Dissatisfactions of Power

The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Volume I: Minister of Housing, 1964-1966

by Richard Crossman
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 688 pp., $16.95

The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, Volume II: Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, 1966-1968 (to be published in August, 1977, by Holt, Rinehart & Winston)

by Richard Crossman
Jonathan Cape, 851 pp., £9.50

Richard Crossman
Richard Crossman; drawing by David Levine

In contrast to the US, which so far has been asked to deal with only one volume of the late R.H. Crossman’s Diaries, Great Britain by now finds itself contending with two, comprising more than 1,500 pages of text. Philosophers are divided on the question of whether the narrative therein unfolded is grippingly boring or boringly gripping. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. There is so much detail crammed into these books that it is an act of bravery to pick them up. Once picked up, they are difficult to put down. The reader despairs: haunted by the prospect of missing something, he is nevertheless aware that life is very short. Most Britons who claim to have read Crossman through have not done so, even when they own the volumes—all they did was read the extracts published in the London Sunday Times. Possibly they took the wiser course. But the patient reader will derive more than just self-satisfaction from tackling the whole thing. Part of its gist lies in the apparent irrelevancies. However unsystematically, in these clotted pages the way of life of the British governing class is being laid out before your eyes, even when the diarist thinks he is talking about something else.

But since the Diaries purport to deal with the Labour government which lasted from 1964 to 1970, rather than with anything so unpindownable as the way of life of the British governing class, we owe it to Crossman’s irascible ghost to summarize the more obvious facts first. In the first volume, covering the years 1964-1966, Crossman was Minister of Housing and Local Government. In the cabinet of Her Majesty’s Government, a specific job like that is called a Department, mainly because there is a permanent department of the civil service ready (and, theoretically, willing and able) to carry out the minister’s policy. Much of the drama of the first volume consists of Crossman’s struggle with the civil service, personified by Dame Evelyn Sharp, known to Crossman as the Dame. Unlike the American system, in which a cabinet officer, once appointed by the president, fills the two top echelons of his staff with his own appointees, the British system ensures that the incoming minister is pretty well stuck with what he gets. Crossman was stuck with the Dame.

There has been much controversy in Britain about whether the Dame who bestrides volume one of the Diaries is anything like the reality. However that may be, as Minister of Housing our hero had the absorbing task of carrying out, per media the Dame, that part of the Labour government’s program which dealt with putting roofs over people’s heads. He was also privy to something of what went on in cabinet and in the small personal circle around the prime minister, Harold Wilson. After almost twenty years as a back-bench MP (meaning that he had been elected to…

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