Bagehot Updated: II
(Part I of "Bagehot Updated" explained how Harold Wilson attempted to block publication of the diaries kept by Richard Crossman, but lost his case in the courts. In the process, important issues about Cabinet secrecy and freedom of the press were raised, as well as Crossman's theory that "Cabinet government" has been replaced in England by "Prime Ministerial" government. Last week's piece ended with a short account of Wilson's difficulties in holding the Labour Party together and how the Crossman diaries fit into this situation.).
Wilson's success in the forging of his new "social contract" between Labour and the nation--Britain's last credible chance to stave off economic anarchy, as even the Tories concede--will depend on factors more fundamental than the revelations of the Crossman diaries. But clearly the embarassments they contain could not have come at a worse time for Wilson, when he needs all the support of Labour's Old Left (Foot and others of the New Statesman set) to control the New. But Wilson gravely miscalculated his legal position when he tried to suppress the diaries by direct government interference.
At least once in recent history, moreover, revelations of Cabinet discussions had brought down a Labour Prime Minister. In 1923 the first Labour Cabinet in Britain's history attempted to quash the prosecution of a communist for incitement to rebel. Ramsey MacDonald, who was Prime Minister at the time, claimed that he had not been consulted in the matter and had not acquiesced in the decision. This outraged the professional civil servants who play a much more important role in Whitehall than in Washington. The Cabinet Secretary circulated a memo around government offices in which MacDonald's assertion was cut to ribbons. In Crossman's analysis, "MacDonald was forced to make a partial withdrawal which led to the fall of the Government."
On the other hand, Wilson's position within the Labour Party is reasonably secure. No one else in the party can hope to command a broad enough spectrum of support--both inside and outside the party--to keep Labour in power. And what the recent Blackpool conference proved is that the one thing every major Labour party figure, including the big union leaders, can agree on is that Labour must be kept in power at all costs. Crossman himself would have appreciated the strengths as well as weakness of being a Labour politician. When he first ran for office, in 1945, he earnestly campaigned in his constituency with loud-speaker and earnest desire to discuss the issues.
"Then a very old man who was mowing his grass in his front garden looked up at me and said, "I wonder, boy, why you waste your time talking like that. You do realise, I suppose, that Coventry East would vote for the back end of a jackass if it was labelled Labour."
Wilson's attempt to keep the Crossman diaries out of public view raised some of the same constitutional issues that Crossman himself discussed in his Godkin lectures and in his introduction to a re-issue of Walter Bagehot's English Constitution published in 1963, the year before he entered the Cabinet for the first time. Bagehot had named cabinet secrecy as one of the three sine qua nons of cabinet government, along with party loyalty and collective responsibility. Secrecy allows each member of the Cabinet to express his or her views freely and without fear of being contradicted when called upon to support the final decision. Sometimes this leads to the absurdity of Lord Melbourne saying, in the 1830's, "Now is it to lower the price of corn or isn't it? It is not much matter which we say, but mind, we must all say the same."
Secrecy is strictly adhered to. No minutes of Cabinet meetings were taken until 1916. Even today minutes aren't drawn up until after Cabinet meetings, so that only the Prime Minister's summation--and not the arguments that went before it--are recorded. Bagehot's dictum that "no minister who respected the fundamental usages of political practice" would make public the inner workings of Cabinet debate remains valid to this day. So far, Crossman is the only major figure who has challenged it.
But since Bagehot's time the Cabinet's role has changed enormously. In Bagehot's analysis, the Cabinet was the most powerful and effective organ of government, or, as he put it, government's "efficient secret." When Crossman joined the government in 1964, he discovered that, like the House of Lords before it--the Cabinet had moved from the efficient part of the constitution to what Bagehot called the "dignified" part, where its chief role was ceremonial. The Cabinet was at the beck and call of the Prime Minister and, like Parliament, was unable to make or break him. That struggle, like all important battles, could take place only in the party power structure.
Crossman traced his change in the power of the Cabinet to the necessities of war. The great bureaucracies created to prosecute the Great War of 1914-18 and only partially dismantled in the twenties and thirties were run from the Prime Minister's office. After 1945, Clement Attlee transformed Churchill's "rather haphazard personal autocracy" into a steamlined power structure. Increasingly the real decisions were made by the Prime Minister alone or in consultation with one or two other key figures, and the Cabinet relegated to the role of a rubber stamp. Attlee, along with a small group in the Defense Sub-Committee of the Cabinet, made the crucial (for Labor party politics) decision to develop British nuclear weapons without consulting or informing the rest of his government. Sir Anthony Eden (a Conservative) worked out plans for Suez without informing his Cabinet of them, much less getting their approval. In both cases the Cabinet Ministers were bound--by the Catch-22 called collective responsibility--to support decisions in which they had no part. Britain had moved from Bagehot's Cabinet government to what Crossman called Prime Ministerial government.
But this kind of government clearly overreached itself in trying to suppress Crossman's own analysis of its inner workings. Wilson's request for an injunction was granted in November 1974 and for months constitutional lawyers worked out their arguments. The case came before England's Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, who disposed of it fairly quickly--throwing out Wilson's case and ordering his government to pay the costs. Since Britain has an "unwritten constitution" with no Bill of Rights, this decision creates an important precedent protecting the rights of the British press. Widgery, though, tried to limit the repercussions of his decision, stating that he might well suppress the second part of Crossman's diaries, which deal with events considerably closer to the present day than the excerpts at issue in the trial.
Crossman saw himself, quite correctly, as performing the role of a modern Bagehot, seeking to expose the "disguised" elements of the British constitution and analyzing power as it is, not how we think it is. Crossman learned--by experience in academics, journalism, and in the Cabinet--"That there is a gap between the literary legend, the paper description of politics, and the reality. It is a gap which begins with the description given by journalists who are describing it from outside, and then confirmed by the academics who read journalists' articles and regard them as accounts of what really happened." This is the gap Crossman tried to close in his diaries, and he succeeded far enough for them to deserve Michael Foot's encomium--"one of the great contributions to our political literature."