Downing Street Diary: Volume Two by Bernard Donoughue

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Downing Street Diary: Volume Two by Bernard Donoughue

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Detailed diaries which cover James Callaghan's premiership. They're accessible to the general reader but will be appreciated by historians.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1845950941

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I felt strangely detached from politics in the nineteen seventies – professional exams took their toll of my time and I settled for headline fodder and the promise that one day I would catch up with the detail. In fact the newspapers of the day weren't that informative and until now it's proved difficult to locate a reliable source of information about what really happened. But after nine years at the London School of Economics, Bernard Donoughue went to 10 Downing Street as Senior Policy Adviser to Harold Wilson and later to James Callaghan. Volume two of his diaries covers Callaghan's premiership.

There are far too many books which purport to be diaries but in reality are written up long after the events covered, or are completed periodically. Either way, hindsight distorts the immediate picture but the great value of these diaries is that they were written up either on the night or the following morning. Whilst they have been edited to remove material which would prove to be of only ephemeral interest and reduce the page count from a mind-bending thirteen hundred to a more manageable five hundred they've not been revised. I was heartened to read of the evening in January 1977 when Donoughue was apparently staying at a hotel in Harrogate but, unable to sleep went for a walk onto the moors above Scarborough. There are one or two other minor errors and it was pleasing to see that they've not been eliminated.

Donoughue has left a reasonable distance between the events he details and publication – some three decades, in fact. Many people we meet have left the political stage if not this life and it lessens the feeling that there's any sort of axe to grind. There are frank views about all the major players of the time but they're based on logic rather than prejudice and Donoughue is well capable of distinguishing between a liking for a man and a dislike of his politics. It was good to read different views of David Owen (a view very different to the one held by many Labour party 'big beasts') and Tony Benn (not quite the knight in shining armour that he would like us to see) and there are excellent portraits of Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Michael Foot and Shirley Williams.

The period covered is the first to the last day of Callaghan's premiership and there are just about daily entries excluding weekends and holiday periods. Although Donoughue's personal life does intrude it's by way of background – he takes centre stage but only because he was directly involved in the events. Given the long hours he worked (went home early at 9pm) it's something of a miracle that he had a personal life.

Callaghan has not yet taken his rightful place in history, overshadowed as he has been by his predecessor, Harold Wilson (and the scandals which surrounded him) and his successor, Margaret Thatcher, who needs no explanation from me. He was an honest, caring man with core values and a sense of right and wrong which haven't been present in every Prime Minister and Donoughue brings this out well. Callaghan gained mastery of his cabinet and brought about a calmer atmosphere than of late and for a while it seemed that this might, against the odds be a Labour success story. It's also a stunning thought that had Callaghan gone to the country in the autumn of 1978, when he could well have won, rather than waiting for the situation to improve over the coming months we might all have been spared Thatcherism.

There were some momentous events – the dreadful IMF loan which killed off some of the cherished dreams of the administration and the winter of discontent when the unions attacked the pay policy, drove up inflation and ultimately brought about their nemesis – Margaret Thatcher. The early part of the book takes a little living with as you get used to the style and the indications that there is a brief biography of a particular person at the back of the book but by the time that we were into mid 1978 I simply couldn't put the book down. Mercifully there's a complete lack of footnotes and photographs.

I did have a couple of niggles about the book. It was annoying to read regular comments about women being attractive or beautiful and it seemed rather patronising – I think there's only one occasion when he refers to a man as being attractive. There's also a major group of people – the civil service - written off as being a burden on the country and at times he is vitriolic about this and it did little honour to those many civil servants who were (and still are) doing their best to do a good job.

The book will be of most interest to historians because of the detail which is available, but this doesn't make it inaccessible to the generalist although it might require a steadier read than say Chris Mullin's diaries. Don't think, either that the book will lack contemporary relevance. You can read about architect John Poulson and perhaps be put in mind of floating duck houses, or wonder if financial crises are doomed to recur at regular intervals. What you will realise is that politicians seem never to learn from their mistakes.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

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