The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2426

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...

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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 successful Minister.”

Success in gaining control of the administration of the Ministry was not matched, however, by success in getting those 400,000 houses built. As he observes in the diary entry for May, 1966, “we are going very badly and nothing I do or say will stop it.” Reasons for failure to reach the goals were many: the building societies would not support his housing schemes, the local councils procrastinated, the Tories obstructed in Parliament, Prime Minister Wilson was “a complete innocent” on the whole question of land, and planning had not given the leadership or support Crossman felt was needed for the housing goal to be met. But the real cause for failure in Crossman’s eyes was James Callaghan, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Crossman’s dislike of Callaghan as a person and as a minister of the government is abundantly evident throughout the diaries. Callaghan is called a “jackass” who combines smallness with ambition; a “staid, prim Bank of England type, almost a parody of the Labour man taken over by his officials.” Callaghan is primarily blamed for the fact that the housing figures were not going to be met in 1966. The Chancellor kept interest rates high and kept a tight rein on housing licenses. Builders and buyers were discouraged, and so, Crossman concludes, “it was the Chancellor’s policies that decided the number of houses built, not mine.”

Almost as bad, from the viewpoint of Crossman the politician, was that Callaghan’s policies contributed to heavy Labour losses in the municipal elections of 1965. The party had promised to provide lower interest rates and reduced rents, and then had defaulted on that promise. Voters turned against the Labourites for that reason, Crossman believed. Yet, on the other hand, in the General Election of 1966, the Labour party did quite well, returning 363 members to 253 for the Conservatives. Crossman himself called inflation and devaluation of the pound sterling the chief issues on which people voted for Labour in 1966. If those were indeed the issues, then it would appear that Callaghan’s monetary policies were vindicated by voter approval. Personal animosity seems to have colored Crossman’s judgment of Callaghan excessively.

On August 10, 1966, soon after the General Election, Prime Minister Wilson reorganized the Cabinet. Crossman was asked to leave Housing and become Lord President of the Privy Council and Leader of the Labour Party in the Commons. Wilson, in his own memoirs, claimed that he “wanted to see a little play given to the intuitiveness and iconoclasms of Dick Crossman,” and tried to convince Crossman that it was a promotion. But Crossman did not see it that way. He would have to leave the Housing ministry after only twenty-two months to be “upped into the stratosphere” into a job that carried little power. He was depressed and seriously considered retiring from government service altogether. He had, as he said, enough money to be able to settle down at his “lovely manor house” and farm with his wife and two children. But Wilson convinced Crossman that his service had been appreciated, and that he was still much needed in the government. Apprehensive and doubtful, Crossman agreed to take the post offered. A major reason for his reluctance to accept the Lord Presidency was that it would mean frequent meetings with the “poor little Queen.” Earlier he thanked God that, as minister of Housing, he did not have to mix with the Court. Later he discoursed at great length on the dreary role of the monarchy and the Court, and said the Queen found him boring, as he found her boring. Crossman was clearly a socialist egalitarian, possibly a republican as well.

With his acceptance of the Lord Presidency, the entries in the Diaries of a Cabinet Minister come to an end. At a number of places through the diaries Crossman set down his observations and impressions of the functioning of the British government from the inside; those observations are probably the most interesting features of this book. One observation he makes is that the Cabinet is now definitely a part of what Bagehot called the “dignified” element of the British constitution, which means that no real decisions are made by the Cabinet unless the Prime Minister chooses to “give the appearance” of letting the Cabinet collectively decide some matter. Crossman does regard the Cabinet as a more genuine forum of opinion than he had been led to expect when he wrote the Introduction to Bagehot; the minutes of the Cabinet meetings, however, are a travesty, and do not really reflect what goes on at the meetings, particularly when they show a specious unanimity of opinion.

Fundamentally, Crossman accepts the premise that Cabinet Government has become, or is becoming, Prime Ministerial Government. The Prime Minister is no longer “primus inter pares,” he is the supreme authority in the Cabinet. The authority of the Prime Minister is not absolute, however. The Prime Minister—at least this Prime Minister, Harold Wilson—still shares power. Crossman discovered that the principal sharer of power with the Prime Minister is the Secretary of the Cabinet, but he does not delineate precisely what powers the Secretary has. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has tremendous power in his own right owing to the unique position of the Treasury at Whitehall, as Crossman found to his frustration and sorrow. Likewise, each departmental Minister has considerable power in his own “satrapy” so long as he is a successful minister; there is no effective control by Parliament over a Minister. Furthermore, whatever potential for authority the Prime Minister may have, Crossman did not find that Harold Wilson was using it. He calls Wilson a “curiously methodical unimaginative person . . . just a man of routine carrying out an agreed policy.” Wilson is too kindhearted to be an authoritarian; he “just doesn’t like hurting a colleague and finds it impossible to sack anybody.”

As to the Cabinet collectively, Crossman calls them a “humdrum gang of competent politicians” and also “weak and pliable in the hands of the City and the Bank of England” (meaning here no doubt his special aversion, James Callaghan). Yet, paradoxically, given that rather low opinion of his colleagues, Crossman says that by July, 1966, he was “busily trying to reassert Cabinet authority” because “it’s better to get back to something like Cabinet responsibility, and Cabinet responsibility to the Parliament” than to drift along allowing ever more authority for the Prime Minister alone. Whether the effort to recover the collective authority of the Cabinet at that time made itself felt, Crossman does not say. But in the reorganization of the Cabinet a few weeks later he was kicked upstairs to the Lord Presidency, which suggests that he was perhaps being punished as ring leader of the reaction against Prime Ministerial government.

Another aspect of British government whose importance Crossman admits to having completely overlooked when he wrote the Introduction to Bagehot was the full network of official committees that “strictly and completely parallel the work of the Ministers.” These committees in each department “pre-cook” the whole job of the Minister to a point where it is most difficult for him to reach any conclusion other than the one that the committee has decided upon already.

Those are only a few of many observations which make this book a useful source of information about the working of modern British government. The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister is just what the title suggests: the journal of a participant in the governance of Britain at the highest level. The diaries tell very little about Crossman’s personal life. We learn nothing here about his earlier career and not much about his family; even his political views as a lifelong socialist are given short shrift. The diaries apparently were not originally intended for publication. However, Crossman assures the reader that when he did decide to publish, he made no excisions or expurgations of what he had first put down. The result is a frank, often harsh, critique of British politics and politicians. Crossman had strong opinions and a rather prickly personality, but he was also intelligent, sensitive, and truly desirous of making Britain a better place in which to live; all that and more comes through in the diaries.

Toward the end of the book, Crossman quotes from a speech he gave when opening some new housing at Romsey. He spoke of governmental compulsion and of the powers that the government could employ. He called those powers a terrible danger; they should only be used to make the voluntary system work. If government powers are used for any other reason, then the government should recognize that it has failed to keep the voluntary system going. Voluntarism, democracy, and socialism; those appear to have been the basic elements of the political credo of Richard Crossman.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33

Books and Bookmen. XXI, April, 1976, p. 6.

Contemporary Review. CCXXVI11, February, 1976, p. 105.

Economist. CCLV11, December 13, 1975, p. 119.

New Statesman. XC, December 12, 1975, p. 758.

New York Times Book Review. September 12, 1976, p. 1.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCIX, June 28, 1976, p. 93.

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