In the four centuries since Samuel Pepys set the bar high for political diaries, vanity has proved the magic ingredient in creating an enduring read. Presence at great events, a good eye for gossip and detail, and style and wit are all part of the mix. Wisdom, too, if possible. But vanity is the essential spice. Oh, Sam, how could you own up to distracting a Deptford ropemaker with a naval contract in order to visit his wife? Or admit in print to sneaking home at lunchtime to check if the sheets are warm in case Mrs Pepys has been misbehaving with her dancing teacher? Oh, Sam.
So how does Denis MacShane, a prolific journalist and a Labour MP from 1994 to 2012, stand up against the titans of the trade? His diaries, which provide a worm’s-eye view of Tony Blair’s first term, are strangely compelling for anyone who can recall those heady days and their transient triumphs. Half-overeager Tigger, half-melancholy Eeyore, MacShane embroils the reader in his aching ambition for office.
The diaries of lecherous Alan Clark, a favourite of Thatcher, pass the Pepys test with shameless ease. So do those of the Tory MP Chips Channon, his snobbish gossip and bad political judgements a recurring source of joy. Harold Nicolson, another diarist MP, is both grander and more generous. The same goes for Gyles Brandreth, whose romp through the John Major years is good fun. Brandreth doesn’t care much about his political career. He has several others. In his own diaries, MacShane submits that Brandreth, a contemporary of his at Oxford, has ‘frittered an entire life away’. Don’t think so.
What all these diarists have in common with MacShane is that they were minor players. As such, they were better placed to judge events than self-justifying cabinet ministers – even the wildly indiscreet Labour intellectual Dick Crossman, whose weighty mid-1970s diaries first broke Whitehall’s secrecy taboos. Of course, as a Labour politician, MacShane is inhibited by an earnest desire to make the world a better place. Tories want to do good too, but they are more willing to acknowledge that politics is an addictive game and that most strivings are futile. So they tend to make more jokes. (The former Labour MP Chris Mullin, author of several volumes of elegant diaries, may be an exception.)
MacShane’s idea of a better place is a highly integrated European Union. He chides less ardent allies (‘none of these guys understand that Europe needs big decisions, not incremental little changes’) and pours scorn on Eurosceptics, despising the views he held in his militant youth.
As a born-again New Labour tribalist, Our Denis privately nurses mixed feelings about Blair and what he sometimes calls ‘this wretched government’. Noisily loyal in public, in private MacShane is ungenerous towards most colleagues – even Robin Cook, whose PPS and bagman he spends time as. Cook is vain and insecure, a poor chairman who defers to crafty Foreign Office officials and has made a mess of his marriage (leading to a noisy divorce). Yet MacShane needs him and is pathetically grateful (he knows it) when Cook thanks him for traipsing to Swansea to address a party conference on his behalf, even though he got only one minute of speechifying. Oh dear.
Footnotes are expensive and so understandably there are none here. All the same, many of the events mentioned by MacShane might have been better contextualised. The wars in Kosovo and Iraq, the signing of the Belfast Agreement and Princess Diana’s death appear largely in terms of their relationship to our hero: ‘I phoned Robin Janvrin, the Queen’s deputy private secretary. I told him that if the royals were not down in London by tomorrow there would be a republic by the weekend.’ Did Blair snub me, or forget my name? Did he read my article? (No.) Have ‘my pathetic little hopes’ evaporated? (Never!)
As for the bit-part players, readers might wonder who exactly Nathalie is. She makes as few appearances as Denis’s Rotherham constituency, where the notorious child exploitation scandal would eventually explode. We’re not told that she was MacShane’s second wife. The closest the reader gets to being informed of this comes when Edna O’Brien, still a glamorous vamp in old age, makes what Denis thinks is a pass at him after a party. Nathalie agrees and drives him home fast. Imagine what Alan Clark could have made of that.
As befits a wannabe member of the EU social-democratic elite, MacShane enjoys the finer things of life, in particular freebie trips to Euro conferences in plush hotels with scrumptious food. When he encounters ‘indifferent champagne’, ‘tacky cufflinks’, ‘rather indifferent croissants’ and only ‘passable claret’, he lets us know what he suffers for the cause of Europe.
The recurring implication is that decades spent as a Euro networker have enabled MacShane to do the jobs of most EU powerbrokers better than they can. This may be true, but it can be exasperating. Fortunately, the diaries are redeemed by MacShane’s endearing self-doubt, his Tigger regularly being overwhelmed by his Eeyore. He knows that he is ‘the sycophant-in-chief’ (as Diane Abbott tells him), but also that he talks too much and is tactless. He speaks good enough French and German to battle (often) for Blair and Europe on foreign TV stations. But when he accompanies Gerhard Schröder, future German chancellor, on an election campaign, Eeyore wonders if the coming man ‘thinks I am more elevated than I really am’. If Denis could only laugh at himself, we could all share the joke.
Spoiler alert: in the last entry in this volume, after Blair has won another thumping majority, the call finally comes. Blair offers MacShane a job in government, though not before Tigger has interrupted the triumphant PM to ask if anyone ‘has shown you my article in yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’. He’s going to be in charge of consular affairs and ‘bits of Europe’ – a real minister at the Foreign Office. Hurrah! We can’t wait to find out what happens next.