Parliament may lack the usual drama right now but these political diaries conjure up all the twists and turns we’ve missed from SW1. Political crises come and go. Today’s scandals are tomorrow’s chip paper. But, for the political diarist, they’re tonight’s entry – and, in the pages of the greatest political diaries, the high stakes of being a politician are combined with the sort of day-to-day minutiae you only pick up from walking and stalking the corridors of power yourself.
The doyen, the master, and the wickedest of them all. When the first volume of his diaries, In Power, were published in 1993 they caused a sensation. Bitchy, licentious, searingly honest, the book sashayed into the best seller charts, cementing Clark’s place in political history. This is the Thatcher government laid bare; ‘AC’ loathes Michael Heseltine, thinks Kenneth Clarke is a “podgy puffball”, and fawns over “the Lady” (whom he fantasises about kissing, but not “penetrating”). He delights in crises and gossip, drink and, of course, sex – though his constituents and his mundane briefs leave him cool. “Some of my colleagues are in trouble,” he confides at one point, “and that always makes me calm.”
There were two further collections. Into Politics follows Clark attempting to find a seat and make his mark, fuelled by a combination of boredom, mischief and bracing, Anglo-Saxon right-wingery. The Last Diaries are more reflective and bittersweet. As Clark, a lifelong hypochondriac, succumbs to brain cancer, an illness he’d always feared, his wife Jane takes over to chronicle – starkly, frankly, and tenderly – his final days. Will we ever see such flamboyant, unedited Tory backbenchers again? ‘ACHAB’, as our hero would say. (Anything can happen at backgammon.)
The seminal account of the New Labour years. Mullin is in many ways the antithesis of Clark – bookish, well-meaning, somewhat prim. But he treats his period in office with similar wit, and a permanently raised eyebrow. Mullin, a member of Labour’s Socialist Group, is plucked from complete obscurity by ‘the Man’ and raised to almost-complete obscurity over four years as a junior minister. ‘Crackpot Chris’, as the tabloids used to call him, comes across as anything but. “Chris Mullin is a much better minister than he pretends,” noted John Vereker, a snippet passed to Mullin by the then Tory Shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell. Over time, Mullin has clearly drifted, from Labour’s hard left to somewhere around the centre, convinced by many years in opposition that the red-blooded Socialism of some of his colleagues can never win power.
There are three volumes of diaries available; Decline & Fall, the third is perhaps the best. “The Man” has finally given away to “Gordon”. The government is burning out. “If all else fails,” reflects Mullin, contemplating his retirement, “I shall grow vegetable.” Mullin has also written novels – A Very British Coup, about left-wing Prime Minister Harry Perkins, enjoyed a fresh lease of life following the election of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour’s leadership.
“Up betimes!” Begun in 1660, back in the good old days when a chap could become an MP without troubling himself too much with the rigmarole of getting elected, Samuel Pepys’ diaries are a window into a forgotten world – in some ways so different, but in many, surprisingly similar. Redolent of a London buzzing with coffee and ale houses, Pepys bounces his way through political and domestic tumult. There’s wife trouble, mistress trouble, boss trouble, money trouble, and tart trouble – all washed down with plenty of strong drink and plate upon plate of his beloved pickled oysters. I was going to say you can practically smell it, but I don’t want to put you off. I love Pepys. Let him into your life, but never let him borrow your coin purse.
Getting to know the diarist, when the diarist is being honest, is part of the pleasure, and what makes Alastair Campbell’s journals so intriguing. It’s easy to write Campbell off as a malevolent hack, plucked from Fleet Street by Blair to terrorise the juniors, aggressively tribal and widely disliked. Well, he is aggressively tribal, and he is widely disliked – but what emerges from the page is a more complex man, deeply, passionately committed to the Labour Party, battling both a drink problem and depression. He even shows occasional grace – and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Alan Clark, driving up to Saltwood for a gossip, and helping to winkle the old rogue out of his numerous scrapes.
A particularly amusing, and pertinent, extract has just emerged onto Twitter. Ready to move on, Campbell suggested Adam Boulton should replace him as Number 10’s Director of Communications. Following a lunch at Chequers, Blair concluded that Boulton “lacked judgement”. Campbell’s behaviour over the Coronacrisis has been extraordinary; perhaps the demons he reveals in these diaries partly explain why. Worth a read.
A titan of British Socialism, Tony Benn was a man who combined a lifelong dedication to redistributing wealth with shrewd personal financial management. By his dotage, everybody liked him, even those who vehemently disagreed with him. He had taken on the guise of a sage, though – back in the day – bedevilled his party. Harold Wilson was particularly scathing. “Tony Benn is the only man I know who immatures with age,” he once said. Benn was a dreamer. Seduced, in the way only an aristocrat could be, by the romance of the working classes, his political operations, chartered in detail across numerous volumes, combine risk, oratory, calculating ruthlessness, and a blunt refusal to yield to minor inconveniences such as reality. He loves the miners, he loves drinking mugs of tea in the workers’ canteen – but he loves going back to his Kensington townhouse, too. It is a patrician sympathy, built on genuine concern, which fuels his wilder political indulgences.
The diaries are pure Benn. The pipe smoke fills the room as you read. They are beautifully written; a rich insight into a man whose dreams, if realised, would beget a nightmare. For all his wit, kindness and unquestionable charm, you are left with the impression that he never quite squared his lifestyle with his beliefs.
Nicolson was a Tory (who expressed increasingly leftist sympathies as he grew older), a bisexual, and a voracious keeper of journals. Married to Vita Sackville-West – yes, her; another bisexual, it’s all going on at the Nicolson’s gaffe – ‘HC’ had the luck to be at the heart of many of the most momentous events of the 20th century. Atmosphere is everything here, but the elegant catty asides are fun, too.
Though relieved when they finally join the war, Nicolson conspicuously dislikes Americans, who he finds coarse and ignorant. His accounts of the Munich and Suez crises are page-turning, and of the Blitz frightening and unexpectedly melancholic. ’50 years of British Society’ would offer an apt subtitle for these volumes. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness at the passing of these times. Whither elegance, when we all have so much invective to Tweet?
In happy news for diary-buffs, this year will see the publication of the unexpurgated Chips Channon – Conservative MP, traditionalist, American-born anti-American, “toady” (according to Duff Cooper) and Nazi-appeasing homosexual. Edited by Simon Heffer, Volume 1 hits the shops this September. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
Harold Wilson’s former advisor Bernard Donoughue founded and ran the policy unit in Number 10 during the PM’s tenure at the top. This tell-all diary about Wilson’s notorious ‘kitchen cabinet’ gives a first-hand insight into Harold Wilson’s leadership as he struggled to hold the Labour Party together in the 70s.
It’s an intimate portrait of Harold Wilson, covering everything from his heavy drinking and his increasing paranoia about ‘plots’ and the press, and the way he was allegedly in thrall to his chief advisor Marcia Williams.