In praise of political tittle-tattle
Lady Swire’s new memoir dishes the dirt on the Cameronian Government
Much ink has been expended and many pearls have been clutched as our ruling caste and their tamer hacks have gone into over-drive in deploring the “tittle-tattle” and gross betrayal of privacy in Sasha Swire’s eye-poppingly revealing diaries.
There is nothing that the British public relishes more than an exposé of their leaders
For anyone who has been holidaying under a rock for the past fortnight and may have missed the furore, I should explain that Lady Swire, daughter of Mrs Thatcher’s former Defence Secretary Sir John Nott, is the wife of ex-Tory MP Sir Hugo Swire, an Old Etonian chum of David Cameron, who somehow failed to be promoted beyond the ranks of junior ministers during his pal’s Premiership, but remained a close confidante and boon holiday companion to the PM. Lady Swire herself is half-Slovenian, and though brought up in the bosom of the Tory establishment, may not be entirely attuned to the evasions, hypocrisy and double standards that make up British political life, which makes her book all the more enjoyable.
Throughout Dave’s inglorious time in office, Lady Swire kept a secret diary detailing intimacies of conversation, banter and badinage, and revealing insights that give – shall we say – a not wholly flattering picture of the ruling Tory clique at play during their most unguarded moments. The bad behaviour, petty jealousies and embarrassing remarks of Dave, George, Boris and Michael and their wives are set down in all their toe-curling cringeworthiness.
The diaries are to be published next week but have been serialised in The Times and reviewed and widely commented on in the rest of the media. The two main targets – the duopoly of Cameron and Osborne – have already expressed their displeasure at the revelations. But all the tut-tutting disapproval of Lady Swire’s profitable indiscretions misses the main point: there is nothing that the British public relishes and enjoys more than an exposé of their leaders with their dignity gone and their metaphorical trousers down.
Moreover, gossip and tittle tattle as set down in diaries often tells us more about the true nature of politics and the motivations and personalities of politicians than a thousand self-serving pompous political memoirs or dull works of dry political analysis. What we really want is gossip – the gamier the better – and all the inconvenient truths our rulers rather we didn’t know.
Very often what we learn from particular epochs of history are the telling anecdotes and juicy titbits revealed by diarists rather than the respectability that the statesmen themselves wish to present and be remembered for. Our picture of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, for example, and the very merry court of Charles II, along with the apocalyptic disasters of fire and plague that followed comes largely from the indiscreet journals of Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, and John Evelyn.
The best ringside seats during the tumultuous 20th century were occupied by the MPs Harold Nicolson and Henry “Chips” Channon, whose diaries offer the real inside story hidden from the public gaze. It may be significant that both Nicolson and Channon, though outwardly respectable members of the Establishment, were themselves sexual outlaws with secret lives of their own.
Gossip and tittle tattle as set down in diaries often tells us more about the true nature of politics
In our own time, the diaries of two other minor politicians, the High Tory Alan Clark, and Labour’s Chris Mullin, give us both compelling reading and candid portraits of the ruling elite during the Thatcher and Blair eras respectively. The voluminous diaries of more senior statesmen such as Richard Crossman and Tony Benn are much less interesting precisely because they deliberately eschew tittle tattle, preferring instead to concentrate on what Benn called the “ishoos”. Even in within a totalitarian dictatorship such as Nazi Germany it is the diaries of insiders such as Josef Goebbels and Albert Speer that provide unique insights into the appalling regime rather than the myriad of more “objective” sources utilised by historians.
The demise of the scandal sheet vulgarly known as the “News of the Screws” and the decline of Private Eye into a boring Leftist whingefest has left a yawning gap in the media to sate our need for gossip. Thankfully, books such as Lady Swire’s diaries now seek to fill that void. For if her revelations – naive, trivial or catty though they may be – leave a hole in the Swires’ guestbook and social calendar, the rest of us outside that charmed circle have reason to be grateful.
Future historians seeking to understand Cameronian catastrophes as the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum, the endless wars in the Middle East, and the hollow emptiness of the “Big Society” should ignore Dave’s own lengthy yet vacuous memoirs – out now in paperback – and turn Lady Swire for real revelation.
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