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Picture of Dorian Gray

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 before he went off on a round of meetings in South London and I found him really buoyant, genial and self-confident. It must be quite nice to feel one’s a man emerging into a god. But I am fully content to remain a man and even an acolyte.

That is an entry for September 24, 1959, during a general election which—at the moment—Labour thought it was winning. Four days later, Crossman still thinks the same way. He writes (September 28) that “Transport House”—Labour headquarters—“is on the top of the world.” There is “a winning mood.” Of himself he writes that “because Hugh’s Chief of Staff is in an absolutely key position, I am having the time of my life.”

Two days later, things begin to come unstuck. Gaitskell is to blame:

Since I last wrote the Tories have launched their first big counterattack. It was the result of the first slip-up by Hugh Gaitskell. To my amazement, yesterday’s papers carried as their main story a speech by him, pledging that there will be no increase in income tax under the next Labour Government.

A week later, on October 5—after a gap in the diary—Crossman comes back to this theme.

Our initiative went at a tremendous pace until the morning when we read in the Herald Hugh Gaitskell’s income tax pledge. I should add that all of us on the Committee, without exception, were appalled at what we felt was a breach in Gaitskell’s intellectual integrity. The last thing I would have expected from him, as an ex-Chancellor and an economist, was a commitment of this kind. Moreover, it wasn’t very popular.

The committee that was “appalled” at a breach in Gaitskell’s intellectual integrity consisted, under Crossman’s chairmanship, of Tom Driberg, Alice Bacon, and Ray Gunter. Other references to them in the diary do not suggest that Crossman normally regarded any of these as people to be taken seriously on such a matter as intellectual integrity. Alice Bacon figures as a “silly woman,” “complaining inanely”; Tom Driberg emerges as a neurotic poseur, a “verbal snob,” and a “lickspittle toady” (of Nye Bevan’s), and as for Ray Gunter: “He’s a great watery slob, who drinks a bit too much and whose statesmanship consists of being two-faced and backing the winning side.”

Crossman’s enemies (who gave him the nickname “Double Crossman”) attributed to him statesmanship of exactly the same order as what he attributed to Gunter. He had been among the original Bevanites, but moved away when Bevan looked like a loser. After Gaitskell—archenemy of the Bevanites—succeeded Attlee as leader in December 1955, Crossman’s advice on a foreign affairs debate helped Gaitskell to win what was, according to Crossman, “his greatest success to date.” It is Crossman himself who records—as “a small incident”—Bevan’s reaction to Gaitskell’s triumph and Crossman’s share in it.

In the course of Wednesday evening, I went into the Smoking Room and found George Brown in our corner, with Nye and Barbara [Castle] on the other sofa talking to each other. After some time, Nye looked across at me and said to Barbara, “Follow Dick Crossman’s precept and never permit intellectual excitement to divert you from following your personal self-interest.” After a moment he said, “What do you think of that, Dick?” I thought for a moment and said, “I was just reflecting, Nye, to which of us in this corner that was most apposite.” I had seen Nye come in during Hugh’s ovation and go out before it had ended. He was obviously terribly put out and I think probably knew that I had been working with and for Hugh, as on previous occasions I had worked with and for Nye and would do today if it were possible.

Not without ups and downs, Crossman grew closer to Gaitskell as leader; so indeed did Bevan. Both hoped at this time to be ministers in a Gaitskell government, but in this Parliament, Bevanism and the left line generally were being effectively dumped. This was more awkward, obviously, for Bevan than for Crossman. Bevan’s rhetoric was habitually vehement and therefore horribly awkward to handle while an unacknowledged switch was in progress. Oratorical flops were inevitable. After one such Bevan flop in Parliament in February 1958, Crossman records:

Going through the lobby I ran into Hugh Gaitskell, who couldn’t have been friendlier or happier and we discussed the poor old boy’s flop. “Do you think it will make him rat to the Left?” Hugh said to me. “Oh no,” I said. “I don’t think so. He’s fixed for good.” “Why does he do these things?” said Hugh very sadly, but he couldn’t conceal his relief, which is natural enough.

As a political leader, Bevan was now dead. Gaitskell seemed secure. The Crossman-Gaitskell rapprochement reached its highest point when Gaitskell put him in charge of propaganda in the general election campaign of the autumn of 1959. This period effectively ends with Gaitskell’s “income-tax pledge” of September 26, the famous “breach of intellectual integrity” I have discussed above.

In his last entry before the poll, Crossman records: “Here I am and, if we win, I really shall be the chief of staff who has become the architect of victory.” They didn’t win, so it was defeat, not victory, that had to have an architect, and Crossman cast Gaitskell in that role. It was Gaitskell who blew it, through that famous breach, which provided the occasion for the Tory counterattack.

This is not very plausible. Breaches of integrity don’t often cause election defeats: quite the contrary. Gaitskell’s unpopularity probably had more to do with his principled, but “unpatriotic,” stand against the Suez venture three years before than with anything he said about income tax. Crossman himself acknowledged that the Tories were going to launch their counteroffensive anyway “and that it was going to be on the line that the country can’t afford Labour’s programme and there would be runaway inflation.”

The whole thing had very little to do with intellectual integrity, whether of the Gaitskell or Crossman variety. It was about who could be prime minister, and who would be in the Cabinet. If Gaitskell was a loser there was no point in going down with him, any more than with Bevan. It was time to look around for a new leader, and Crossman found the right one this time: Harold Wilson.

This might be thought a little odd for, according to Crossman’s own account, Wilson was largely responsible for Gaitskell’s income-tax pledge and so for the defeat. One of the things Crossman “deeply disliked” about Gaitskell’s behavior during the election was that he “had been in cahoots with Wilson, who has been slippery on this.” Nye Bevan said about Gaitskell’s pledge not to raise the income tax “that there was a real conspiracy going on to strangle the last vestiges of Socialism.” Crossman records himself as wholly sympathizing with Nye’s opinion.

After the election, however, a different conspiracy opened up. On December 9 Crossman records that “Harold has palled up with me again, and proved his palliness,” and he likewise records, for the same day, Wilson’s leading (and denying he was leading) an anti-Gaitskell campaign.

That campaign was run from the left, and Crossman was a key figure in it. It was a sort of revival of Bevanism, but for the benefit of Wilson (and Crossman), not for Bevan. The Guardian at this time saw Crossman as “a member of a rebellious coalition determined to force Mr. Gaitskell out of the leadership.” He protested against that as a smear. In an unusually sentimental passage (March 2, 1960), Crossman casts himself in the romantic role of eternal rebel:

I must admit I walked home feeling much better to be back in my old galère as a free-thinker, as an awkward guy, as a Keep-Leftist or whatever you like to call it, though by far the most accurate description would be that, after three years of uncomfortable lodging in the Labour Establishment, during which my talents have been mercilessly exploited, I am now back in my natural habitat. I had a gorgeous long talk on the phone with Michael Foot, as in the old days, when one could have friends in politics because we were likeminded.

The fact was that Crossman’s rebellious gestures were helpful to Wilson’s quiet ascent. Crossman didn’t quite see it that way. His references to Wilson even during this period are often disrespectful: “a podgy caricature of his self-important self,” “this little spherical thing.”

Meanwhile the little spherical thing was rolling silently toward the top. When Gaitskell died, Harold Wilson succeeded him (February 1963). Crossman found Wilson, on his public appearance on this occasion, “extremely impressive,” “implacably imperturbable,” “cool and collected,” “extraordinarily professional and sensible.” He also found him, which was more to the point, “a wonderful listener who can pick the brains of skillful people.” Happily he was also—pudginess and slipperiness no longer in sight—“the one whose relationships with me have been tested over twelve years by some fairly trying times…. I think he really does rely on me personally and is probably the only member of the Parliamentary Labour Party who is not afraid of my brutal brain power.”

The Backbench Diaries ends in December 1963. In 1964, Wilson became prime minister. The rest of the story is contained in Crossman’s Diaries of a Cabinet Minister.

Was that all there was to it then—this sordid struggle for power and office? Were there no great issues, no great debate? Certainly there were great issues and a great debate, with Crossman very busy at both. The greatest issues, and the ones with which Crossman was mainly concerned, were about defense, and especially nuclear weapons. Should Britain have its own nuclear weapons? Should it allow its American ally to place nuclear weapons on its soil and in its waters? Should it have an American ally at all?

Crossman was deeply concerned about these questions; not in themselves mainly, however, but in their difficult (and yet, in a way, promising) implications for the Labour party. The Labour party leadership from Attlee on was committed to answering “yes” to these questions. But the party generally and the trade unions, too, were vaguely uneasy about that. And many active party members were passionately committed against nuclear weapons. Then as now, such members were strong in the constituency parties, on the floor of the party convention, in the national executive, and in certain trade unions.

The raison d’être of the Bevanite group, to which Crossman adhered, was to give some expression but not too much to this antinuclear tendency in the Labour movement and in the country. For the problem was that the tendency, which was strong in the party, was weak in the country. If the party committed itself unequivocally to answering “no” to at least the first two questions posed above, it might be condemning itself to permanent opposition. Or it might be committing itself to things which people like Crossman and Wilson, and even Bevan himself, silently thought it would be disastrous to implement, once in office. On the other hand unequivocal “yes” answers were unpopular with a large part of the party. And these were the answers Gaitskell, like Attlee, insisted on providing.

Crossman thought Gaitskell’s attitude “puritanical” and “divisive.” There was really no significant difference on policy between him and Gaitskell. Crossman was very far indeed from being a pacifist or unilateralist. The difference hinged on presentation. The tactic favored by Crossman and his political associates was to devise formulas that sounded good to unilateralists, without committing the party to any concrete unilateralist step. Crossman’s position, he claimed, was to “support NATO while criticising nuclear strategy.” The support was not very loud; the criticism was ingenious and diverse. It didn’t matter much what the content of the criticism was, the tactic was to sound more worried about nuclear weapons than the party leadership was. The difference could be quite small—it was enough to talk of “halting” nuclear tests rather than “suspending” them. The idea of a pledge not to use nuclear weapons first was good, because to oppose it seemed to many, probably most, Labour voters odiously bloody-minded. Crossman knew, of course, that such a commitment, if seriously intended, would make nonsense of the whole Western defense strategy of the period, with which he was in substantial agreement. But that was beside the point really. Crossman records that the Labour member Eirene White voted for a Crossman draft “because it was warm and persuasive, whereas Hugh’s was cold and provocatively bleak.” It did not occur to the poor lady that the temperature of a Crossman draft would be coldly calculated to make her feel cozy.

To himself, and in his diary, Crossman justified his line on the ground that he was working for party unity. Party unity was all-important because without it power could not be achieved, and without power none of the good things to which the party was committed would happen. Very good. It is not, of course, self-evident that the best way of bringing about unity was to undermine the leadership of the party, which was what Crossman, in his Bevanite (or crypto-Wilsonite) phases, was doing. Crossman would not agree. If the leadership was “divisive”—as Gaitskell’s was when Crossman was not being his “acolyte” and “chief of staff”—why then the way to get unity was to break the leader and get a new one, who would stand for unity, with Crossman as his acolyte and chief of staff. The nuclear controversy was the best way of achieving this end. And in this controversy there was no need to be too squeamish about the formulas employed. These could be used to get rid of the “divisive” leader; under the unifying leader they could be safely dropped.

And they were. It was not long before Harold Wilson (as prime minister) was to see himself as “holding a nuclear umbrella over India”—a unifying formula if ever there was one, since it has such a warm, altruistic ring about it, and yet keeps the Bomb.

The critics of Crossman and of Wilson saw them as cynically appeasing and flattering the left, in order to further their personal ambitions, using the unilateral nuclear current to waft them to power. These critics can find much in these diaries to confirm that view. There was an element of exploitation of the naïve. Crossman’s contempt for his social and intellectual inferiors—“little men,” “the plebs,” “old gaffers”—comes through loud and often in these diaries. Yet this was not a simple case of the left’s being conned and dumped. True, as far as politics was concerned, Wilson in office was much closer to Attlee and Gaitskell than to “Bevanism.” But there had been a shift in the balance all the same, and to the left. The left wing might make no visible impact on policy, but within the party it was now strong. When Wilson succeeded Gaitskell, the opportunists who had made use of the left attained the center. The right was made uncomfortable, no longer quite at home.

The left, it is true, got from Wilson—so far as policy was concerned—no more than lip service. But lip service is more important than people think; often it will do for starters. The realists in the left, and a new generation of opportunists, were conscious of the forces that had been appeased or tapped, to put Wilson in: the power of grass-roots militancy, working through constituency organizers, through pressure on MPs, through the Party Conference, through the national executive, and through numerous passages in the labyrinth of the trade unions. There was the real power of the left, and that they proceeded to build up during the 1960s and 1970s—so effectively that this year they achieved the secession, or extrusion, of a large part of the right to the social democrats.

The pity is, I think, that the social democrats took so long about it, and that the rest of the right did not join them, giving the electorate an intelligible choice between the pro-NATO social democrats and a neutralist left-wing Labour party. The years of Wilsonian consensus, reeking with intellectual dishonesty as they were, corroded and corrupted Britain’s alternative to Tory government. Margaret Thatcher’s emergence and victory was part of a reaction against all that. At least the woman was saying things that she clearly meant. It made a nice change, people thought.

Richard Crossman was a principal agent in the intellectual obfuscation and corruption of the British Labour party. His diaries show him at work, scheming and drafting and fudging, thinking cold and sounding warm. They also show his cast of mind: a certain donnish delight in being dodgy, a romantic Machiavellianism, a way of getting kicks out of intellectual speeding. Crossman’s phrase—let slip in one of his more euphoric moments—about “my brutal brain power” is exceedingly revealing. That’s the paradox, of course. Crossman as a politician made use of intellectual dishonesty in a manner that can rightly be described as brutal. But his diaries show him doing it. That is to say that his diaries, though tricky enough here and there, are unusually honest intellectually: certainly far more so than most political memoirs, diaries included. In fact, Crossman got away with it both times: first as a political artful dodger, and then as the austere chronicler of the doings of the same, as well as of the history of his times. The diaries, in which Crossman the intellectual follows the course of Crossman the politician, make up a political Picture of Dorian Gray. And like Wilde’s story, this one too will last.

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