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.)

Politically, his Thirties seem to have fitted a conventional anti-Fascist and moralistic description. I say ‘seem’ because Howard gives us some reason to think that Crossman had a furtive admiration for the Nazis, acquired during his sojourn in Germany, and for their unswerving singleness of mind. In 1934 he told his BBC listeners that ‘the spirit of the youth movement still inspires many of the young officers in the labour camps and fills many students with the belief that they are digging the foundations of a new German socialism.’ Not that Crossman, in praising what he called the ‘idealism’ of the Hitler Youth, shared these ideals himself. More likely, on the available evidence, he was drawing upon his traditionalist, Wykehamist zeal. True to his thesis in Plato Today, which located the totalitarian principle in ancient Athens, he identified the new Germany with Sparta. He was also doing something that ambitious intellectuals have been known to do before and since, which is to say that he was rating the ‘practical’ and the ‘hard’ above the merely contemplative or hesitant. In Labour politicians this often manifests itself by way of a kind of aggressive/defensive ‘realism’. Asked in later years why his 1937 election campaign in Birmingham had largely ignored the Fascist threat to Republican Spain, Crossman replied: ‘I had never seen such slums and poverty in my life and as a result perhaps it never occurred to me to mention Spain.’ This is a demonstration example of intellectual populism – a tone in which Crossman was to be something of a specialist.

During a fairly good war, which he spent in the weird and suggestive interstices of the Political Warfare Executive, Crossman seems to have become an early private fan of the emerging ‘special relationship’: admiring the broader American resources and broader American minds, and getting himself posted to the Eisenhower-Macmillan joint command in North Africa. He also developed, according to Howard, a marked preference for the active-service officer over ‘the trained diplomats or elected politicians with whom he had been accustomed to deal in London’. After the war, though sharing much of the general resentment at nascent American power, he was to take the American side in the Commission on the future of Palestine, and thus to signal one commitment on which he never gave up.

This decided preference for the winning side and the man of action appears to have been the steering principle on which he operated in Labour politics for the next three decades. Having been, in a generally centrist 1945 Parliamentary intake, a member of the mildly radical Keep Left group, Crossman began to trim as Labour’s tide receded. On 25 February 1950, just after a calamitous slump in Labour’s majority, he wrote in his Sunday Pictorial column: ‘Herbert Morrison got his way, as he usually does, and persuaded the Party to water down its Socialism in an effort to appease the middle-class vote ... Enough confusion was created to prevent the nation from taking the decision which was required and which I am firmly convinced would have been taken if it had been presented with a clear-cut choice.’ That was for the comrades to read. Within days, he was writing privately to the puissant Morrison, saying meekly: ‘I doubt if anyone denies that the proposals for new nationalisation in our election manifesto – whatever their individual merits – looked very silly in the election campaign. Frankly, they were irrelevant. If they were calculated to appease left-wing socialists, they certainly did not accomplish that purpose; and they certainly lost us floating votes.’ Howard describes this manoeuvre as a tribute to ‘the primary allegiance which Dick continued to yield to the Labour Party’. Arguably. It can as well be read as an emerging Janus profile: one which admittedly he was eager to keep occluded, but which was to become more pronounced with every shift in hare-hound relations. (Incidentally, both positions seem to have been rather unintelligent as well. Nothing was going to save Labour in 1950-51.) Hugh Gaitskell’s colossal rearmament budget, announced to meet the supposed exigencies of the Korean War, met with Crossman’s unqualified support. But then, so did the subsequent resignations of Aneurin Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson, which were in protest at the immediate consequences of that budget.

There are, to be sure, regular public and private dishonesties, of the kind that every professional politician is expected to commit, and for which he may hope for praise (‘a politician to his fingertips’). And there are small venalities, such as the trashy, lucrative lawsuit brought by Crossman and others against the Spectator. (The magazine had reported him drunk in Venice: the late Lord Goddard had a bias against the press; and years later I remember Crossman, again in the ghastly Bung Hole, cheerfully admitting that he had been as drunk as – what? Not a lord, perhaps. A skunk?)

These sorts of shifting and tacking are small change. What astonishes one continually is the grossness of Crossman’s hypocrisy, and the sheer magnitude of his contradictions. As soon as Bevan began to flag, Crossman sought to transfer his own fealty to the more deft and ‘flexible’ Harold Wilson, who, it seems, had tired of being ‘Nye’s little dog’. (Bevan had left the Shadow Cabinet on principle over British support for the growing war in Indo-China. Is there a premonition, here, of Wilson’s later attack on backbench rebels against his own pro-LBJ regime, warning them that every dog was allowed one bite before its licence was revoked?) Yet, seeing that Gaitskell was for the moment impregnable to a challenge from either Bevan or Wilson, Crossman wrote to him as soon as he was elected, saying:

I am unqualifiedly glad that you are now the Leader. I am even gladder that there is now no fence with each of us on his own side. Personally – and because I like Dora very much – it is nice to feel that we can be friends again.

  But I want you also to know that I am not a bandwagon kind of person. My value to the Party, so far as I have one, is as an awkward, independent ideas man who can always be relied upon to chase an idea further than is convenient.

Of what is this extreme unction reminding me? The slavish gleam of loyalty in the eye, the wish to be first with assurances, the eager glint of the spectacles, the unstoppable self-regard in the guise of self-deprecation ... Kenneth Widmerpool! Adjustments made for the Wykehamist rather than the Eton style (Gaitskell, too, had been at Winchester), it has the tone of the power-votary and acquaintance-scraper to a T. The act was kept up until Gaitskell died, and its unfolding is not very interesting or instructive, although, if I were Neil Kinnock, I might linger over pages 216-18, where the tale of the 1959 Election is told. As Gaitskell’s chief of propaganda, Crossman took credit for the Party’s widely-praised quantum leap in the use of professional advertising, media relations and television technique. Alas, none of this new smoothness availed when Gaitskell made the heinous mistake of bluffing about the cost of his programme. Caveat.

Shifting back to Wilson after Gaitskell’s death (and now writing to old Bevanites like Anthony Greenwood about ‘the hopeless position into which we had sunk under the Gaitskell regime’), Crossman went the whole hog, writing in the Daily Herald about Wilson as ‘the cleverest man to have led a British political party since Lloyd George’ (more apt than perhaps he knew) and as ‘at least as professional as Mr Kennedy’. Adoringly, he showed off his intimacy with the new leader by pointing out ‘his chair’ when visitors came to the Crossman casa in Vincent Square. I doubt that even Widmerpool would have gone that far, but it’s easy to imagine him stressing, as did Crossman the intellectual populist, that ‘without any affectation’ Wilson ‘prefers the kind of unassuming, comfortable home life which he shares with millions of ordinary families’. It comes as no surprise to find that he proposed the ‘white heat of technology’ wheeze to Wilson as a campaign theme for 1964, though Crossman’s own ignorance of scientific matters was as near-complete as one could wish.

From 1964 to 1970 we all know the story – the fetishisation of sterling, the corporate state management style, the getting-rough with the Seamen’s Union, the endless cowardice over Rhodesia, though it’s true that we know it better in part because of Crossman’s jottings. The essence of British decline, and of the relationship of forces which determined it, is quite well caught by two entries, one for 11 February 1965 and one for 17 June 1966:

Once again we are taking the subsidiary role, the pro-American line, and Michael Stewart as our new Foreign Secretary is following it very faithfully indeed. And in all this Harold is deeply, personally committed ... He just saw that one must either go into Europe or become a subsidiary of the Americans, and he chose the latter.

Undoubtedly it’s all a fantastic illusion. How can anyone build up Britain now as a great power East of Suez when we can’t even maintain the sterling area and some of our leaders are having the idea of creeping inside Europe in order to escape from our independence outside?

Observe, though, how Crossman embodies rather than diagnoses the contradictions here: discontented with the role of permanent junior to America yet surly and resistant in his attitude to Europe. Perhaps knowing when he was licked when it came to opportunism, he stayed grumblingly with Wilson until the last, even though Wilson was by then the most salient example of the tendency he had himself warned against in his celebrated 1963 preface to Bagehot: the tendency of ‘cabinet government’ to become prime ministerial, and of the principle of ‘collective responsibility’ to decay into the decorative. Indeed, Crossman rose to be Lord President of the Council, spending more time with the Queen and on ceremonial matters than any modern Tory would care to. (Incidentally, think how the tone of politics might be altered if the archaic word ‘privy’ in the title Privy Councillor was given its update to the word ‘secret’.)

Trapped in this world of pretend-power, Crossman neither mounted serious criticism of the ‘special relationship’ nor advocated a European stage on which Labour could recast itself as contemporary and internationalist. This condemned him to the only alternative – a paltry, undemocratic trade-off between the illusions of sovereignty and bargaining with the TUC. Howard says that Crossman opposed the ‘In Place of Strife’ proposals of 1969, but don’t I remember him originating a New Statesman editorial defending that policy as an example of ‘How Labour stumbled into socialism’? A dank little offshore-barracks socialism that would have been.

Crossman’s relationship with the New Statesman, and with the eventual destruction of an outstanding weekly review, is of a piece with his overall contribution to the British radical scene. Most of the tendencies that put the NS out of commission were given a pronounced forward shove by his post-1970 tenure. Having once identified (in Towards Socialism in 1963) a morbid Labour condition known as ‘ex-ministeritis’, he proceeded to invite to the inner editorial meetings the most exploded ex-ministers of Labour’s sentimental ‘Left’ (Barbara Castle) and the most sinister of its unsentimental ‘Right’ (Lord Chalfont, who, unbelievably, was appointed foreign editor). This guaranteed the identification of the paper with a stultified Westminster and a discredited government.

Casting about for a theme which would unify populist Left with reactionary Right, Crossman found it in dogmatic opposition to Europe – one conviction he held in common with his predecessor Paul Johnson. To the paper’s role as a mouthpiece of party and an organ of faction he added the role of a megaphone for petty chauvinism. Then came the redesign, with empty logos and ill-sorted photographs. Then the utter want of attention to style (Howard is very acute here) and the recruitment of played-out columnists like – well, James Fenton once composed a ‘Dick Crossman Blues’, to the tune of ‘Saint James’ Infirmary’, a stave of which went:

Oh we didn’t like being beastly
As we showed him to the door
But when he brought in J.B. Priestley
Well it was the final straw.

There was also the politicisation of the ‘back half’ – I remember Crossman refusing to run a spirited piece by Galbraith on a book about the Bernie Cornfeld IOS mutual fund racket, on the fantastic grounds that such exposés were anti-semitic.

A note, here, on Crossman and die Judenfrage. He was intensely Jew-conscious, and once said in my hearing that he could see why people didn’t like Jews, so he could see why the Jews needed their own state. His Zionism was of that devious sort. Concerning his famous silence on the Suez war of 1956, Howard writes that Crossman was unwell at the time and that there is, therefore, no mystery about his reticence. But illness never shut Crossman up. And in his neglected book on Israel, A Nation Reborn, published in 1960, he described the war as ‘a method of pacifying the frontier’ which ‘did a power of good’. Howard doesn’t mention this, or the still more remarkable fact that Crossman referred only to ‘the appearance of underhand collusion’ (my italics) between Ben Gurion and Eden. He actually wrote that he doubted ‘whether the collusion between these two statesmen went very far’, which would have been pretty rich in 1956, never mind 1960. It’s clear that Crossman sat out the Suez aggression because, at least with a part of himself, he sympathised with it. His long espousal of the Israeli cause also brought him into contact with Arthur Koestler, who was the real author of Crossman’s 1948 pamphlet ‘A Palestine Munich?’. Since this partnership evolved into the co-editing of the god that failed, and then into a quarrel, one would like to know more about it than Howard tells us.

In retrospect, it seems evident that the failure of the Left to think seriously about Europe was its really great failure: the failure that in effect committed it to upholding and defending the patterns of British backwardness and British dependence. In that wasteful, philistine, conservative rearguard action, Crossman played a not inessential part. His end, gratefully accepting a Wilson peerage and then dying before it could be conferred, is too pathetic to speak about. His best legacy – the revelations contained in his Cabinet Diaries – is also the record of his role in the drift and demoralisation which he describes.

At the Labour Party Conference in 1976, I was at a private dinner given by the Engineers’ Union, at which Harold Wilson made a little speech in praise of himself. ‘I have,’ he said, ‘been leader of this party for 13 years.’ Even 12 years after they had ended, the 1964 slogan about those ‘13 years of Tory misrule’ still had a resonance. The following day, addressing the full conference and the cameras, Wilson proudly reminded people that he had been ‘the leader of this party for twelve and a half years’. That sort of instinct is what gave him his reputation, among admirers and subordinates like Crossman, for political acuity. In 1992, the year of European integration, Margaret Thatcher will have been prime minister for 13 years, and will, not coincidentally, have made Crossman’s observations about prime ministerial fiat seem tentative. In these facts, and in the relation between them, the emptiness of an unprincipled gullible Labourism is described. In that sense, Richard Crossman really helped to make the country what it is today.