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While England Sleeps

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 courageous…. I think he is profoundly untrustworthy.” But he could also spot the quality in those he disliked. Callaghan, he thought, was devious and intriguing but “one can’t help liking talking to him, although one knows how tricky he is.” Callaghan was, in fact, the one minister over whom Crossman never exerted ascendancy. He records taunting him in Cabinet to resign and upbraiding him for disloyalty to Wilson. Callaghan always bounced back and despite Crossman’s attempts to keep him out of the inner circle of ministers, Callaghan proved to be better than Wilson at the one knack on which Wilson prided himself—knowing the Labour Party, keeping it together, and realizing what strains would seriously damage its unity.

Roy Jenkins never failed to irritate him. He disliked him for being a “literary man” (being a journalist Crossman presumably thought was all right), for playing tennis, for being competitive, for being ambitious, for caring about personal success, for wanting to be a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer yet keeping the Treasury at arm’s length, for being an “extraordinary mixture of ingenuousness, feminine petulance and iron determination,” for being concerned with his image, for being at once inscrutable and indolent.

What vexed Crossman was that with all this indolence Jenkins got results as a politician which he himself failed to get. He simply could not imagine what it was to relax; to ruminate; and then, by using instinct, flair, and political Finger-spitzengefühl, to come to conclusions which should, Crossman thought, be achieved by brutal work. Like a First World War British general he believed the only tactic was the frontal attack: victory could be gained by battering away in a war of attrition against your colleagues, your civil servants, and the party. Unremitting hard work and loyalty to the party were the test: not the enjoyment of rotten London society parties. Jenkins, writing biographies and moving in circles quite remote from politics and the party faithful, was as bad as Gaitskell enjoying dancing.

But wait a moment…what about the farm? One of the most engaging things about Crossman’s diary is his frankness about his own standing in politics and his understanding that as an intellectual, he was always suspect however hard he worked. Was it really right for him to own a farm with a heated swimming pool? Was it wise for the Crossmans and the Castles to go off for a week in the Mediterranean on the yacht of the restaurant magnate Charles Forte? And did he not enjoy lunching with the top Tory political hostess—or was that pardonable because she was political? The truth was that as an intellectual at school at Winchester and as an Oxford don he liked doing and saying things totally foreign to the ordinary Labour party activist. But there was a worse trouble than that. What won Crossman friends in most places was not just his hearty pirate chief manner in which he boarded your ship and waving a cutlass drove you to walk the plank if you disagreed with him. It was his insatiable delight in gossip, affairs, events, policies, the way he slashed away with his cutlass, scarring friend and foe alike, firing off shot after shot of indiscretion. The very quality that makes his diary so enjoyable was his undoing in politics.

He could not keep his mouth shut. He was, as Jennie Lee said, a “compulsive communicator.” He genuinely wanted to inform and enlighten those he met, his colleagues, constituency workers, pressmen, the nurses he met on tours of hospitals he made as Secretary of State of Health and Social Security, miners on their summer outing. Not for him the dreary platitudes so often handed out to the faithful. His speeches fizzed with ideas, new ideas, ideas that had just come into his head that morning, ideas which often appeared not to square with what he had said the day before. He was incapable of being dull because he could transmit even on such a somber and technical subject as pensions his belief that the scheme he propounded was the best and most ingenious that could possibly have been devised.

The trouble was that he took a detached view of his country, his colleagues, and politics. He often said what he believed at that minute to be the truth. The fact that he saw the truth quite differently a day or so later people also found unnerving. This landed him in the soup time and again. Men who were in fact far less honest than he regarded him as untrustworthy. He was regarded by the Cabinet as a perennial security risk. A journalist had only to approach him and out would come an analysis of what one might think were one to consider the matter. Small wonder if the journalists deduced not only what Crossman thought but what other members of the Cabinet thought.

He was pilloried not only as a leak but as a political patsy. That was unjust. He records a floater he made in announcing a sharp increase in the charges for false teeth and spectacles a day before the municipal elections. He did not make matters better by explaining that he had just forgotten the elections were on. Next he explained that the money raised would go not to finance further services in his own department but in another—with the result that he was accused of betraying the health service. Ten days later, a few days before a by-election for a parliamentary seat, he irritated the Cabinet by telling them that he was announcing another measure which would increase the cost of living. He had forgotten the by-election.

Yet in fact he was an able operator adept at clearing up mistakes not of his own making and getting his colleagues to see the maximum tactical advantage which could be squeezed out of the parliamentary game. All politicians sometimes make gaffes; but when Crossman did Labour Members of Parliament put it down to the fact that he was not central to the party as Callaghan was.

Yet no one worked harder for it. His schedule of work was killing. He ran an enormous ministry, an amalgamation of two or three others, and he spent much energy in trying to get it to work. In so doing he was helped by some of his civil servants and opposed by others: the usual Whitehall-Westminster conflict about which every minister complains these days. He traveled everywhere, speaking to health service workers or pensioners. He talked to disheartened party activists and would take on a hostile bloody-minded Labour meeting and leave it in better heart. The diary makes it plain that such a punishing schedule was meat and drink to him; and after a day at it he would go off to the opera, or crack a bottle with someone who took his fancy, or rush off home to see his family—he was marvelous with children—but never to rest: his relaxation was more work.

Inevitably the spotlight of his diary comes to rest again and again on Harold Wilson. Crossman thought himself as loyal as anyone could be to the man whom he had backed against Gaitskell, and he continued rightly to admire Wilson’s incomparable skill in the day-to-day tactics of politics. During the battle over curbing the trade unions he slapped down Callaghan in Cabinet for saying that such a policy would sink the party by alienating the unions. But he did not disguise from Wilson that he felt the same as Callaghan. More and more he came to see Wilson as a small-minded politician, obsessed with press leaks and conspiracies, suspicious of any minister whom he thought was getting uppity, and fatally wrong on most important issues of foreign and domestic policy. What is interesting is the way in which Crossman expressed his contempt in class terms: what he could not endure was the lower middle class, the petty-bourgeois manners of his Leader. Again and again he and Barbara Castle appealed to Harold Wilson not to immure himself in No. 10 with his kitchen cabinet but to trust his old friends and form an inner group. They got Wilson to set up an inner cabinet called the Management Committee; but like an eel Wilson evaded their grasp and slipped off on his own. He was not going to take their bait.

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