A friend told me how she had gone canvassing for the Labour party in rural Oxfordshire during the 1966 general election. On most of the grand estates the agricultural workers tugged their forelocks in deference to the landowners, but on one estate they were full of socialism and the brotherhood of man. It was the estate of squire Richard Crossman.
He was an intellectual socialist, the product of the best English education. He was not exactly rebellious, but he was iconoclastic and unencumbered by sensitivity. He became a member of parliament, where his outspokenness earned him Attlee's and later Gaitskell's mistrust, and he was best known as an academic and journalist. However where there's death there's hope, Gaitskell died in 1962 and was succeeded as leader of the Labour party by Crossman's friend Harold Wilson, and he was promoted to the opposition front bench where he shadowed the Minister of Health. When Labour came to power in 1964 Crossman naturally expected to be appointed minister in that department, but Wilson perceived housing as the issue most likely to make or break his government, and Crossman got that job. The first volume of his diaries records his 2-year career at Housing until he was further promoted, and it must be a document of first-class importance to political and constitutional historians and theorists. For me as a general reader who remembers the period well, the book is utterly fascinating. It is not just about politics, and it has very little about his private life. It is about government in Britain, and its significance is in its candour and intellectual muscle. It is beautifully written too. Crossman is not blowing his own trumpet or putting a personal spin on events as is invariable in prime ministers' memoirs. He does not suffer, of course, from any false modesty nor is he prone to self-doubt. He is about as objective as such a personality can be expected to be, analysing his successes and failures as he honestly perceived them, and summing up his record at Housing in the last chapter. He sees himself as a competent minister who failed in his main objective which was to have more houses built, because that matter was ultimately controlled not by the Minister of Housing but by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He even understands, though he does not particularly regret, the brutality of the way he treated some of his civil servants, pointing out simply that he was brighter mentally than they were accustomed to in a minister and that was just their look-out.
I took to him then, I take to him now. He was not really ambitious in the sense of wanting to climb a career ladder. Indeed he adored his job at Housing, and he was regretful and depressed when he was promoted out of it. I see no reason to dispute his general estimate of himself, nor his assessment of his colleagues both in government and in the civil service. He is not at all malicious or resentful, but he does not wrap up his opinions in any polite verbiage, and they must have been deeply hurtful to many, particularly to his formidable Permanent Secretary Dame Evelyn Sharp who had served and dominated several previous ministers before meeting her match in Crossman. There is no doubt about his passionate involvement in his work, but there's an odd detachment about his account too. The academic in him is always analysing the government processes from his new insider's vantage-point, and it's almost a pity that he does not sum up his Cabinet colleagues in the way he sums up `the Dame' because his passing comments on them are fascinating and I would have loved to see his general summation. At one point George Brown, for instance, is called `30% madman' although a good deal of other comment is flattering.
His diaries caused a good deal of outcry, some of it but not all just pompous, through their sheer insensitivity, which in the long term is the best thing about them. They don't convey to me either the sense of constant crisis or the frequent aspect of a comic-turn that in the eyes of the public beset the first Wilson government. Other actors are reported very fairly, but one never really has the sense that Crossman understands what makes anyone else tick, and that is his strength as well as a failing.
Where have they all gone? Labour lost power in 1970 but regained it in 1974 as the perceived lesser of two evils, before Britain finally succumbed to the Thatcher Terror in 1979. Disillusion bit deeply into many of the participants in this book - Roy Jenkins founded a new political party, Richard Marsh joined that, George Brown's behaviour became more erratic and clownish until he finally died a Conservative, and even the son of Clem Attlee himself turned Tory. More or less all the political personalities mentioned in this book are dead by now, Crossman himself falling victim to cancer in 1974. Unutterably sad is that his son, pictured here at age 7, hanged himself 10 years later. Labour has, of course, risen from the ashes in a new form under Blair and Brown, and the major survival of the era depicted by Crossman is Denis Healey, comprehensively critical of Blair but perhaps not so much so of Brown. How many more chapters in the story I shall survive to see I obviously don't know, but my understanding of what it is all about has gained incalculably from what I have read here.
Wow! I've just finished this book and I can say it is a far more in-depth look at Cabinet government than any other I've read. Crossman may not be a big name today but in his day he was one of the Big Beasts, senior Cabinet ministers who wrestled for supremacy and jostled to win the Prime Minister's favour and backing. He dictated these diaries which were transcribed and published by his wife after his death, in the face of opposition from the government of the day.
Crossman is gloriously indiscreet and straight-talking, revealing how deals are done and colleagues are double-crossed and undermined. The diaries show PM Harold Wilson as a principled but soft-minded leader who played different camps off against each other as he struggled to make up his own mind, and how ministers tried to use the press and to corrall civil servants, with haphazard results. The characters include the drunken and mercurial George Brown, the passionate but ineffective Barbara Castle, the ambitious but flawed Jim Callaghan and the clever but unpolitical Roy Jenkins.
It may seem like ancient history, but it's still wonderfully insightful and relevant to the modern reader. In many ways little has changed and in other ways the diaries provide a fascinating contrast with the "sofa government" and spin of New Labour. Wilson strove to achieve a collective style of government rather than the more "presidential" model we have today, but that meant he often presided over flaming rows or was browbeaten into submission by his very own allies, some of whom were deliberately plotting disaster to unseat him. And it seems extraordinary how Jim Callaghan, his eventual successor, was able to remain in Cabinet and plot against him from within.
This is a pleasure to read, although I sometimes found the parliamentary jargon a bit hard to follow. The union-dominated pre-Thatcher economic policies are also somewhat mystifying ("We must curb investment!" - eh??) and it's hard to feel any sympathy for the intellectual and amateurish Wilson as wave after wave of economic crisis crashes against the government. A modern reader with some knowledge of economics might feel that he or she could have done a much better job than Wilson and done a lot to turn the country around. This was an era when Britain still had a "prices and incomes" policy and a non-decimal currency.
My only regret, after reading this, is that I didn't tackle the full 3-volume version. Anthony Howard, who condensed those into this book, cut out lots of material where Crossman was not directly involved but was more of a spectator. I would love to hear what he had to say about other events of the 1960s.