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.

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