The frothy political diary is largely a Conservative genre. There have been plenty of compulsive Labour diarists over the years – but you would not crack open the close-typed pages of Richard Crossman or Tony Benn or Alastair Campbell and be guaranteed a giggle; rather the grinding gears of party politics and the personal compromise of cabinet government.
For a certain cast of Tory diarist, however, the grey day-to-day of policymaking has always been wholly beside the point. The great game of Westminster is more an extension of the schemes and rivalries of schooldays, the diary a coveted opportunity to say the unsayable. The bar for this kind of confessional was set by Henry “Chips” Channon, with a nod to Samuel Pepys. Channon’s diaries of his Nazi-sympathising years working with Rab Butler in the 1930s, and the detail of his affairs with prominent men of his time, have, for the nearly 62 years since his death, been published only in expurgated form, for fears of malicious libel. An uncensored version will finally come out next year.
It was in the spirit of Channon that Alan Clark documented his time in the Thatcher government. Seductive snobbery about colleagues was matched by frank admission of his own promiscuity and venality. His voice captured and spoke to that persistent strain of Englishness that imagines freedom mostly as a licence for comic bigotries. In the historical record of the Thatcher era, there will be few more valuable documents than Clark’s books, not only for his peerless observation of her downfall but also for that authentic, best-selling tone of tribal spite that was part of it.
Something of the same can be said for Sasha Swire’s tell-all record of the Tory decade just ended. Swire, who is interviewed in today’sNew Review, writes from within the tightest social clique – that around David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson – in recent British political history. Her justification for exposing the slapstick vanities of the Cameron government is that “it is always the men who write history”.
Swire, the daughter of Thatcher’s hapless defence minister Sir John Nott and wife of the former Northern Ireland minister Sir Hugo Swire, has a case, though, reading her diary, it is her class rather than her gender that invariably seems most telling. Hers is a somewhat unwitting comedy of manners, revealing far more about her elite circle than she might want. If you had feared the country was being run by entitled Etonian inbetweeners, who spend their evenings guffawing about oikish colleagues and the size of their todgers, and gossiping about grace-and-favour residences, then you will find plenty in Swire’s first-hand account to support that view.
As with Alan Clark, proper insiders can never really understand the extent of their entitlement, but let it show when they write about those never quite invited in. For Clark, indelibly, that meant Michael Heseltine was “an arriviste, certainly, who can’t shoot straight”; for Swire, it is generally the Goves. Among several Downton-esque scenes, one that might be remembered is that in which Swire ponders the etiquette of giving Sarah Vine David Cameron’s private email address, which Michael Gove, her husband, has asked for. Gove wants to contact the prime minister, who is in Tuscany on holiday, with some urgency, we learn, because London is on fire in the 2011 riots.
Vine, the Daily Mail columnist, who is no one to talk about a writer “recording events in a manner designed clearly to be malicious”, tried to get her retaliation in first about the book last week. Recalling conversations with Swire, she noted: “I certainly always got the impression that she thought the whole lot of us were utter fools.” Future historians take note. Meanwhile, Swire’s publisher might think about using those words as a book-jacket blurb, in large type.