The Best of Benn: letters, diaries, speeches and other writings
Ruth Winstone worked for Tony Benn for almost 30 years. In that time she sorted through, transcribed and edited 10 volumes of his diaries and now, following the death of the influential politician and radical campaigner earlier this year, she has compiled the Best of Benn.
What does The Best of Benn do that the vast existing volume of literature on Benn doesn’t already?
Much of Tony Benn’s creative and original writing and speech making can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s but in the noughties he also produced fresh ideas influenced by his grandchildren’s generation. The collection hopes to connect the development of his ideas across 60 years.
What is the overriding message and key themes that come out of this collection?
There is no overriding theme in the book, except perhaps the dangers and contradictions of a European state – Tony’s understanding of the EU was remarkably prescient.
How did you go about selecting The Best of Benn?
I looked for arguments and articles which expressed either a simple belief in simple language – such as the case for ending the death penalty – or a more sophisticated analysis such as the connection between Christianity and socialism.
Why was recording everything, in his diaries, letters, essays, important to Benn?
Tony was obsessed by time and justifying his time on this earth – having kept a time chart of 24 hours a day as a child – and I suspect that archives and recordings were a way of accounting for his life.
Do you see his writings as a literary form or a historical source?
Some of Tony’s journalism – columns for the Guardian in the early 1960s and the Morning Star in the noughties – was innovative and succinct but he rarely read novels and his historical contribution is more impressive than his literary one.
What was it like to work for Tony Benn?
He had a good sense of humour and made working for him fun although his basement office was possibly the most uncomfortable MP’s office ever – cramped, draughty and badly lit. And loads of spiders. We started the Teabags Club (The Eminent Association of Benn Archive Graduates) for interns, which included in its membership Ed Miliband, Andrew Hood (later adviser to Robin Cook) and Simon Fletcher (Ken Livingstone’s chief of staff).
Having worked so closely with him and his work, do the lines blur between your own thoughts and views and Benn’s?
I find myself using phrases and expressions which were Tony’s such as addressing strangers as “my friend”. But I am becoming more conservative with age – unlike the old boy. He was never pompous and hated snobbery. I try to emulate that.