With the recent European and council elections, and anticipation building for the general election next year, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of our new material relating to politics, included on the most recent New Books Display in the library. The late great Tony Benn stands out, proudly smoking his pipe on the cover of the final volume of his renowned series of diaries, and he also features in Emily Robinson’s History, heritage and tradition in contemporary British politics: past politics and present histories.

Tony Benn

Benn is widely recognised as having been one of the top political diarists of his time, and A blaze of autumn sunshine: the last diaries, published the year before his death, completes his story. Although Benn stepped down from Parliament in 2001 he remained extremely active politically, taking part in campaigns and events throughout the period covered by this volume (2007-2013). Benn intersperses accounts of his day-to-day activities, which despite his age often included very early starts to attend different demonstrations or events around the country, with commentary on political issues at the time.

Amongst other matters Benn’s entries discuss the transition between Blair and Brown and his increasing despair with the state of the Labour Party, and on a more personal level his own declining health, though he remains upbeat throughout. Benn’s daily additions to his diary, which he had kept up for an impressive sixty-nine years, came to an end in 2009 due to illness. The final four years covered by this volume are in the form of a memoir, very briefly dealing with themes and events such as the financial crisis, the coalition government, Ed Miliband’s rise to party leadership, WikiLeaks, and the growth of UKIP.

Something that consistently comes across in Benn’s writing is his awareness of history, and his use of key ideas and movements from the past to try to influence political thought in the present. He had not lost his determination to present ambitious and potentially controversial ideas, even at this late stage in his career. His description of a speech he made at the Labour Party Conference of 2007 in front of his granddaughter and eldest son, both also active in politics, demonstrates this: “Emily and Stephen heard me speak at the Labour Representation Committee, where I tried to talk about the future, and say that we had to look ahead. ‘You know I’m always talking about the Chartists and the Suffragettes. Well, look ahead – we’ve got to have the world run by global Chartists. The UN has got to be represented in a proportion to the population of the world.’ It probably sounded as mad to them as the Chartists sounded.”

Both because of his role as a politician and as a political diarist, Benn is mentioned in History, heritage and tradition in contemporary British politics: past politics and present histories, in which Emily Robinson discusses the different ways British politicians use past events and political rhetoric to promote or dismiss current ideologies and policies. Alongside others, Benn’s significance as a politician with a focus on political history and its preservation is highlighted by Robinson:  “…the political memory of all three parties is perpetuated by a relatively small number of individuals, who tend to share a concern both for the preserving of contemporary documents and participant observations, and for recovering and remembering the stories of the past – usually with an intention of ‘learning from history’…There is also a great crossover between party memoirists, diarists, biographers and historians, with Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Winston Churchill being only the most obvious examples.” This is certainly reflected in our own collections, which include diaries, biographies, and historical works, by all of these figures.

Below you can find the full list of new books which feature on the current display:

New Book Display June '14 001