If political autobiography resembles a gravestone, then between Norman Fowler's perfunctory tablet and Nigel Lawson's Taj Mahal, the plain tomb of Bill Rodgers shows to advantage. For this book counts among the best political memoirs of our time - unselfregarding, indiscreet without being vengeful, often funny and with a straightforward narrative. This is a sweet-and-sour chronicle of times growing ever more impossible, done so well that one trusts that some sharp publisher will pounce on the diary so often cited.
Rodgers is not a great man. A long-serving Labour minister of state, finally running the Ministry of Transport sensibly, he became the least grand of the SDP's "gang of four". He lacks chic and is liable to be impaled on cocktail sticks. But there is a ferrous thread of consistency. He fought for Hugh Gaitskell against Labour's unilateralist drift and lived to be denounced by the bizarre David Owen as unsound on defence.
Soldiering through economic affairs, trade, the Foreign Office, the Treasury, defence and transport, Rodgers notes, records, mocks a little. He catches the glint in colleagues' eyes and the hilarity of events. Entry into government was like Iain Macleod's phone-book search for the Ministry of Health. Directed by the PM to the new Department of Economic Affairs, he is lost, asks in a pub - "Never heard of it love, not round here" - and fetches up in an imposing building. "Why do you want it?" "I've just become a minister there." "Gentleman says he's just become a minister."
Rodgers blocks the door through which a senior civil servant is attempting a (fully justified) violent pursuit of George Brown. Bill is threatened with proxy assault by Eric Heffer, whom George had insulted. We see George looking at the bottom of a sherry bottle... and George getting devaluation, key to the economy, right when Wilson and Callaghan got it soberly wrong.
At Trade, his wife deflects a contractor's bribe of a weekend's shooting: "He's never shot anything in his life." But he learns the art of fixing. At one point, the then Paymaster General conspires: "Bill? George Wigg... You will remember what we discussed. Well it's on, but I can't tell you more over an open line." "But what have we discussed George?" "Is that Bill?" "Yes it is." "Which Bill?" "Bill Rodgers." At which point he said "Wrong Bill" and rang off.
But it isn't all fun. Rodgers bleakly depicts Anthony Crosland, sulky, snobbish, slipping into his old warm self only in private snatches. His Harold Wilson is most colleagues' Harold Wilson, promoting Rodgers when, wrongly, he thinks that the latter is part of a conspiracy. Like everyone else, Rodgers finds Wilson nicer after 1974.
There is real history here. The Rodgers account of the IMF crisis in 1976, with Callaghan playing the Cabinet out of its jittery anger, is the most succinct available. Yet Callaghan was to screw up Labour's prospects with his flight from an October 1978 election, ahead of most wage battles. I love the human side, too: Bill's three daughters deciding that they don't want the SDP, but delegating Lucy to tell daddy they still love him.
As for the SDP, its causes are all here: a collective failure of Cabinet and party nerve, the antics of fatuous David Basnett and malignant Clive Jenkins, latent violence on the conference floor at Brighton in 1980, authority slipping painlessly away. So, alas, is the sad parabola of the venture - from personal release and huge public response to the miserable futilities that followed. Neither Roy Jenkins, nor Shirley Williams, nor Rodgers himself are blameless, but what secession could survive the conviction of Owen that it must at once split into Jenkinsites and Owenites? The final quarrel over the Liberals and defence policy must have seemed, to a member of Wilson's government, like paranoia to paranoia in one move.
The reviewer's latest book is 'Lines of Most Resistance: the Lords, the Tories and Ireland 1886-1914' (Little, Brown)
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