I’ve referred often to Richard Crossman’s diaries in this blog and on Twitter. As a writer, and in terms of being a practical politician, he easily eclipses other diarists of his age up to and including Tony Benn. Benn’s vast legacy is composed of hot air and admiration for a belief in Parliamentary supremacy he only discovered late in his meandering career.
One of my teachers at secondary school was Bernard Black, a figure of deserved renown in political education and in the Electoral Reform Society. I owe him many things, mostly his toleration of my youthful misbehaviour, but above all his recommendation to read Crossman’s diaries. “BB” used to say that if you could memorise relevant examples from them of how politics happened, you would always have something to write about in an A-level Politics paper.
Well, I took him at his word and ploughed into “The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister”, and after absorbing the horrors of the Wilson government (many of whose mistakes have been repeated at least twice since) I got hold of a copy of Crossman’s “Backbench Diaries”. This fat volume is perhaps the most instructive of the four for the student of Labour history, because it deals with times when Labour was out of power and was consumed by a bitter civil war.
That it survived that civil war ought to give Labour hope for the future, because the strife it faces now is clearly as bitter as the Bevanite controversy. However it lacks anyone of the stature of Bevan, Gaitskell or Wilson to provide leadership. I said in my blog on Labour’s leadership election last year that Angela Eagle was the outstanding candidate in either ballot. She is still the best despatch box performer available, and given the necessities of electoral politics it is there that Labour need to rebuild from. But, dear me, she is the best of a poor field.
The reason for this blog is a 1-in-365 coincidence. I have had for years, since I was 16 or so, a phrase of Crossman’s stuck in my head, and it occurred to me today that I should look it up to check that I had remembered it correctly. I am glad I did, because in fact it was today in 1959 that he wrote it.
Crossman was one of the first of what we might call the “modern left”, an agitator against the consensual foreign policy of the Attlee government. Foreign policy disputes have always been Labour’s soft spot. He got onto Labour’s NEC in the Bevanite landslide of 1952, and was one of the Left’s outstanding writers and thinkers for decades. He was not someone who dismissed leftist attitudes lightly, and indeed was always concerned to think about how they might be transmitted into policy. But on July 3rd 1959, he said this during a row he had with Anthony Howard and Wayland Young (more famous in his inherited capacity as Baron Kennett):
“The definition of the Left is a group of people who will never be happy unless they can convince themselves that they are about to be betrayed by their leaders”
I always say that there is nothing new in British politics, and this brief sentence is one reason why. These days it is as true of the headbanging far right as it is of the Corbynista left. But it is still true, all the same.