Perceptive, witty and sure of himself
Beyond the embellishments of Alan Duncan’s private diaries lies a body of work making serious points about the role of parliament
This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The morning I succeeded Sir Alan Duncan as Minister of State for Europe, I was ushered into his impressive former quarters at the Foreign Office, the sort of room in which you can safely land a light aircraft. There I was shown a huge and empty bookcase with row upon row of naked shelves. This, I was told, had been Sir Alan’s “glory wall” where over the years of his occupation he amassed and displayed a vast array of personal photographs with the world’s various democrats, demagogues and dictators.
Now that his diaries covering his years at the FCO have been published, several of these photos have been translated into the book, providing a piquant pictorial insight into the life of a Foreign Office minister, to compliment his prose. And Alan Duncan, ever the egalitarian, is equally frank about all of them.
Britain boasts a proud tradition of political diarists dating back to Pepys and encompassing such diverse talents as Duff Cooper, Dick Crossman and Barbara Castle. Some diaries (Benn, Castle) are highly political; some (Mullin) are more gossipy; still others (Oliver Harvey as well as Cooper spring to mind) are grandly diplomatic. But whether detailed, dialectical, or superficially social, all political diaries tend to be bench-marked against those of the two great twentieth century chroniclers of our civic life, Alan Clark and Chips Channon.
The diaries of Sir Alan Duncan KCMG, In The Thick of It, are the latest addition to the oeuvre. On the Clarkometer of the canon, these diaries score well. For the great gift of a diarist is to bring to life the world he inhabits, and Duncan does this with some style. Always witty, usually waspish and unremittingly withering about those for whom he does not care, In The Thick Of It provides an exciting, absorbing narrative of recent history.
He began keeping a diary just a decade ago and this first volume describes in vivid technicolour the tumultuous years between 2016 and the end of the teenies. The title chosen is apt for Duncan spent much of that time not simply as a bystander at the fringes of great events like so many diarists, but as a player much closer to the action — wherever it was. He may not have landed a starring role, but he was often on stage near the leading actors, not in the Gods with the audience.
We get a real sense of Duncan’s growing exasperation with the complacency of the Remain campaign
The narrative begins in January 2016; David Cameron is grappling with the EU to broker a new deal for Britain whilst Duncan is grappling with whether he should jettison his life-long Euroscepticism and endorse Remain in the promised referendum. Cameron’s job was probably the harder one although through several entries we discover Duncan’s, I think genuine, difficulty in resolving conflicting emotions and reconciling himself to a course of action on which he had subconsciously embarked probably long ago.
The diary certainly helps unpick and explain the puzzlement of those of us who heard him announce one night in the smoking room that he was planning to lead the Leave campaign, only to read his splash article backing Remain about three weeks later.
Over the next few months we get a real sense of Duncan’s growing exasperation with the complacency of the Remain campaign, we learn about his role in the May leadership team and we get the first really inside account of the trials and tribulations of her Government, especially following the disastrous 2017 general election. As time and entries roll on, he confides his concerns about the influence of Theresa May’s key advisers, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, on government in general and foreign policy in particular, offers sensible observations of the diplomacy and wisdom of FCO officials notably (and correctly) Richard Moore, and frets forever about status, including who attends Cabinet and foreign travel with the PM.
This edition ends in 2019 with a detailed though no less gripping account of the Hunt leadership campaign and Duncan’s attempts to inject some life and rigour into it, the high politics and low cunning of Brexit votes and Brexit deals in the fetid Commons hothouse, and his own carefully and colourfully planned exit from office.
Of course, the best laid plans gang aft agley and Duncan’s were no exception. Word to the wise: Never rely on John Bercow. These diaries express strong and sound constitutional concerns about the balance of power between the legislature and the executive which the former occupant of the Speaker’s chair was wont to ignore. But that is for another book.
Word to the wise: Never rely on John Bercow
Closely observed, perceptive, amusing and wrong as often as they are right — for instance Duncan’s prediction that “everything is turning to ashes” and that a Conservative Party split was inevitable has proved wide of the mark — these are essentially political diaries. For when it comes to personal moments, or private life beyond politics, they are curiously two dimensional. They lack the self-doubt and self-hate of Alan Clark or the self-deprecating whimsy of Chips Channon. There is no “fool Clark, fool.” No death of the heron. Sir Alan Duncan is a man who has made up his mind and he shares it with us with clear and uncompromising certainty. Yet he does so with a felicity of phraseology which catches the eye, and sometimes the breath: “Old hippies don’t grow old, the merely change their banners … and their teeth” is one example amongst many. Love it or hate it, you have to read it.
We also glean something of the diarist’s technique. Eschewing pen and leather-bound journals, Duncan scribbled notes into his pocket diary then committed them to electronic posterity each evening. The shade of Alan Clark clearly stood at his shoulder on several nights as Duncan feathered his keyboard. We learn his views on how officials should dress (ties at all times), whether senior British ambassadors should be equipped with Bentley motorcars (he believed certainly they should) and there is plenty of hyperbole (“the future of the world” depended on the release of Theresa May’s tax returns).
But beyond the embellishments lies a body of work making serious points about the role of parliament, its rules and traditions and their defence in a modern world; the power and place of ministers relative to the government machine and the young guns who operate its moving parts. The commentary is often nuanced, subtle, and much, much more than the salacious selections that inevitably make up the menu for tabloid serialisation.
Beyond the embellishments lies a body of work making serious points about the role of parliament
Naturally, there are some solecisms. Duncan shows remarkable foresight in describing Gavin Williamson as “Chief Whip” in February 2016, a full six months before Theresa May appointed him to that role. At the time Williamson was still David Cameron’s PPS. His recollection of an incident on the day Boris Johnson dramatically withdrew from the 2016 leadership contest is also a little faulty: the entry for 30th June records Duncan bumped into Alec Shelbrooke and Nigel Adams “walking back dejected from the St Ermin’s Hotel” and invited them back to his house for drinks.
In fact, the downcast members of Team Johnson who Duncan took up were Robert Buckland, Gareth Johnson and myself. Indeed, I well remember sitting in his garden that warm summer afternoon, sipping viognier and being in turns comforted then cajoled into supporting Theresa May. But that, to mix drinks and metaphors, is small beer. These diaries offer an important, if very personal, behind-the-scenes account of recent events which rocked and redefined our country. They are fascinating; they are riveting and if they are Duncan’s only venture into publication it will be a pity.
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