Flip side of decency

The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt, Volume 3

Edited by Sarah Curtis <em>Macmillan, 843pp, £25</em>


After reading the famous 1930s diary of Chips Channon - a well-connected Conservative socialite MP - I under-stand, for the first time, why so many idealistic young men and women of that dreadful decade felt driven to look to the Soviet Union for succour. Because his starry-eyed account of the British political class of that period was so sickening that any alternative must have seemed preferable.

Should Woodrow Wyatt's diary, the third volume of which covers the years from 1992 to 1997, survive long enough for subsequent generations to read, I think it, in its turn, will make clear why so many idealistic Britons, on both the right and the left, are prepared to throw in their lot with the European Union - altogether a much more attractive alternative. Wyatt's account of our present political class is no less sickening than Channon's earlier one; even more so, because Channon's colleagues had a grandee wit and charm wholly lacking in their unspeakable successors. In 1939, T S Eliot felt compelled to ask whether pre-war society was "assembled around anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?" No need to ask such a question today, given that, unlike then, the crass materialism that Wyatt portrays, and even celebrates, is quite brazen.

By far the largest section of this volume covers the Thatcher and Major years, and we get only a brief glimpse of our present rulers. But little seems to have changed. The same lot of names - Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, Jonathan Aitken, Carla Powell, Arnold Weinstock, the Queen Mother, the Marlboroughs and even, it has to be admitted, P Worsthorne - are still around, our concern for wealth (or "illth", as William Morris called it) in no way diluted by Tony Blair's additions to the cast who, in the form of Lords Irvine and Falconer, Peter Mandelson and Bernie Ecclestone and so on, only thicken the stew.

Again, Eliot got it right. His distress at the end of the 1930s was not because of mere disagreement with government policies such as appeasement. That, he thought, was not unexpected or surprising. What he did find unexpected and surprising was his own feeling of humiliation, which seemed to demand "an act of personal contrition, of humility, repentance and amendment; what had happened was something in which one was deeply implicated and responsible. It was not a criticism of the government, but a doubt of the validity of a civilisation . . ." Surely that is what contemporary Tories of the Eliot persuasion - if there are any still around - should feel in reading Wyatt's account of the Thatcher and Major years. And true radicals must be feeling much the same about the Blair years, only the beginnings of which are covered here.

Not that the Wyatt diaries make dull reading any more than did Chips Channon's, if only because both authors are sublimely unaware of the awfulness of the world which they so much enjoyed inhabiting, or of the pathetic figures they themselves cut in it. So far as Wyatt is concerned, this is sad and unfair, because he was a much more considerable figure in life than he appears in these pages - more principled, more intelligent, less philistine, less venal, braver and even nicer.

His paternal devotion to his clever and delightful daughter, Petronella, for example, shines through these pages, as does his equally understandable infatuation with the writer Beryl Bainbridge: "I have added her name to the list of people I think about before I go to sleep to give them some protective shielding." His frankness, too, can be surprising, as in his evident dislike for the popular bipartisan society hostess Carla Powell, and in his much less welcome lack of chivalry about the "scrawny-necked" Jilly Cooper.

Wyatt's obsession with rich food and fine wine is also very much to the fore, although his definition of poverty in this area might well stick in some throats. After being entertained to dinner by the chairman of Hexham racecourse, Wyatt writes: "I think they are very poor. There was only a cru bourgeois for dinner and no champagne, so I had to have gin and Dubonnet, which I haven't drunk for years." His humour, however, tends to be more hearty than amusing; and, even when amusing, it is often unintended.

Here, for example, is his account of an exchange at the Beefsteak Club with his fellow diarist Alan Clark: "I said to him: 'Your book was hilarious but you were dealing with the flip side of people, not with the honourable and decent side.' Clark said this was quite right." But, in fairness, the vulgarity, sterility and philistinism of these diaries reflect less on the author than on the civilisation.

There is a lesson to be learnt here. Something is deeply wrong with this country. The idea that the serious political debate today should be about British sovereignty, and the need to defend it, is absurdly misplaced. The important debate should be about the lack of a political class, and about whether this gaping black hole can best be filled within or outside the European Union. How so? Because this time, unlike in the 1930s, the real challenge does not come from abroad; it lies not so much in Brussels as in ourselves.

Peregrine Worsthorne is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph