So often these days, politics, at least in the UK, hides behinds shrouds and curtains of obfuscation. The powers that be MUST be doing things they are not totally proud of, to feel the need to hide so much of what they do, and how they do it from the gaze of the general public.
Just occasionally however, someone involved in the governmental process shines a light into the dark and murky corners of our political life, and, to mix a metaphor, lifts the edge of the carpet giving us a glimpse of how the wheels of government turn or sometimes, don’t turn.
So they write a diary. The thing about a diary is its immediacy. It’s written on the day it happens, so you get what the writer thinks when it all happens, not many years after when the memory has changed, views mellow and change, and the longer view, as well often as the latest view paints over the way it was then. There haven’t been that many decent ones in this country over the last 50 years. I suspect I’ve bought most of them. And it’s not always the heavyweights in the political firmament that produce the good ones – on occasions the really good ones come from people your prejudices would class as light weight. The ones I like are few and far between -
Richard Crossman almost started it for me, when he covered the Wilson Years from 1964-1970. Quite explosively. It showed almost for the firat time how Government actually worked rather than how they’d like you to think it worked.
Tony Benn wrote at enormous length (4 million words before editing! – just work that out on a words per day basis). Most definitely his own man, and on occasions as mad as a hatter, but Denis Healey had a standing order to those around him in Parliament – Never leave me for an hour with Benn on my own. I might end up being converted by him. A very charismatic man.
Edwina Currie (she of the salmonella debate) punched way above her weight, with a short book covering 1987-1992, which showed the frustrations of the lower ranks of the Ministerial Greasy Pole extremely well, as well as informing us first hand, if that’s the right phrase, of the colour of John Major’s underpants. Blue as it happened. Well it would be, wouldn’t it?
Gyles Brandreth, he of the woolly jumpers, wrote a hugely underrated book covering his time as a small town MP, covering the gradual decay of the Major government in a very atmospheric and readable way. I think it’s one of the best set of political diaries ever, and yet it’s hardly known at all. You can’t imagine someone like Brandreth producing something like this. He seems such a lightweight. But read them – they are quite superb, reeking of gradual fatalism and terminal, unrecoverable political decline.
And then there’s Alan Clark. Scurrilous, gossipy, outspoken, hugely well written and a series of three stunning books which I couldn’t put down. They pulsed with life, and showed again the frustrations of unrealised political ambition, as well as a terrific insider’s portrait of Thatcher’s downfall.
He was in love with her, of course. Odd, but true. A unique man who loved animals, was a vegetarian, and had two dogs, one named after Hitler’s film director, and the other after his Test Pilot. He lived in a beautiful 12th century Moated castle in Kent with his wife Jane. He married her when he was 28, and she was 16. You couldn’t make it up. If I was ever granted the wish of having dinner with 6 people of my choice, he would be the first on my list.
The Blair years - remember them? Try Alistair Campbell. Flawed they most certainly are. Probably published too soon, so too much airbrushing, particularly with the Brown/Blair relationship, which is not written up truly and fairly, to avoid giving the opposition too much ammunition to fire at Brown. But they’re still a marvellous read. You can’t help feeling that for many years, the country was actually governed by the Author, who had his hand up Blair’s back, pulling the strings for much of the time. You might not like what he stands for, but I bet he’s a great bloke with whom to spend an evening in a pub.
And try Piers Morgan. Almost the last man you’d expect to produce something like a worthwhile view of political life. They’re strictly not diaries in that they were written up long after the event, from notes he had kept. But they are really riveting stuff. He met Blair on innumerable occasions, with greater access that any politician, but it’s also the peripheral bits which enthral you. Try the bit where he’s out at a Rugby Club dinner with the Rugby player Will Carling who’s being pestered by someone on his mobile. A while later a small box wrapped as a present turns up via a uniformed flunkey. Upon opening it, he is faced with a freshly cut clip of Princess Diana’s pubic hair. An invitation not to be rejected! I don’t suppose that will make it into any of the official biographies.
And to the latest one I’ve got my sticky little mitts on. Chris Mullin. At a time when no-one has a good word to say about any politician, up comes a 600 page tome about Mullin’s life as a (very) junior Minister in Blair’s government. I can’t think of any MP who seems to have more integrity and honesty than this man. A very Left wing ex journalist who stands up for the rights of the common man, and who is increasingly appalled by the sinuous goings on at the top of New Labour. He admires Blair The Man, but has a real crisis of conscience over Iraq, and thinks that people like Rove, Rumsfeld, and Cheny are borderline insane.
You’d think he’d come over as a bit of a dull and worthy do-gooder, but he doesn’t. He writes well, perceptively, sees the big picture, and has a dry and funny sense of humour. I started them yesterday, and have just passed page 500.
Given what’s going on in the UK today with the Expenses saga, here’s one very topical entry in his book.
“Andrew Mackinlay dropped a little bombshell at this afternoon’s meeting of the parliamentary committee. Apparently, under the Freedom of information Act, by January 2005 MP’s expenses will be subject to public scrutiny, retrospectively. Goodness knows what mayhem this will cause. “We are in a jam,” said Robin Cook. “Few members have yet tumbled to the juggernaut heading their way.” He said he had been advised that we could probably get away with publishing headline figures and it would be desirable to start publishing a year before the deadline so that any fuss would have died down come the general election. It was agreed not to minute the discussion.
I’ll bet it was! And when was that written? May 2002!!
Talk about pulling the pin out of a grenade, and staring for seven years at what you’ve just done.
Once again, snippets like that shine very bright lights into very dark and dingy corners. And thank Goodness they do. You can understand the politician’s view about all this. Leo McGarry, the President’s Chief of Staff in the West Wing stole Bismarck’s supposed line which got it just about right from their point of view –
"There are two things you should never let people see how they're made. Laws and sausages."
It’s down to people like Chris Mullin who give us all a bit of a clue as to how the system works, or more accurately doesn’t work.
Good on him.