Footnotes to history

Commentary - Are political diaries penned for posterity or as pension plans, asks John Cole

The motives of politicians who keep diaries have always been cloaked in ambiguity. When younger, Chips Channon asked himself whether he did it to relieve his feelings, console his old age or dazzle his descendants. But a quarter of a century later, he was flirting with publication, thinking that the diary might "shock or divert posterity a little".

Richard Crossman had a more earthy view. When Harold Wilson and George Brown lectured the Cabinet about the diary habit, Crossman wrote in his: "The truth is that most of my colleagues are preparing to write their memoirs because it's their only way of looking after themselves in old age." Paddy Ashdown's diaries have been dubbed his "pension plan".

Fame or lucre? One rule of thumb is that, while memoirs are intended to establish a politician's place in history (often unsuccessfully), diaries either make money or raise a laugh, and often both. Crossman's declared aim was to open up government to the public. He contributed to that all right, but his highly personal take on events made him a less impartial reporter than Tony Benn, whose voluminous diaries give a decent summary of arguments he disagrees with, as well as his own. Barbara Castle had the old reporter's habit of writing shorthand, which must have tested Cabinet nerves.

While these Labour diaries of the 1960s are obsessed with internal tussles, those of Channon, who rose no further than the undizzying height of parliamentary private secretary, are less notable for their political insights than for inspired snobbery. Anyhow, a man who was such an enthusiast for Chamberlain during Munich, and then for Churchill, is a fallible guide. Turn instead to a description of his own dinner party at the time of the Queen's wedding: "I laced the cocktails with Benzedrine, which I always find makes a party go." Or later, lamenting the absence of "Queen Freddy" (of Greece): "Three queens, it would have been, like a hand of poker. But a pair is not bad." All three were in exile, but that didn't worry Channon.

The reader requires a gargantuan appetite for snobbery to take Channon in large helpings: "To hear cockney spoken, one must go to the House of Lords, where Labour peers scatter their aitches all over the red benches."

Alan Clark, the second volume of whose diaries has just been published posthumously (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), is not immune from snobbery, although it is seasoned with self- mockery. Clark's most savage put-downs are for Conservative colleagues, whereas he often enjoyed the company of Labour opponents. He describes how he spent the best part of one evening talking to Tom Swain, a miner MP, together with "a leftish northerner": "This latter chappie had come up and said to Tom: 'Ah, thee's courting with the storm troopers, eh?' That pleases me." Perhaps reference to Clark's occasional praise of the National Front entertained him more than all those dropped aitches in the Lords.

Clark's editor, Ion Trewin, hints that the moment at which a diarist decides he is going to publish is when he begins to lace his diaries with footnotes, as Clark did around 1979. This seems conclusive. Few of us would write footnotes for something intended only to while away the autumn of our own lives.

The most enjoyable parts of diaries are the revelations of intimate discussions. Gyles Brandreth wins a prize - although not from former colleagues - for his uninhibited, blow-by-blow account of a discussion among Conservative whips about MPs in financial and other trouble. Tony Benn, talking into his recorder at midnight, describes a dinner with Jim Callaghan between the two elections in 1974. Callaghan, then foreign secretary and the obvious successor to Wilson, talked of retiring the following year. Benn, far from a supporter, answered firmly: "Now look, Jim, you're 62; Churchill became prime minister at 64." Benn records that Callaghan declared he didn't want to be leader. "He repeated it so many times that it was obvious he did." As prime minister during the prolonged Cabinet row over IMF cuts, Callaghan was tougher with him. Benn was drawing insistent parallels with 1931, with heavy undertones of Ramsay MacDonald's betrayal. The prime minister said there was no such parallel: "I lived through it. You didn't." Benn pulled atavistic rank: "Well, my dad was in the Cabinet."

Conversations between Wilson and Crossman were equally robust. When Wilson accused him of "a bed-wetting mania for compulsive communication", Crossman retorted that the prime minister had a "persecution mania" about Cabinet conspiracies against him.

But a final word of caution from Robert Rhodes James, who edited Chips Channon's diaries. He warned readers that political diaries are self-conscious literary productions. Even if the diarist is not deliberately giving a false version, a talented writer can easily overdramatise, and the accounts can be written for effect, rather than as a strict factual record.

Amen to that! Enjoy such diaries, but spare a thought for the politician who has not kept one and finds himself the supposed patsy in some conversation where the diarist is the hero. Every reporter has a point of view, although some suppress it better than others.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture