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.

She shows herself to be very jealous of Shirley Williams, and in particular of Shirley’s success with the media, by whom she always felt herself battered. One can understand her resentment of the fact that of the two nicest people in Cabinet, one was the other woman and the other was the right-wing figure of Harold Lever. Apart from myself, two other victims of Barbara’s midnight spleen are Roy Hattersley and John Silkin. John Silkin, a ‘failure’ at the Department of the Environment, is forgiven in a footnote because of his ‘success’ at the Ministry of Agriculture. Perhaps for once she is too generous. Because of the General Election of May 1979, John’s success at the Ministry of Agriculture, which consisted of always saying no to Europe, was never compromised by the need to say yes. One of the great virtues of election defeat is thai it releases Ministers, without damage to their reputations, from the hooks on which they have so gallantly impaled themselves.

As for Roy Hattersley, he has risen so far, evidently unimpeded by frequent references, such as hers, to his alleged unscrupulous ambition, that these references probably no longer bother him. All the same, one of the less intentional revelations of this book is how different the inner man or woman can be from the exterior displayed to the world. Who knows, perhaps Roy, despite his manner, is as sensitive to criticism as Barbara, who also appears to be a very tough cookie, shows herself in her diary. Who would have thought before reading this book that she was so vulnerable a person, so anxious for approval, always recording the compliments she received when she spoke in Cabinet, the ‘nods of approval’; or that she was so nervous of speaking in the House of Commons. For those who want a human story, Barbara’s self-doubt may be the most interesting and surprising part of the story. It is certainly courageous of her to let it appear uncensored.

She regularly records her doubts about Wedgie – his oversimplifications, his obfuscations, his refusals to face facts and answer straight questions, characteristics which made him, despite his eloquence and sense of fun, less than the most listened-to member of Cabinet. The man she admires most is Michael Foot, while transmitting her satisfaction at his gradual education in the responsibilities of government, and consequent adoption of policies very different from those advocated in savage criticism of Barbara Castle in the late Sixties. But he, above all, is her hero. Michael Foot was indeed in many ways the most admirable member of the Labour Government of 1974 to 1979. Though he bitterly hated the facts, though he fought against them as long as he could, he accepted them when they could no longer be ignored and stayed with the Government to deal with them. Lesser men would have resigned, or, while not resigning, would have continued to rail against the facts.

The principal importance of this book is as a day-to-day record of the Wilson Government of 1974 to 1976 as seen by the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. Cabinets in this country consist for the most part of ordinary people. Some of them have extraordinary opinions, but one finds few people in government of whom one can persuasively say that if they dropped by the wayside, much would be greatly altered. Of these few Barbara Castle was undoubtedly one. This book illustrates her intellectual power by exhibiting her grasp, from day to day, of the arguments being developed. But it was not principally her intellect which gave her the power – rare in Cabinet Ministers – to modify events. It was her dedication and drive. These qualities enabled her to command the affection as well as the loyalty of her civil servants, and of a political spectrum of Junior Ministers from Michael Meacher to David Owen. It now appears that she was often less loyal to them in her thoughts. But we must leave God to try her for these. It was by her actions that she led them, and from out in front.

She lived in the shadow of ‘In Place of Strife’, which looms over the whole volume. It is a source partly of regret, partly of pride. She wanted to be seen to have been right. On the other hand, she wanted it acknowledged that she was still of the Left. She had been misunderstood and humiliated, but she wished to insist that she was still of the Left. I fear that at times the desire to be accepted unconditionally once more among her old comrades distorted her vision and understanding. The truth is that once she was in government, she was of the Left no longer. She was of whatever department she ran. If it was a spending department, she fought for its budget. If it was an economic department, she fought for incomes policy and trade-union reform. She was a fighter, but in truth she was sometimes much better at fighting her colleagues than her opponents outside government. She complains that ‘the trouble with most right-wingers is that they always capitulate under pressure.’ But she herself capitulated to the trade unions over the ‘In Place of Strife’ impasse, and she compromised with the junior doctors. Of course it is often sensible to compromise. But Barbara had to be, in her own eyes, tough and left. In fact, most of the time she was really rather a good and responsible and loyal Minister. I apologise for awarding her so pathetic a set of epithets. She would have been better understood and made fewer mistakes if she had not felt it necessary all the time to prove how tough and left she was.

It must be said that she commanded less loyalty from her Cabinet colleagues than she herself provided. She won her battles in Cabinet because she had the stamina to argue her opponents under the table, and because Harold Wilson let her do so. Oliver Cromwell could not forget that he embodied the hopes of a radical army, and so in the end he refused the crown. Harold Wilson could not forget that he had once embodied the hopes of people like Barbara Castle, and he let her get away with murder. When he felt she had let him down, he moped until he found a way of making it up over a glass of brandy. But he could never bring himself to stop her talking. The most he could do was to plead with her to be brief. On one occasion, she rebukes John Silkin for spoiling his argument by talking for twenty-minutes. After twenty minutes Barbara herself would hardly have begun. Perhaps it was all that briefing she got from her political adviser, Jack Straw. But the predominant feeling round the Cabinet table was often: will she ever stop?

And so, because Harold Wilson could deny her nothing, and Cabinet would do anything to stop her talking, she won again and again. Admittedly, she was helped by the fact that she was pressing for the implementation of the party’s programme. But not every Minister found that a sufficient argument in the circumstances of 1974 to 1976. When, politically, Harold Wilson had no choice but to stop Barbara’s headlong charges, as in the matter of pay beds, he could not bring himself to do it himself. He brought in the magnificent, if always late, Arnold Goodman.

Wilson won four elections in difficult times. His third and fourth governments were elected in unprecedently difficult times, but his Ministers felt themselves to be very experienced. Most of the leading people had served between 1964 and 1970. Despite the dramatic-change in world circumstances, they were much more confident of their capacity to push things along in the direction of the Labour Manifesto and they certainly felt much more independent of their civil servants. ‘We are a more political government than the last time’ would be a typical statement on the lips of Ministers.

What ‘being political’ meant was sustaining the close alliance with the TUC. Barbara, with her ‘guilty’ history, was particularly given to emphasising the importance of that alliance. There was nothing wrong in close relations between the TUC and the Labour Government. But the TUC demanded and received payment for its support in a political currency that was wanted neither by most of its members nor by the electorate. The oddest thing about the payments was that they were made in order to persuade the TUC to act in the interests of its own members. Elimination of pay beds in NHS hospitals was Barbara’s distinctive contribution to this process. No doubt she was genuinely in favour of the policy. But the policy was not adopted because it had any political priority or indeed popularity in the circumstances of the time. It was just another payment to the Unions – and not one that had the least influence on the conduct of union members generally.

There was another problem in the alliance with the TUC. The TUC was even more ignorant than the Government of the profound change that had taken place in the economic circumstances of the United Kingdom (and of the rest of the world) during the early Seventies and especially in the autumn of 1973. The oil shock had the effect of significantly reducing the real disposable income of the British people. Yet at this very time a government was elected which was determined greatly to increase public expenditure and was reinforced in this determination by TUC pressure. The result was bound to be inflationary. A country dependent on an inflow of capital to finance its enormous current-account deficit proceeded with policies certain to alienate those who alone were capable of financing the deficit. The situation would have been even worse had it not been for the prospect of North Sea oil. Even so, we were in the hands of the IMF and the pound was at one dollar 55 cents before sanity broke in. By that time Barbara was on the back benches.

Of none of this had Barbara the least appreciation. Jane Austen wrote her novels during the Napoleonic Wars without once mentioning them. Barbara’s diaries are as innocent of any awareness of the economic perils of the time. She moans: ‘None of us are equipped with the sort of economic advice that enables us to stand up to the dubious expertise of the Treasury.’ The Treasury, of course, is regularly blamed for the failure of economic policies it has opposed, or of compromises it has reluctantly made. But she complains too much about the Treasury. Warned by her officials that relations between the Department of Health and Social Security and the Treasury were getting rather cool, she commented: ‘We were frankly puzzled: Brian, David and I all said we got on like a house on fire with Denis Healey and Joel Barnett, even if Edmund was a more difficult customer.’

Denis Healey was forced to make too many compromises with the spending ministries in these early years. He was forced to do so by the Cabinet and by the TUC. It took all his remarkable intellectual powers and personal ebullience, and even then at the expense of hour after hour of argument, to persuade the Cabinet and TUC to see some sense. From time to time, even Denis would rebel. Barbara records a discussion in Cabinet about public expenditure in July 1975. ‘Denis snapped out: “I must say to you, Prime Minister, that these matters cannot be decided by a majority in Cabinet.” ’ One, probably unintended, lesson of The Castle Diaries is that cabinet government is a poor way of coming to good decisions, nowhere poorer than in the economic field. Professor Namier pointed out years ago that, unless similarly motivated, an assembly of people around a table will come to worse decisions than any one of them would have come to individually. Cabinets are not motivated by one common objective – except perhaps when elections are near. They consist by and large of players for their own hand and in a Labour Cabinet these days the spread of political objectives is likely to be so wide that the seeking of compromises in Cabinet is a sure way to the worst of all possible worlds. Read Castle and you will see.

She complains at the ‘continuing contradiction’ whereby, although public expenditure is decided by Cabinet, budgetary and tax policy are in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister alone. She is right, but her book shows that the answer is not to deprive the Treasury of its budgetary powers but to increase the power of the Prime Minister and Chancellor over public expenditure.

One distorted impression that the diaries may unintentionally create concerns the role of the Cabinet in government. Because Barbara Castle was departmentally so concerned with the level of public expenditure, her failures were most often with the Treasury Ministers in Cabinet, and a great part of this book is about debates there. Cabinet is, of course, supreme. In practice, however, most government decisions, and often some of the most important – those, for example, on economic policy (apart from public expenditure), defence and foreign affairs – are taken, not in Cabinet, but in Cabinet committees. Cabinet committees are a great constitutional secret: they are known to exist, but they are shielded from the public eye. As they are seen by some as a great threat to the principle of collective responsibility, their membership is not made officially public. This is one of the less important absurdities arising out of that principle.

It was at a Cabinet committee and at ad hoc meetings with Treasury Ministers that Barbara shaped the great achievement for which she will be principally remembered – the national superannuation scheme. To her, and to the late-lamented Brian O’Malley, must go the credit for ending the ding-dong battle over national superannuation that had gone on since Crossman’s days at the Department of Health and Social Security. I am glad that when the scheme did eventually go to Cabinet for final approval, Denis Healcy’s opposition was only ‘half-hearted’. Perhaps there was someone in the Treasury working on her side. I think that Brian O’Malley understood that there was – even if it was somebody so difficult to get to know.

Barbara was a fervent advocate of a ‘no’ vote in the European Referendum. She confesses some doubts about the ‘no’ case, particularly as presented by Benn, but she had even more reservations about the other side. I would guess that at the time she thought it in her heart a marginal issue, but she had to be on the left. Pro-Marketeers such as myself have at any rate the consolation that, in fighting successfully for British membership of the EEC, we have provided Barbara Castle, whom we respected as an opponent, with a life after death as a member of the European Parliament. I do not know if she is still keeping a diary. If she is, it will be a good read.