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Democracy, The Cult of Personality and Mass Media

As a political scientist, Richard Crossman naturally took a keen interest in deciphering the ideology and political structures which governed Britain. During the 1960s and early 1970s he developed and promulgated the idea that Britain had lost sight of democracy and had instead moved towards an alternating dictatorship under a two-party system.1 This was a dictatorship, however, which he did not necessarily see ‘in the bad sense of the word’, but rather as ‘benevolent’.2 Whilst Crossman conceded that there were advantages to Britain’s political system, namely that ‘in each general election the electorate is presented with a clear choice between one Government and another Government and one policy and another policy’,3 he argued that this two-party oligarchy was nevertheless not what the country had wanted. Britain, he asserted, had wanted a more representative form of government.4 As Crossman pointed out, ‘the million or so people who vote Liberal are denied any adequate representation at all’,5 and thus the political system was not truly representative. However, Crossman is often inconsistent and in a different broadcast he implied that the British are content with their political system. He reported that ‘naturally, I shan’t disguise the fact that I myself, as an insular Englishman . . . prefer our British system’.6 There does not, unfortunately, seem to be any explanation for this inconsistency.

It is important to point out here that, according to Crossman, Britain was not the only country that had diverged away from democracy and moved towards dictatorship. Rather, this disappointment was a world-wide phenomenon which touched under-developed countries in particular, as well as some Western entities such as France (which had, from Crossman’s point of view, succumbed to an autocratic regime under President Charles de Gaulle, a man for whom Crossman had no great love).7

Above all, it was the cult of personality that had ‘steadily increased in strength’8 worldwide, and this was especially true in Britain. ‘A British Prime Minister’, Crossman announced in one of his Hebrew broadcasts, ‘enjoys infinitely more authority than an Israeli Premier, and, I would add, than an American President’.9 As such, not only was Britain governed by an alternating two-party dictatorship, but both of those parties themselves – once elected - were in turn dominated by one personality – the Prime Minister.10 This Crossman called ‘prime ministerial government’, a term that had been coined by John Mackintosh, whom Crossman greatly respected and upon whose works he had based much of his own ideas about British Democracy.11 In Crossman’s view, Prime Ministerial government had really emerged conspicuously with Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, a leader who had ‘liquidated one-third of his Cabinet, including his Chancellor of the Exchequer and his Minister of Defence, leaving them in ignorance until two hours before’. The result was that the Prime Minister was no longer ‘a first among equals – he was a master’.12

Crossman attributed the growth of the cult of personality in Britain, and the move towards a more totalitarian form of government, to a number of factors, but highlighted the way in which television and mass media presented politics, especially during election campaigns. By emphasising the confrontation between two opponents for entertainment value and sensationalisation, television reinforced the idea that the British people had a choice between two parties, two policies and, more significantly, two personalities.13 Crossman’s assessment seems to be unintentionally, and perhaps indirectly, supported by newspaper coverage of the 1964 election, a substantial amount of which focused on how politicians presented themselves on television. For instance, the Sunday Times discussed ‘Wilson’s lack of woman appeal’ on television, whilst the The Economist, reported that ‘the personalities of the leaders will dictate the form of the [1964] election campaign’.14 Articles such as these arguably justified Crossman’s concerns that the democratic principles Britain hoped to be governed by, were being undermined by a developing cult of personality forged by mass communications. As is the case with many of the issues on which Crossman concentrated throughout his life, it is still a relevant and pertinent issue in Britain today.

This is not to say that Crossman believed that television ought not to have any role in politics or campaigning – quite the opposite in fact. Instead, he suggested that the way in which politics was presented on television needed to be overhauled. Rather than pitting one politician against another during election time, every party should have an evening slot in which they can present their policies to the public calmly, with the time to express them adequately.15 Meanwhile, parliament ought to be televised in ‘a series . . . of straight unedited, undoctored outside broadcast[s] of proceedings, each lasting, I would say, for not less than an hour’ throughout the year.16 This procedure of course conformed to Crossman’s principle that Government should be opened up to the public, and, like his diaries, his idea was initially rejected by his peers. Crossman was also at odds with his Party when it came to whether or not all parties - both the minority ones and the two principle ones – should be given television and radio broadcasting time during election campaigns. Whilst he supported the notion, the official Labour Party line was against it.17

Nevertheless, despite Crossman’s applaudable solutions, he himself was equally a victim of television and the cult of personality it can create. As he was to admit, ‘the notion of the personal image has got hold of us all with the result that it is almost impossible to prevent a politician from appearing on the little black box’.18 Newspaper articles revealed that, at times, Crossman actively sought a televised confrontation. For instance, whilst engaged in one dispute as Minister of Housing, he laid down the gauntlet and announced ‘I challenge the President of the Federation to meet me on television . . . and argue this out before the general public’.19 Thus Crossman called for the kind of televised confrontation that he had heavily criticised and held responsible for the cult of personality. Allegedly, Crossman also faltered on his principle of ‘undoctored and unedited’ televised politics,20 when, at one televised debate prior to the 1964 elections, both he and the Conservative MP Iain Macleod refused to discuss certain issues and ‘insisted on extracting a right of veto on each interview if either of them disliked the way it had gone’.21 If accurate, this is hardly the democracy and openness Crossman claimed to champion.

By the 1970s the relationship between mass communications and politics appears to have been fairly topical. Crossman delivered a lecture on the subject in 1969 as did Anthony (‘Tony’) Benn – then one of Crossman’s cabinet colleagues – in 1968.22

When the age of radio began I remember the feeling that we had been given by science a wonderful natural extension of the written word, a completely natural medium, equally good for every purpose, good or bad. It would help a dictator to be more dictatorial and a democrat to be more democratic; a tragedy to be more tragic and a comedian to be funnier. At first sight television seemed to be an even better all-purpose medium.

Crossman, Richard, The Politics of Television, p.19

Marie-Astrid Purton, August 2012


1. MSS.154/4/BR/8/53 2.7.59.

2. MSS/154/4/BR/9/68-71 18.8.61.

3. MSS.154/4/BR/8/54-55 2.7.59.

4. In file MSS.154/10/10, Plenary Session 8:00 pm, Crossman and Curtis, Saturday July 25, Canada, p.7.

5. MSS.154/4/BR/9/68-71 18.8.61.

6. Ibid.

7. In file MSS.154/10/10, Plenary Session 8:00 pm, Crossman and Curtis, Saturday July 25, Canada, p.7-8.

8. Ibid, p.5.

9. MSS.154/4/BR/8/52-53 2.7.59.

10. MSS.154/4/BR/9/71 18.8.61.

11. MSS.154/4/PAM/15 - Crossman, Richard, ‘The Politics of Television: TV and the Political Party Image’ in Crossman, Richard (ed.) Three Studies in Modern Communications, (London, 1969) p.12 and Crossman, Richard, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister: Volume 1 Minister of Housing 1964-1966, (London, 1975) p.13.

12. In file MSS.154/10/10, Plenary Session 8:00 pm, Crossman and Curtis, Saturday July 25, Canada, p.6.

13. Ibid, p.6-7 and MSS.154/4/PAM/15 - Crossman, ‘The Politics of Television, p.14, pp.29-33.

14. In file MSS.154/10/10, ‘ Election Insight: The Picture Labour Wouldn’t Show’, The Sunday Times, 27 September 1964 and ‘Eve of Battle’, The Economist, 12 September 1964.

15. MSS.154/4/PAM/15 - Crossman, ‘The Politics of Television, pp.29-30.

16. Ibid, p.38.

17. In file MSS.154/10/11, ‘Give Time On TV To Minorities’, Birmingham Post, 12 October 1964.

18. MSS.154/4/PAM/15 - Crossman, ‘The Politics of Television, p.29.

19. MSS.154/4/HLG/4/6, ‘Mr. Crossman’s Challenge to Building Employers’ President Reply to ‘Charge’ on Home-Ownership’: Labour Party Press Release.

20. MSS.154/4/PAM/15 - Crossman, ‘The Politics of Television, p.38.

21. In file MSS.154/10/11, ‘Party Television: Extinction of the Dinosaurs’, New Statesman, 9 October 1964.

22. MSS.154/4/PAM/15 - Crossman, ‘The Politics of Television’, and MSS.154/LP/2/116-120, The Rt. Hon. Anthony Wedgwood Benn, M.P., ‘The role of broadcasting in a participating democracy’, News Release Issued by the Labour Party Press and Publicity Department Transport House, October, Friday 18th, 1968.


Photograph of television debate between Crossman and Harold Wilson, undated [MSS.154/12/10]