The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister Volume III, Secretary of State for Social Services, 1968-1970
by Richard Crossman
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1,039 pp., $22.95
None but the most intrepid of Anglophile American experts on British politics is likely to read every one of the 953 pages of text in this final volume of Richard Crossman’s diary, kept while he was a minister in Harold Wilson’s 1964-1970 government. Crossman taped his daily recollections in order to show what Cabinet government was really like and not what Sir Ivor Jennings and other worthy professors of the British constitution maintained it was. That meant that a lot of wearisome detail about his department and its battles with other departments over complicated clauses in legislative instruments relating to pension schemes and health benefits clogs the text. But since this is a diary it is not long before Crossman is describing intrigues, plots, rivalries, his family life, parties, and personalities in a far from boring manner.
The diary has even some of the qualities of a comic strip. This Dick Tracy tale features a goodie (Harold Wilson) who is, alas, weak and drifts downhill although Dick using his two-way doublespeak wrist radio does his best to save him. It also features a gorgeous redhead (Barbara Castle), smiling, cool, and brave, who unfortunately also gets led astray into trying to put through a reactionary plan to compel the trade unions, in return for vast concessions in industrial bargaining, to accept the principle—as they have in other Western democratic states—that legal sanctions can be imposed upon their members if they break their contractual agreements with their employers. To his dismay Dick finds himself in the same camp as his natural enemies the devious faux bonhomme Callaghan and his crony Anthony Crosland. But the gorgeous redhead, though humiliated, emerges brave as ever, her integrity unimpeached and her standing with the Old Left gang unimpaired. When in 1970 they all go down to defeat Dick alone is able to leap out of this strip and onto the next because he has it all laid on to retire from ministerial life and become editor of the New Statesman.
In brassy, bold, but educated speech, unadorned and incomparably clear and readable, Crossman reveals what sort of a politician and man he was. For sheer intellectual ability he led the Cabinet: he could master any brief on any subject, however dull or technical in governmental fields not his own. As a result he could be a formidable enemy in committee and a persuasive advocate of his own ministry. He was a genial bully and when he went out for the kill the pleasure he got in humiliating a colleague is not an edifying spectacle. He despised most ministers: one was “a tight-lipped hypocritical bloody-minded Quaker,” another “a little twister and turner,” another “decent, boring, virtuous, ineffective, vain and unprepared to listen to reason,” of another, “his stroke doesn’t seem to have affected his mind which wasn’t very good anyway.”
He spotted John Stonehouse (now in prison) as a crook: “tall and handsome-looking…slight unsureness of himself, and yet firm and …