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.

Naturally Harold Wilson has not greeted the publication of Crossman’s diary with much pleasure. In a TV interview on the book he wrote Crossman off as a political innocent responsible in part for the 1970 defeat for urging the wrong date for the General Election, a snooty intellectual who despised rank and file trade unionists in the party, a colleague so given to leaks that it was absurd to imagine any prime minister inviting him to join an inner group.

This leads Wilson to take his argument a stage further. In 1963 Crossman published an introduction to a new edition of Bagehot’s The English Constitution. A century ago Bagehot had exposed the old fiction that the Crown was the executive, and was called to account by Parliament. He correctly pointed out that the monarchy was in fact the dignified part of the constitution, and that Queen Victoria’s power to rule scarcely existed. The real executive was the Cabinet and not the Crown. Crossman argued that Bagehot’s insight, so penetrating in its day, was now as fallacious as the fallacy Bagehot had exposed. Today the Cabinet had lost its power and had been replaced by prime ministerial government operating through the Cabinet secretariat and buttressed by the vast patronage which a modern prime minister exercises. Nonsense, said Wilson: much as Crossman would have liked to see prime ministerial government—with himself as the sole behind-the-scenes adviser—he, Wilson, steadily carried on the tradition of Cabinet government, and refused arbitrarily to select and arbitrarily to advance one of its members. “He could not understand the proposition,” said Wilson, “that a prime minister…is not more powerful than two or three senior ministers working together and certainly not more powerful than the rest of the Cabinet as a whole.” Only poor Crossman could be so foolish as to think that the prime minister could reverse a Cabinet decision by cooking the minutes of the meeting.

Anyone who rereads Crossman’s introduction to Bagehot will see that this is a misrepresentation. The very reverse is the truth. So far from wanting to extend the power of the prime minister, Crossman pleaded for the restoration to the Cabinet of the power filched by prime ministers ever since Lloyd George. Of course like any minister he wanted to have the ear of the prime minister and make him see things his way. He knew that any committees of powerful men develop their own power structure and that if there were to be an inner group he wanted to be part of it. But Crossman in fact saw his dream come true when he was in the Cabinet. He witnessed and abetted a decisive shift away from prime ministerial back toward cabinet government. No prime minister so wantonly allowed real power to drain from that office as did Harold Wilson.

There were honorable, compelling, yet at the same time depressing and deplorable, reasons why Wilson allowed this to occur. There have always been tensions between what the National Executive of the Labour Party, elected partly by the trade unions and partly by the party activists, desire and what the Parliamentary Labour Party consisting of the MPs and dominated by the Cabinet (or in opposition the Shadow Cabinet) believe to be practicable. Under Attlee the National Executive suffered many humiliations—the sharpest being the occasion when Attlee said publicly that he would appreciate considerably more silence on the part of Harold Laski, who was for that year chairman of the Labour Party. Crossman was among those constantly snubbed by Attlee. He, Bevin, and the trade union bosses, for the most part in those days on the right of the party, birched the left mercilessly and kept them out of office. Harold Wilson, who was one of the few of those nominally on the left in those days, sided with those who opposed this autocratic style of leadership and pleaded for freedom to disagree, freedom for a back-bencher to vote against the party line without being carpeted by the Whips, freedom to work out through endless meetings and discussion the platform on which the next election would be fought and then to impose it on the leadership.

The thirteen years which Labour spent in opposition gave everyone, the leadership and the activists alike, time to discuss policy—and to tear each other to pieces. When indeed the party was returned to power, what would be more natural than for the leaders to treat the Cabinet as simply an extension of the National Executive and to treat the business of coming to decisions in Cabinet in the way that they had done in a party debate?

In this Cabinet there was no waspish, efficient, hard-headed Attlee, no heavyweight trade unionist such as Bevin, no elder statesmen such as Morrison and Dalton. Harold Wilson’s Cabinet was young, self-confident, and talkative—in the case of George Brown very much too talkative. But whereas Brown was expansive on public occasions, particularly at banquets, Barbara Castle, for instance, would use Cabinet as the place to clear her mind. When Jenkins announced cuts in departmental budgets in 1967 after the first devaluation of the pound, she is said to have spoken for over an hour arguing that her Ministry of Transport should be exempted. In this volume she is depicted as maundering on outlining her third or fourth draft bill on industrial relations and actually reading out proposed clauses from it in Cabinet. She was not an exception. The fact that a Cabinet meeting lasted for three hours was not a sign of crisis but of normality. Wilson himself encouraged triviality and pettiness by beginning Cabinet meetings time and again with complaints about leaks to the press and attempts to trace them.

Harold Wilson might pride himself on keeping all his colleagues at arm’s length in order to preserve the legitimate power of the prime minister and to prevent himself from becoming the prisoner of a clique. But whether or not he gained anything by so doing, he lost it all and more by this method of conducting business in Cabinet. The old textbooks on Cabinet government used to say (a trifle erroneously) that votes were never taken in Cabinet; the prime minister “took the voices” and summed up as he saw fit: usually taking the sense of the meeting but sometimes imposing his own will on it if he knew he was safe. Usually a prime minister relies on a trio or so of heavies who think as he does, and the younger (and sometimes abler and more adventurous) dissidents have irritably to toe the line. Trusting no one, Wilson had no heavies. Usually the opposition of the prime minister and the chancellor of the Exchequer combined is sufficient to stop dead in its tracks any scheme of public expenditure an ambitious minister wants to introduce. But since Wilson was jealous of Jenkins, he often allowed other ministers, particularly those, such as Crossman and Short, at the head of big spending departments, to outflank his chancellor.

This was of crucial importance. No government can retain credibility if it is unable to control public expenditure. In Britain this meant that the chancellor had to turn down demands by members of Parliament or well-meaning pressure groups to provide additional money for this or that new service, however laudable these were. It also meant what is called Treasury control, whereby the Treasury monitors or at least refuses to permit any increase in expenditure in any ministry unless the chancellor permits it. In days long past the chancellor set limits to government expenditure and devised through taxation the means of meeting that expenditure through the budget—which was why Budget Day was the occasion of much hullabaloo each year in the House of Commons. By tradition the chancellor never discussed the secrets of his budget before announcing it to the Cabinet a few hours before he delivered his budget speech. Except for the prime minister himself, they had no hand in it.

Crossman noted in his diary that those days are long past. As government has tried to control not just expenditure by departments but the whole economy, all sorts of decisions are taken by Cabinet of greater importance than those taken in the budget. These were the decisions which Wilson attempted to pre-empt by reducing the chancellor in Cabinet to just one of its members instead of being the minister who, if he could retain the confidence of the prime minister and his immediate supporters, could determine the government’s economic strategy.

To Wilson this was yet another proof that he maintained his freedom of action and could play ministers off against each other. One of the ways in which a prime minister can assert his authority is through the system of Cabinet committees. He alone chooses which ministers shall sit on them. The editor of the New Statesman, Bruce Page, pointed out recently that this is a power which Callaghan uses with skill, seeing to it that, on the topic of broadcasting, the civil service view, which was to leave everything as it is, was defeated by himself taking the chair and by putting on the committee ministers such as Tony Benn and Bill Rodgers whose departments have nothing to do with the subject but who themselves held decided views; whereas on the reform of the Official Secrets Act—when Callaghan wanted to support the civil service view against the protagonists in the Cabinet of open government—the Cabinet committee was packed in the other direction.

Crossman was well aware that the system of Cabinet committees enabled the prime minister to substitute for and neutralize not only the civil service but the Cabinet itself. He quotes a minute circulated by Wilson which, while admitting that any minister might appeal in Cabinet against the decision of the Cabinet committee on which he sat, stressed that he could do so only if he could get the permission of his chairman to appeal. But even with this safeguard, Cabinet committees could not be trusted to come up with the “right” answer, i.e., satisfactory to the prime minister. (One reason for this was that considerations other than pure power politics affected their conclusions: when it was proposed that penalties for possessing drugs should be lighter, though penalties for trafficking in them should be heavier, the committee split: every minister who had been to a university voted in favor whereas those who had not voted against the proposal.) So Wilson set up ad hoc committees to which he could refer a matter if he judged that the standing Cabinet committee would come up with the “wrong” answer.

Crossman denounces this practice as a means of evading true Cabinet government and of re-establishing prime ministerial power. In doing so he exhibits a certain naïveté: the device of setting up ad hoc committees to bypass standing committees, overweighted by members who can claim that they must be “consulted,” is a gambit common enough among Oxford dons or indeed to anyone. Moreover from his own account Wilson never seemed to have a clear policy on most issues but lived by day-to-day improvisation. So the device of the ad hoc committee did not really alter matters. A prime minister who will not gather to himself allies in Cabinet and with their support fight his policies through is going to surrender his power to coerce his colleagues—however much he reassures himself that he is beholden to none of them.

Crossman believed that his diaries would become a great sourcebook for the study of English politics. For the first time there would be a record not of how professors thought government worked but of how it actually worked. The academic cobwebs of the unwritten English constitution would be swept away and the realities exposed, Cabinet minutes would be seen for what they are: not a true record of what was said and of conflicting points of view or even of what decisions the Cabinet took. They would be seen to owe much to the art of the mortician who applies cosmetics to the face of the corpse and massages away disfiguring injuries. In writing of the diaries Wilson scoffed at the notion that the prime minister or the top civil servant who was secretary to the Cabinet doctored the minutes. But the evidence from many sources confirms Crossman’s view if only from the fact that if literal minutes were produced the Cabinet would be found to have come to conflicting conclusions at different times. There can be no doubt that these diaries will be quoted again and again by professors as evidence for their new thesis on the workings of British government.

But the professors will again be wrong. For Crossman is not describing and could not describe the workings of the constitution. All he could describe was how the Wilson government worked. The academic study of British politics is to some degree a fraud. With infinite patience, accuracy, and diligence, a savant such as Ivor Jennings gathers precedents together, analyzes events and deduces general principles on the power of the monarchy, or the constitutional powers and influence of the Lords, or the relation of the executive to the legislature. But such a study is valueless as a guide to what is happening today. Each government is a law unto itself and by its actions (rather than its conscious decisions) determines how much power flows in one direction or is contained in another area. But this much is clear about the government Crossman described. It extended the range of affairs over which government exercised control and influence; and that control and influence were considerably weaker and yielded more to outside pressure groups than those in any other government since the eighteenth century.

And yet at the end of the day Crossman resembles more the professors for whom he felt such pitying contempt than Bagehot. Bagehot really was a man of the world, was imbued by a splendid sweeping cynicism about affairs—the kind of cynicism which burns through the steel of the safe which society constructs to conceal its secrets and protect its precious jewels from those who want to burgle and ruin the state. After nearly twenty years as a member of Parliament Crossman became a minister and admitted that he was ignorant of how the central and local government of the country in fact worked. Being highly intelligent he learned how the machine ticked over fairly quickly yet he never gave the impression of understanding, as some of his lesser colleagues grasped instinctively, how to fix things. You sometimes felt that he was unable to distinguish between a campaign, a policy, and a tactical maneuver. He really did think that cabinet minutes should be an exact record of the proceedings. He was contemptuous of ministers who stuck to the brief their department prepared but he was the first to acknowledge that whenever no papers were prepared by the civil service on an issue, the Cabinet was unable to make workable policies. In the end one has nothing but sympathy for his tireless and ineffectual attempts to get the House of Commons to reform its procedures, which were thwarted by Michael Foot, an excellent example of the fiery radical who, whenever his own institution is in danger of reform, will die in every ditch rather than abandon ancient and absurd customs.

Crossman felt in his bones that Parliament must reform itself to take account of the changes in the social structure and shifts of power in Britain. Parliament has not yet done so and shows no signs of so doing. And this is only one of the discontents which disenchant the British with their ancient form of government. Politicians are forever attacking the civil service for usurping power and thwarting their orders; yet the more areas of life over which politicians try to exert control the more bureaucrats they employ; the wider the administrative net is flung the more new quasi-judicial tribunals are created against whose decisions there is no appeal; the more participation by the public is promised, the larger and the more unmanageable committees become and the greater the frustration of those who believed that they were to be given a chance to govern. Crossman’s diaries are as important for historians as for students of politics. They chronicle the period when the British ceased to agree on the way they wished to be governed and on the desirable ends which government was intended to achieve.

This Issue

November 9, 1978