The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman
edited by Janet Morgan
Holmes & Meier, 1,136 pp., $35.00
Richard Crossman’s diaries, both in government and in opposition, will always stand high among the essential source materials for anyone who writes about British politics in the third quarter of the twentieth century. Crossman wrote with that object in mind. He intended to illuminate British politics from the inside, more than anyone had done before. And he succeeded in that. The illumination is sometimes a bit tricky, but after all it is the historian’s business to allow for the trickiness of sources. And as sources go, this one is more reliable than most. That constitutes, as we shall see, something of a paradox.
Crossman’s diaries are also (with some qualifications) often highly entertaining. Crossman was a clever, arrogant man, with a good sense of fun, and of mischief. He enjoyed thinking of good things to say about his colleagues and writing them down. He had a good eye, and he wrote well. Janet Morgan’s editing is thorough, painstaking, and consistently helpful to the reader.
Many readers not passionately interested in British politics or Labour politics will be tempted to skip, looking for the good bits. This is understandable. The Backbench Diaries is very long: over a thousand pages, covering the period 1951 to 1963, when Crossman was a member of Parliament and also worked for the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. He rightly wanted to get in a great deal of detail; he had been an Oxford don himself, and he knew that it was the detail, not the amusing phrases, that the future historian would value. Through mastery of detail, through sheer copiousness of information volunteered, he would put his indelible mark on history. And he has. Yet his very success in that makes his diaries often heavy going; the accumulation of detail about old controversies among opposition politicians can become oppressive.
The reader would, however, do well not to skip, or to skip as little as possible. Unless he reads the book slowly, with a care for the context—and something of the sense of reading a political novel—he may well miss much that is of general and lasting interest, about human beings and about politics. Context is all. Take the following, about Hugh Gaitskell:
In the last two days the Gaitskell boom has been rapidly swelling. How strange political leadership is! For months he was no bloody good because everyone said he was no bloody good. Now everybody says that Gaitskell is very good indeed and he becomes very good indeed, so that I can watch the godhead emerging from the man. Yes, one can actually watch it. The Leader emerges from the husk of the ordinary politician. I went up to Hampstead yesterday with half a dozen items on the agenda—all cleared in twenty minutes and I was out of the house without more than a cursory goodbye. He hadn’t wasted any time and that was that. Yesterday evening we had a sandwich together at seven o’clock …