Living Knowledge blog

26 March 2019

When the personal gets political

What turns someone who keeps a diary into a diarist? Is it the circumstances they find themselves in? Their literary skill? Do they always, like Oscar Wilde’s Cecily, have one eye on future publication?

Diaries (Tony Benn Archive)
A selection of diaries from the Tony Benn Archive. Photo credit: British Library

Ruth Winstone, editor of the political diaries of both Tony Benn and Chris Mullin, speaking at an event at the British Library on 21 March (alongside Mullin, Melissa Benn and Peter Hennessey) suggests that there are two kinds of diarists: ideologues, who use this record of their lives to support a particular point, and observers, who aim to give an impression of something, viewing events with novelistic eyes, rather than push a particular agenda – ‘how it felt,’ agreed Chris Mullin, ‘what it was like. Not just who said what.’

In the Library’s Knowledge Centre, listening to Tony Benn’s recordings, and Chris Mullin’s live readings, one would be hard pressed to argue that one approach was ‘better’ than the other. It was suggested, however, that a diarist at the heart of events may miss the wider details and interesting juxtapositions that an observer, removed from the fray, may recognise.

A potential issue with any kind of memoir, Peter Hennessey argued, is that the act of reading someone’s diary, of ‘moving in’ with them, can so involve the reader with that person that they become an overwhelming influence on the reader’s perception of that era. Despite this caveat, there is little doubt that diaries can provide a fascinating, detailed, insightful (and in Tony Benn’s case meticulously precise) account of events. Even my own teenage diary offers some ‘historical’ details: what GCSEs and A-levels were like under Tony Blair's Labour government; which angsty songs wallowing 17 year olds in the north of England chose to listen to in 2003.

The British Library recently acquired Tony Benn’s archive, including thousands of hours of his audio diaries, which is sure to prove a uniquely valuable resource for biographers, researchers and historians. Now so many of us, and so many politicians, detail our lives and opinions on social media, do many people choose, or have time, to keep a diary? What effect might this have on future historians researching 2019?

Chris Mullin, Ruth Winstone, Melissa Benn and Peter Hennessey appeared at the British Library event The Diaries of Tony Benn and Chris Mullin on 21 March, as part of the Library’s Diaries Season. Find out what else we have coming up at

Ellen Morgan