Friday, December 15, 2017

My room is like a padded cell

‘I was appointed Minister of Housing on Saturday, October 17th, 1964. Now it is only the 22nd but, oh dear, it seems a long, long time. [. . .] The room in which I sit is the same in which I saw Nye Bevan for almost the first time when he was Minister of Health, and already I realize the tremendous effort it requires not to be taken over by the Civil Service. My Minister’s room is like a padded cell, and in certain ways I am like a person who is suddenly certified a lunatic and put safely into this great, vast room, cut off from real life and surrounded by male and female trained nurses and attendants.’ This is from the opening entry in the celebrated political diary of Richard Crossman. Born 110 years ago today, he became a key figure on the left of the Labour Party during the 1960s. He is best remembered today for his diaries which the civil service tried to ban at first, and which later led to the famous Yes Minister sitcom.

Crossman was born on 15 December 1907 in London, the son of a barrister. He won scholarships to Winchester College school and New College, Oxford. After graduating in the classics, he spent a year in Germany, where he met Erika Susanna, a divorcee who he then married in 1932 (but divorced in 1934). Remaining at New College as a fellow, his lectures were very popular, and he soon developed a reputation for being a first class tutor. He became a lecturer at the Worker’s Educational Association, and he was elected onto Oxford City Council, becoming head of the Labour group in 1935. In 1937, he married another divorcee, Hilda Baker, née Davis. In 1938, he was appointed assistant editor for the New Statesman. Having unsuccessfully fought a by-election in 1937, he had to wait until the 1945 election to be elected to Parliament (for Coventry East - a seat he would hold until shortly before his death). During the war, he served in the Ministry of Economic Warfare organising British propaganda against Germany

Crossman became associated with a group of left-wing MPs (often called Bevanites), and coproduced a tract, entitled Keep Left, urging a closer relationship with Europe, so as to create a ‘Third Force’ in politics. He was elected a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee from 1952 until 1967, and he was Chairman of the Labour Party in 1960-1961. After the 1964 General Election, Harold Wilson appointed him Minister of Housing, and then, in 1966, Leader of the House of Commons (in which role he reformed the select committee system), and then, in 1968, Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. After the Conservatives returned to power in 1970, Crossman resigned the Labour front bench and became editor of the New Statesman, though he stepped down in 1972.

Crossman’s second wife died in 1951, and he got married a third time, in 1954, to Anne Patricia who gave him two children. Crossman himself died in 1974. Further information is readily available online at Wikipedia, Spartacus, Warwick University’s website, a BBC radio profile, or Anthony Howard’s profile at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (for which a free UK library or other log-in is required).

Crossman kept detailed diaries during much of his time as an MP and as a government minister - from 1952 to 1970. These were published posthumously in four volumes (Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, three volumes, and The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman), although Crossman himself spent the last years of his life preparing them for publication. In the introduction to the first volume, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister - Minister of Housing 1964-66 (Hamish Hamilton, 1975), Crossman explains that he began to keep a diary so that historians would have a ‘coherent and continuous picture’ of what was going among the Bevanites.

‘Of course’, he continues elsewhere in the introduction, ‘the picture which this diary provides is neither objective nor fair - although as a lifelong political scientist I have tried to discipline myself to objectivity. In particular I have tried to avoid self-deception, especially about my own motives; the tendency to attribute to others my own worst failings; and the temptation to omit what might make me look silly in print. I have been urged by many to remove all the wounding passages about colleagues or officials. I have not done so because it would make the book untrue, and I hope that when some of them find me intolerably unfair, they will recall the follies and illusions I faithfully record about myself. A day-by-day account of a Government at work, as seen by one participant, is bound to be one-sided and immensely partisan. If it isn’t, it too would fail to be true to life.’

In fact, Crossman provided such a detailed day-to-day account of the government at work, including of cabinet meetings, that a senior civil servant, Lord Hunt of Tamworth, felt it his duty to try and halt their publication. More about this - and the link with the 1980s comedy sitcom, Yes Minister - can be found in an earlier Diary Review article: Yes, Minister, thanks to Hunt. A review of Crossman’s diaries by Clive James, first published by the New York Review of Books in 1977, can be read on James’s own website. The following extracts from Crossman’s diaries are reproduced from a 1976 Book Club Associates edition of the first volume.

22 October 1964
‘I was appointed Minister of Housing on Saturday, October 17th, 1964. Now it is only the 22nd but, oh dear, it seems a long, long time. It also seems as though I had really transferred myself completely to this new life as a Cabinet Minister. In a way it’s just the same as I had expected and predicted. The room in which I sit is the same in which I saw Nye Bevan for almost the first time when he was Minister of Health, and already I realize the tremendous effort it requires not to be taken over by the Civil Service. My Minister’s room is like a padded cell, and in certain ways I am like a person who is suddenly certified a lunatic and put safely into this great, vast room, cut off from real life and surrounded by male and female trained nurses and attendants. When I am in a good mood they occasionally allow an ordinary human being to come and visit me; but they make sure that I behave right, and that the other person behaves right; and they know how to handle me. Of course, they don’t behave quite like nurses because the Civil Service is profoundly deferential - ‘Yes, Minister! No, Minister! If you wish it. Minister!’ - and combined with this there is a constant preoccupation to ensure that the Minister does what is correct. The Private Secretary’s job is to make sure that when the Minister comes into Whitehall he doesn’t let the side or himself down and behaves in accordance with the requirements of the institution.’

27 November 1964
‘I got to the Ministry fresh and hearty and spent the day on office meetings, staff meetings, progress meetings, dealing with the routine of the Private Office as well. They seem to have a better idea of what my policy is and I have got them to agree to an elaborate programme of informal consultations and discussions on the content of the Rent Bill. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday will be totally allocated to discussions in two groups, one headed by myself and Arnold Goodman, and the other headed by Jim MacColl and Donnison. These two groups will study one paper prepared by the Department. I am really pleased I have got this fixed.

I caught the train to Coventry on Friday evening where I had to make the first speech I had ever made in my life at a public dinner. I suppose I provided what was required. Then I motored home to find Anne lying upstairs in bed listening to the new B.B.C. programme which has now been put on instead of TW3, and finding how vacuous it was.’

28 November 1964
‘At eight o’clock I had to be off to Leicester for one of my visitations, from nine fifteen in the morning till four o’clock in the afternoon. They have become quite a routine for me now and I had my long discussions on the usual subjects, multi-occupation, the new Government subsidies, land policy. The interesting thing at Leicester, I thought, was the admirable way they are trying to deal with the problem of the people who grow elderly on their huge housing estates and then under-occupy their three-room council houses. Here they are taking a certain number of the houses in each area and turning them into flats by the most ingenious method of putting one old person upstairs and one downstairs in each house. They were also putting the old people’s bungalows next door to old people’s homes so those in the bungalows could have meals if they wanted in the old people’s homes. They all seemed to me humane and civilized schemes.’

15 September 15 1965
‘Anne and I motored over to Warwick University, which is in a very pleasant Coventry suburb. Astounding progress has been made there in twelve months. They are using very modern techniques of industrialized building and the new sections are being run up incredibly quickly. I found it difficult talking to Jack Butterworth, who is a very old friend, because I knew too much about the relations between Warwick University and the city authorities. When I was Shadow Science Minister I became more and more convinced that one of the biggest jobs for the next Labour Secretary of State for Education was to break down the rigid division between higher education and further education and institute a unitary approach as against the existing binary approach. At that time I saw this extremely clearly in Coventry itself. It seemed obvious that one should try and integrate the Lanchester College of Technology, the new university and the first-rate teacher training college which for years has been on the site adjacent to the university campus. Indeed, one of the last things I did before the election was to ask Harold Wilson to come down and make a speech at the Lanchester against the binary policy, although I knew that officials in the Ministry were firmly committed to it. Alas! in 1964 when Michael Stewart took over, he quietly accepted the departmental line because there was nothing in the Party policy about committing us to repeal it. When Michael went and Tony replaced him I felt it was unfair to intervene, since I remembered how much I resented any intervention by Michael Stewart in my rents problem (he had been Shadow Minister of Housing). But I was disappointed to hear that he had decided to maintain the binary system, and I was greatly disconcerted when I learnt later on that he was by no means convinced in his own mind that it was right. I have always wondered since then whether he mightn’t have changed his mind if I had really gone in to bat when he first took over.

Still, those are all speculations which one shouldn’t waste time on. I had an excellent time with Butterworth, and informal talks with a number of his staff. I safely caught the 3.20 train and was up in time for my first meeting of the liaison committee at 6 in George Wigg’s room.

Taking over as chairman was tricky because Transport House was deeply suspicious of me and George himself is a most erratic, difficult, crabby man.

I went away after an hour and a half feeling fairly depressed, saying to myself, ‘Well, I have either asserted my authority or I have got myself into an unholy row.’ I was sure I had got Marcia Williams’s support but I wasn’t sure of much else.

I found it difficult to keep my attention fully on the meeting because of something which had happened just before I went across to Palace Yard. Into my office came copies of the Evening Standard and the Evening News, each containing the announcement that the London boroughs had jointly decided on a common policy of requiring a five-year residence qualification for anybody to get a council house in Greater London. This shocked me. And not only that: I had spent a great deal of time working out a speech I was due to deliver on Thursday morning to the annual meeting of the Institute of Housing Managers in Brighton, which contained a slashing attack on the reactionary attitude many housing authorities display to immigrants and the point that cities laying down a five- or six-year residence qualification were objectively committing racial discrimination. Peter Brown and Bob Mellish were in a state of great excitement about the speech. All I knew was that the press release I had prepared would not do as it would be regarded by everyone as a direct reaction by the Minister to the announcement from the boroughs.

I had to leave the liaison committee meeting in order to go across to No. 10 for a cocktail party Harold was giving to the industrial correspondents. I stayed about ten minutes, long enough for Geoffrey Goodman to tell me that he thought the reaction to George Brown’s National Plan would be lousy. The press had had the plan that day and had been working on it in preparation for Thursday morning.

From Downing Street I went on to Crosland’s house where I had a most amiable evening with him and his wife Susan - so delightful that I talked politics far too freely and felt a delicious, racy, scandalized joy in doing so.’

2 November 1965
‘A very long day entirely devoted to departmental meetings. In the evening a meeting of the strategy group over supper at No. 10. Present: Peter Shore, Tony Benn, Tommy Balogh, Marcia Williams, Gerald Kaufman, myself (as chairman) and the Prime Minister. When he came in he looked really jaded. The Rhodesia crisis has been telling on him. As soon as he flew in, after a week of activity, he was plunged into Cabinet on Monday morning and the House of Commons on Monday afternoon. Judging by the press, he has had a real success in the Commons and foxed the Tories by his proposal for the Royal Commission, even though it was pretty obvious from the word go that the Commission was a non-starter and we were merely postponing the evil day. Nevertheless, by Tuesday evening he looked tired and found it difficult to talk to us at all. Gradually he got more interested and we had a useful discussion on the line he should take in the Queen’s Speech. But then his interest lapsed and he suddenly got the bright idea that because Exchange Telegraph had closed down its parliamentary services, Tony Benn as P.M.G. should nationalize it.’

8 August 1966
‘The Sunday papers were full of the story and I had a number of telephone talks with Peter Brown before I caught the night train from Bodmin Road. I got to Paddington at 7.15 this morning to find that the hot water had been turned off and I couldn’t have a bath at Vincent Square.

I had hoped to have a quick meeting under Harold’s leadership in order to fix this idiotic problem of mortgages. It seemed obvious that I should meet George Brown to the extent of asking the building societies not to raise their mortgage rates until the P.I.B. had reported and then making sure the P.I.B. gave us their report by early October. This is exactly what we did in fact finally agree on, but first I had to square my Permanent Secretary, who thought I was giving far too much to George and that I should stand firm on the original statement Callaghan and I had made. I found this terribly negative and when we got into our meeting finally, shortly after twelve, we settled it along the lines I have described.

In the afternoon I saw the building societies and got their agreement that I should make a Statement in the House to that effect next day. After that I had to see George Brown about the Centre for Environmental Studies. I had promised Richard Llewelyn-Davies the headquarters would be in London. George Brown was insisting on Edinburgh. After we had disagreed in quite a friendly way, he asked me to stay behind in his room and told me that he would be out of the D.E.A. within a few days and he was glad because he had been doing that job far too long. Then he went on to say how much he appreciated my behaviour on the day before the devaluation Cabinet. I had been honest with him, unlike some other people he could mention. ‘Whatever happens,’ he said, ‘don’t do anything without telling me. I gather you want to make it as difficult as possible to introduce Part IV. I don’t agree with you but I am not so far away from your position. Keep in touch with me. I trust you, you trust me, I support Harold and so do you.’ That was George at about four o’clock.’

The Diary Junction

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