It was when he moved from the Sunday Times to the Guardian that he found the full power of his voice, and it was from his twice-weekly platform there that he became the outstanding commentator of his generation. There was the quality of the prose: elegant, precise, humane, rational and vigorous. There was the consistency of his liberal centre values, which made him the scourge of petty despots of any political stripe. His feel for character and context was quite remarakable. All that was built on the time and effort he spent excavating beneath the facile surface of politics and much of the reporting of it.’
This superb volume is a collection of Hugo’s meticulous, confidential notes gathered over 30 years of lunches, meetings and phone calls with leading politicians, mandarins, judges and diplomats in which they entrusted to Hugo their private hopes and dreads about power and policy, allies and rivals. This is a chronicle from the heart of politics that you can trust. Unlike the diaries of many politicians, Hugo did not write with one eye on gossip to spice up the royalty cheque and one eye on how to flavour the account to make the writer look good to history.
The notes are peppered with revelatory and entertaining character sketches. In the late Seventies, he reports that Tony Benn ‘relishes the thought’ of Margaret Thatcher because of ‘the disturbance she causes the establishment’. In the early Nineties, we meet Neil Kinnock ‘cheerful, full of funny voices – a particularly good imitation of the Spitting Image John Major’. From a Guardian lunch with Princess Diana he takes away a prophetic thought: ‘Although she laments the incessant publicity, I wonder how she would survive without it.’
That is not to say that Young was endlessley kind and always balanced – if he judged that a politician deserved one of his magisterial savagings. The columnist has to have the capacity to break bread with a politician at lunchtime and eat them alive for supper. A note of lunch with Harold Wilson reports ‘a display of matchless vanity’ from the then Labour Prime Minister in which ‘HW parades his skill as a manipulator of economic forces’. Talking of which, Hugo finds Gordon Brown to be ‘the soul of geniality’ when they talk at the Treasury in the summer of 1998. ‘Rather different from the impression one constantly gathers from others about his overbearing manner, his paranoid attitude towards colleagues.’ That other dimension of Mr Brown is on display when they meet a year later. ‘He began, quite heatedly, saying that we always seem to meet on days when I had done a column which he disagreed with.’
Hugo’s columns were never empty rants knocked together from a couple of idle prejudices. He could illuminate all the nuances of a character or an issue and then draw them together into a compellingly clear conclusion. The depth and intricacy of his knowledge was what made Hugo such a formidable voice when he decided a politician was worthy of his wrath.
In July 2003, towards the end of his life, he wrote a column telling Tony Blair, a Prime Minister he had generally admired, that it was time to go. Blair was stung into hand-writing a long and impassioned letter in reply. Hugo was then invited round for tea at Number 10 by Cherie. That encounter – ‘in their dreary toy-scattered quarters in Downing Street’ – is recorded in this volume. Alas, what you won’t find is her husband’s letter or Hugo’s notes of his conversations with him.
This is no fault of the trustees of the papers nor of Ion Trewin, who has done a fine job of editing them.
There are riches enough here. This is a master class in how to be a great reporter, an invaluable resource for historians, a gripping read for anyone with the faintest interest in how we are governed, and a fitting monument to a titan of high journalism.