Politics are three-quarters drudgery, so it takes a special ingredient to enliven the diary of a politician. Harold Nicolson and Chips Channon wrote splendid diaries because they were not so much politicians as sublime social columnists who happened to sit in the House of Commons. Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle were heavyweights and professionals, and the eternal grind of committee life is reflected in their accounts. Yet both were writing with the special excitement of socialist voyeurs. Determined to expose the secrets of Whitehall while the story was still hot, they were strongly aroused by the sight of naked acts of power, and thrilled to bits by their own part in the proceedings. With the diaries of Leopold Stennett Amery we return to the politics of an era whose revelations are chiefly of interest to professional historians. And we return in the company of a politician who was often regarded as a long-winded bore.
Amery’s problem, generously interpreted, was an excess of virtue. Although he was ambitious and self-important, these qualities could not save him, for he directed them exclusively towards the achievement of the public good. Honest, sincere and hardworking, he bore himself like a man entrusted with an important message for the world. In his hands, a letter would turn into a pamphlet and a speech into a lecture. His three volumes of autobiography, My Political Life, grew irresistibly into a history of the times. His recreations were mountaineering and skiing and there was something equally lofty and rarefied about his politics. If he had been born a Scot his outlook would have been attributed to the influence of the Kirk and the dominie. In fact, he was an English public-schoolboy and a product of Harrow during the headmastership of the great Dr Welldon. Unlike his fellow pupil, Winston Churchill, Amery accepted at face value the public school ideal of service and absorbed it as his creed. In early manhood he was to find a cause to serve; he remained faithful to it for the rest of his life.
During the Boer War Amery acted as chief correspondent for the Times in South Africa. There he fell under the influence of Lord Milner, a great proconsul with the flair of the dangerous don for gathering around him a group of young men and converting them into disciples. Amery was the young intellectual with a First in Greats and a Fellowship at All Souls. Milner was the idol of the hour and the prophet and theorist of a new British Empire.
The vision he held out was utopian. The ramshackle Empire was to be reorganised into a world-state of self-governing nations, freely co-operating and acting as one in defence, trade, foreign policy and ideals of citizenship. As Seeley had taught, the British would cease to think of themselves as a European people with a rag-bag of overseas possessions, and take their place around a world-wide camp-fire of kith and kin. There was a nice touch of ambiguity about the non-British communities involved: like the Boers, they were to consent freely on pain of the big stick. But Amery was dazzled by the grandeur of the scheme. A shutter came down in his mind and he was to remain possessed by Milner’s one great idea.
There are moments in his diaries when the utopian strain surfaces like one of the dreams of H.G. Wells. Even in the middle of the First World War Amery could imagine a self-sufficient Empire immune from the troubles of Europe. In May 1915 he wrote to Milner: ‘All this harping on Prussian militarism as something that must be rooted out, as itself criminal and opposed to the interests of an imaginary virtuous and pacific entity called Europe, in which we are included, is wholly mischievous ... We are not a part of Europe, even if the most important unit of the British community lies off the European coast. This war against a German domination in Europe was only necessary because we had failed to make ourselves sufficiently strong and united as an Empire to be able to afford to disregard the European balance.’
Readers of these diaries will also find a clue to the character of English nationalism. The high-minded English worked on the assumption that the Empire was essentially a Greater Britain, and Britain a Greater England. This could betray them into paths of illusion, as we see from one of the entries in the diary for 1928. Amery, as Colonial Secretary, was discussing Palestine with Josiah Wedgwood: ‘I answered Jos’s question by saying that our ultimate aim is clearly to make Palestine the centre of a western influence, using the Jews as we have used the Scots, to carry the English ideal through the Middle East and not merely to make an artificial oriental Hebrew enclave in an oriental country.’ If these were machiavellian thoughts, they were the work of a Machiavelli in short trousers with a copy of the Boy’s Own Paper in his pocket. A shrewder nationalist would have wondered what use Jews and Scots might have been making of the English.
Like a true Milnerite, Amery started out with a marked distrust of democratic polities. In an early letter published here, he proposes that all imperial questions should be withdrawn from the House of Commons and controlled by a reformed House of Lords. But soon he was a parly politician himself, swept into the Conservative Party by Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariffs and imperial preference. Seldom can the career of a politician have shaped itself so much around a single theme. As an MP, he plunged first into the thick of the opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, for Ireland was a footstool of Empire. With the formation of the Lloyd George War Cabinet of 1916, Milner brought him in as a member of the Cabinet secretariat, and he busied himself with imperial war aims and the creation of an Imperial War Cabinet of Dominion prime ministers. After the war he was Under-Secretary to Milner at the Colonial Office, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Colonial Secretary in the Baldwin Cabinet of 1924-9. While others worried about strikes, inflation and the changing face of Britain, Amery’s imagination dwelt on Mosul, Singapore, or the incorporation of Antarctica in the Empire. For him, abroad was more real than home, the General Strike a drop in the Pacific Ocean. But the party to which he belonged has never been comfortable in the presence of ideologues, and reading between the lines one can see why the hard men of polities took care to keep him at arm’s length.
From the historian’s point of view Amery was not a model diarist. He began too late to record the inside history of the Tariff Reform League, and from 1906 to l922 often fell down on the job, leaving large gaps in the wrong places. The fall of Asquith escaped him, as did many of the post-war adventures of the Lloyd George Coalition. The editors, who deserve some appreciation for a labour of love, have adopted the dubious strategy of filling in the gaps with selections from his correspondence, beginning in 1896. Once the diary is continuous, after 1922, no more letters are printed. This is a half-hearted way of handling documents, as though the editors could not decide whether they were editing the diary or the papers as a whole. Another fly in the ointment is the failure to identify in the biographical index many of the individuals referred to in the text. ‘After lunch,’ Amery records, ‘Macleod came in ...’ But a reader who has got this far deserves to be told who Macleod was. The publishers evidently find it hard to imagine that anyone browsing in a bookshop would be tempted to buy the book. At £27.50 it seems to be intended strictly for libraries, or manic-depressive scholars spending their way out of a slump. The pessimism is justified, for even hardened political historians like this reviewer will find this a dry old lemon to squeeze. The diaries are a record of virtuous toil, seldom illuminated by original observations of places or people. From day to day the imperial vision had to be pursued through an alimentary canal of bureaucracy reminiscent of the present-day BBC or Gas Board. And the Empire today looks so very dead that few lively associations attach to struggles for the Empire Marketing Board, the Empire Settlement Bill or the Imperial War Graves Commission
But this is unfair. The Empire in its day was a stupendous spectacle and a real force, swarming and buzzing with life. The alliance of the Dominions was an important factor in two world wars, and families at home listening to the King’s Christmas broadcast would think fondly of relations gathered around a wireless in Sydney or Toronto. The raw materials and minerals of the Empire buoyed up the British standard of living and provided strategic advantages in wartime. What was wrong with Amery, and what makes his diaries so tedious, was his technocratic drive to impose logic, order and system on a gloriously irrational phenomenon. He longed to introduce into the teeming variety of Empire a structural core of steel and concrete. It was no accident that he was an early associate of the Fabians, nor that his career ran foul of Winston Churchill.
When Amery first met Churchill at Harrow he pushed him into the school swimming-pool. Later on it was usually Churchill who gave Amery a ducking, and there is much about their disagreements in the diaries. Churchill thought of Britain as a free-ranging predator with interests in all parts of the world. He detested the idea that a British Cabinet should find itself boxed in by obligations to country cousins in Canada or Australia. The white Dominions he thought of as provinces and tributaries of a great metropolitan power. When Baldwin formed his Cabinet in 1924, with Amery as Colonial Secretary. Amery imagined that at last the time was ripe to carry the master plan of imperial construction – tariff reform. Meanwhile, Baldwin had quietly checkmated him by appointing Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. A dreadnought of free trade, Churchill trained his heavy guns on Amery and repelled his advances with warning shots across the bow. When the Government resigned in 1929 Amery could only record: ‘Winston’s hostility ... has paralysed us throughout.’
An equally trenchant verdict on Churchill is to be found in Amery’s memoirs. One of the limitations of this volume of the Diaries is that they retrace in greater detail a well-beaten path familiar to readers of My Political Life. The extras are abundant and sometimes curious, but there are no great surprises. Meanwhile the raw text often proves to be fairly indigestible, as a sample will show: ‘14 May 1928: Conference in Austen’s room on the American Note arising from the last Canadian telegram, the main point being that while our reply should not commit the Dominions to anything to which they are not committed we must equally avoid the position of their committing themselves to non-participation in any issue which might arise out of such a question as Egypt.’
However, the last word remains to be spoken. Amery’s autobiography concludes in 1940 but he continued his diary down to his death in 1955. As Secretary for India during the Second World War, he was in a unique position to observe Churchill and the Empire at bay. The worst – and that of course means the best – is yet to come.