Keeping Left

Edmund Dell

  • The Castle Diaries by Barbara Castle
    Weidenfeld, 778 pp, £14.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77420 4

Barbara Castle’s diary of the period 1974-76 shows more about the nature of cabinet government – even though it deals with only one Cabinet – than any previous publication, academic, political or biographical. It is, I think, better than Crossman. It gives a greater impression of immediacy; as a result, it is compulsive reading; and although I have made no checks, and it recounts many events of which I had no direct knowledge, it seems to me to be as accurate as one can expect of so personal a record.

I am struck with admiration that anyone should undertake – on top of the heavy load of a Cabinet Minister and a Member of Parliament – the additional burden of recording each day’s events on the basis of memory and shorthand notes. I do not believe that money can be the motive. The reward is too distant and I would guess incommensurate with the effort. The motive must be in part the journalist’s or historian’s drive to tell the story; in part, self-justification. But self-justification alone sets up reasons and excuses that the perspective of history is quite likely to mock. Diaries are usually far more self-revelatory than self-Justifying.

But should the story be told in this way at this time? Is she not recording conversations which the participants would have taken to be private and privileged? Would her interlocutors consider that she reports them fairly, or reports them sufficiently comprehensively to convey their full purpose? Unless one is to ban autobiography, there is no escape from half-truths. I am not worried that by publication five years after the events described Barbara will undermine our system of government, and make participants in government less prepared to give frank if unpopular advice. People might take the opposite view: that if one could only be sure of being reported five years later, it might add incentive to the delivery of frank and unpopular advice. I have in mind one of Barbara’s less courteous references to myself: ‘That chap is capable of more misdirected intellectual horsepower than anyone I know.’ It is now clear that on the matter in question it was she who was misdirected, not I.

Barbara’s own justification would be that she is reporting some years after the events while certain of her colleagues went straight out from the Cabinet Room and fed the press. Cabinet secrecy is not, indeed, so well preserved that one needs to condemn overt leaking long after the event. I cannot think of anyone who really suffers from it. True, now it has been done, it will undoubtedly be done again less well and less honestly. But sufficient unto that day.

I am more concerned as to whether it is right to report angry comments made by a colleague about a third person – comments which may have been regretted as soon as made. Should I, for example, now report comments made to me about Barbara by people who, to judge from this book, she thought were her admirers? After all, perhaps they were her admirers, despite momentary irritation.

Barbara Castle, then, has added a remarkable achievement to an already remarkable record. The book is sometimes rather catty, and these catty comments have already commanded some publicity. As a result, readers of the extracts in the Sunday Times may have gained the impression that the book is simply scandal-mongering. But it is much more than that, and in this respect would have lost nothing from a little self-censorship. Tony Crosland is criticised again and again for his indecisiveness and his evident resentment of Barbara’s success in getting money for her policies, without consideration for the fact that a great deal must be ascribed to Tony’s ill-health during that period. He was no longer the man he had been. Harold Lever is portrayed as a man too devoted to playing bridge with the Establishment – his membership of a Labour Cabinet was increasingly inappropriate. I myself disagreed frequently with Harold’s views on macro-economic policy, though perhaps from a point of view even more distasteful to Barbara. But I know of no man more generous in his instincts, or with a greater hatred for the infliction of unemployment or for policies destructive of personal freedom. If there is no room for a man like him in Labour Cabinets, so much the worse for Labour Cabinets. In fact, I believe that few of Barbara’s colleagues, in any wing of the party, would have held that view.

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