Diary

W.G. Runciman

When I published my last LRB Diary in June, I half-expected that it would be not only reprinted but also spoofed by one or another of the broadsheets, as indeed it was. What I didn’t expect was that the Daily Telegraph would try to use it as party-political knocking copy when any reader could tell that behind its even-handed mistrust of all politicians was a genuine pleasure at the displacement of Major Ltd by Blair & Co. Nor did I expect to be reproved, however gently, for indiscretion by Simon Jenkins on the op-ed page of the Times – as if I hadn’t cleared what I proposed to print with anyone quoted directly who might have suffered in consequence, or would have dreamed of disclosing to LRB readers without Simon’s express permission what he had revealed at my dinner table about his tiny little earnings as a hugely well-paid journalist.

A surprising number of people have asked me why I published such a diary at all, to which the simple answer is that I hoped it would give the widespread amusement which it evidently has. There is, admittedly, an underlying theme about power, propaganda and patronage (of which more anon). But I have neither the ambition nor the talent to be a serious chronicler de nos jours. The only time in my life I tried to do a Boswell was after an evening on which Elias Canetti had unexpectedly invited himself to supper with us alone. But when, the following morning, I looked through the notes of his conversation which I’d made before going to bed, I found myself quite incapable of reconstructing it. All I could remember precisely was Canetti confirming the reason for which he refused to let a translation of his autobiographical account of his childhood be published in England. It had nothing to do with his supposed neglect at the hands of the London literary establishment, about which he was as loftily indifferent as a Nobel laureate can afford to be, but everything to do with the risk that one of his English cousins might read it. I said: ‘But Canetti, would you really mind if one of your cousins published reminiscences in which he was similarly critical, but no more so, of your father?’ To which Canetti, sitting very upright on one of our drawing-room chairs with both fists clenched on his knees, replied: ‘I would want to kill him.’

As for trusting one’s memory unaided: I was rung up some years ago by a researcher working on Hugh Dalton’s diaries to ask if I was the young person referred to in Dalton’s account of a Sunday lunch party at Harry Walston’s house at Newton in the early Fifties. Oh yes, I said brightly, and prattled on for several minutes about the pink champagne, the eclectic company (the unsinkable Woodrow Wyatt still Keeping Left in those days), Dalton’s booming political anecdotes, and so forth. There was a moment of embarrassed silence down the line before the researcher said: ‘That’s not what it says in the diary’. As I subsequently worked out, my memory had performed the classic feat of conflating two quite separate social occasions.

But I do believe, as Simon evidently does too, that diaries, whether grave or gay, are worth keeping for their immediacy as a record. My grandmother kept one before and during the early part of the Second World War, and before I deposited it with Newcastle University I read through it at a stretch. What was extraordinary was that I started to feel as if I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. Nazi-Soviet pact? Not nice, but perhaps it means we shan’t be having to fight an alliance of three Fascist powers, including Franco’s Spain. Churchill as prime minister? All very well, but some of us remember the Dardanelles – and besides, look at the people around him! To be sure, reading the newspapers of the time can have something of the same effect, as is well conveyed by Robert Kee’s The World We Left behind. But it’s not the same as a single person’s day-by-day account of – not, of course, wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, but – what it eigentlich felt like to that person.

The dilemma is whether publication should or shouldn’t be in the lifetime of people mentioned in any way disparagingly. If yes, offence may be caused. If no, they’ve lost the chance to answer back. But if they’re famous, oughtn’t they to be prepared to take it either way? I know that’s easy to say, and I remember Jonathan Miller once telling me, and convincingly so, that nobody to whom it hasn’t happened can know how peculiarly disagreeable it is to be lampooned in print. But as Goethe said, and I quoted to the famous Jonathan on another occasion: ‘If you don’t want to be mobbed by the crows, don’t climb to the top of the tower.’

So here is another modest instalment, censored at least as carefully as before.

4 June. Talk with Cambridge labour historian Alastair Reid about Scottish devolution. Alastair, a Clydesider born and bred, says he has always been conscious of how deeply and irreconcilably the Scots are divided among themselves – economically, religiously, politically, regionally and even linguistically. So the principal effect of Blair’s appeasement of nationalist sentiment will be to reunite them in their shared hostility to all things English – the Labour Party in Scotland now, by extension, included. Subsequently, in a similar conversation with the Oxford sociologist Gordon Marshall, Gordon (who is as authentically Scottish as Alastair) describes watching the 1966 World Cup Final on a flickering black and white TV in a pub in a West Highland village. He was one of perhaps a dozen out of forty or fifty blokes who didn’t cheer to the rafters each time Germany scored a goal.

8 June. Spot the typo, spare the blush. John Vincent writes from the University of Bristol: ‘In your memorable diaries you quote Disraeli’s view of May 1881, a month after his death. Would that other historians had access to such primary sources!’

14 June. Alan Bennett’s letter to the LRB about my Diary prompts me to write to him. I remind him that when he and I last met several decades ago he was sitting astride a rocking-horse in Gloucester Crescent while he and Jonathan Miller made fun of sociologists (an easy target, then as now), and go on to suggest that he and I might meet again to discuss the ‘bulging Nachlass’. A polite picture postcard of Stanley Spencer’s Southwold comes back saying that he remembers neither the rocking-horse nor the sociology and that he is ‘a bit of a recluse as Mary-Kay will confirm’. Oh well. I’m reminded of a lecture by the eminent Harvard sociologist George Homans whose peroration, delivered in a ringing Bostonian fortissimo, was that ‘the really nasty thing about these investigations is that some people are liked by people they do not themselves like!’

15 June. Talk with Stephen Graubard, editor of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences magazine Daedalus. Should he do an issue on Britain? Last time he asked me, I said no – Britain just isn’t interesting enough to the rest of the world any more. This time, I say yes. New Labour is so very different from Old Labour that whichever way things go the outcome will have intriguing implications for nominally left-wing parties elsewhere. What on earth would Keir Hardie have to say about a PR-driven, low-tax, friendly-to-business, law-and-order, cut-the-welfare-bills ‘Labour’ Government whose leader is said to be a serious admirer of Margaret Thatcher? (‘Third Way’? It’s just the sensible, well-tried electoral trick of stealing your opponent’s clothes.) Stephen has recently seen John Redwood, who has so far recovered from post-electoral stress disorder as to be predicting that Blair will manage to scrape in once more, like Attlee in 1950, only to collapse thereafter. I wonder. No doubt it’s possible that Blair’s Government will go into the next election as debilitated by the political Aids virus (Arrogance, Incompetence, Disunity and Sleaze) as Major’s was. But chickens can, after all, take some time to come home to roost, as they did after even the monumental hubris of the Thatcher-Lawson era.

23 June. Characteristically-worded letter from Karl Miller, who never reads the LRB since he ceased to edit it but having heard about my Diary asked if I would send him a copy. Karl writes: ‘There will be those who will see you as one of the great and good, and there will be others who will see you as subversive of the great and good. You had better look out, either way.’

24 June. HarperCollins send me copies of all the reviews to date of my book The Social Animal. Notable absentees: TLS (who never reviewed the book which first made my reputation as a sociologist either) and LRB (since remedied: see below). One otherwise favourable review which I hadn’t previously seen, by Frank McLynn in the Literary Review, contains a weird aside in which I am taken to task because I, a ‘contemporary Croesus’, presume to encourage young persons contemplating a career as ‘underpaid, sneered at and generally put upon’ as academic sociology to ‘go for it’ – which indeed I do. Croesus, Frank? Croesus? It’s true that for most of my life I’ve earned my living as a (very) medium-sized businessman rather than a university teacher. But I know one or two people whose net worth is a thousand times mine. I’m reminded of a story which Claus Moser tells against himself about being in the company of Jacob Rothschild and others when they were discussing how many ‘units’ various acquaintances of theirs were worth. Claus naively asked, ‘Millions?’ at which Jacob turned to him with a pitying smile and said: ‘Claus, we’re talking about rich people.’

7 July. Lunch at the London Library to celebrate my eminent Uncle Steven’s 95th birthday and the 75th anniversary of his membership. The minimum age in those days was 21, but he was allowed in at 20 over his father’s signature, and the application form is reproduced on the back of the menu. What must it be like to be able to say, as he can, that as a young man he danced with someone who as a young girl danced at Windsor Castle with Prince Albert? As he said recently when opening a new Byzantine Room at the British Museum, being so much nearer in age than anyone present to the objects on view made him a particularly appropriate choice of speaker. Yet he’s younger than the London Library’s royal patron, who was just as impressive on this occasion as he was.

21 July. The Economist’s account of the troubles of Benazir Bhutto reminds me of being given lunch in Karachi many years ago by someone who had just been released from preventive detention by Benazir’s father. My host’s release had been secured by his father, an old family friend of the Bhuttos, who had managed to contrive an interview with Bhutto under false pretences and then refused to leave the prime ministerial office until either his son had been released or he had been put into prison himself. Bhutto finally lost patience, picked up one of the telephones on his desk, and barked down it: ‘Release Rustum’s son!’ The release took some time, however, because the officer at the receiving end had no idea who ‘Rustum’s son’ was and was much too frightened to ask.

4 August. The announcement of Gus Macdonald’s ministerial appointment and accompanying peerage stirs up all the predictable cries. No lip-service to democratic legitimacy here. I was unaware until subsequently reading Paul Foot in the Guardian that Macdonald started somewhere to the left of Stalin and Trotsky together, so that to the cry of Blairite cronyism can be added a still louder cry of class treachery. But what of it? David Kirkwood, one of the original Red Clydesiders of the Twenties, ended up in the House of Lords, and the Glasgow shipowner Joseph Maclay was made a minister by Lloyd George in December 1916 without being required to sit in either House of Parliament. The difference was that Maclay, although like Macdonald offered a peerage, said that he wouldn’t accept it until after he’d proved himself in the task which he’d been brought into the Government to perform.

I’m reminded of my very un-Nolanesque appointment to the Securities and Investments Board (now the Financial Services Authority) in 1986. My then secretary, an irreverent New Zealander who found all Brits, but particularly City Brits, unfailingly comic, put her head round the door one day with a startled expression to tell me that the Governor of the Bank of England ‘would like you to call in’. So off I went down Leadenhall Street in a state of mingled curiosity and alarm, wondering if there was some fearful breach of some obscure financial ordinance which my little company might unwittingly have committed. When the Governor (Robin Leigh-Pemberton) told me what the summons was about, I heard myself mumbling some priggish nonsense about being brought up to believe that if the government of the day asks you to do a job you do it if you can. The Governor, after thanking me, leaned forward with a confidential air and said: ‘Do you mind if I ask you a question about yourself?’ I thought: ‘Aha! Here it comes!’ But guess what the question turned out to be. ‘Am I right in thinking you were Captain of the Oppidans at School?’ I managed not to start laughing out loud, but it was one of those occasions when the muscles at the side of the nose escape from total control. Some weeks later, I happened to meet Hayden Phillips, already an unmistakable mandarin-to-be and now Derry Irvine’s Permanent Secretary, on a train. Hayden, when I told him the story, positively exploded with laughter. But he went on to observe that there’s nothing uniquely British in groupuscular conversation of this kind; in France, the equivalent question would have been: ‘Am I right in thinking that you were in the Ponts et Chaussées?’

Bank Holiday Weekend. Much talk with a diversity of people of different political allegiances about the Tony and Gordon Show. Some speculation about whether Blair may be more of a be-er than a do-er, whereas Brown really lives for the exercise as well as the possession of power. I say I’m worried by any politician who thinks that he has the strength of ten because his heart is pure and that he can therefore sup with the devil unscathed. Might the country be better off under a cynical, brilliant, devious, mesmeric amoralist like Lloyd George? That same evening, I’m reading the much-missed Harvard historian John Clive on Gibbon, and find him quoting La Rochefoucauld: ‘Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.’

3 September. To the Lords for the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill for which Parliament has been recalled. I had originally put myself down to speak on the strength of newspaper reports that the Bill would enable people to be convicted as members of a terrorist organisation on the uncorroborated assertion of a police officer. But it turns out that corroboration is now required, if only on the basis that an inference can be drawn from the defendant’s silence. All very well, but what judge (in Northern Ireland) or jury (in England) is going to convict on the basis of nothing more than a policeman citing the hearsay evidence of a (rightly) unnameable informant, plus a flat denial by the defendant? So is Blair’s talk about ‘Draconian’ measures so much flannel? I wonder. Might he have been deliberately promising what he never even wanted to perform as a piece of well-crafted spinnery? Or was he talking policy before thinking it? As it turns out, my fox is well and truly shot (as they say hereabouts) by Tony Lloyd, who is some way above me in the batting order and in a much more powerful and authoritative speech than I could make shows just why convictions won’t be secured. In any case, we all know perfectly well that the Bill will be nodded through as – however hastily – drafted, whatever speeches anybody makes.

4 September. To Berlin for the first time in my life, for a conference of social scientists sponsored by the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. To my surprise, I am called to by name at Tegel Airport. It turns out to be Neil McGregor on his way to Weimar by way of the Berlin Museum. He talks in the taxi about the representation of Christ in European art. How is it that the face came to be standardised from the 13th century onwards when nobody could possibly claim to know what that obscure carpenter’s son from Nazareth actually looked like? But there he is – always bearded, dark-eyed, saintly without being wet, and not too Jewish looking. I’m reminded of the young Jonathan Miller in Beyond the Fringe famously saying of himself ‘only Jewish’. Why shouldn’t all the representations of Christ have been standardised as doubles of Jonathan?

5 September. On the way from the hotel to the Akademie, I find myself crossing Unter den Linden, and am instantly reminded of my father’s account of sitting there one afternoon in August 1939, waiting to catch his flight back to London from Tempelhof Airport after a half-hour meeting with Goering. My father had been sent by his father on an unofficial basis (my father and Goering having met as fellow pilots at an Anglo-German air rally) to assure the German Government that Britain would honour its commitment to Poland. Goering’s response was to say the Poles are being impossible, and if you tell me you British will fight I believe you – we have fought you before and if necessary will fight you again. Heil Hitler! Watching the fashionable crowd strolling peacefully to and fro under the trees, my father’s thought was ‘Here we go again.’ My thought, 59 years later, is that any sociologist who thinks that sociology is or could ever be a predictive science needs only to think about predicting in 1939 what the state of the world would be in 1945 – to say nothing of predicting how many tens of millions would have died by then, and why, and how.

8 September. The news from Russia, as Boris Yeltsin lurches incoherently from one crisis to another, reminds me of the last conversation I had with Ernest Gellner before his untimely death. I may not believe that sociology is or could ever be a predictive science, but Ernest has been proved spot on in what he said to me about Eastern Europe. The Czechs and Poles, he told me, would adapt perfectly well to the reintroduction of capitalism. But in Russia, it would be an utter disaster: no memory or understanding of how capitalism actually works, no contract law, no intermediate institutions below the authoritarian state, unrealistic hopes side by side with all too realistic corruption and thuggery, and the only people with managerial skills and contacts the apparatchiks of the old regime. As it happens, one of my business colleagues went to St Petersburg not long ago to discuss a possible shipping deal and found that the person behind the company behind the front company was a KGB colonel with an unsurprising interest in the offshore destination of a certain few millions of dollars. I asked my valued colleague after his return – no deal having been done – whether he’d felt at all scared. He said no, not compared to the day when he was managing a trawler fleet out of Lancashire and Big Lil led a deputation of trawlermen’s wives up from the docks to the office to tell the company it wasn’t doing right by their men.

15 September. At last a review, and a flattering one, of The Social Animal in the LRB by Armand Leroi. But why does he use up precious column-inches talking about the suit I wore when I gave a seminar on the theme of the book at the LSE? I don’t remember wearing a suit at all. But if I did, it will have been my nondescript Austin Reed loss-leader, not the dark blue tailor-made pinstripe which I keep for telling the shareholders to forget about a dividend this year. Much ribaldry is caused among my family, by whom I am regularly pilloried for my tragic lack of sartorial sense, pig-headed indifference to fashion, and pitiful attachment to short socks and boring ties. I don’t need a professor of semiotics to tell me that clothes send a message. But what are those of us who don’t have a message to send supposed to wear? Perhaps performing academics should be dressed, like footballers, in the colours of their learned institutions, with their surnames in big capital letters on their backs.

17 September. To the Treasury with Howard Davies and the Board of the Financial Services Authority for another annual chat with an impressively un-jetlagged Gordon Brown just back from Japan. One of our main concerns is that the promised Financial Services Bill giving us our expanded powers will be significantly delayed, along with other much-needed legislation, because of squabbles over the future composition of the House of Lords. I find this baffling. Nobody I know seriously wants to defend the continued right of hereditary peers to speak and vote, but we all have expected as well as wished to see it abolished in the context of an overall, considered and preferably bi-partisan reform. Can it be that our rulers have decided that their popularity with the electorate is more at risk if they actually do serious things than if they merely talk about them, and the comfortingly unimportant issue of the House of Lords provides them with a marvellous excuse?

20 September. The Sunday Telegraph quotes some extracts from Tony Giddens’s book on the supposed ‘Third Way’ which have very obviously been maliciously chosen in the hope of making him look stupid. Surely, not all he has to say can be as easy to make fun of (nor, of course, is it) as ‘We should move towards abolishing a fixed age of retirement, and we should regard older people as a resource rather than a problem. The category of the pensioner will then cease to exist.’ But the book’s publication, whatever readers of different persuasions and prejudices may think of its contents, raises interesting questions in itself. As Ross McKibbin has pointed out in the LRB (‘Third Way, Old Hat’), the search for, and debate about, the ‘Third Way’ is amazingly unhistorical – as if ‘New’ Liberalism had never been invented. To say nothing of the SDP and David Owen’s Face the Future (remember him?) and Shirley Williams’s Politics Is for People. But this is a book written by an academic who has the ear of a prime minister who is actually in power. So who’s doing what for whom? Does Tony G. really expect Tony B. to translate his personal view of the world into Parliamentary legislation, or does he merely hope to help him retain the electoral allegiance of the more disaffected fractions of the chattering classes? Conversely, does Tony B. really regard Tony G. as an important political philosopher, or is he merely exploiting the position of the Director of the LSE to confer ideological respectability on whatever menu of promises he thinks most likely to get him elected for a second term?

14 October. To the Lords for the first day of a two-day debate to ‘take note of’ the Government’s manifesto proposals for its reform. Margaret Jay, opening for the Government, is dressed in a brilliant red power suit as befits the tricoteuse en titre. Her feisty speech includes an intriguing reference to an unnamed noble earl who ‘has told me personally that he will behave like a football hooligan’. The unnamed earl, who turns out to be the 7th Earl of Onslow (Eton, the Sorbonne and the Life Guards), then rises to his feet to quote from Livy, Book Six (‘In the sleeves of my toga I have peace or war’). Pure Gilbert and Sullivan. If we’re back to 1910, it’s first time as comedy, second as farce.

But (as they say) seriously. Happy the country where anything as peculiarly unimportant as the long overdue abolition of hereditary peers’ right to speak and vote in the ‘Upper’ House takes up serious Parliamentary time. But less happy, perhaps, the country whose government allows it to do so when there is so much more important legislation to be addressed. The reflection that the decision is presumably driven by the spin-doctors’ calculations of prospective electoral advantage is more depressing than surprising. Of how many governments could it never have been said, in Macaulay’s memorable phrase, that once in office they were ‘more solicitous to hold power long than to use it well’?