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What use can historians make of those diaries which politicians keep for posterity – and rush into print? John Campbell considers two viewpoints of the 1964-1970 Wilson government, those of Richard Crossman and of Barbara Castle.

The publication by Cabinet Ministers of their political diaries, revealing the inside story of confidential events long before the public records are open and while many of the protagonists are still alive, is not a new phenomenon. The precedent was set by Christopher Addison who in 1924 published memoirs, drawing heavily on his diaries, and in 1934 the diaries themselves, of his experience of Government during the First World War and the supersession of Asquith by Lloyd George, in which he played a prominent part. Lloyd George in his six-volume War Memoirs (1933-4) and Churchill in his equally enormous The World Crisis (1923-9) used their Cabinet papers, in each case in a thoroughly one-sided way, to blast further holes in the convention of nondisclosure. Even so upright a figure as Austen Chamberlain joined in with his book Politics From Inside (1936) which, though strictly speaking letters rather than a diary and relating to opposition rather than to government, gave an exceedingly intimate picture of Tory high politics before 1914. Since 1945, of course, the practice has become commonplace. Leo Amery published his diary-based memoirs in 1957 and Hugh Dalton his in 1963, and we have also had the diaries of the Cabinet secretaries themselves, Maurice Hankey and Tom Jones, reporting with presumed accuracy the interchange or argument around the table at Number 10. The unchecked appearance of such diaries led to the Wilson Government's decision to open the official record after thirty years instead of fifty – though at least two members of that Cabinet had no more intention of observing the shorter limit than the longer.

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