Thursday, September 18, 2008

Donoughue’s Downing Street play

A second volume of Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street diaries is published today. As an adviser to Harold Wilson and then James Callaghan, Donoughue was well placed to record the decline and final collapse of ‘old’ Labour and the emergence of Margaret Thatcher and her campaign to dismantle trade union power and public sector dominance. Peter Hennessy, a professor of contemporary history, says the book is best seen as a play - ‘a drama tingeing into tragedy and often laced with farce’.

Jonathan Cape, part of Random House, has just published Downing Street Diary Volume Two: With James Callaghan in No 10, by Bernard (and Baron) Donoughue. The first volume, published in 2005, starts in 1974, when he was invited by Harold Wilson first to help fight the General Election, and then to found and run the policy unit (the ‘kitchen cabinet’) at No 10. This second volume covers the three years, 1976-1979, when Donoughue was Senior Policy Advisor to James Callaghan.

Donoughue was educated at grammar school, and then at Lincoln and Nuffield Colleges, Oxford. He worked for The Economist and the Political and Economic Planning Institute before joining the staff of the London School for Economics in 1963. From 1974 to 1979, he worked at Number 10, and then went back to journalism for a few years. From the early 1980s, though, he was involved in the private sector, employed in the banking and investment sector, apart from a short spell in the late 1990s when he served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His professional activities have also included positions with an orchestra and a racecourse.

Random House says, of the first volume, that Donoughue’s diary, kept every day, provides ‘an extraordinarily intimate portrait of Harold Wilson, struggling to hold the Labour Party together, drinking heavily, increasingly paranoid about ‘plots’ and the press, and apparently in thrall to Marcia Williams’. In this new second volume, Donoughue records the prime minister and government becoming paralysed as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ begins to bite and politics takes to the streets. ‘As Labour drifted to inevitable defeat in the 1979 election,’ Random House says, ‘we see Callaghan fighting honourably’ and ‘from the smoke of battle there emerges a striking new leader: Margaret Thatcher.’ The diaries describe vividly, it adds, ‘both the decline and final collapse of ‘old’ Labour and how Mrs Thatcher took the opportunity to launch her crusade to dismantle trade union power and much of the British public sector’.

The Guardian provides some good extracts. Here are several.

Tuesday 14 June 1977: ‘I worked in the office in the morning. Lunch with Robin Butler at his club. Great pleasure to see him again. He told me one little story. While at No 10 there arrived on his desk a large brown envelope addressed personally to H Wilson, and forwarded from Lord North Street. He opened it and it was a current account sheet from the offshore Swiss bank which went broke with an illegal deposit in it for Wilson. Robin just resealed it and passed it on.’

Friday 24 February 1978: ‘My view is that we must establish an image of [Margaret] Thatcher [then the leader of the opposition] as a dangerous woman who will divide our society and create trouble. We are doing this now over immigration. Instead of ducking this issue, as many have advised, I have pressed the PM to take it head-on and attack her for inciting racial hatred - and so causing violence on the streets. We will not win any votes on the immigration issue this way: Thatcher will gain a lot on that in the short run. But I hope that in the long run we can broaden it out to her disadvantage. So we shall show that she is abrasive and divisive on industrial relations, confronting the trade unions. And on Scottish devolution. And on social security casualties - ‘scroungers etc’. And on the unemployed - attacking redundancy payments. . . ’

Friday 4 May 1979: ‘I awoke shortly after eight o'clock, having had less than three hours' sleep. The children buzzed in and out of my bedroom, on their way to school. I could hear excited discussions about what would happen ‘now Daddy has got the sack’. Stephen, aged nine, was clearly delighted, saying that now that I would be at home in the day I could cook his lunch and he ‘would not have to stay to school dinner’, which is one of the main burdens of his always fastidious life.’

Peter Hennessy, now a Professor of Contemporary British History, but who was a contemporary of Donoughue’s and a political journalist in the 1970s, has reviewed the new volume for The Times Literary Supplement. His long article starts as follows: ‘In the bigger picture of UK politics since 1945, Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street Diary is best seen as a play - a drama tingeing into tragedy and often laced with farce - with the Labour Left and the Conservative Right lurking in the wings, itching to prevail when old Labourism issues its last gasp and collapses into the arms of waiting historians, ready to pronounce the obsequies of the post-war consensus. . . Donoughue’s is a very good play - gripping, filled with personalities and acute observations, punctuated by moments of frustration verging on fury - for the author is quite a hater, especially when crossed.'

Hennessy also uses some extracts from the diaries, including one about himself! He says: ‘First, I must declare an interest. Donoughue outs our clandestine relationship during that era of tightly drawn official secrecy . . . : ‘15th–17 November 1976: Ridiculous that we [special advisers] are always suspected of leaking to the press. In fact I do occasionally talk with three old friends in newspapers without giving anything secret away – one on the Sunday Times (Harold Evans), one on The Times (Peter Hennessy) and one on the Financial Times (Joe Rogaly). Each tells me that most of their frequent leaks of secret information comes from regular civil servants.’ ’

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