Be mean and nasty

Jenny Diski

  • Nothing like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter by Andrew Hosken
    Granta, 372 pp, £20.00, March 2006, ISBN 1 86207 809 2

What is the only place in England the joke went, where you can buy three cemeteries and a pint of beer and still have change from a pound? Answer: the London Borough of Westminster. Boom boom. This makes the price of a pint of beer in 1986 slightly less than 85p. The cemeteries, in Hanwell, East Finchley and Mill Hill, whose upkeep was the responsibility of the Highways and Works Committee of Westminster City Council, were sold by the council for 5p each. Aside from thousands of dead bodies, they included three lodge houses, a plant nursery suitable for housing development, 12 acres of grazing land equally suitable for building on, a foreman’s flat and a car park. To be fair, these extra features were not part of the 15p price for the three cemeteries: they cost another 65p in total. The cemeteries themselves were not great assets – indeed, the cost of their upkeep (£400,000 a year) was what prompted the sale in the first place – but they did contain among many others the interred remains of Billy Fury; a thousand Dutch servicemen killed in the war; PC Keith Blakelock, who had died in the Broadwater Farm riot the previous year; a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer, Austen Chamberlain; and Mrs Eileen Sheppard’s husband, Harold, who had been buried there at a cost of £1200 22 months earlier. When the grass began to grow wild and the headstones to crack and topple as a result of neglect by the new owners, more than eight hundred distraught relatives marched on City Hall, and the newspapers had a field day. The leader of Westminster City Council stood firm at first, telling the relatives that they were ‘peddling cheap emotions for the cameras’, but eventually agreed to buy the cemeteries back when the bad publicity refused to go away. It took five years for them to be retrieved: they were bought back for 15p in 1992. However, the development land, the properties and a crematorium have remained in private hands. The affair had cost the residents of Westminster £4.25 million. Less, I suppose, the interest on 15p.

Until this idiocy was revealed, Westminster City Council and its leader, Shirley Porter, had been the darling of the Tory Party; a showcase example of how local government could benefit from an efficient, cost-cutting, commercially-minded, unsentimental head, just as the nation had been doing since 1979. Porter was Margaret Thatcher’s mini-me; they were even both the daughters of grocers, though Jack Cohen’s Tesco proved to be a more lasting success than Alderman Roberts’s shop in Grantham. Porter rode high in public and party esteem thanks to a passionately media-friendly campaign to clear the streets of litter, and then by keeping Westminster rates unreasonably low by axing libraries, privatising and scrapping services and taking on the unions. She was never popular among those who worked under her. ‘Redundancy,’ she told the council officers when she took over as leader in 1983, ‘is an unpleasant fact of life.’ Andrew Hosken, a Radio 4 reporter who investigated the Porter scandals for the Today programme, suggests that the daughter of a multi-millionaire knew less than nothing about redundancy, but perhaps that’s not entirely right. Being rich has never precluded anyone from being unnecessary, and if your father and the source of your wealth won’t let you into the boardroom, and it doesn’t cross your mind to give up all your company shares and see if you can make your own way in the world, you might well know something of what it feels like to be redundant. Jack Cohen gave his daughter’s husband, Leslie, a seat on the board of Tesco, but not Shirley – because he was firmly of the opinion that women belonged in the home. In 1985, after her father was dead, Porter tried again for a seat on the board, citing her experience in running the council as proof that she could manage the affairs of Tesco. ‘Look, Shirley,’ Ian MacLaurin told her, ‘you’ll just have to accept that as long as I am chairman of Tesco, you’ll never get a place on the board.’ Perhaps not just because she was a woman but because, as a council member said, ‘she lacked spontaneity and mental agility, and possibly humour.’ MacLaurin said later that his only regret in blocking her was that it allowed her to give her full attention to destroying Westminster City Council.

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