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 Parliament but had never been invited either into the cabinet when the Labour Party was in power or into the shadow cabinet when it was in opposition), Crossman’s belated experience of what cabinet government entailed was a revelation to him—and, through the Diaries, to us.

But with a department to run he was still not in a position to get the full story. There were important committees, among them defense, in which he was not included. For most of the second volume, covering the years 1966-1968, Crossman is still in the cabinet but he is no longer in charge of a department. He is Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons. These are grand-sounding titles but Crossman regarded being given them as a demotion, or kick upstairs. Whatever he felt about the change, however, the Diaries benefit from it. He is able to take a much wider view. True, the Lord President of the Council doesn’t see much of anything except the Queen, to whom he takes Orders in Council—i.e., the government’s legislation after it has passed through both Houses—to get them signed and sealed.

But the Leader of the House is responsible for getting that legislation through the House of Commons. He is like the stage manager of a theater putting on a different show every day. With the responsibility of timing the debates and directing party discipline through the Chief Whip, the Leader of the House must necessarily stick close to the prime minister and take an overall view of everybody else’s job in the cabinet. Crossman apparently found the task frustrating in comparison to his clear-cut role at Housing, where he rarely doubted his own effectiveness. The Minister of Housing makes a tangible impact on the nation. The Leader of the House has only a parliamentary glory. In other words, Crossman was a bit less of a star than he had been before. Volume two is consequently more self-searching than volume one. Less satisfied, it is more satisfying. Since the declared intention of the Diaries had always been to show how government (or, in Harold Wilson’s portentous usage, “governance”) actually works, the second volume represents a step up, even though its author personally thought he was taking a step down.


Meanwhile the country was going broke. The second book would be superior to the first if only for the clearer picture it gives of Harold Wilson dealing with the threat of bankruptcy, or failing to deal with it. The portrait of Wilson given in the Diaries is devastating. Wilson’s own writings of course give a countervailing assessment of his own prowess but they attain such a high level of unreadability that Crossman’s version is the one bound to endure.

As evoked by Crossman, Wilson is a master of tactics with no idea of strategy. Though in his personal dealings he retains an engaging modesty and straightforwardness, in his public dealings he falls increasingly prey to deviousness and posturing. Far from having any clear-cut socialist program to save the nation, he sacrifices everything to expediency, with the sole object of surviving as prime minister. What might be done at home is left undone because the electorate might find it unpalatable. In the meantime he attempts to cut a statesmanlike figure on the world stage.

It is in his power to devalue the pound, but he does not do so until too late. It is not within his power to intervene effectively in the Vietnam war, but he wastes time, and strains the loyalty of his party, by attempting to do so. Crossman grants him his consummate skill at reconciling opposites within the Labour movement, but concludes that the net effect is a movement which cannot move. Rome burns with a fitful flame, like an ash tip. Nero’s fiddle has rubber strings. Governance is just government unmeant—politics to no purpose.

Crossman’s Wilson would be a lasting reference point whether it were a true account or not. As it happens, there are good reasons for thinking that Crossman has got Wilson exactly right. But a caveat should be entered. The personality doing the personality-assessing needs some careful assessing in its turn. Crossman is avowedly determined to lay himself open in these pages, but a man who shows you his warts might be intent on convincing you that he is Cromwell. Despite frequent admissions of guilt, clumsiness, and failure, Crossman emerges as being pretty nearly always right. To hear him tell it, he had the clear eye, the sound mind, and the firm voice. But sweet reason went unheard. There is a passage toward the end of Saint-Simon’s memoirs where all the nobility are rushing around buying shares in the Mississippi venture. Saint-Simon is the only one who can see that the uproar is about nothing but a patch of blue sky. He comes under heavy Royal pressure to join in, but prefers to remain aloof. The level tones of sanity. Crossman’s Diaries have just that tone. But is that what Crossman was really like?

There can be no doubt that he was a clever man. From Winchester he went as a Scholar to New College, Oxford; a First in Mods and Greats; Fellow and Tutor at twenty-three—such an academic record is achieved by no dunces and only a few fools. Whether on the back benches or the front, Crossman was always among the most dazzling of the Labour Party intellectuals. But the abiding question is whether he was ever truly serious, in the sense of being able to listen to what anyone else was saying.

He took legitimate pride in his capacity for blunt speech. There has been corroboration from other politicians for the picture he draws of himself as the awkward cuss who made things hot for Harold in cabinet. But when he says things like “a pretty good row developed and I was fairly offensive,” it seems likely that he was understating the case. Crossman believed that he could handle people but it is doubtful if he really could. Instead, he shouted them down. When he confessed, toward the end of his life, that he was an intellectual bully by nature, it was meant to be disarming, but there is plenty of independent evidence to say that he was merely being accurate. The continuing argument about whether he has been fair to the Dame turns on the question of his proudly flaunted abrasiveness. Did it really energize people, or did it just fill the air with their feathers? As it turned out, he was to be remembered in Whitehall as an effective Minister of Housing and in Westminster as a fruitfully busy Leader of the House, but beyond that his estimate of himself as a master politician ought probably not to have been accepted. He could always see the necessity of devaluing the pound and withdrawing from military commitments east of Suez, but then so could most of his colleagues. His undoubted virtue was the ability to say these things to Wilson’s face. But the virtue was coupled to a drawback—arrogance. By the end of volume two, all disclaimers notwithstanding, he is obviously dreaming of himself as leader, not just of the House, but of the Party itself.


In 1970, after the fall of the Labour government, Crossman attained a life-long ambition, becoming editor of the New Statesman. In a distinguished obituary for Crossman published in Encounter, Paul Johnson later revealed that while Crossman’s brilliance as a New Statesman contributor during his back-bench days had not been in doubt, none the less it had been tacitly agreed among management and staff that his dreams of editorship should not be allowed to come true. According to Johnson, there is a memo on file written by Kingsley Martin, the magazine’s editor in the 1950s, listing all the reasons why Crossman should never be placed in charge. Tantalizingly, Johnson could not bring himself to quote this document. But it is safe to suppose that its contents would hardly come as a surprise to those who worked under Crossman during his brief tenure as editor in the early Seventies. He just about ran the paper into the ground. Among the contributors, even his admirers were demoralized by the way he dealt with them. His blue pencil unerringly removed their best paragraphs. Editorial conferences consisted of listening to him talk. His choice to write a weekly column of dynamic opinion was that fiery young rebel J.B. Priestley. Crossman was hell to have around but he wouldn’t go away. One of his literary editors still has a recurring nightmare in which he fires bullets at Crossman’s stomach, which in its later life apparently featured a metal patch as the result of an ulcer operation. So the bullets bounce off instead of going in.

Crossman complains many times in the Diaries that he had too often been No. 2 instead of No. 1, but to hindsight it looks probable that the overconfident, uncalculating frankness which made him a valuable member of the government would have made him a ruinous leader of it. To say he lacked touch is to put it gently. He made his most famous blunder in 1969, during the twilight of the Labour government, when he had moved on to become Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Security—a period which will doubtless occupy the beginning of volume three. Crossman announced the imposition of prescription charges on false teeth and spectacles three days before the municipal elections. A landslide to the Conservatives duly followed. It will be interesting to see what he says about this.

But the two books we already have are richly peppered with examples almost as endearing. On page 38 of volume two he is to be found planning a speech accepting responsibility for 10,000 men being thrown out of work at the British Motor Corporation. “I assumed that the right way to handle the news,” he confides, “was to be tough and say, ‘Yes, we are deliberately creating transitional redundancy in order to prevent mass unemployment.’ ” Someone stopped him in time. That the working population would swallow a concept like “transitional redundancy” was a very odd assumption for a Labour cabinet minister to be caught holding. Crossman doesn’t seem to spot the anomaly—his writing on the point is quite unguarded. Clearly Crossman had too little of Wilson’s ability to conciliate.

Yet he is surely justified in arguing that Wilson had too much of it. Less happy as Leader of the House than as Minister of Housing, Crossman found, as most people do, that discontent broadens the mind. In volume two there is more anxiety than grandiloquence and the pretensions to supreme office should charitably be seen as an aberration. But even if he were wholly wrong about his own political gifts, he would still be a trenchant critic of Wilson’s. Again and again he condemns Wilson’s lack of vision. Wilson would rather smooth things over or put them off than face up to them. Crossman wasn’t like that. He was a true socialist.

Yet was he? On this evidence, increasingly less so as time went on. In volume one already, and in volume two more than in volume one, he is to be found doubting whether he is still a socialist of the old kind. But really he should have doubted whether he was still a socialist of any kind. His relative equanimity on the topic would amount to gross self-deception, if he were not so patently guileless. In the event, this cleverest of men simply comes over as having been a bit obtuse about his own interior workings. At least Wilson knew that he didn’t know what he wanted.

Crossman’s opacity in this matter is once again a drawback born of a virtue—in this case his cultivation. Just because he was domineering didn’t make him a Philistine. In a frantically busy working life compounded by the self-imposed task of dictating these Diaries, he still finds time to read the Greek classics to himself and Treasure Island to his son, see Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden and listen to Beethoven’s late quartets at home. None of these strikes you as carefully planted tributes to his own humanism—he was too confident of his own mental stature to put on a show in that regard. There will be argument for some time to come about whether Crossman’s success in getting close to Wilson’s dream of building 500,000 houses a year really constituted a substantial achievement. What kind of houses? In retrospect, slum clearance looks like a catastrophe. Ten years ago it still looked like progress.

But there can be no doubt that he was a force for civilization in such matters as preserving the historic centers of towns. He took a hand in canceling the besotted schemes to put a road through Christ Church Meadow in Oxford and to extend the British Museum library even further into the already ravaged Bloomsbury. Even more important, he made sure that an area of Georgian houses in Islington, London, was rehabilitated rather than redeveloped—meaning preserved instead of destroyed. In the long run rehabilitation, though expensive initially, has proved to be cheaper in social costs. Such humane decisions are to Crossman’s lasting credit. They were socialism of a kind and paradoxically were more genuinely conservative than anything the Conservative Party has been able to offer in recent years. (It was a Conservative Minister of the Environment who offered to drive a six-lane highway through the middle of the City of London.)

Crossman was far too enthusiastic about some of the New Towns. He was uplifted by the brutalist architecture of the new town at Cumbernauld, for example. So are most people who visit the place, but those who have to live there tend to be rather less exalted. On the whole, though, Crossman’s taste is sure—certainly much surer than his touch. Unfortunately he is slow in bringing himself to accept that his enjoyment of the good life must necessarily either modify or falsify his political beliefs. In the end they were modified, but he never quite realized how the trick was worked.

Self-deception is too big a name for his ability to kid himself about his standard of living. He just played things down. He lets us know that rather than hit the high spots in the evenings he prefers a simple gathering for dinner at George Weidenfeld’s or Pam Berry’s. Actually George Weidenfeld, later Lord Weidenfeld, and Pamela Berry, later Lady Hartwell, maintained, then as now, two of the most luminous tables in London. Crossman was a member of both the Athenaeum and the Garrick. If pressed, he probably would have insisted that these clubs are more raffish than such Establishment fortresses as White’s.

Crossman thought of himself as some kind of dangerous rebel because he was reluctant to climb into morning dress. He pretended to hate visiting the Queen, but was proud of getting on with her. In his own eyes he was a simple man. When he was editor of the New Statesman he once told a young journalist of my acquaintance to get himself togged out in St. James’s. “I,” said Crossman, “eat in St. James’s, get my hair cut in St. James’s, and have my suits, shirts and shoes made in various parts of St. James’s. St. James’s—that’s the place for you, my lad.” To one of the New Statesman’s notoriously underpaid junior staff members this was good but useless advice, since the shops in St. James’s are very expensive. No doubt it struck Crossman as a good socialist solution for an impecunious young man to kit himself out with durable clobber. The factor he neglected was the magnitude of the initial outlay.

But not even Crossman could ignore the problem posed by his country residence, Prescote. A manor house surrounded by 500 acres near Oxford, Prescote is Crossman’s great solace throughout the Diaries. There he can recuperate from his political labors and indulge fantasies of the simple life. To his credit, he could never entirely ignore the implications. “Life here at Prescote gets lovelier the longer it goes on,” he writes early in volume one. “Is it making me more conservative?” he asks later in the same book. No. By volume two he is asking whether his way of life might not be cutting him off from left-wing socialism. The answer is still no, because “my radical passions have never been based on a moral or egalitarian philosophy.” In that case, what were they based on? But it is useless to carp. We should be grateful he has at least questioned himself that far.

Crossman had always fancied himself to be on the left wing of the Labour Party but when he achieved office he moved quickly enough rightward. At the start he saw himself as a left-wing influence in the cabinet but if he was it was only on certain issues. His attitudes on devaluing sterling and cutting back military commitments didn’t make him a radical—just realistic. He was anti-Common Market because he was a Little Englander. On state control of industry, the pivotal socialist issue, he had no consistent views. His general tendency was toward the center. With the Labour Party intellectuals that is nearly always the general tendency. An occasional well-connected maverick like Tony Benn might move toward radicalism but men like Crossman, Anthony Crosland, and Roy Jenkins move away from it. Becoming too civilized for their own doctrine, they either change the doctrine or go on preaching it hypo-critically. They usually change it. The result is Social Democracy.

Crossman was a Social Democrat, who unlike Crosland and Jenkins never quite admitted to himself what had happened to him. He was even less able than most men to follow the dialogue of his own interior drama. Less able to follow it, he was less able to censor it, which is why the Diaries are so revealing in their incidental detail. For example, in volume two (page 700), Crossman talks about the Oxbridge students protesting against the Vietnam war. He grants them their right to be indignant about the Labour Party’s equivocations, but not their right to shout him down. The trouble, he argues, lies precisely in their being “students” and not “undergraduates.” In other words, they are not gentlemen. The wrong children are being sent to the right places. So much for a lifetime of believing in social reform through education.

Crossman’s portrait of Wilson is fair enough in itself but unfair in the sense that as prime minister any other Social Democrat would probably have been forced to the same compromises, devoting most of his energy to restraining his own left. “Poor Jim Callaghan,” as Crossman calls him, was ready to accept this fact. All Callaghan’s talents are for conciliation. Roy Jenkins, who emerges from these volumes as the best prime minister Great Britain never had, was hopelessly overqualified.

If the Labour Party were ever to disintegrate, it might not be just because the left had decided to expel the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats might simply tire of maintaining an increasingly unnatural alliance. Credo quia impossibile—Crossman was proud of that. But other people thrive less on paradoxes. If the Conservative Party were ever to disintegrate (and there is a school of thought which believes that it already has), the Social Democrats of the Labour Party, taking the Liberal Party with them, could easily hive off and fill the gap. Such a realignment of forces would merely reflect what is already going on in people’s minds.

It was going on in Crossman’s mind well before he died in 1974. Hence the outstanding value of these Diaries. They purport to be about men governing institutions, but they are just as much about institutions governing men. Orwell said we should get our beliefs in line with our desires. Crossman couldn’t. Hardly anybody can, quite. Wilson’s strength—which Crossman could acknowledge without being able to explain—lay in the simplicity of his wishes. Mediocre, he was not divided. His subsequent hostility to Crossman’s writings springs not just from injured amour propre but from the traditional contempt of the realist for the dreamer.

This Issue

March 31, 1977