Dirt book (United Kingdom)

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Dirt book
Location: United Kingdom
UnitedKingdom map.png
Author: Anna Bailey
Affiliation: PhD alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Original text by Anna Bailey

A ‘dirt book’, sometimes also called a ‘black book’, was an informal record of private or compromising information on individual MPs kept by government whips in the United Kingdom parliament. The term is derived from the figurative use of the word ‘dirt’ as ‘scurrilous information or gossip; scandal’ (Oxford English Dictionary 2016[1]). While dating the practice is difficult due to both the secrecy surrounding it and the contested meaning of the term, it appears to have emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s. For the same reasons, it is hard to assess to what extent it is still practiced.


It is important to note that the phrase ‘dirt book’ is not used by whips themselves or indeed parliamentarians in general (Brandreth 2016[2]). Rather, the phrase was coined by the British media. Indeed, it can be argued that the very concept of a ‘dirt book’ is something of a misnomer and a media construct. This is because while whips do indeed gather and record information on their party’s MPs, only a very small proportion of it could be considered ‘dirt’ (ibid. ). Brandreth suggests that a more accurate term would be ‘whips’ notes’, comparing their actual function to the kind of records an HR department might keep on its employees, but more informal and subjective in nature. Any background information that might help the whips to understand and influence an MP’s behaviour would be recorded, such as off-the-cuff expressions of opinion; their hopes and ambitions; or any personal problems such as marital difficulties or alcohol abuse (ibid. ).


To appreciate how the ‘dirt book’ operated it is important to understand the role of whips in the UK parliament. Whips are members of parliament responsible for organising their party’s parliamentary business, in particular ensuring that their members vote according to the party line. The term ‘whip’ is a shortened form of ‘whipper-in’, a hunting term that refers to the huntsman who keeps the hounds hunting as a pack and rounds up any strays (Cockerell 1995[3]). Despite not formally being a member of the Cabinet, the government’s chief whip attends Cabinet meetings and meets frequently with the prime minister, both officially and unofficially. The Whips' Office thus acts as ‘a two-way conduit between the leadership and the backbenchers’ (ibid. ).


The whips’ role became increasingly professionalised in the late 1950s and early 1960s, partly due to the leadership of Edward Heath who served as chief whip 1956-59. Heath ‘systematically gathered information about every member of the party, and developed the art of using this to maximum advantage’ (Shell 1995[4]). It is at this time that the practice of the dirt book is said to have emerged, although whether such a book actually existed is unclear. When the Labour Party came to power in 1964 after thirteen years of Conservative rule, the new Labour chief whip Edward Short found that it ‘had been the practice to keep a “dirt book” in which unsavoury personal items about members were recorded’, a practice he immediately ordered to be discontinued (ibid.). However, Shell suggests that this may not be sufficient evidence for the actual existence of a dirt book, stating that, ‘it is probable that such stories arose simply out of the thoroughness with which Heath and his successors had gathered information’ (ibid.).


Between the 1960s and the 1990s, physical books were certainly in existence, as numerous ex-whips have given quite specific details about them (Baker et al 1993: 153[5]; Cockerell 1995[6]; BBC 1995[7]; Gibbon 2014[8]; Brandreth 2016[9]). Lord Whitelaw (Conservative Party Chief Whip 1964-70) described them as, ‘just a little book where you wrote down various things you knew or heard about people’ (BBC 1995[10]). Under the successive Conservative administrations of 1979-1997, it is said that the ‘dirt books’ were A5 hardback exercise books that were bought in bulk, with the Whips’ Office consuming on average a book a week. They were kept in a metal safe in the Whips’ Office (Gibbon 2014[11]; Brandreth 2016[12]). Recording information in the books was a collaborative exercise: a whip would briefly take the book from the safe to write down any information they had gathered so that it could be shared by the whole whips’ team. Once a week the top sheet of the carbon copy was torn off and passed to the chief whip, who would pass any information he deemed relevant to the prime minister (Brandreth 2016[13]).


A related practice was the fabled ‘shits’ list’. Non-compliant and rebellious MPs are colloquially referred to by whips as ‘shits’. According to Rupert Allason (Conservative MP 1987-97), the shits’ list was written on a blackboard with a curtain across it in the Whips’ Office. Allason stated that a whip revealed the shits’ list to him in order to demonstrate that he had not yet been placed on it (Cockerell 1995[14]).


It is unclear to what extent information gathered by whips has been used to blackmail MPs into voting a particular way. Indeed, this may vary over time depending on the government’s situation and the personalities of the individual whips holding office. Tim Fortescue, for example, implied that veiled threats to release compromising information were made: ‘When you are trying to persuade a member that he should vote the way he didn't want to vote on a controversial issue – which is part of your job – it is possible to suggest that perhaps it would not be in his interest if people knew “something-or-other” – very mildly' (BBC 1995[15]). But another former whip stated that, ‘the blackmail tactic is rarely used. Possible targets might be near retirement, or have no further prospects of advancement’ (Baker et al 1993: 153[16]). Stephen Dorrell (Conservative Party whip 1987- 90) suggested that the use of ‘dirt’ was to a large extent a bluff or ‘confidence trick’, since 'most whips know rather less about their colleagues' lives than their colleagues might think' (BBC 1995[17]).


Contemporary and even historical study of ‘dirt books’ is difficult due to the secrecy surrounding the workings of the Whips’ Office and the whips’ code of honour. Tristan Garel-Jones (Conservative Party whip 1982-90) boasted that the Whips’ Office was ‘the last safe house in Europe — more secure than MI5.' His justification was that if what the whips actually did was exposed, the system would no longer work (Cockerell 1995[18]). While some former whips have contributed to studies of the Whips’ Office, others have refused to discuss their role with researchers, even under conditions of anonymity. For example, one ex-whip told the documentary filmmaker Michael Cockerell, ‘I cannot discuss with an outsider what whips do; it would break our code of honour and confidentiality’ (ibid. ). When Gyles Brandreth (Conservative Party whip 1995-97) published his parliamentary diaries in 1999 he entitled them Breaking the Code, since by publishing details of his work as a whip he was breaking the ‘whip’s code’. On the day of the book’s publication, Brandreth received an envelope containing nothing but a sheet of white paper with a large black spot, which he took to be a symbolic ‘mark of shame’ from the Whips’ Office; he was subsequently ostracised by his fellow former whips (Brandreth 2015: xi[19]).


The practice of the ‘dirt book’ came to renewed public attention in 2014, amid allegations that historic cases of child sex abuse by senior politicians had been covered up. Attention focused on comments made by former whip Tim Fortescue on the BBC’s 1995 documentary film ‘Westminster’s Secret Service: The Whips’ Office’. Fortescue implied that the whips might help MPs to cover up allegations of child sex abuse: ‘Anyone with any sense who was in trouble would come to the whips and tell them the truth, and say, “I'm in a jam, can you help?”. It might be debt, it might be a scandal involving small boys, or any kind of scandal… They'd come and ask if we could help and if we could, we did.’ Fortescue added that, ‘We would do everything we can, because… if we could get a chap out of trouble then he’ll do as we ask for evermore’ (BBC 1995[20]). Prime Minister David Cameron publicly stated that any whips’ records held by the Conservative Whips’ Office would be turned over to the Home Office’s enquiry into historic child sex abuse (Hope and Riley-Smith 2015[21]), although whether any of the books (or carbon copies from them) have survived is unclear.


As the work of the Whips’ Office continues to be shrouded in secrecy, it is difficult to know what form whips’ notes take today, and in what (if any) respects they could be regarded as a ‘dirt book’. Claims to have ended the practice of the ‘dirt book’ should be treated critically. For example, Labour’s first chief whip under Tony Blair, Nick Brown, told Labour MPs following the 1997 general election that they need not worry about him operating any kind of ‘black book’ (Gibbon 2014[22]). However, given the subjectivity of what could be considered a ‘dirt book’ (and the loaded nature of the term), it is not clear what exactly a claim not to operate such a system would include and exclude. It is improbable that whips no longer keep records on their party members, as this would compromise their ability to do their job effectively (Brandreth 2016[23]). Most importantly, the point at which ‘information’ can become ‘dirt’ is often a matter of perspective.

Notes

  1. Oxford English Dictionary. 2016. Entry on ‘dirt’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  2. Brandreth, G. 2016. Private telephone conversation with author, 7 July
  3. Cockerell, M. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’, Spectator, 19 May: 11. Reproduced at: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/20th-may-1995/11/westminsters-secret-service
  4. Shell, D. 1995. ‘Prime Ministers and their Parties’, in Shell, D. and Hodder-Williams, R., Churchill to Major: The British Prime Ministership Since 1945 (New York: M. E. Sharpe)
  5. Baker, D., Gamble, A., Ludlam, S. 1993. ‘Whips or Scorpions? The Maastricht Vote and the Conservative Party’, Parliamentary Affairs 46 (2): 151-166
  6. Cockerell, M. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’, Spectator, 19 May: 11. Reproduced at: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/20th-may-1995/11/westminsters-secret-service
  7. BBC. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service: The Whips’ Office’, TV documentary, BBC 2, 21 May 1995
  8. Gibbon, G. 2014. ‘The dirt on the whips’ ‘dirt book’’, Channel 4 News, 8 July, http://blogs.channel4.com/gary-gibbon-on-politics/dirt-dirt-book/28700
  9. Brandreth, G. 2016. Private telephone conversation with author, 7 July
  10. BBC. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service: The Whips’ Office’, TV documentary, BBC 2, 21 May 1995
  11. Gibbon, G. 2014. ‘The dirt on the whips’ ‘dirt book’’, Channel 4 News, 8 July, http://blogs.channel4.com/gary-gibbon-on-politics/dirt-dirt-book/28700
  12. Brandreth, G. 2016. Private telephone conversation with author, 7 July
  13. Brandreth, G. 2016. Private telephone conversation with author, 7 July
  14. Cockerell, M. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’, Spectator, 19 May: 11. Reproduced at: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/20th-may-1995/11/westminsters-secret-service
  15. BBC. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service: The Whips’ Office’, TV documentary, BBC 2, 21 May 1995
  16. Baker, D., Gamble, A., Ludlam, S. 1993. ‘Whips or Scorpions? The Maastricht Vote and the Conservative Party’, Parliamentary Affairs 46 (2): 151-166
  17. BBC. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service: The Whips’ Office’, TV documentary, BBC 2, 21 May 1995
  18. Cockerell, M. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’, Spectator, 19 May: 11. Reproduced at: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/20th-may-1995/11/westminsters-secret-service
  19. Brandreth, G. 2015. Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries (2nd edn.) (London: Biteback)
  20. Cockerell, M. 1995. ‘Westminster’s Secret Service’, Spectator, 19 May: 11. Reproduced at: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/20th-may-1995/11/westminsters-secret-service
  21. Hope, C. and Riley-Smith, B. 2015. ‘David Cameron personally orders Tories to open Whips’ dirt books to child abuse investigators’, Daily Telegraph, 13 January, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11343120/David-Cameron-personally-orders-Tories-to-open-Whips-dirt-books-to-child-abuse-investigators.html
  22. Gibbon, G. 2014. ‘The dirt on the whips’ ‘dirt book’’, Channel 4 News, 8 July, http://blogs.channel4.com/gary-gibbon-on-politics/dirt-dirt-book/28700
  23. Brandreth, G. 2016. Private telephone conversation with author, 7 July