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5 February 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:40am

Why I prefer diaries to memoirs

Bernard Donoughue's diaries will endure when most of the memoirs of the period are forgotten. 

By Stephen Bush

A confession: I do not like memoirs, at least not political ones. History might not be, as Tony Webster claims in Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending, the lies of the victors, or, as his teacher does, the self-delusions of the defeated, but political memoirs certainly are.

It’s a truism that everyone is the hero of their own story, but one that almost every memoir proves at excessive length. Take Speaking Out by Ed Balls, which was actually quite good for the genre. The chapter headlined “Mistakes” concerns not him, but Ed Miliband. The biggest mistake that Balls admits to – not even in that chapter – is failing to be more “forceful” in a crucial conversation with Gordon Brown. There are exceptions, such as Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work, but in the main memoirs offer very little. If you want to get a sense of what something was really like, read a diary.

And if you’re looking for a good diarist, you could hardly ask for better than Bernard Donoughue. Farewell to Office is the fourth published volume of his diaries, covering his time as a Labour peer and junior minister from January 1998 to his retirement from ministerial life in 1999. A good diary-keeper will have personality, a keen eye for what matters, and the courage to make bold calls about the world around them.

Donoughue has all three qualities in spades. One particularly good prediction concerns Blair, who Donoughue fears will be undone because “he sees himself as a supreme presidential PM, with no obligations to his colleagues”. This prediction would have been too-perfect-to-believe had he not immediately added that the Blair premiership “won’t last ten years”. (Blair’s term in office lasted ten years, one month and 25 days.)

But the most joyous of Donoughue’s hunches is his most correct: the growing certainty that the many meetings he is attending to prepare for the Millennium Bug, which is predicted to throw computers worldwide into chaos, are a waste of time means that no mention of it goes by without at least one dismissive adjective: “mythical” sighs one entry; “preposterous” another; “farcical” a third.

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This set of diaries has a somewhat melancholy quality. As Donoughue notes in the foreword, his career “happened in reverse”: starting as head of Harold Wilson’s policy unit where he in many ways helped to co-create the role of the special advisor – detailed in his Downing Street Diaries – before ending it as a junior minister in an unloved department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) in the early days of Blair. That gives this volume the feel of a New Labour version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: key protagonists are glimpsed in the shadows – Brown is seen “glad-handing and networking very effectively… building a party constituency for his future leadership bid”.

At Maff, Jack Cunningham, who is secretary of state when the book begins, is one of many luckless casualties of the long war between Blair and Brown. Donoughue recounts one late-night ministerial drink in which “Jack was clearly angry – at Brown, for the damage to his career, but also at Blair, for going along with this and doing nothing to protect his natural friends”. Cunningham is replaced by Nick Brown in a move that helps to spur Donoughue’s decision to enter retirement.

The presence of Brown is particularly enjoyable to modern readers. He arrives at Maff in July 1998, halfway through these diaries, having been demoted from his dream post as chief whip (though he would return under Gordon Brown and again under Jeremy Corbyn, remaining the current incumbent). The Brown of Donoughue’s diaries is an unimpressive figure, quickly captured by Maff’s conniving permanent secretary, Richard Packer (who is never given a first-name, only the dismissive “Packer”), who is very much cast as the villain.

Although Donoughue admires Blair, the man himself does not emerge unscathed from the diary – he is criticised both for his proximity to Rupert Murdoch, who Donoughue deplores, and for his lack of ability in party management. Readers are also given a neat glimpse into the Blair-era inability to reshuffle. Blair would struggle to tell people they had been sacked – in one of the diary’s final scenes, he seems unable even to end a goodbye with a minister who wants to go.

Farewell to Office is no more objective than any memoir. What elevates it is the immediacy of Donoughue’s writing, which makes it both a fun diversion and a useful glimpse into history. As Webster in The Sense of an Ending realises, history is neither the lies of the victors, nor the delusions of the defeated: “It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”  This book, however, is a triumph.

Westminster Diary, Volume 2: Farewell to Office
Bernard Donoughue
IB Tauris, 360pp, £25

This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration