Tam, Dick and Harold

Ian Aitken

  • Dick Crossman: A Portrait by Tam Dalyell
    Weidenfeld, 253 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79670 4

Not long ago, a very distinguished academic reviewer suggested in these pages that one of the troubles with the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock’s leadership was that it was no longer the kind of party which attracted the loyalty and service of Oxbridge intellectuals. In his view, this was a serious flaw, perhaps even a fatal one.

There is, of course, something in the charge. For all his many qualities, which include courage and persistence, Neil Kinnock is undeniably neither Oxbridge nor an intellectual. Nor are many members of his shadow cabinet – or, indeed, of the present Parliamentary Labour Party. There is at least room for debate about whether this is a good or a bad thing. Moreover, the reasons for the trend are by no means easy to identify. Should he feel inclined, Mr Kinnock could reasonably argue that, in spite of his own academic background, his leadership has made the Labour Party a more attractive place for Oxbridge intellectuals than it was under the genuine Oxbridge intellectual who led it immediately before him.

But there are, in any case, two sides to the dearth of Oxbridge intellectuals in the present-day Labour Party. It isn’t just a matter of ambitious young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge losing interest in a party which hasn’t looked like an election winner for some years. At least as important is the attitude of the rank-and-file activists who choose the Party’s Parliamentary candidates. If the age of deference is dead, it is a great deal deader in this segment of the population than in any other.

That the Attlee and Wilson governments had such a heavy complement of Oxbridge intellectuals owed as much to the fact that deference still existed at the grass roots of the Labour Party in the Thirties and Forties as it did to the willingness of graduates to put themselves forward. Lots of working-class people were genuinely grateful that well-to-do young men and women with fancy accents and even fancier academic distinctions were prepared to commit themselves to the creation of a truly classless society. And quite right, too.

But times have changed. Nowadays, with Dave Spart in the chair and his girlfriend taking the minutes, your average Constituency Labour Party’s general management committee could well feel very differently about that sort of ‘noblesse oblige’ volunteer. The mind boggles at how they might have reacted to the arrival of anyone like the late R.H.S. Crossman, even assuming such a person could have reached the short list.

Whatever your view of Dick Crossman – and I liked him, admired him, and frequently benefited from him as a journalistic source – there is no denying that he was the supreme Oxbridge intellectual, taking it to the stage of shameless intellectual arrogance on occasion. Not only was he the possessor of a gleaming, thousand-horse-power brain, he was also gifted with wit and a polished command of the English language. It made him a devastating debater, as well as a superb teacher.

All this was presumably apparent to the Coventry East Constituency Labour Party in 1937 when they invited him – yes, invited him – to compete for nomination as their prospective candidate. Though they knew he had done well in the recent West Birmingham by-election, they may still have had a few qualms when they saw their man in the flesh. A photograph reproduced in Tam Dalyell’s peculiar but highly entertaining memoir of Crossman gives some idea of what he might have looked like. It shows the young Dick seated in the centre of a group of five Winchester scholars. Grave and gowned, he looks out with supreme self-confidence at a world he quite clearly expects to conquer. He is the epitome of the smooth and polished Wykehamist.

But if that was what Crossman was in 1937, it was only part of what he was. Besides his fellowship at New College, which could easily have been the first step towards a brilliant academic career, he was also leader of the Labour group on Oxford City Council as well as a WEA lecturer. Dalyell records that this author of a much-praised work on Plato pitched his council election campaign on a pledge to get North Oxford’s rubbish bins emptied not twice but three times a week. Would that some ambitious young intellectual in the Crossman mould were launching his political career with a similar pledge in these Thatcherite times.

Tam’s relatively short volume is not so much a biography of Crossman – that is to be provided by Anthony Howard – as a portrait of someone he clearly loved. But it is a long way from being the misty-eyed picture of a faultless hero. Black Tam o’the Binns has a reputation to maintain as a man who puts truth and objectivity before mere friendship. Faithfully, he paints in the warts alongside the beauty spots. And, God knows, there were plenty of warts. Some were simple bad manners, such as his willingness to be rude to small people, and then to make matters worse with blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder apologies. Others were more serious, like his increasing inability to listen to advisers. The most serious of all, faithfully recorded by Tam, was a perpetual inclination to see every event, every personal move by colleagues and rivals, as part of some complex conspiracy.

Mind you, Crossman’s attitude to these perceived conspiracies was cheerful, even benign. Unlike that other supreme conspiracy theorist, Harold Wilson, Dick didn’t brood about them endlessly or allow his obsession to corrode everything that he did. Above all, he remained to the end of his life a top-class WEA lecturer, dedicated to the education of ordinary people by the simple process of telling them what was going on. Where Wilson stood for fog and obscurity, Crossman stood foursquare for glasnost.

Which brings us to the diaries. There they stand on my bookshelf, four massive volumes covering the period as a backbencher, his stint as Minister of Housing in 1964, his spectacular period as Leader of the House of Commons from 1966 to 1968, and finally his depressing two years as Secretary of State for Social Services, which ended with the fall of the government in 1970. Each is a monument to Crossman’s dedication to the philosophy of glasnost. But they are also more than that. In my opinion, they contain some of the most entertaining and instructive writing in the language on the day-to-day practice of politics.

Dick had the advantage of being the first in the field. Since he (or rather, his selfless literary executor, Michael Foot) shook off the chains of conventional Cabinet secrecy and got volume one into print, there have been successors. Every minister knew, at the time when all these notebooks and tapes were being compiled round poor old Harold Wilson’s Cabinet table, that every word they uttered was being taken down in order to be used in evidence against them by no fewer than three intending diarists. There they sat, Dick, Barbara and Tony, scribbling away while the nation’s fate was being decided. No wonder there was resentment among the less literary members of the Cabinet. They didn’t think it was fair.

It is also a misfortune that all three of those diarists were broadly speaking on the left of the Party, so that many of the accounts of Cabinet rows and the assessments of Cabinet colleagues are written, as it were, from their end of the table. It would have been fun if, say, George Brown had also kept a diary. But each of the existing versions has its strong points for future scholarship. Barbara Castle, a former newspaper reporter, has professional shorthand, so that her quotes can be relied on. Tony Benn has a Boswellian fetish about self-revealing candour, so that he provides many of the best anti-Benn anecdotes.

But for sheer intellectual breadth, coupled with a former Daily Mirror columnist’s eye for the telling personal detail, Dick’s are by far the best. This is not to say that they are the most truthful – Roy Jenkins has declared that Barbara’s are more accurate. Nor does it mean that they give the most effective picture of how it was to be there. They are simply the best read, and by a long, long way.

What is extraordinary about the Crossman diaries, and especially the volume covering his period as Lord President, is that they bear so striking a resemblance to that other weekly record of these years, Private Eye’s incomparable ‘Mrs Wilson’s Diary’. Lord Gnome’s familiar characters are all present, save perhaps for Inspector Trimfittering. Indeed there is an extra one in the Crossman version – Crossman himself. For Dick’s intimate relationship with Wilson, including endless early-morning telephone calls between Downing Street and Vincent Square, is a recurrent theme of the diaries. He is perpetually seeking to become Wilson’s sole adviser, bypassing not only the Cabinet proper but Marcia’s kitchen cabinet too. One can’t help wondering whether things might not have been better during those depressing years if Dick had managed to engineer the two-man Cabinet of Harold and himself which he so much wanted to create.

As it is, Crossman’s account of the period is bleak too. In his version, life is just one damned awful crisis after another, with himself and his colleagues desperately shoring up the dykes even as the water slops over the top. His weakness as a reporter is that he is, in political terms, a manic depressive. Every minor misfortune is described as if it were a terminal disaster. And the awful thing is that one suspects that is exactly the way he and the Prime Minister saw things at the time.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all about the diaries proves to be a theme of Dalyell’s book. For an essential feature of Crossman’s career as a minister was his more or less reluctant affection for Harold Wilson, his willingness to leap to his assistance whenever there were real or imaginary plots against him, and his readiness to back him even when he genuinely believed him to be dangerously wrong. But this loyalty is accompanied by repeated and increasingly serious criticism of Wilson’s leadership – or rather, the lack of it. Over and over again, he complains that he is sitting round a table with people who simply run their departments as best they can, under a prime minister who has no sense of direction.

In spite of this, he only once allows himself to suggest that Wilson ought to go. That is in the bitter aftermath of the forced sterling de-valuation of 1967 – an event which Crossman consistently argued should have happened much earlier, and voluntarily. He wrote then: ‘What I don’t know – and I have to reflect on this very carefully – is whether in the long run our government can continue under the kind of leadership he is giving at the present.’ He was right about that, for it didn’t continue much longer.

There is one other thing that Crossman did not discuss much in his diaries – namely, whether he himself ought not to resign from the Government on one or other of the many occasions when he believed it was doing the wrong thing. Among the most extraordinary things about this extraordinary man, however, is that he chose someone like Dalyell not only to serve as his Parliamentary Private Secretary (a kind of political dogs-body) but also to be his lodger. With someone like Honest Tam constantly hovering around you, there is no possibility that you will be spared a few unwelcome truths about yourself. Inevitably, as he tells us, Tam raised the matter of resignation from time to time.

Because he occupied the top flat in Crossman’s house, Tam saw Dick not only in the Commons and in his departmental office, but also in the more vulnerable surroundings of the breakfast table, and sometimes from a seat at the end of his bed in the small hours of the night. So there were plenty of occasions when Dalyell could remind his Emperor of his mortality, and he first suggested he might do well to resign as early as 1966. Crossman’s reply was not only highly revealing but also thoroughly engaging in its candour.

The suggestion arose over a matter of great moment to Crossman: Wilson’s stubborn refusal to cut Britain’s losses and pull out of its supposed ‘world role’ in the Far East. Crossman, a passionate opponent of the Cold War, had long advocated withdrawal, and was appalled by a Wilson speech defending his East of Suez policy to the Parliamentary Party. He told Dalyell (who had voted against Wilson) that if he had not been a minister he would certainly have put his hand up with the rebels because he regarded the East of Suez policy as a grotesque illusion. In that case, said Tam, he ought to resign and make his reasons for doing so very explicit. Dick, he adds, took it like a lamb, observing merely that if Dalyell had had to wait 19 years for office he might not have been so quick with his recommendation. As it happens, dear old Tam has every reason to understand the desolation in that remark. His own puritanical sense of integrity has seen to it that he has waited not 19 but 28 years for office. He is still waiting.

In fact, the failure of Attlee to give Crossman a job deprived the post-war Labour Government of a brilliant, if difficult minister. The reason for this omission – Crossman’s bitter falling-out with Attlee’s closest Cabinet ally, Ernie Bevin, over the creation of Israel – is well chronicled here. But Tam couples the story with a somewhat more questionable piece of theorising. Acknowledging that Crossman’s shade might quite likely rise up to deny it, he suggests that Dick was not a natural left-winger at all. He believes he was forced into the arms of Bevan and the Bevanites by his views on foreign policy rather than domestic policy. Having joined them, however, he stayed, because he found them ‘simply the nicest, most congenial, honourable, gentlemanly people in the Commons’.

It is an interesting theory, and it fits many of the facts about Crossman’s often erratic behaviour. But of course it depends what you mean by left-wing. I very much doubt whether Crossman ever believed in wholesale public ownership on the Morrisonian model. But then neither did a goodly proportion of the Bevanites. On the contrary, it was they who mounted most of the early criticism of monolithic public corporations as a pattern for genuine socialism.

Tam’s own verdict on his old boss is that, even if he wasn’t a left-winger in the accepted sense (and, as it happens, neither is Mr Dalyell), he certainly was a radical stirrer-upper. But he also wonders aloud whether he had as much integrity as the ‘principled left’ when it came to seeking ministerial office. He recalls Crossman saying to him: ‘The way to become a minister is either to lick the arses of the leadership or kick them in the political goolies – you can’t do both.’ In this, he says, Crossman was probably correct, though he adds that he may have fallen between his two rules in his own conduct. He refrains from the further reflection that the Dalyell career does not seem to have prospered from an unremitting exercise of Rule Two.

In a way, however, Dalyell’s delightful celebration of a unique politician is essentially a sad book, just as Crossman’s diaries are sad books. For what they recount is a story of missed opportunities both on a national and on a personal level. The former are part of our post-war history, and explain how the disaster of Thatcherism became possible, and perhaps even inevitable. The latter are smaller in scale, but somehow even sadder.

For the truth about Dick Crossman’s spectacular political career is that it was a failure on almost every count. While it is certainly not true that he was a trivial politician – he set out to create great reforms, both in the outside world and in the closed world of Parliamentary government – he will be remembered for nothing that he did, only for what he wrote. Yet he was deeply concerned about important if uncharismatic things like pensions and Parliamentary reform. Extraordinarily, this Oxford don, reviled by his enemies as a careless flibbertigibbet, made himself one of Westminster’s great experts on superannuation and produced not one but two authoritative documents on the subject. One was in opposition, when he achieved the near impossible by capturing the hearts and minds of a Fifties Labour Party Conference with a speech about his pensions scheme which brought the hall to its feet. I know because I was there, and I will never forget Dick’s expression of slowly dawning delight when he realised he had pulled off a triumph against all the odds.

The second was in office when, as Social Services Secretary, he produced a White Paper outlining a national superannuation plan which would have transformed the lives of working-class pensioners. Had it reached the statute book, even the Mark One Heath government (the one pledged to a paler version of what we now know as Thatcherism) would not have dared repeal it. But it was washed down the plughole of history by Wilson’s decision to go to the country almost a year early, leading to Labour’s shock defeat in June 1970.

Crossman’s other major failure was his attempt to do something about Labour’s constantly repeated pledges to abolish, or at least to reform, the House of Lords. He decided to go for reform, and succeeded in negotiating a scheme which would have ended the hereditary principle. He should have known it didn’t stand a chance when his old friend Michael Foot (an abolitionist) and Enoch Powell (a hereditarist) joined forces to scupper it. Even his one partial success – the establishment of an embryonic system of select committees – has been credited largely to Norman St John Stevas.

So the diaries must remain his monument. But what a monument! If I ever meet Dick again – perhaps in some heavenly version of the Members’ Lobby – I think I could honestly assure him that those remarkable volumes are a more significant contribution to the politics of our times than a pensions act or a reformed Upper House. They may not warm the toes of the millions of old-age pensioners he wanted to serve. But they will warm the hearts and feed the minds of many people for centuries to come, long after his pensions White Paper has crumbled into dust.

And to be fair, Crossman knew this perfectly well. In a moving passage, Dalyell tells how he returned to his Vincent Square digs late one night to hear the familiar voice summon him to the study. Dick broke the news that he had a malignant tumour which could not be treated. He added, matter-of-factly: ‘So I’d better get on with the diaries.’ Dalyell ends his labour of love with the words: ‘Crossman had style.’ He certainly had.