Help Yourself

R.W. Johnson

  • Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling by Lewis Baston
    Sutton, 604 pp, £25.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 7509 2924 3

In the spring of 1974, as reports multiplied of his involvement with crooks such as John Poulson and T. Dan Smith, Reginald Maudling disappeared to Paris with his wife, Beryl. The Daily Mail’s Harry Longmuir had little difficulty locating him in the ‘Président’ suite of the George V. Checking in himself, Longmuir spent a whole Sunday morning with a confused, disorientated Maudling in his dressing-gown. Maudling chatted away amiably – providing damning copy – while drinking the contents of Longmuir’s minibar.

Many elements of Maudling’s story are present in this vignette: his love of the good life for himself and, especially, for Beryl; his likeability and accessibility to journalists who, as a result, long protected him; his ever-worsening alcoholism; and his insistence on a style of living which he could not afford and which drove him into dependence on Poulson and others. The fascination of Lewis Baston’s excellent study lies largely in the unfolding inevitability of this morality tale. The movement from the young Maudling, working genially alongside Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell in the late 1940s – Rab Butler’s three brilliant young men, all potential prime ministers – to the later figure, greedy, corrupt, drinking himself to death, his reputation in ruins, has an almost tragic cadence. (Since it is a tale in which the disclosure of interests is much to the point, I should add that Lewis Baston was once one of my own students.)

Baston’s final verdict is that Maudling was a decent man: ‘His sins were the sins of the warm-hearted . . . he was a good man, who did wrong for very human reasons . . . he came into public life to do good and make things better . . . the world is better off for Reggie.’ In large part this is because Maudling was the embodiment of Butskellism, of the politics of consensus. As Baston points out, his career – from joining the Treasury team in 1952 until his death in the winter of discontent of 1979 – exactly brackets the age of consensus, swept away a few months later by Margaret Thatcher, ‘that bitch’, as Maudling called her.

Another reading is possible. Maudling’s generation – growing up during the Depression and the war – were, more than most, attracted by the notion of putting division and conflict behind them. But not everyone was equally attracted by consensus politics: both Macleod and Powell were, in their different ways, far more determined to do what they thought right. As anyone who lived through that era knows, consensus for consensus’s sake appealed fatally to a certain kind of bonhomous Englishman, a man like Maudling, for whom the middle way was always the right way – was, indeed, the English way. Inevitably, this meant relegating principle – only fanatics and ideologues were driven by ideas – in the search for whatever went down well with the middle ground. The trouble is that the middle ground is as likely to get things wrong as anyone else; in the 1930s it had been pacifist and, as Thatcher quite correctly saw, it had since 1945 presided over a long national decline about which it was completely fatalistic. Private Eye’s cartoonist Timothy caught the mood perfectly with his picture of an old buffer being swept down into a whirlpool, mumbling: ‘Tide of history, old man, tide of history.’

Maudling’s tastes were decidedly unTory: he was a Hegelian, a devotee of Keynes and Freud, and an agnostic. As a student he loathed the Officer Training Corps and had little time for the Oxford Union; he also detested blood sports and Tory Party conferences. But besides being clever and charming, he was also a heavy drinker, a trait which enormously commended him to Churchill, whose speechwriter he became in 1946. By 1949 he was said to be one of only three people to whom Churchill ever listened, but Churchill was in his dotage when he returned to power in 1951 – hence the importance of Butler, the great patron.

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