About Richard Crossman - a short biography
Overview Career Oxford Personality Family Diarist
Richard Howard Stafford Crossman (R.H.S.C.), known to close friends and family as Dick, was born on the 15th December 1907 in Bayswater, London, to Charles-Stafford and Helen Crossman, the third of six children. He died at the respectable age of sixty-seven from liver cancer on the 5th April 1974, after having lived a fulfilling and colourful life. Crossman is best known for his controversial diaries which revealed the inner-workings of government and which have subsequently inspired the production of other political diaries, as well as the BBC Television series ‘Yes Minister’.
From an early age Crossman demonstrated that he was born to be a high-flyer. He gained a scholarship to attend a prestigious school - Winchester - at which he eventually became Senior Scholar, Prefect of Hall, and Captain of Football.1 Later at Oxford University he graduated with a First in an Arts degree, a feat which came as no surprise to a friend of his: ‘I always knew you were going to get a first as you had determined to get one’.2 That Crossman ‘liked argument’, ‘adored fishing in troubled waters’ and allegedly ‘wanted adventures’, were characteristics which - coupled with his oratory and argumentative skills - unsurprisingly meant that Crossman became a well-known figure of his time.3
Crossman was everything from budding poet and journalist, to Labour politician, diarist, and broadcaster. He was one of those men who had a finger in every pie, and whose interests were extensively broad and diverse, ranging from politics and theology, to sports, poetry, theatre and opera.
When asked what mattered to him most in life Crossman replied:
A capacity to experience what’s worth experiencing [and] then of course it’s no good doing that unless you share it with somebody, that means with your family; and thirdly for me, writing about it. Now that’s - - that’s my candid opinion: you’ve got to experience, you’ve got to stay alive, and be capable of expressing it".4
There is no doubt that Crossman managed to experience life to the full and his diaries, books, newspaper articles and broadcasts testify to his ability to share his experiences with others. The extent to which Crossman adored living life to the full can notably be seen by his attitude during a three month illness in 1944 from which he almost died. Rather than sit back and relax, he undertook a whole host of studies. He also continued to correspond through letters and arranged to meet visitors, eventually leading his doctors to forcibly issue a blanket ban on tiring activities.5 Just one year later in 1945, Crossman was elected Labour MP for the new seat of Coventry East.6
Interestingly, as an undergraduate, Crossman showed no inclination for a life in politics, and was seen as a ‘romantic idealist’ and a ‘bon viveur’, interested in poetry and sports.7 When and where Crossman’s interest in politics was born is something that commentators have speculated upon. Some, such as Anthony Howard – one of Crossman’s biographers - have argued that Crossman became interested in politics under the influence of his ambitious second wife Zita Baker, who introduced him to the Labour Party.8 Others have suggested that it was perhaps Crossman’s first trip abroad to fiercely political 1930s Germany, where he was exposed to the rise of National Socialism, which awakened his political consciousness.9 Whatever the cause, once introduced to politics Crossman never looked back and - to the consternation of former teachers and his parents - he became one of Britain’s leading socialists. Crossman however, never conformed or fitted into the Labour mould perfectly, and was often at odds with the Party’s leadership. His role as an active Bevanite and his disagreement with Attlee over the creation of Israel testify to this.
As a politician Crossman was described by his peers as a man who undertook everything he did ‘whole-heartedly’ and with the utmost enthusiasm.10 He was also described however as ‘inconsistent’ in terms of attitude, opinion and policy. Whilst two of his biographers – Tam Dalyell and Anthony Howard – acquiesce to this judgement, both point out that there was nevertheless one issue on which Crossman was always constant about, and that was his resistance to government secrecy. Crossman’s strong stance against government secrecy eventually changed the nature of British politics when his diaries were posthumously published in the 1970s and 80s. The publication of the diaries created a scandal at the time and were said to have broken the Official Secrets Act. However, since then, they have inspired the publication of successive political diaries and they have created - to some extent - a transparency about government on the inside, as Crossman intended.
According to a profile published in The Times in the early 1970s, Crossman was regarded in his family as something of both a worry and an eccentric. His father felt uncomfortable by what seemed to be his son’s extreme liberalism, particularly on the subject of private life – which fed into Mr Justice Crossman’s entrenched and immutable fear that one of his children, and Richard especially, would bring shame on the family through an illegal or immoral act.11
After graduating from Oxford with a first, Crossman spent some time travelling in Germany – where he met his first wife, the German-Jewish divorcée Erika Glück – before formally taking up the New College Fellowship, to which he had been elected in 1931. He then spent several years as an academic, publishing a successful book on Plato. It was in Nazi Germany that Crossman developed his loathing of fascism, communism and what he regarded as all forms of totalitarian doctrine.
At this point his professional life took on a certain nomadic and diverse quality. In addition to his Fellowship at Oxford, Crossman wrote for the left-wing magazine, the New Statesman, became involved with the Fabian Society and began giving talks for the BBC. Indeed, the variety of his interests can be seen in the breadth of topics covered in his talks: from commentaries on contemporary developments inside Germany, to discussions on Plato and political thought. In 1937 he was chosen as a Labour candidate for the Birmingham West constituency, a seat he lost by 2920 votes. By 1939, he had crossed the Meriden gap and was lined up for the Coventry East seat. Although that election was delayed by the coming of war, he nevertheless won it comfortably in the 1945 Labour landslide.
In August 1941, Crossman was appointed to head the German section of the Political Warfare Executive – an organisation established to streamline British propaganda and psychological warfare provision to occupied and enemy territories. Towards the end of the war he was to be involved in a wide variety of projects; investigating psychological warfare and assessing the impact of the war on Germany (including a visit to Dachau concentration camp). Yet amongst the wide variety of posts to which Crossman was appointed during this time, none were perhaps quite as life-changing, or to become as personal to him, as his role on the Anglo-American Palestine Commission.
The decision to appoint Crossman to the commission dealing with the future of the Palestinian mandate was something of an own-goal for Labour’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, given how much of a critic Crossman was to become of government policy in the region. His experiences on the commission not only brought Crossman into contact with new friends (among them the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann) but also enthused him with a life-long interest in Middle Eastern affairs (and Israeli affairs in particular). He was to eventually describe this episode as ‘the most thrilling and probably the most useful episode in my political life’.12 It was also however, because of the controversy that he initiated, the episode in his life which prevented him from becoming a Cabinet Minister under the Attlee Cabinet or Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Cabinet.
He spent several years as a backbench MP; what little hopes of preferment he may have harboured were repeatedly blocked by his criticism of Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin. He became active first in the ‘Keep Left’ Group and, later, in the Bevanites. After the sudden death of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963, and Harold Wilson’s accession to the party leadership, Crossman (as he later put it) ‘was then doomed to be a minister’.13
Towards the end of his life, Crossman reflected on how he initially felt overwhelmed – and greatly out of his depth – following his entry into politics, and front-bench politics especially. He even considered standing down in the early 1960s, telling Granada TV’s World in Action that ‘I look back on my many years of being a back bencher as being the most appalling half-baked job I could imagine’.14 Even his ministerial career, after Labour’s victory in 1964, was beset with problems: ‘I was regarded … as the minister more capable of making a brilliant speech, followed by a ghastly clanger than any other’.15
Serving as a cabinet minister continuously from 1964-1970, Crossman commenced work on what was to become his controversial, and posthumously published, diary; dictating it religiously onto reel-to-reel tapes (more often than not at his rural home, Prescote, in Oxfordshire) on Sunday evenings. As Minister of Housing (1964-1966), Lord President of the Privy Council and Leader of the Commons (1966-1970), and finally as Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (1968-1970), Crossman was to work on a variety of government projects – from reforms to the parliamentary day, to planning and pensions. In his first ministerial role, he had frequent clashes with senior civil servants (which undoubtedly suited his confrontational temperament) and, in his second, incurred the wrath of back benchers by becoming, in effect, the government’s guillotiner-in-chief of parliament. It is perhaps for these reasons that he would still admit, in reflecting on his career in 1974, to considering ‘my six years as a minister as being exhilarating … of course it was enjoyable’.16
After 1970, and Labour’s election defeat to the Conservatives, Crossman retired from the front bench. He tried to reform his career as an MP-journalist, becoming editor of the New Statesman in 1970 (a role from which he was rather ignominiously dismissed in 1972). He did not seek re-election at the general election held in February 1974 and died two months later.
Richard Crossman’s arrival at Oxford in 1925 and his election as a Fellow of New College in 1931 coincide with a series of important global events which were mirrored, in their own ways, by the seemingly isolated and introspective world of the university. It was a time when, despite preserving their ancient traditions and a sense of continuity, the University was, paradoxically, being transformed by the modern world (although certainly not beyond recognition).
Richard Crossman was regarded (both by his biographer, Tam Dalyell, and by those who knew him at Oxford) as someone who, despite having the prerequisite skills to make an excellent intellectual, was not really cut out for the life of an academic.17 His major work, Plato Today, was actually published after he left New College of his own volition and proved to be popular, bridging the divide between academic philosophers and members of the general public. Many former colleagues, among them Isaiah Berlin, praised the work, although some had reservations about his style. The historian A. L. Rowse , writing to Crossman in 1947, accused him of being ‘a writer, or at least a journalist [as opposed to a true intellectual]’ who had been ‘not much of a success as a don’.18 In the eyes of some traditionalists within the academy he had, in addition, committed the cardinal sin of reducing his art to that of a mere ‘hack’.
Yet, before his departure from the college (prompted, in the short term at least, by an alleged affair with the wife of a colleague), Crossman had been an active figure in its daily life. The daughter of the College Warden recalled ‘the baffled look’ of a guest:
who asked the room at large what was the use of philosophy and was answered gaily by Isaiah Berlin ‘None whatsoever’ (but my father quickly led up Dick Crossman, who enumerated several).19
Crossman seems to have been in a perfect position (first as a student, then as an academic) to observe the state of higher education, as well as the transformations that it was undergoing, in the inter-war period. He was in good company. The same period produced many of Crossman’s contemporaries from British public and intellectual life: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, W. H. Auden and Isaiah Berlin (to name just a few). Being in the presence of many of these individuals – as well as New College itself – may have subtly influenced Crossman’s political development; it was often known as one of the more ‘moderate’ colleges in the city (in both academic and political terms) and was not divided into factions.
Yet there are other ways in which ideas from the time might have influenced Crossman. Oxford in the 1920s and 1930s was a university still enthralled to the romantic nineteenth-century conception of the nation-state. Graduates like Crossman, however, were increasingly going out into a world where even this fundamental bedrock would be subjected to critical enquiry and would cease to be axiomatic. Just like Britain as a whole, traditions appeared to be hanging on at the same time as basic foundations and assumptions were being questioned.
The whole intellectual culture was still very much the preserve of the classically-educated (indeed, Crossman had read Classics as part of his undergraduate programme), even though by the 1930s New College had begun to appoint Fellows in economics and physics.20 The world-view that this engendered thus ensured that the academic commentators of Communism and Fascism still considered their subjects in the context of Plato, Socrates, Diogenes and Heraclitus (which was precisely what Crossman was attempting to do with Plato Today).
Crossman was, if anything, a populariser, who (as his Times profilers noted) failed to understand why other people were not as intelligent as him.21 He once told a delegation of teachers (as reported in the Coventry Evening Telegraph) that ‘I believe the greatest problem we face is homes where the mind scarcely operates, and therefore the mind has to be awakened in the school’.22 One undergraduate taught by Crossman praised his ability to treat his students:
as if they were intelligent beings whose tastes and preferences deserved consideration […] We were not instructed by men who knew all the answers; we were partners in a quest, and were being educated.23
It seems as if Crossman saw the limits to the contemporary approaches of education – he wrote home in 1931 to praise the German university system24 and argued that ‘a good answer to a lot of Oxford philosophy’ could be found in the way that ‘we try to get things cut-and-dried and labelled too soon’25 – even if he was also equally caught up within them.
Attributing, or attempting to attribute, any personality traits or characteristics to historical figures is a difficult task and one constantly prone to error. The best resource available in Crossman’s case – other than his own records – is a profile produced for The Times newspaper. This was to provoke something of a minor controversy, as it prompted an intervention from Crossman’s first wife, Erika Glück, who took umbrage at a comment (made in passing) that she had been the mistress of the German communist leader Willi Munzenberg.26 Although Crossman did eventually intercede on her behalf, he admitted that he felt the offending article, ‘combined candour and compliments in a flattering way’.27
One aspect of Crossman’s personality which appears to be universally held is that he was often not the easiest person to befriend and get on with. He often comes across as argumentative and brusque, yet he could also function as a great negotiator (particularly during the long divisions within the Labour Party over re-armament).28 He seems to have known when to compromise while simultaneously revelling in discord and argument. The Times profilers were more harsh, perceiving him as insensitive as well as ‘intellectually arrogant, and … a bully’.29 Moreover, Crossman had a fierce belief in individual independence, in taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and was regarded as lacking ‘the strong, almost sentimental humanitarianism which moved so many of his middle-class contemporaries to Labour’.30
It is a division which arguably does little to illuminate the strange nature of his own politics: which neither places him fully – ideologically speaking – among the Bevanites or among those who supported a more centrist leader such as Gaitskell. Indeed, he rejects the middle-class sympathy of left-wing leaders and intellectuals such as Clement Attlee and George Orwell. More than once, he demonstrates himself to be practical and rational in his political approach and yet concerns himself, sometimes in the same document, with the intellectual basis of British socialism.
‘Nationalisation’, he argued in March 1950, ‘makes far more sense to the average man if it is seen as part of planning for full employment and fair shares’.31 This extract was part of a memorandum written to the Labour Party National Executive Committee, outlining Crossman’s views on election strategy, and demonstrates an awareness of electioneering which appears alternately cynical and ahead of its time. Yet the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, had only a year before wagered ‘a drink in the smoke room that [he] didn’t have a single working man’ at his ‘Fabian jamboree at Oxford’ (a pejorative reference to the Buscot Park conference at which Crossman had presented a paper on the political bases, and different families, of British socialism).32
There almost appears to be a naivety in Crossman’s political attitude. He was an ‘unashamed intellectual’ who could not, as The Times profilers were to note, understand the motivations and thoughts of those who were not like him. ‘All my life’, he is quoted, ‘I have thought if you explain something sensibly then a person will understand. I retain that belief even now, though I have frequently been disproved’.33
Crossman was born on the 15th December 1907 in Bayswater, London, to Charles Stafford and Helen Crossman, he was the third of six children. He had a difficult relationship with his father but got on fairly well with his mother.34
Crossman’s relationship with his parents, and especially with his father, was at times fraught and estranged. His father for instance, had always hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession (Crossman senior was a Chancery judge). However, Richard Crossman did nothing of the sort, becoming first a lecturer at the University of Oxford and later a journalist and politician.35
Whilst an undergraduate at Oxford, Crossman had little luck with women and experimented with homosexuality.36 It was after he graduated and during his visit to Germany that he struck up a heterosexual relationship leading to his first marriage with Erika Susanna Gluck on the 15th July 1932.
Crossman married Erika Gluck at the age of twenty-four. She was an already twice divorced mother, who was purportedly twenty-six years old, although some sources indicate that she may have lied about her age.37 The marriage was short and ended after only six months when Erika left Crossman and returned to Germany, although Crossman did not seek divorce from her for a couple of years.38 Correspondence with Erika persisted throughout his lifetime, if very sporadically, one letter towards the end of his life leading Crossman to scribble a note in surprise ‘I didn’t even know she was still alive’.39
Crossman married his second wife, Inezita Baker, known as Zita, on the 18th December 1937. Like Erika, Zita was older than Crossman, was also a divorcee, was already a mother, and also lied about her real age.40 Zita had formerly been the wife of one of Crossman’s colleagues at Oxford41 and her relationship with Crossman began as an affair. This marriage was rendered difficult at times by long periods of separation, brought about by the war and by Crossman’s political engagements abroad. According to Howard, it was Zita who first introduced Crossman to politics.42 Sadly, Zita died in 1952.
On 3 June 1954 he was married for a third time, to Anne Patricia McDougall, fourteen years his junior. This marriage was a happy one and produced a son (Patrick) and a daughter (Virginia). The amount of time that Crossman could spend with his family at his beloved home in Prescote, was however, limited. As a Cabinet Minister in Howard Wilson’s government, Crossman was a very busy man and for a time, could only return home to his family once a week on Sundays.43
The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister– the three volumes published between 1976 and 1977 – are perhaps the single work for which Crossman is best known. They certainly proved the most controversial, as well as being the subject of a lengthy, and unsuccessful, court battle on the part of the government to halt their publication. It is perhaps worth considering, in this biography of him, his role as a diarist and the events or motives which may have led him to keep it continuously over the course of his six years as a minister.
Crossman had long been fascinated by British politics and undoubtedly the idea of writing a book on its philosophy and mechanics would have appealed to him. He had produced an introduction for Bagehot’s English Constitution,44 and, as an academic philosopher, had examined the relationship between the ‘perfect’ system of government Plato described in his Republic and modern authoritarianism (the much lauded Plato Today).45 Moreover, the central thesis of his ‘What is Socialism?’ paper presented to the Buscot Park conference in the late 1940s was that British socialism needed a new rationalisation and a new theory to underlie it.46 The impetus for the diaries might thus be said to derive from much earlier in Crossman’s career – even before he became a politician – and may well have incubated from his desire to fill a literary and intellectual gap.
This segues into another important aspect of the diaries, and arguably the source of their controversy: that they were not only brutally honest (in the sense that they made no attempt to hide Crossman’s own, subjective opinions behind a façade of objectivity in the way that previous political memoirs may have done) about government policy and his cabinet colleagues, but detailed and revealing (the attempt to halt publication was based on the fact that they contained information to which access was restricted both by the thirty-year rule and by the Official Secrets Acts).
Crossman was certainly no stranger to the frankness of diaries. He had kept them before, although often only for brief periods (the diary record of his trip to Germany and time in Oxford is held in the MRC collection).47 Crossman saw the importance of the political diary as a form of historical record quite early in his political career. When the first sections of the Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels’ diaries were discovered in the late 1940s, Crossman noted that their:
mass of contradictions … gives them a quite unusual interest, since we can follow day by day, sometimes hour by hour, the inmost thoughts and feelings of the creator of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry.48
Crossman seems to have realised that the historical value of a diary lies not in objective truth, but in its subjective view of the world around it (and, as might be expected from a philosopher, prefigures a large amount of what is today known as ‘intellectual history’ or the ‘history of ideas’). Whether or not this view, or indeed the Goebbels diaries, motivated or influenced Crossman’s own development as a diarist later in his life is unclear. An anonymous friend of Crossman told the Times’ profilers that after ceasing to be a minister, ‘he thinks he’s going to write a marvellous book about it, which he may well do’,49 and this seems to draw from what Crossman regards as the important element within any diary: ‘not … the facts it discloses, but in the insight which it gives us’ into the person who produces it.50
However, the most revealing of all, in this regard at least, is a letter from Crossman to the historian A. L. Rowse, dated 7 January 1948. Rowse had been offended by Crossman’s critical review of his book and, in a letter on 21 December 1947, stated that Crossman was ‘a writer, or at least a journalist, rather than a man of any political judgement. But as a writer – à propos of frustration or fulfilment – have you written anything of any permanent value?’51
Crossman responded by telling Rowse that he wished to keep his letter ‘as a memento’ and that:
If you have no objection, I should like to publish it in my autobiography, if I ever write it. I am sending you a copy, in case you have forgotten what you wrote. Maybe, as you say, I am more of a writer than a politician. I never can make up my mind. If I am a writer, I agree that I am a journalist, and I doubt whether I have written or will write anything for eternity.52
Crossman never produced an autobiography, although the diaries do offer an insight into a brief period of his life. Of greater importance is what emerges from all of this evidence, however circumstantial or fragmentary: the impression of man obsessed by posterity and the written historical record (he was, after all, a scholar who had devoted himself to the study of the surviving writings of the Ancient civilisations). Crossman lived long enough to edit the first volume of his diaries himself, and it is likely, had he survived, that he would have done likewise for the succeeding volumes. It may well be possible to illuminate the motives behind Crossman’s accumulation of written material (of which the diary is a small portion compared to his radio broadcasts and published articles) by considering his highly intellectual and spiritual understanding of ‘eternity’ (as he terms it in his letter to A. L. Rowse) as a preserved, collective and – most significant of all – scholarly memory.
Likewise, Crossman’s fierce intellectual independence can appear dissonant with the emphasis placed in the British cabinet system on collective responsibility and the desire for Ministers and Secretaries of State to remain conformist. The diary thus serves to ‘set the record straight’, and to highlight the points of dissent between Crossman and his cabinet colleagues. Many of those colleagues resented the diary – and sought to suppress its publication – precisely because they took umbrage, both personally and politically, at its criticisms of them. Yet it might more accurately be interpreted as a parting shot – a valedictory despatch – whose intentions are not so much to blight the reputations of his Labour contemporaries, as to purge his own (intellectual) soul of complicity in ‘collective’ policies with which he was in disagreement. This is why the diary should perhaps not be read as an objective record of a period of domestic and international political history, but as the individual reaction of a man who brought a wide variety of historical, personal and intellectual prejudices to his interactions with the political world.
Andrew Burchell and Marie-Astrid Purton, August 2012
2. MSS.143/3/AU/1/28-30 Amongst letters of congratulations.
3. MSS.154/3/AU/1/66, and MSS.154/6/10/12 and Dalyell, Tam, Dick Crossman: A Portrait, (London, 1989) p.67.
4. MSS.154/4/BR/4/143, Television Broadcast, ‘Any Questions’, 15th November 1963.
5. MSS.154/6/10/12 29 and MSS.154/3/AU/1/94.
6. Michael Stenton and Stephen Lees ‘ Richard Crossman’, Modern Records Centre Biographical details (23 August 2012).
7. MSS.154/6/10/12 29.
8. Howard, Anthony, Crossman: The Pursuit of Power, (London, 1990) p.55.
9. MSS.154/6/10/12 29.
10. Dalyell, Tam, Dick Crossman: A Portrait, (London, 1989) p.67.
12. Crossman, Richard, A Nation Reborn: The Israel of Weizmann, Bevin and Ben-Gurion, (London, 1960) p.13.
17. William Hayter, ‘New College between the two World Wars’, in John Buxton and Penry Williams (eds), New College Oxford, 1379-1979 (Oxford, 1979) p. 108, and Tam Dalyell, Dick Crossman: a portrait (London, 1989) p. 30.
19. Mary Bennett, ‘The Warden’s Lodgings between the Wars’, in Buxton and Williams, New College Oxford, 1379-1979, p. 130.
20. Hayter, ‘New College between the two World Wars’, in New College Oxford, 1379-1979, p. 108.
23. John Buxton, ‘Reflections on an Undergraduate Diary’, in Buxton and Williams, New College Oxford, 1379-1979, p. 139.
28. See his various memoranda and draft resolutions on nuclear disarmament and German rearmament in MSS.154/3/POL/1-582.
34. Dalyell, Dick Crossman, Chapter 1.
35. MSS.154/6/10/12, 16 June 1945.
36. Howard, Crossman, p.24.
37. Howard, Crossman, p.68 and MSS.154/6/9/2 ‘ Marriage certificate’.
38. Howard, Crossman, pp.32-33, pp.35-38, p.48.
40. Howard, Crossman, p.68.
41. MSS.154/6/9/2, ‘Marriage certificate’.
42. Howard, Crossman, p.55.
43. In file MSS.154/10/11, Newspaper Article, ‘My Task as Minister of Housing’, Oxford Mail, 12 November 1964.
44. A copy of this is contained in MSS.154/4/BAG/1.
45. R. H. S. Crossman, Plato Today (London, 1959, second edition).
Photograph of a young Richard Crossman [in private collection]
Syllabus for lectures, How Hitler came to power, 1935 [MSS.154/3/ZB/170]
Election leaflet, [1955?] [MSS.154/4/COV/6]
Photograph of "Mr Justice Crossman" (Richard Crossman's father), 1934 [MSS.154/3/LIT/3/132]