The best political diaries (United Kingdom)

Richard Vinen Author Of National Service: A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963
By Richard Vinen

Who am I?

Richard Vinen is a Professor of History at King's College, London, and the author of a number of major books on 20th century Europe. He won the Wolfson Prize for History for his last book, National Service. Vinen is a specialist in 20th-century European history, particularly of Britain and France.

I wrote...

National Service: A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963

By Richard Vinen,

Book cover of National Service: A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963

What is my book about?

Richard Vinen's new book is a serious - if often very entertaining - attempt to get to grips with the reality of National Service, an extraordinary institution which now seems as remote as the British Empire itself. With great sympathy and curiosity, Vinen unpicks the myths of the two 'gap years', which all British men who came of age between 1945 and the early 1960s had to fill with National Service. Millions of teenagers were thrown together and under often brutal conditions taught to obey orders and to fight. The luck of the draw might result in two years of boredom in some dilapidated British barracks, but it could also mean being thrown into a dangerous combat mission in a remote part of the world.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Harold Macmillan: Volume 2: 1957-1986

Why did I love this book?

It is rare for anyone with real power to write an interesting diary. They do not have the time or the self-awareness. Harold Macmillan is the exception because his diaries are fantastic and those that he writes as prime minister are much better than those that he writes earlier in his career. He is such a lonely man (England’s most famous cuckold) and one senses that his diary is his only real confidant. He is also so extraordinarily aware of historical change. He is himself a considerable historian and one who reads very widely even when prime minister. There is a moment in the early 1960s when he gets back to Downing Street after a weekend in the country and writes in his diary about having read Theodore Zeldin’s, The Political System of Napoleon III – not exactly bedtime reading for most people but a work that inspires Macmillan into some interesting reflections on Charles de Gaulle.

By Sir Alistair Horne,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harold Macmillan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uses diaries, interviews, and letters to trace the life of the British Prime Minister

Book cover of The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955

Why did I love this book?

The opposite of Macmillan in that Colville was very young (in his mid-twenties when he started this diary) and fairly junior. What makes this book extraordinary is partly that Colville’s is Churchill’s Boswell – he was the prime minister's private secretary and saw him almost every day. Partly too, this book captures an odd kind of upper-class life that survived even during the war. It is strange to read about riding in Richmond Park in the middle of the London blitz.

By John Colville,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Fringes of Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The diaries of Winston Churchill's private secretary from 1941 to 1945 and from 1951 to 1955 provides a unique view of World War II, of Churchill's wartime activities and those of his personal staff

Book cover of The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1964

Why did I love this book?

Like Colville, Nicolson is not very important in himself (a backbench MP for most of the time) but one who matters because he knows so many greater figures and because he writes with such honesty – particularly interesting when his predictions turn out to be wrong. If you get hooked, you can read the earlier edition, which is in three volumes.

By Nigel Nicolson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1964 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the great 20th century political diaries

'A tremendous read' SPECTATOR

'One stops to marvel at the achievement. Honesty, decency, modesty, magnanimity, are stamped on every page, as evident as the wit' EVENING STANDARD

Harold Nicolson was one of the three great political diarists of the 20th century (along with Chips Channon and Alan Clark). Nicolson was an MP (Conservative, 1935-45, who also flirted with Labour after WWII). He had previously been in the Foreign Office and attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and material from his period is included in this new edition for the first time.…

Book cover of Who's In, Who's Out: The Journals of Kenneth Rose: Volume One 1944-1979

Why did I love this book?

Rose wrote the Albany column in The Sunday Telegraph and it is tempting to dismiss him as a gossip columnist who spread amusing and implausible stories about the bons mots of Princess Margaret. In fact, Rose was a more substantial person. He was interested in the British establishment but aware of himself as an outsider (partly because he was of Jewish origin). He was also, particularly during the early part of his career, an odd kind of modernizer – close to Tony Benn, whom he had known at university.

By Kenneth Rose,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Who's In, Who's Out as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The most detailed, amusing and accurate account ever of the post-war world of the English Establishment' William Shawcross, Daily Telegraph
'Extremely entertaining' Jane Ridley, Literary Review

Kenneth Rose was one of the most astute observers of the establishment for over seventy years. The wry and amusing journals of the royal biographer and historian made objective observation a sculpted craft.

His impeccable social placement located him within the beating heart of the national elite for decades. He was capable of writing substantial history, such as his priceless material on the abdication crisis from conversations with both the Duke of Windsor and…

Book cover of The Alan Clark Diaries: In Power 1983-1992

Why did I love this book?

Clark was a nasty man – not a lovable rogue but a real bastard with Nazi sympathies and a taste for young girls. The first volume of his diaries, however, are brilliant because they are so extraordinarily uninhibited. He reveals everything about himself including his own fraudulence.

By Alan Clark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Alan Clark Diaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first volume of Alan Clark's diaries, covering two Parliaments during which he served under Margaret Thatcher - until her ousting in a coup which Clark observed closely from the inside - and then under John Major, constitute the most outspoken and revealing account of British political life ever written. Cabinet colleagues, royalty, ambassadors, civil servants and foreign dignitaries are all subjected to Clark's vivid and often wittily acerbic pen, as he candidly records the daily struggle for ascendancy within the corridors of power.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the United Kingdom, international relations, and World War 1?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the United Kingdom, international relations, and World War 1.

The United Kingdom Explore 554 books about the United Kingdom
International Relations Explore 245 books about international relations
World War 1 Explore 827 books about World War 1