Political students know how valuable the diaries of politicians can be, even if they have to be read with a large quantity of salt at the ready. If they are published shortly after the events described, when the players are still on the field, they are all the more intriguing … or possibly deceptive. In truth, some diaries – like those of Richard Crossman and Paddy Ashdown – can be said to have had important consequences for their successors. We have not seen any remarkable examples recently, but perhaps this autumn will produce more ?
During the Parliamentary Recess the excellent BBC Radio 4 series based on the diaries of strictly non-politicians reminded me that I needed to check through my mother’s diaries. These came to me when she died in December 2001, a few weeks after celebrating her 100th birthday with a great family party. I was very busy at the time, and I had never explored the large box to see which of her diaries had survived. To my disappointment there were only two from the early decades of the 20th Century, one apparently retained because it recorded the death of her favourite brother in the last weeks of the 1914-18 war and the other because it covered the final illness and death of her father in the 1920s. The following decades were meticulously chronicled, however. She tended to very brief domestic details, rather than observations on the national or world scene. Churchill’s 1940 broadcast is briefly mentioned, squeezed in between bees swarming and babies being bathed. In this respect she follows the pattern of one of her Cornish ancestors who maintained a daily record of the first 15 years of the 19th Century without ever writing the words Bonaparte or Napoleon.
Once into the 1970s, however, she is more specific. The all day counts and recounts of my first election to the Commons in 1974 are there, with our daughter (not yet two) lost but discovered eating pasties and entertaining supporters in the Liberal Club. My mother does not admit to the threatened fisticuffs with Young Conservatives (she was 72 at the time), but the police constable was quite explicit.
The dairies faithfully record all the comings and goings of the family for some 70 years and I will treasure them for that. But they do not even mention some of my own preoccupations during the last 40 years of public life. Why should they ? Perhaps I should myself note some of the more notable incidents – how (when I had a real job outside politics) I led the team which helped to win the Channel Tunnel bid, or how I persuaded Robin Cook and Ken Clarke to join me in a cross-party attempt to break the deadlock in Lords Reform.
Meanwhile, I was intrigued to see, from my father’s schoolboy diaries in the early 1900s, that he proposed a motion in favour of a Channel Tunnel and another in favour of Lords Reform. Life in the House of Lords does tend to give one a very lengthy perspective.