Gossip, not history
Why do people write diaries? Still more why are they sometimes published during, or shortly after, the life of the authors? Pepys, Evelyn, and Creevey kept diaries of considerable historical interest. Better scholars than I will know whether, and when, they were intended to be published. Boswell's journals of his early life, self-revelatory and picaresque as they are, certainly contribute to our understanding of social life in the eighteenth century, and his Hebridean journey adds a pleasant and continuous narrative to his tour with Samuel Johnson.
But what are we to say of the recently published diaries of Chips Channon, Birkett, Reith, or Evelyn Waugh? Why were they written, and what have they done to the several reputations of their authors? Is diary keeping a secret vice, like that of a collector who amasses a private hoard of treasure over which to gloat? Chips Channon at least was hoping to provide material for some future historian, though for reasons of taste or an exaggerated view of their explosive quality, he is said to have made provision, which was disregarded, for his diary to be kept Mviolate for fifty years.
Dick Crossman was under no such inhibitions. He was quite certain that what he was dictating on tape every weekend during his relatively brief tenure of high office was going to be of historical importance, and he intended to publish it at once, or as soon as he could after the demise of the Wilson Government in 1970. Indeed, but for his premature, and by me Lamented, death this is exactly what he would have done. Before he died, he wrote the introduction to the first volume, and now it is published by his executors, and, whilst yet in the hands of the printers, it has acquired an enhanced value, and national fame by being the subject of contested litigation and a judgment by the Lord Chief Justice of England. Thus doubtless, it is a valuable property.
The book is just over six hundred pages long. And there is more to come. I read somewhere that, in all, Dick dictated over a million and a half words, and that there are three more volumes in preparation. They have been subject to some editing since "when transcribed" the result "was hardly readable." Nevertheless we have the assurance of Dr Janet Morgan of Nuffield, Dick's "historian", as well as of Jennie Hall, his "archivist," that there has been no expurgation. Reading it from cover to cover we may, I think, be fully certain that this is so.
But is the excuse of providing material for the future historian genuine? If so, why be in such a hurry to publish? If genuine, is it valid? Is the desire to inform posterity a good reason for betraying confidence, and violating the pledged word? And that, of course, in betraying the The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister Vol 1: "Minister of Housing 1964-1966" Richard Crossman (Hamish Hamilton and Jonathan Cape E7.95) confidences of colleagues and disclosing the confidential communications of senior civil servants, is exactly what Dick has done. And what of the public issues involved? Dick's own view on this is perfectly explicit. "How much to publish is not a matter of Government ruling, far less of the Official Secrets Act, but a concern of personal taste and personal conscience."
But is it? I have always assumed that, generally speaking, secrets are the property of those who confide them, not of those to whom they are confided. And, quite apart from this, the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions and discussions with the public service are matters in the disclosure of which the public has, or ought to have, some say. Lord Widgery seems to have thought as much in his judgment. But having read, as I must suppose, all six hundred and thirty-one pages, Lord Widgery seems to have come to the conclusion that, however grave the departure from morality, the public damage is minimal after a lapse of ten years from the events described. If he was right, this is the worst criticism of the book as a book which can be made, since it demolishes the claim of historic interest, If he is wrong, much public harm can ensue.
One of Attlee's worst mistakes as Prime Minister in his selection of colleagues was to leave out both Dick and Michael Foot from his Government of 1945. This must have been deliberate, for both were already prominent in the Labour Party. True, both were anything but moderate, and each had a reputation, not wholly undeserved, for irresponsibility. But, assuredly, Attlee was wrong. Both Dick and Michael could still, in 1945, have been tamed by the experience of office. By 1964, when Dick was included and Michael left out, both, in my opinion, were too old to mend their ways.
In an engaging, but naive, introduction, Dick introduces himself as a "political scientist" (whatever that may mean) and a "hard boiled intellectual." Nothing could be further from the truth. There was just about as much science, political or otherwise, in Dick as in an African witch doctor. Intellectual? Well, yes, with a First in Mods and Greats, a tutorship at New College, and much else besides, he could hardly be anything else. But hard boiled? Anything less hard boiled than Dick it is hard to imagine. Dick was an ingenious, industrious, versatile, rumbustious, warm hearted, unscrupulous, party politician and propagandist, and political journalist. He was also, as his diary shows, a loving father, a tender and affectionate husband, and a great lover of the five hundred acre farm and manor house he had acquired from his father-in-law. He was also something of a bully.
As one of Harold Wilson's henchmen in the battle for the Labour leadership, Dick was entitled to expect Cabinet office, and after October 1964 had some reason to believe that he would be appointed Secretary for Education and Science, for which he had been shadowing me. For some reason or other, doubtless to be
found somewhere in the recesses of that enormous and remunerative volume compiled by our present Prime Minister, Harold Wilson appointed Michael Stewart instead. The white heat of the technological revolution was to be fanned by a gigantic bellows operated h5.' Michael Stewart, Frank Cousins, Lord Bowden and C. P. Snow. Dick woke up to find himself Minister of Housing and Local Government for which he candidly admits he was neither qualified nor prepared. There he encountered Dame Evelyn Sharp. He came. He saw. But, on the whole, she conquered. In some ways "the Dame", as he calls her, iS the real heroine of the diary. After the first tw,0 days of office, when she had been engaged rescuing Dick from one of the more ludicrous of Harold Wilson's gimmickries (the separation of physical planning from Housing) she said "It was the worst two days of my whole life. 0,f, course, I always win. But it was exhausting: After six months, she had won again, but th.is time over Dick. Dick began by trying to get rld of her when he found she could not be either bullied or dominated, and in this he found an ally in Harold Wilson. But he had not been lb office for many months before he was insisting that she stayed on with him past retiring age, t° save his Ministry from ruin, and this, to her immense credit, she did. I will not weary the reader with the whnle, story of this extremely repetitive dictate° manuscript. Its main value will, I fear, be the extreme embarrassment which it will cause tb Dick's surviving colleagues and the Labour movement, and even now I fancy I can hear the picks and shovels of the Liberal and Conservative Research Departments, quarrying danlag; ing judgments and quotations, incidents, ali" even scandals from this valuable source material. Whether the historian will be equanY interested, I do not know, though 1 take leave to doubt it. It will depend to some extent on the degree to which the details of these lamentable years of national decline interest our descen:' dants. Dick's industry, Dick's drive, Dick s sincere attempt to be intellectually honest even when he is at his most morally unscrupuloua, his unflagging energy, his fertility, his faith lb the reliability of his own judgment, are faithfully recorded, as is his constant warfare with, and distrust of, the Civil Servants virlt° seek to save all Ministers from their worst faults with varying degrees of success. The, reader is left with an overall sense of politica; failure, of Ministers who have no clear political objective but the retention of power, of a House of Commons incapable of controlling an administration fortified by a machine made majority and a Civil Service brief, and of Government which succeeded in prolonging Its existence and increasing its majority by 8.n adroit use of the prerogative of dissolution 1966. Of idealism, of any clear formulation IN, political principle, of even an understanding 0,i how the prestige of Britain and her power an° prosperity were being allowed to founder hY diplomatic ineptitude and economic incomPetence there is scarcely a trace. We leave Dick, raised as he puts it "into the stratosphere" as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons under a Clerk to the Privy Council whom he describes as a "jackass" and under a Sovereign of whorl' he is recorded as saying "She finds me boring and I find her boring, and I think it is a great relief that I do not have to see her." HOW be, fared in this new office we shall doubtless reati in the next exciting instalment of this vast work.