KEN BELL enjoys an amusing and observant, if ultimately insubstantial, account of an eventful political period
The Diary of an MP’s Wife, Sasha Swire, Little, Brown, 544 pages, £8
A diarist needs a good eye for the little details that makes the reader feel that he is in the room where the events are happening. Sasha Swire has that diarist’s eye in good measure and uses it to full effect in The Diary of an MP’s Wife. Thus when meeting the Countess of Wessex, Lady Swire notes when the Countess talks about giving up her career in PR that there is “real regret in her eyes and sadness that this part of her life is gone and not allowed to return”. Meanwhile, Prince Edward, husband to the Countess, comes over as “over-excitable like a puppy”, which rather sums up his whole life when you think about it.
Along with her good eye for the small details, this authoress is also the mistress of the cutting, throwaway, dismissive comment, as she demonstrates on almost every page of the diary which covers the years 2010 to 2019 when her husband, Sir Hugo Swire, who is known as “H” throughout the volume, was in government. One of my favourites is her conclusion that Kate Middleton and her family displayed “middle-class dignity” during the 2011 royal wedding. Only the genuine upper-class can damn with faint praise like that.
Reading this volume, I was struck by how little there is about the great events of the period and how much is dedicated to sticking the boot in to people that Lady Swire does not like. The fact that most of them seem to be in the Conservatives, the party that her husband represented in the Commons, rather suggests that Harold Macmillan had it about right when he commented that a man’s political opponents are on the other side of the House, and his enemies are all around him on his side.
The greatest event covered by the diary must be the 2016 Brexit vote, but it is really only covered in passing. Having seemingly done very little during the campaign, Sir Hugo and Lady Swire decided to go to Scotland for a few days in the Highlands on polling day, and left on the sleeper train, thinking that victory was theirs. However, as the dawn rose and the news came through that victory had gone to the other side, Lady Swire dragged her husband out of his bed and they both returned to London to hold David Cameron’s hand. On the way back, one of the daughters rang up to cry that “old people and White Van Man have stolen her future”. Her mother, who presumably is aware of just how wealthy, privileged and connected the family is and that the little girl is in no danger of being reduced to taking in washing, has no sympathy and tells her that “she should have made more of her friends get out of bed and vote”.
Aside from paying back old scores, the diary really succeeds as an account of just how incestuous the Tory leadership crew is. This is the chumocracy in action, with people who are part of that magic circle getting a respectable naming and everyone else receiving a mocking nickname. So, David Cameron is referred to throughout as “DC” and Theresa May is dismissed as “Old Ma May.” George Osborne is “Boy George” in the diary, probably because he is only an honorary member of the magic circle, having been a day boy at his public school and his father being something in trade. I went to a secondary modern so all this is Greek to me, but it means something to this crowd.
It is not just that they all know each other, but they have been friends for years. So, Amber Rudd, who has now returned to well-deserved obscurity and will only merit footnotes in the histories that will be written of this time, seems to feature on far too many pages as if she is a really important person. Actually, she has been a friend of Sasha Swire since both were in their teens, and it shows in the diary in the sympathetic way she is portrayed and the amount of references to her.
This is all very much a book written by a member of the higher caste for other members of the caste who understand instinctively the cultural references. Thus, H goes to meet DC one Saturday morning in his casual attire and DC looks at his brown shoes, lifts an eyebrow and says, “Brown in town, Hugo?” To which Hugo replies that it is the weekend and he should not be in town but in the country, and so on and so forth.
There is nothing wrong with an authoress writing a book for her social set, and Sasha Swire is certainly a quite excellent writer with a fine turn of phrase who has crafted a work that it was a pleasure to read. The sad thing about her book is that it is unlikely to be referred to by future historians because the bulk of it is concerned with people who will be of interest only to the hardest of hardcore historians; thus it will date very quickly for the general reader.