The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister
In the preface to these diaries, Richard Crossman notes that he had, some years earlier, written a new Introduction to Walter Bagehot’s classic study, The English Constitution, and that his ambition now was to bring Bagehot up to date by disclosing the “secret woking” of the British government in the twentieth century as Bagehot had done in the nineteenth century. He hoped these diaries would serve as useful materials for such a study.
By the mid-1960’s Crossman was an experienced politician. He had served nearly twenty years as Labourite member of Parliament from the same constituency: Coventry East. At the same time, he had been an editor and writer on the New Statesman and Nation newspaper, and author of numerous books and tracts on British politics. Politically he was a left-of-center socialist and, as such, was not invited to join the Labour Cabinets of either Clement Attlee or Hugh Gaitskill in the 1950’s. Yet, without participation in the Cabinet he could not get to the heart of the government and learn of its secret working. So he waited for the opportunity, knowing that in British politics “where there is death, there is hope.” His chance came in 1964. Labour won a big victory in the general election that year, and Crossman’s close political colleague, Harold Wilson, became Prime Minister. Wilson offered Crossman the post of Minister of Housing and Local Government. Crossman admits that he knew nothing about the “housing job” (he had been Minister of Education in Wilson’s Shadow Cabinet), but the chance to learn the working of government from the inside could not be passed up; he accepted.
Crossman already knew, and now had confirmed, that the work of a British Cabinet minister divides into three general functions: administration of the ministry, participation in Cabinet meetings, and explanation and defense of ministry policies in the Parliament. Judging from the daily entries in his diaries, Crossman had to put most of his time and effort into the first of those functions: administration of the Ministry. He soon learned that the Ministry of Housing does not actually build houses; that is done by private builders or local town councils. The Ministry of Housing is concerned with planning new towns, setting goals for national housing programs, establishing building regulations, and granting approval for construction. Crossman also discovered that a good part of his time was expended on public relations: conferences with builders, speeches to town councils, tours of older communities to inspect renewal work, the ceremonial openings of new construction, and, most trying of all, working to get his housing plans and programs approved by the Cabinet and the Parliament. Local Government—the other branch of the Ministry—appears to have been of less interest to Crossman than housing. He admits that is a personal predilection, and that his successor might take more action in the local government area than he did. However, there was a particular political power available to him through the Local Government office: fixing the boundaries of expanding towns. On several occasions Crossman arranged that the town boundaries would be drawn so as to leave many Conservative voters out of a Labour stronghold, but he denies that this was gerrymandering.
Crossman’s chief concern during his tenure at the Ministry was to get more houses built throughout the nation. 190,000 households in London alone urgently needed housing; the situation was nearly as severe in other cities. Crossman’s aim was to have built 400,000 houses in twelve months’ time (1965-1966), a number of which were to be constructed in “New Towns.” That housing goal was announced by Prime Minister Wilson, and Crossman energetically set to work. He negotiated with the building societies and town officials. He offered position papers to Commons for debate and approval. He contended with other Ministries for allocation of Treasury funds.
Perhaps most importantly, Crossman learned rapidly how the Ministry of Housing operates (“because my mind works quicker than most people’s minds”), and how to bring it under his control. He admits that he bullied and made fools of his subordinates, and that he could be difficult and brutal. When he arrived at the Whitehall offices of the Ministry, he found much esprit de corps among the civil service employees. But that spirit was toward the Ministry and their work, and was not granted to the current minister who, as an elected official, would probably be leaving after a short time. Crossman also found that, over many years, the Ministry had developed a body of routine procedures and practices, as might be expected. Crossman, an energetic and often impatient individual, was vexed by many of the inbred departmental methods. The principal practitioner and defender of the customary departmental methods was the Permanent Secretary, Dame Evelyn Sharp. Crossman clashed with the Dame over any number of departmental matters; he tried to get her removed from office on two occasions. Then in 1966, the Dame resigned voluntarily. By that time, Crossman had learned to respect her abilities and rely upon her; belatedly, he regretted her leaving.
About the same time, Crossman gives some impressions of the Ministry after about a year and a half of service there. He finds that the civil service employees are “less efficient, less reliable and more unpredictable” than he had expected. Their loyalty is largely to the Treasury which is the source of their promotions and they are able to resist pressures from nearly all outside forces, protected as they are by their civil service status. The reader gets the impression that Crossman would like to see great changes in the civil service and that, given the opportunity, he would bring those changes about. Still, by the middle of 1966, he could assert rather smugly, “I am a relatively popular and...
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