Crossman: Diary of a Flop

It was Iain MacLeod, the Tory leader whose ambition was as plain and disfiguring as a broken nose, who said that the only life worth living was that of a government minister. It was probably something to do with the ever-attendant television crews, the crowds, the red despatch boxes, the big limousines. Who could resist such excitement? Especially if, like some Labour ministers, your working life had begun hewing coal or standing behind the counter of the local Co-op.

But what happens when the excitement is taken away, when the minister is sacked or his party loses an election? What remains, to console him for absent crowds and the unremarked drive home in his Morris 1100? Well, he can usually find a place on at least one board of directors. If he is a Labour man he may be able to conceal his function as a whip-lash of exploitation behind a title like Industrial Relations Consultant. Or he can write his memoirs, which can be profitable for him and illuminating for the rest of us, who have got little amusement from him while he has been in office.

The Labour government of 1964-70 yielded a crop of memoirs — with more to come, no doubt. Harold Wilson, after losing the 1970 election, applied his famous memory and capacity for hard work to producing a 790-page door-stop of a book about his first government. It took him five months. At the same time, George Brown rushed out his version of those times — thinner and lighter in every sense. But the most notable up to now — because of the controversial embers upon which they have blown — have been the diaries of the late Richard Crossman, who for years attracted both adoration and loathing as one of the most gladiatorial of Labour’s con-men.

The retirement or defeat of a prominent politician can be the time for him to make some embarrassing revelations about the way capitalism is governed — about ruthless ambition among men who preach that the rest of us should be selfless, about blunders by ministers who are assumed to be near-infallible, about the confusion among politicians whose reputations rest upon their being in confident control. There is an official rule aimed at preventing such embarrassment to people who are still alive — so that George Brown, is allowed to tell about Bevin’s accusation that he was “. . . acting as office-boy for that bastard Dalton”, but Crossman is hampered in revealing what a civil servant thought about two of the great men of the time:

   . . .  his characterization of Alf Robens: 70 per cent slyness, alertness and charm and 30 per cent a straight madman — almost as bad as George Brown.


Crossman was keen that his diaries should be published quickly — he thought they would lift the lid on “the secret operations of Government, which are concealed by the thick masses of foliage which we call the myth of democracy.” This was bound to be awkward to those politicians who still have the job of keeping the foliage as luxuriant as possible and it was over this that the battle of the diaries has been fought.


If “fought” is the right word, when the ammunition consists of missives worded as gently as “I should be grateful if you would confirm . . .” Much more combative was George Brown’s riposte in The Sun, when he slung some of the mud back by revealing the motives Crossman admitted to in Cabinet:


   Prime Minister, if you ask me not to compile these diaries I shall just resign.
I am not interested in sitting here as a Minister except in so far as it enables me to write this record.


Crossman, let it be remembered, was in the Cabinet as Minister of Housing, pledged to ease one of the most desperate aspects of working-class poverty.


George Brown never shrank from embarrassing anyone but in his memoirs the effect is often unconscious. Brown bid for his place in history with some of the more extravagant gimmicks of British capitalism in the sixties — among them the Statement of Intent on Incomes and Prices and the National Plan. At the time Brown and his colleagues were telling us they had a consistent policy to keep capitalism well under control. But his memoirs give a different story:


   We (at the Department of Economic Affairs) were trying to persuade people to restrain wage demands and to hold down prices at the very time when the rest of the Government, as a matter of deliberate policy, was forcing up prices. (In My Way.)


Yet no hint of defeat shadows the declining days of George Brown. He consoles himself (The Sun) that Wilson must be regretting now that he did not listen more attentively to his advice.


There is no more reality about Wilson’s memoirs, which offer the history of a human computer alone refusing to be impressed by the election forecasts which could turn out to be wrong; his policies being justified to confound gloomy predictions; his smooth transformation of hostile demonstrators into ecstatic supporters. Wilson’s memoirs prove him right in everything and even when wrong it was somebody else’s fault:


   On Friday 1st. July (1966) George Brown, Jim Callaghan and I met to discuss the economic situation . . . The Chancellor, with all his Treasury and Bank of England briefs before him, drew a picture of blue skies in every direction . . .
Within a week the Chancellor’s hopes were dashed.

(The Labour Government 1964-70).


The uproar over the Crossman diaries is because they prick the bubble. Wilson may picture himself as a knight in shining armour; Crossman gives a less flattering account of those crisis days of 1966:


   Throughout (the Cabinet) Harold was his dreary, competent self, fiddling with the figures. George Brown was sulking on the other side of the table. The Chancellor was talking big about getting tough with Germany . . . Nothing had been adequately prepared. Nothing had been thought out properly. We were fixing things once again, horribly inefficiently, at the last moment.


But Crossman himself does not emerge as any more successful or attractive than the men he held in apparent contempt. He grumbles at being held prisoner by his civil servants which, if true, was something he knew before he took the job as a minister. At one time he is engaged by a wine list, at another relishes his right, as Lord President, to be the first of all the ministers to get his seal of office from the queen.


There is no suggestion, in the extracts published, that Crossman thought himself in any measure responsible for the fiasco of that government. Nothing disturbs the confidence that if he, with one or two fellow-intellectuals, had been at Number Ten we would have arrived at the Promised Land. Crossman did not seem aware of his true standing in the history of capitalist government — just another in the list of Housing Ministers who left the problem as bad when they went out of office as it was when they came in.


Capitalism schools into its workers that they are led by great, wise men who deserve their respect. Sometimes, as in the Crossman diaries, we see a different picture — of Wilson describing his fellow great men as “dangerous and conspiratorial” (Roy Jenkins) and “inert” (James Callaghan). It is one which workers should remember next time they are asked to vote for these leaders. No election address will describe a party leader as dangerous or inert; it will be up to the workers themselves to remember.


Whichever set of politicians holds office the result is the same. There is confusion because capitalism itself is anarchic. There is panic because capitalism is a society where nothing is secure. There are blunders because capitalism will not be controlled. There are deception and intrigue because capitalism is as competitive as the jungle.


One danger about any so-called startling revelations about capitalist politics is that they can be explained away, to many workers’ satisfaction, by the hope that another type of politician — more honest, more knowledgeable, more humane — would make a better job of running the system. Capitalism itself has done enough to destroy that notion as one leader after another, whatever his personality or talents, has proved impotent in the face of capitalism grinding out its inhumanities.


As Crossman died the Vietnam war was bursting out anew, starvation blanketed millions of the world’s people and western capitalism was sliding into a crisis which may yet outdo the crash of the thirties. This is the social system which is justified and perpetuated by Labour and other politicians. It is the society bolstered by the glamorous intellectual Crossman and by the demotic George Brown. It is a restrictive society in which the majority who suffer do so accepting as their lot that they are without privilege or satisfaction. It is all the more important, then, that that majority should not be so overcome by the few brief opportunities to look inside as to misinterpret what they are allowed to see.