detailed, revealing and often funny account of Benn's career, kicking off with a school report in 1940 and ending with his ill-fated 1990 mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to free hostages just before the Gulf war.
Historians and archivists are understandably excited by the prospect of gaining access to a collection that offers a unique insight into the political, industrial, economic and social landscape of Britain over the past few decades. And as Benn has no plans to retire, the collection, destined for the British Library, is classed as a working archive.
It details his involvement in cabinet government, ministerial office, national party affairs and constituency matters. As well as millions of printed words, there are miles of video and audio tape and a significant portion of the diaries, covering 1963-87, has been put onto CD-Rom. For Benn, the archives are nothing less than the "historical records of experiences which have shaped my thinking".
The British Library, "delighted" to be receiving the archive, says its "extraordinary breadth" will complement its rich holdings of political papers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Because of its size - it is probably the largest archive to be given to the library this century - the BL has applied for lottery funding to prepare the material for inclusion in its national manuscript collection. Urgent conservation work is planned and the library wants to put the contents on the worldwide web.
Benn first started keeping a diary in 1934, aged ten. His first entry was:
"Went to school, teacher taught us to duck and weave (box). Smith did better than I." He joined the RAF in 1943, and it was during the war that he started keeping a proper journal. For security reasons some of it had to be in code: "The theory was if you were captured by the enemies, then you could give away vital information... So I used very simple Morse code for key words like dates and towns... And I can still do Morse: de da da de de da de da de..."
After the war keeping the journal became such a compulsion that he created a whole series. In addition to the political diaries, there is a set of bedside diaries which he has kept since his marriage 50 years ago. There are engagement diaries, as well as a 100-year diary for short notes of important events which goes up to his 100th birthday in 2025.
And as if that was not enough, he has a collection of all the documents of the day with accompanying notes. He produces an example, an innocent-looking set of papers in a plastic wallet. They turn out to be the notes relating to one exceptional day, July 2 1979, a few weeks before the cataclysmic election that saw Margaret Thatcher achieve power. The notes include 3,000 words dictated by Benn following the drafting of Labour's manifesto. "I have attached every draft and all the amendments, so if you really wanted to know what happened that night... for example Callaghan said if we tried to abolish the House of Lords, he would resign the leadership of the party... that was three weeks before the election!" Benn would love to put all the raw diaries on the internet but he cannot because they include a lot of misspellings. Anyway he might end up in court. "It has got a bit of libel and scandal. I mean, if you heard Mrs Thatcher was having an affair with Ronald Reagan you write it down, even if it isn't true. I would love to have the resources to clean it up. But I have to be careful, I don't want to be sued or be a gossip merchant."
A while back Benn had dinner with Lord Robert Armstrong, Wilson's principal private secretary in 1974-75, who told him there was no cabinet meeting where his recollections differed from Benn's accounts. "For me that is an absolutely blue-chip thing. The credibility of the diaries depends on their accuracy. People expect you to report your opinion, but if you appear to omit or distort your opinion, then they would spot it and I would not want to publish it. Because after all a diary is not a memoir, I am not justifying my life."
One of his biggest mistakes, he readily admits, was his championing of nuclear power in the 1960s when minister of technology. "The fact is I have learned from that and realise the whole civil nuclear power industry was really about the bomb. It was not anything to do with turning swords into ploughshares, it was not safe, it was not cheap. And I was misled about this and it made me very angry that our atoms for peace power stations were being used to produce plutonium for the American nuclear weapons programme ... I know that is true."
Benn denies that it was his closeness to Militant that made Labour unelectable during the 1980s. Instead he blames the mass defection of Labour MPs to the Social Democrat Party in the early part of the decade. But he adds: "The attack on the Militant tendency, which I was never supportive of, was an attempt to cleanse the party of all socialists. And it has got to the point now where they are trying to remove the Labour Party from the Labour Party... new Labour is really Stalinist. One of the reasons many ex-communists love new Labour is they have realised democratic centralism is alive... it's a weird thing."
But the Bennites' loss of the battle for the soul of Labour in the 1980s paved the way for the creation of new Labour. The way Benn sees it, Arthur Scargill left the party to set up a new one, the Socialist Labour Party, and Tony Blair did the same, inventing new Labour. Benn is a member of neither: "I do not mean to be personal but Blair is the leader of the Labour Party yet he never talks about the Labour Party. He talks about new Labour and old Labour, but never Labour, its traditions and aspirations..."
Benn reckons that this is because new Labour is just the first stage of a project to form a coalition government, which will be opposed not by the Conservatives, whose policies are being absorbed, but by the left. "The Labour Party is the challenge, just its existenceI and therefore it has to be eliminated by saying it is old-fashioned, full of dinosaurs, tax and spendI all the usual abuse. I may be wrong, but this is what I think is happening."
A key element of the Blair project, Benn believes, was to merge new Labour with the Liberal Democrats. But with Paddy Ashdown going and Peter Mandelson gone, he does not think it can happen. And, he says, there is considerable anxiety in Labour ranks. "OMOV (one member one vote) sounded so democratic but it has been replaced by OLAV, one leader all votes I I think what you are going to find now is the Labour Party coming back - you cannot extinguish a tradition of centuries of struggle with half a dozen spin doctors, you just cannot do it."
It was during the mid-1980s that friends remember Benn consciously readjusting himself to become a "student and teacher". He says: "We are all born in a world we do not understand because it is new. And if we are not careful, we all die in a world we do not understand because it has changed, so I spend more time learning now than I ever did as a kid."
At the same time he wants to encourage people to pursue their own lines of inquiry. "All change comes from underneath I apartheid did not end because Nelson Mandela had spin doctors, it ended because the African people would not accept it."
The archive is not therefore, he says, about "self-promotion", rather it is about leaving behind "evidence" for others to pick up on if they want to:
"What I discovered about the diaries is that the media will tell you what to think about today, then in 25 years the historians begin their classic task of interpretation and tell you what to think about the day before yesterday, but yesterday is still open."
By publishing diaries about the recent past, Benn says he is inviting people to re-examine their own experiences at a point when the media has forgotten, and the historians have yet to begin their work. "By putting at the disposal of people an accurate account of the recent past, they can begin to think for themselves. The diaries have turned out to be the most formidable political weapons - not to persuade people of my view but to give them enough material to challenge whether what they had been told was the truth."
One area where Benn certainly thinks the public is being misled is in terms of the justifications made for bombing Iraq. And he is scathing of the succession of prime ministers who have stood outside 10 Downing Street before such attacks to profess that it was the most difficult decision they had ever made. "Not one of them has ever seen a war," he says.
The loss of his serving brother Michael in the second world war coloured Benn's views on war. He recalls being in an underground shelter one night during the blitz and emerging to find 500 people had been killed in Westminster. "I was very frightened. And then these bastards go on talking as if war solves things - it doesn't solve anything at all."
To explain the extraordinary dedication that has gone into compiling his archive, Benn points to his parents. Both were Congregationalists and instilled in him a strong sense of responsibility for accounting for his use of time. "It is a strange compulsion but I feel that at night, I have got to put down what I have done, submit my account. The use of time, of my time is very important to me.
"People sometimes ask me how I would like to be remembered. I think I would like on my gravestone it to be said: 'Tony Benn, He Encouraged Us.' That would be the nicest epitaph you could imagine."