Crossman and Social Democracy

Peter Clarke

  • The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman edited by Janet Morgan
    Hamish Hamilton/Cape, 1136 pp, £15.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 241 10440 8

The intellectual in politics has often been tortured by the dilemma of his role. Either he has attempted to turn himself into a real politician, adopting the posture of his new travelling companions as men of action and decision, and jettisoning his bookish lumber as ‘not wanted on voyage’. Alternatively, he has minced around like a political eunuch, uneasily conscious that something is missing, but anxious that people should not suspect that it is his integrity. The career of Richard Crossman refuted these stereotypes rather in the manner that Samuel Johnson, by stubbing his foot against a rock, claimed to refute Berkeley: what was lost as a formal exercise was pure gain as an object lesson. For Crossman remained incorrigibly attached to the habits and training of an academic milieu without ever forgetting that it was as an intellectual in politics that he had a peculiar usefulness.

Crossman’s diary was a natural extension of his role as he understood it. He had not only a political fascination with the pursuit of power but also an intellectual fascination with the analysis of the process in which he was involved. The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister which he kept from 1964 to 1970 have already established a unique status as a source on how Britain is actually governed, a century after Walter Bagehot’s classic celebration of the British constitution. The Backbench Diaries might well have borrowed a title from another famous diarist and been called My Apprenticeship. We see here the origins of Crossman’s subsequent enterprise. ‘I do happen to feel at the moment that I am capable of investigating well and writing well,’ he wrote in February 1959, ‘but on the other hand I must be in the Cabinet if I am going to write the book I want, which is not a repetition of Bagehot (Bagehot was never in Government) but something of my own, even more from inside ...’ Books by cabinet ministers are ten a penny, but not many of them had the bright idea of becoming cabinet ministers in order to write the book.

It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that these earlier diaries are in any sense of secondary interest. They too are ‘even more from inside’ than any rival account, and the subject here is of absorbing attention at present. This is a record of the inner workings of the Labour Party during the transition from the Attlee era to the Wilson years. The period covered saw the Bevanite revolt in the early 1950s, the subsequent emergence of a revisionist critique of socialism, and the efforts by Hugh Gaitskell to fight and fight again to save the party which many of his political heirs have now abandoned.

The first question is whether we can trust this text. The editor, Janet Morgan, with her experience of putting the later volumes of Diaries of a Cabinet Minister into shape, has adopted similar methods here. The original diaries run with some breaks from October 1951 to December 1963 – some three million words in all, reduced to under one million in the printed version. Crossman used to dictate the diary to his secretary at intervals of a week or so, and she typed a transcript which he seldom revised himself. The published text has evidently been well weeded by Dr Morgan, and it is gratifying rather than irritating to spot the rare errors which survive. For example, Crossman’s lament at the apparent end of the Bevanite activities in December 1952 – ‘A fellow’s occupation gone’ – might suggest that Desdemona was suspected of carrying on with another fellow. Again, it is a happy discovery that Harold Wilson should affirm ‘the need to revise some kind of puritanism in the Party’ – a kind of revisionism in fact deplored by Wilson who, Crossman went on to note, ‘was careful to remind me twice that he couldn’t tell the difference between hock and burgundy, though he is quite good at drinking either.’

Such mishearings are not at all disturbing since they supply internal testimony to the diary’s mode of composition. Crossman acquired a tape-recorder in October 1962, at a time when the diary had lapsed for nearly a year, and this helped him to resume his task from February 1963. Thereafter, the text has been reconstituted from the tapes. There is some change of style, generally not for the better. The last section of the Backbench Diaries is really an appendage or postscript, and the busy reader can rest assured that he will find the choicest material in the first thousand pages.

Historians have often made a good thing out of implying that the mystery of their craft is wrapped up in combing archives. But the telephone manifests a spectre of technological redundancy hardly less fearsome than that which has stalked the print room. ‘Political crisis seems to mean chatting on the telephone and doing nothing,’ Crossman records in 1955. This is the characteristic medium for urgent and informal communication, and letters are increasingly reserved for matters of deliberate record. Hence the indispensability of a diary one can rely on. It is obvious, of course, that the diarist is not immune from the effects of hindsight, ignorance, partiality, bias and self-justification in what he writes. In Crossman’s case, these distortions are not disabling.

He is singularly free from self-deception and his candour often punctures his own pretensions. For instance, the ‘pretty good speech’ he made in the Profumo debate was ignored by the newspapers, and he ruefully acknowledged that ‘it was a bit disconcerting’ and ‘a humbling experience’. He always wanted to learn, not to cover up. He had a good opinion of himself, of course. But his was not the smooth, imperturbable vanity consonant with concealment – so much as a rough, thrusting arrogance that made for exposure. Perhaps it helped that almost to the end of this period he saw himself as ‘first a political journalist and only secondarily a parliamentary politician’. He had none of the tactful, discreet, dissimulating ways of the political time-server. He could never resist blowing the gaff, and was happiest making the news, finding the news, telling the news. As he wrote on a trip to Germany in 1960, ‘if I work sixteen hours a day, over-eat, over-drink, over-talk, I feel better and better, mainly because I am away, on the job, doing things I really can do and causing a commotion.’

The chronic factionalism of Labour politics in the 1950s is usually seen as a simple clash between Left and Right – a view which was common at the time, not least because it flattered the self-image of many active participants. But, as Crossman’s account suggests, this is a simplistic view. The conflict was on three related levels: Bevanites versus Gait-skellites, Left versus Right, fundamentalists versus revisionists. Indeed, the conflation of these categories is precisely the reason for some prevalent misconceptions about what happened in this traumatic period and about the nature of the Labour Party which emerged from it. Crossman himself clearly recognised the historical starting-point for Labour’s immediate predicament. Speaking in 1955 – to Shirley Catlin’s Constituency Party, as it happens – he attempted ‘to give them a fairly objective picture of how the policy differences had arisen after the death of Ernie Bevin and Cripps and the completion of Labour’s mission in 1948’. With the building of the welfare state and the establishment of the basic nationalised industries, the Labour Party had fulfilled its agreed aims. Only the aims on which it could not agree remained. It had eliminated a huge area of consensus within the Party, as enshrined in the 1945 programme, by carrying out its election promises – a hazardous procedure which has prudently been avoided by all subsequent governments.

By 1951, Labour’s Old Guard was palpably on the way out. Attlee had been fortunate to have around him not only men that were fat, notably Bevin, but also men that were thin, notably Cripps, who likewise did not threaten his leadership, despite the mordant spectacle of Herbert Morrison’s hand twitching uneasily beneath his toga. But a struggle for the succession was bound to ensue, with Aneurin Bevan as the most compelling candidate from a younger generation. Crossman’s portrait of Bevan is graphic evidence both of his immense potential as a leader and of his fatal disqualification. Crossman had no suspicion of any lack of ambition, noting in January 1952: ‘I think Nye is almost exclusively concerned to be Leader of the Party rather than to formulate left-wing policy.’ There are a couple of references which suggest that Attlee himself had thought of Bevan as his successor. ‘Nye had the leadership on a plate,’ he told Crossman in March 1955. ‘I always wanted him to have it. But you know, he wants to be two things simultaneously, a rebel and an official leader, and you can’t be both.’

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