BY NOAH KEATE
Diaries are a fascinating source of history for many reasons. Firstly, their immediacy. Entries are usually written the day an important event happened. A reader can get the quick thoughts of what someone believed or did as an event happened. Diaries are also immensely intimate or private. Though someone may wish to publish their volumes at a later date, diaries at the time are built around secrecy. An individual can chart their personal views that would not otherwise be possible in official briefing documents like the minutes of a Cabinet meeting.
While diaries are wholly subjective, as events of history are crafted by the individual writer, their use in political chronicles has been relevant. Few could ever fully understand the New Labour years without reading Alistair Campbell’s diaries, who was Press Secretary to Tony Blair. The tales of Chris Mullin and Alan Clark have similarly been regarded as iconic for understanding the contemporary political past in a new light.
Often, diaries are written by politicians who were at the heart of the action. But what about those by their side? We haven’t had the inner thoughts of Denis Thatcher, Cherie Blair or Sarah Brown, all partners to Prime Ministers, ever properly brought to the surface in diary form. I imagine they would be riveting and gripping to read, given how much the position of Prime Minister affects family life.
Instead, we have to make do with ‘Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power’ by Sasha Swire. The daughter of Sir John Nott, Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, her husband Hugo Swire was MP for East Devon between 2001 and 2019. The book charts extracts of her diaries between 2010, when Hugo was made a minister under the coalition government, to December 2019, when Hugo retired from Parliament.
Sasha Swire herself was intrinsic in her husband’s parliamentary career. Working as his assistant, she wrote columns on his behalf and played a crucial role in ensuring Hugo Swire was able to hold his seat. Naturally, as Sasha Swire makes clear, her diaries were long and extensive. What entries made it into the book would have to be the most readable and interesting.
I can’t help but wonder whether the book was published because of the Swire’s close friendship with David Cameron. There are many references to weekends spent at Chequers with the Camerons, talking all things politics and being ruthless about parliamentary colleagues. Clearly, being an MP's wife and having that close a connection with the Prime Minister makes the incentive to buy and read the book far higher.
Indeed, there is plenty of name-dropping throughout the book as different politicians and parliamentarians get their turn under the gaze, spotlight and scrutiny of Swire. Theresa May becomes Old Ma May, while Jeremy Corbyn is simply referred to as Jezza. No one is free from scrutiny or questioning and, when the book was serialised, it was those extracts which attracted the most amount of attention.
Inevitably with a diary, the politics is interspersed with the personal. It is undoubtedly clear that the Swires live a very privileged life. There are first world problems about the type of car they purchased and whether it prevents cold air. Sasha complains about a pair of curtains being removed without permission. In normal circumstances, I may have had more sympathy but, when you hold a position which invariably involves meeting members of the public who have problems far worse, I struggled to feel an immense amount of sympathy.
Rather, I found it striking how little constituency issues were mentioned. Under David Cameron’s government, Hugo served as a minister in the Northern Ireland department and Foreign Office. Yet you are still a constituency MP with issues. The topic of East Devon was mainly raised in relation to Hugo’s Conservative Association, which apparently became more distasteful as time went by. Another frequent mention of Sasha’s is Claire Wright (referred to as Claire Wrong) a local Independent councillor who would normally come second to Hugo at general elections. Yet Sasha never goes into detail about the specific claims on which Wright is apparently inaccurate.
The politico in me will always love any book that references politics, especially if it is UK based. I am so captured by Westminster and the stories about how legislation is made, different personalities and the process of delivering change that even a substandard book will somewhat amuse. I found ‘Diary of an MP’s Wife’ to be extremely wide-ranging in terms of who was mentioned and the scope of time covered. However, it was ultimately lacking depth, both about policy and also understanding the way in which politics, whether we like it or not, affects all of us every single day.
‘Diary of an MP’s Wife’ can be purchased from Waterstones here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/diary-of-an-mps-wife/sasha-swire/9780349144405
Image - Diary of an MPs Wife/Sasha Swire/goodreads/Little, Brown and Company