Christopher Hitchens states a prosecution case

Christopher Hitchens

  • Crossman: The Pursuit of Power by Anthony Howard
    Cape, 361 pp, £15.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 224 02592 9

On 22 February 1965, the fifth month of Harold Wilson’s first ministry, Richard Crossman recorded the following in his Diaries of a Cabinet Minister:

Then Harold Wilson raised the issue of Anthony Howard. He has just been appointed by the Sunday Times to be the first Whitehall correspondent in history, looking into the secrets of the Civil Service rather than leaking the secrets of the politicians. His first article had been an analysis of the relationship between the DEA and the Treasury. The PM said this was outrageous and he was going to accept the challenge of the Sunday Times. In order to kill Tony Howard’s new job he forbade any of us to speak to him.

Uncharacteristically, Crossman did not follow this entry with any comment or aside, and the remainder of the six-year narrative does not include any ‘off the record’ meetings with his friend, whose job was indeed ‘killed’ by the combined malice of Whitehall and Wilson and the inanition of Thomson Newspapers, after one more sporting try at a piece on the Ministry of Technology. (Ah! The DEA! The Ministry of Technology! The tantrums of George Brown! Later that same day, Crossman dined with ‘Wedgwood Benn’ to discuss the menace of Radio Caroline. There is a decomposing madeleine wedged between every leaf of these diaries, which I have just reread.)

In his lenient and chivalrous biography of Crossman, Mr Howard gallantly does not mention the Sunday Times incident. And indeed, whenever the old suggestion of ‘double-Crossman’ comes up, he is at pains to put the case for the defence. He even says that the nickname itself derives from schooldays at Winchester rather than from Labour politics, and it may well be true that Crossman bore the title all his life. Still, I’m quite clear that he earned it afresh, as it were. There’s an old Claud Cockburn doggerel that goes (from my memory):

Here lies the body of Dick Double-Crossman,
Classical don with political flair,
Favoured of fortune he yet took a toss when
Out with the hounds, he ran with the hare.

This was widely quoted; and quoted because it came often to mind rather than, as Howard implies, because his name happened to lend itself to the joke. In spite of his declared friendship and admiration for his subject, Howard, too, gives the evidence for thinking of Crossman as one of Labourism’s apparently inexhaustible corps of ambitious phonies.

We are hurried fairly smartly through the obligatory formative scenes: Crossman at Winchester giving every sign of exemplifying Cyril Connolly’s ‘theory of permanent adolescence’. A nasty David Benedictus-like episode, with prefect ‘Dick’ going too far in wielding the Ground Ash, leads to a new school mandate for the lighter but more efficient cane: much relish here in the details. ‘Dick’ moans to Stephen Spender: ‘Even if I become prime minister, I’ll never again be as great as I was at Winchester.’ ‘Dick’ is immortalised by John Betjeman:

Broad of Church and Broad of Mind,
Broad Before and Broad Behind.

‘Dick’ competes with Auden for the affections of a rugby-player – I cherish this bit because years later, in a villainous wine-bar called the Bung Hole, Crossman told a group of New Statesman staffers about the amour and all present were so flabbergasted that afterwards no one could recollect the name. (It was Gabriel Carritt, whose actual tastes impelled him towards the future Countess of Longford.)

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