Ian Gilmour

Ian Gilmour was a member of the Heath and Thatcher governments, and wrote for the LRB for many years. He died in 2007.

Europe or America?

Ian Gilmour, 7 November 2019

When his book, ‘This Blessed Plot’, came out in 1998, Hugo Young said that it was ‘the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid’. Ian Gilmour reviewed the book in the ‘LRB’ of 10 December 1998. What he says seems apposite.

The​ first political misjudgment was an almost...

Dingy Quadrilaterals: the Profumo Case

Ian Gilmour, 19 October 2006

Profumo was of course inexcusably wrong to have told a lie in his personal statement. But of all the lies that have been told in Parliament both before and since, Jack Profumo’s denial of any ‘impropriety’ with Miss Keeler was surely one of the most trifling. Indeed the whole Profumo imbroglio was utterly trivial, and had Hugh Gaitskell still been alive, it would probably never have emerged. George Brown, Labour’s deputy leader, thought the party ‘ought to keep out of this’. But, as he had shown over the Bank Rate Tribunal, Harold Wilson did not possess that sort of sensitivity or scruple.

Vote for the Beast! the Tory Leadership

Ian Gilmour, 20 October 2005

John Stuart Mill labelled the Conservatives ‘the stupid party’. They have certainly been stupid since 1997, and one wonders if their stupidity will persist. But a related and more interesting question is: ‘Are the Conservatives any longer a serious party?’ A serious party can be one of two things. It can, like the Greens, be concerned with only one issue or one group of issues. Its members are not hoping to form a government – they know they are never going to do that – but they believe the presence of some Greens in Parliament, Brussels and local government will help them publicise the issues they believe to be the most important and induce the government to do something about them.

‘There never was such a Woman!!!’ Emily Cowper (later Palmerston) wrote of her sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb. Lady Cowper was not being complimentary. She later described Caroline as being ‘more termagant than ever’. Such disparagement of the woman, who in 1812 had a notorious affair with Byron and was married to a future prime minister, was not confined to the...

‘Johnson wrote The Lives of the Poets,’ Elizabeth Barrett Browning grumbled, ‘and left out the poets.’ She exaggerated, of course, but a book of that title which omitted Chaucer and Shakespeare, Spenser and all the Elizabethans, Donne and nearly all the Jacobeans, while including a host of nonentities, such as Pomfret, Stepney, Dyer, Smith, Duke and King, was at the...

‘In a progressive country,’ Disraeli told his Edinburgh audience after the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill, ‘change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract...

Shortly after Oliver Cromwell’s death in September 1658, Dryden wrote some ‘Heroique Stanza’s, Consecrated to the Glorious Memory of his most Serene and Renowned Highnesse Oliver Late Lord Protector of this Common Wealth, &c’. His poem’s sentiments were as reverential as its title. After maintaining that Cromwell’s ‘Grandeur he deriv’d from...

Throughout the four years between its two landslide defeats, the Conservative Party was intent on pleasing itself and its ultra-rightist supporters in the press, with the predictable and much-predicted consequence that it pleased nobody else. Its long orgy of self-indulgence began immediately after the 1997 election, when the Parliamentary Party rejected Kenneth Clarke as its next leader....

Termagant: The Cliveden Set

Ian Gilmour, 19 October 2000

‘In twenty years,’ Lady Astor used to say of Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian, ‘I’ve never known Philip to be wrong on foreign politics.’ Though Lothian himself thought much the same, it is, in fact, harder to think of an occasion when he was right. As Sir Robert Vansittart, the strongly anti-Nazi head of the Foreign Office in the 1930s put it, ‘Lothian was an...


Ian Gilmour, 1 August 1996

In A.P. Herbert’s enjoyable parody of Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Soho, there is, I think – unfortunately I no longer possess a copy but had a small part in it at school – the passage: ‘Man, like a pebble on a glacier, moves imperceptibly but always down.’ A.P. Herbert was not being serious, of course, but his words apply to some, perhaps most, of us, mentally, morally and physically as we grow older. Where, however, they are most obviously untrue is of people’s careers. The typical politician, for instance, begins near the bottom before moving to a peak, or more usually a series of mountains or molehills, before going into decline. William Pitt the Younger is the great exception. Because of his parentage and abnormal abilities he began at the top.’

George IV was highly unpopular in his lifetime, and almost equally unpopular after it. Nobody regretted his death except his mercenary mistress, Lady Conyngham – the supply of jewels and trinkets had been cut off – and even she was bored with him. Grief was absent at his funeral. ‘A coronation could hardly be gayer,’ noted a peer, and the Times reported that there was ‘not a single mark of sympathy’ in the congregation. It seemed, wrote Mme de Lieven, that George IV had ‘never seriously inspired anyone with attachment’. Later observers viewed him no more favourably, Thackeray catching the prevailing flavour in 1855 and fixing it for future generations in his brilliant essay in The Four Georges.’‘

Hauteur: Britain and Europe

Ian Gilmour, 10 December 1998

For most of the last half-century, Britain has had two options: to be a whole-hearted member of Europe or to be a satellite of the United States. In this field there has been no ‘third way’. Full-hearted co-operation with Europe does not mean and never has meant the end of the Atlantic Alliance. The great majority of the countries in the European Union have always been members of Nato. Yet British prime ministers and politicians have tended to think that for Britain to be fully European somehow endangered our allegedly ‘special’ relationship with the United States. This is an odd notion because, at least since the end of the war, the United States has given up treating Britain as an equal and has nearly always been anxious for us to join Europe and play our proper part there. Nevertheless, with the conspicuous exception of Ted Heath, most prime ministers have dithered between seeking to co-operate with Europe and accepting American domination, while inclining heavily towards the latter.‘

Some body said of the 18th-century Spencers that the Bible was always on the table – and the cards in the drawer. Certainly, that was true of the first Countess Spencer, mother of Georgiana and Harriet. She was conspicuously religious and a compulsive gambler. Up at 5.30 in the morning, she spent an hour at her prayers and a further hour with her Bible. The evenings were spent more congenially, at the gaming table. ‘I staid ’till one hour past twelve,’ Harriet wrote in her diary as a child, ‘but Mama remained ’till six in the morning’ – which presumably curtailed Mama’s devotions that day. She effectively taught her children to gamble. ‘I can never make myself easy,’ she later wrote to Georgiana, ‘about the bad example I have set you, and what you have but too faithfully imitated.’’‘

Diary: the Terminal 5 Enquiry

Ian Gilmour, 19 March 1998

I am off to the exotic – in name – Ramada Hotel, Heathrow to give evidence at the Public Inquiry into the British Airport Authority’s application to build a fifth terminal there. The words ‘fifth terminal’ are misleading. Terminal Five would be the third largest airport in Europe, exceeded in size only by the present-day Heathrow and Frankfurt. The Inquiry has already been running for nearly three years; the Inspector, Colin Vandermeer QC, and his co-adjutors, must be almost, so to speak, terminally bored. Yet they are still alert, courteous and formidably knowledgeable.’‘

‘Spurious’ is the word we want

Ian Gilmour, 28 November 1996

This book tells how the author fell in and out of love with Margaret Thatcher. Although George Urban found her ‘an attractive lady’, with ‘the movements, the legs and walk of a young woman’, his love affair was wholly ideological. Urban, who is or was on the extreme right, was attracted by ‘the great spirit that animated her policies in many areas’; and he greatly admired her ‘galvanisation of the British people at a time of accelerating decline’; yet it was her attitude to foreign policy which chiefly excited his passion. Urban was an ardent Cold Warrior. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, in his case fear of the Soviet Union seems to have deranged his judgment.

Inhumane, Intolerant, Unclean

Ian Gilmour, 31 October 1996

What exactly is a ‘holy city’ or, for that matter, a ‘holy see’? If Jerusalem is the prime example of the first and Rome the only example of the second, their holiness clearly does not reside in the behaviour of either their rulers or the ruled. More evil has been done in Jerusalem than in many, if not most, places on earth, and in Rome Papal conduct and government has sometimes been anything but holy – in the mid-18th century the city’s 150,000 inhabitants averaged four hundred murders a year.’

Diary: Our Ignominious Government

Ian Gilmour, 23 May 1996

To go to Beirut just when Shimon Peres is doing his uniquely energetic electioneering both there and in southern Lebanon does not seem well-timed. However, a friend in Beirut says it’s quiet there this morning and the weather is good. As the four of us are heading not for the beaches but for the refugee camps on behalf of Medical Aid for Palestinians, the weather is not decisive. We stick to our plans and I telephone the Foreign Office to discover if I can defend British policy on Lebanon, assuming we have one, and if so how. The Foreign Office man tells me that it is all Hizballah’s fault because they are against ‘the peace process’. I murmur that the attacks on civilians were unquestionably started by the Israelis and ask what the Government feels about the creation of yet more hundreds of thousands of refugees. The FO chap thinks that none of that is really relevant because the Hizballah are against the ‘peace process’, adding, however, that we are ‘now moving back to the middle’. He means that we are moving way from Michael Portillo’s pompously ignorant remarks a few days ago when he gave his Israeli hosts carte blanche to do what they liked in Lebanon. I ask with a touch of acrimony why we ever left ‘the middle’ and ring off.

Excepting the Aristocratical

Ian Gilmour, 23 March 1995

Lawyers have seldom had a good press. According to Shelley’s father-in-law, William Godwin, a lawyer could ‘scarcely fail to be a dishonest man’, though that, he added, was ‘less a subject for censure than regret’. Shelley’s friend and biographer, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, being himself a barrister, could not go quite so far, but his verdict was almost as sweeping:

My Israel, Right or Wrong

Ian Gilmour, 22 December 1994

The foreign policy record of the Clinton Administration has been dismal. Even when the United States has shown more sensible and decent inclinations than Europe, as over Bosnia, the White House has failed to evolve and stick to a consistent policy, leaving an impression of bungling vacillation. In one area, however, the Administration has not only claimed credit for success but has sometimes been awarded it; astonishingly enough, that area is the Middle East. This book enables us to examine that claim and much else besides, because War and Peace in the Middle East is a critique of American policy from the end of the Second World War. Avi Shlaim is well known to readers of this journal, who will be aware that nobody is better fitted for the task. A member of the revisionist school of Israeli historians, he is a rigorous and fearless scholar who follows the truth where it leads him. A few years ago Shlaim wrote a massive classic, Collusion Across the Jordan; here he shows himself to be equally skilled as a miniaturist. His book is a masterpiece of compression, which should now have a British publisher.

Napoleon was wrong

Ian Gilmour, 24 June 1993

Britain emerged from the war still unquestionably a great power, its Prime Ministers Churchill and Attlee considered the equals in negotiations for the post-war settlement, of America’s Presidents Roosevelt and Truman and Soviet dictator Stalin at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences of 1945.

For thirty years after the war Britain had full employment, stable (if slow) growth, low inflation, and a welfare state that was widely admired. And it was common ground that governments could and should provide those things. Since the mid-Seventies, all that has changed. The norm for unemployment has risen five or sixfold from about half a million to nearly three million; growth is slow and uneven, inflation is stubbornly higher than in the early post-war period; the provision of public services has markedly deteriorated; and new disparities in the distribution of income and wealth have opened up. Instead of being shocked by these changes, many people seem disposed to think that they are all for the good, or, at least, that there is nothing that can be done about them.

Poor Man’s Crime

Ian Gilmour, 5 December 1991

Whatever may have happened recently to the Communist regimes Eastern Europe, Marxist historiography seems alive and defiant. Lenin’s tomb may be under threat, but the historical certainties of Marxism lie undisturbed. ‘Broadly speaking,’ Peter Linebaugh tells us, ‘the English Revolution was a conflict among three social forces. The bourgeoisie, led by Oliver Cromwell and organised in Parliament, aroused the English proletariat to make war against Charles I, the High Church and the aristocracy. Having vanquished them, Cromwell then turned against his erstwhile class ally, the many-headed multitude, which during the course of the struggle against the King had developed a movement of teeming freedom that was antithetical to the capitalist order that Cromwell and Parliament sought to impose.’ Even twenty-five years ago that would have been considered a little crude. Today, after the revisionist history of the last two decades, the claim that the English Civil War was a class one seems the historical equivalent of Stalinism.

The Way Forward

Ian Gilmour, 25 October 1990

In Britain, oppositions do not win general elections; the economy occasionally wins one for them. To prevent it doing so, governments in the second half of a Parliament devote much of their energy to ensuring that on election day the voters will feel prosperous and the economy look healthy. Such a political and economic miracle entails much dumping of dogma and convictions. Child benefit, say, which has been frozen in previous years, is at last uprated in line with inflation. Public expenditure, formerly regarded as a disease that must at all costs be curbed, now becomes a sign of health that must be fostered. Similarly, even in the days when Labour was supposed to be a socialist party, the dreaded word was banished in the run-up to an election.

In Praise of Middle Government

Ian Gilmour, 12 July 1990

The collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the dire condition of the Soviet Union have left Socialism almost irredeemably discredited. Understandably, the recent Labour policy document tactfully avoided the subject. Such reticence is of course nothing new. Unlike Continental parties, even the old ILP kept ‘Socialist’ out of its title to avoid offending the workers; and the Labour election programme of 1929, largely drafted by Tawney, did not mention the word ‘socialism’. Labour’s recent socialist flirtation was an atypical, though not unprecedented folly – the Party indulged in similar sectarian extremism in the Thirties – which is unlikely to be repeated. Certainly if Labour is to face the future with any hope of electoral prosperity, it will have to be resolutely social-democratic both in rhetoric and in action. Outside the Third World, socialism is dead and will not be resurrected for some time to come.’

Holding all the strings

Ian Gilmour, 27 July 1989

Macmillan’s premiership started at near rock bottom, with his party in disarray following the Suez debacle – it was not at all certain that the Government would last more than a few weeks. It reached its peak with his towering victory in the 1959 General Election, and it stayed for a time on a fairly high plateau, until economic troubles and deflation, the sacking of a third of his Cabinet, the failure of Britain’s application to join the Common Market, and the Profumo case, sent his fortunes down almost to where they had been in 1957. And yet his stock was soon to rise again, and if it had not been for the resignation that resulted from a faulty prognosis – largely his own – concerning his health, it would probably have returned to its previous peak with the winning of the 1964 Election.’

Supermac’s Apprenticeship

Ian Gilmour, 24 November 1988

Harold Macmillan reversed the normal progression. Few young men are pompous; that comes later. Pomposity overtook Macmillan when he was still young; long before he was old he had shed all traces of it. The young are seldom boring; as a young man Harold Macmillan was a bore, and in time he became supremely entertaining. In manner and style people usually change little after early middle age, and then seem increasingly old-fashioned. Until quite late in life Macmillan appeared out-of-date – when he became Prime Minister, Malcolm Muggeridge said he always had around him a faint whiff of mothballs. It was only after he had retired that his manner seemed entirely to suit both him and the times. He became an ever better speaker, even in his eighties.


Ian Gilmour, 23 October 1986

American foreign policy since 1945 has often been a force for good. Much of ‘the free world’ has felt the need of US protection, and some of it has been grateful. In recent times, however, many people have come to regard the United States as a power as dangerous as any other. In reaction to the quietism of the Carter era, American foreign policy has become ultra-activist in both word and deed. This has gone down well with the voters. American public opinion was intensely proud of the successful invasion of the tiny island of Grenada. There was similar exaltation when the resources of the Sixth Fleet proved capable of forcing down an unarmed Egyptian airliner. And after some of Colonel Gadaffi’s military installations were bombed, together with five embassies and the killing of 39 civilians, there was almost universal jubilation. There is a dangerous process whereby the Administration stirs up American public opinion, and public opinion in turn spurs on the Administration to further military adventures. US foreign policy usually needs a target, and American public opinion a crusade. With the USSR, Reagan’s ‘evil empire’, too powerful to take on directly, Gadaffi has succeeded Stalin, Mao, Nasser, Castro and Ho Chi Minh as the current hate figure. Terrorism is now the vogue evil, and anti-terrorism the fashionable crusade, and few stop to consider the wisdom of the course the US is pursuing.

Gentlemen and Intellectuals

Ian Gilmour, 17 October 1985

In 1903 Winston Churchill said that if the Conservatives adopted protection, the old Conservative Party would disappear, and something like the American Republican Party would probably take its place. Churchill was wrong, in that the Conservative Party had already largely disappeared – not for the last time. By the end of the 19th century the disintegration of the Whigs had led to the Conservative Party’s becoming for the first time in its history the natural choice of the wealthy; the Party already resembled the Republican Party in the United States and was near to being dominated by a single interest, the rich. The difference was that under the Republicans American capitalism flourished, while the British economy was already in relative decline.’


Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour, 7 February 1985

The most appealing Zionist slogan has always been ‘the land without a people, waiting for the people without a land’. What, in that case, could be more natural than for Palestine to become the land of the Jews? The trouble was that the epigram was not true: Palestine already had a people. On belatedly discovering this, Max Nordau, Herzl’s friend and follower, exclaimed to his leader: ‘we are committing an injustice.’ Much later Arthur Ruppin, who directed Zionist colonisation in the 1920s, warned ‘that Herzl’s concept of a Jewish state was only possible because he ignored the presence of the Arabs.’ Undeterred, Zionists continued to implement what in other circumstances might have been the wholly creditable objective of ruling Palestine and colonising it with Jews. Yet in the circumstances which actually existed – a country already populated with Palestinian Arabs – the building of a Jewish state involved not just brave pioneering or even ordinary imperialism but the displacement of most of the indigenous population and the subordination of the rest. The basic falsity of the slogan has remained to plague political Zionism.’

Second Last Leader

Ian Gilmour, 7 June 1984

The Labour Party was born in 1900, and died in 1983. There can be argument over the exact date of its death. Some may maintain that it did not die until about 1990, others that electorally it died in 1980 or even earlier. There will be similar controversy over the role of Michael Foot: did he lead it to its death or did he just accompany it? Was he one of the physicians who killed it, or was he merely the undertaker?

America and Israel

Ian Gilmour, 18 February 1982

Arabs often lament that America does not use her ability to influence Israeli policy. Dean Rusk, shortly before he ceased being Secretary of State, warned Mahmoud Riad: ‘Do not ever believe that any future American administration will put pressure on Israel.’ But the Arab cride coeur misses the point. The difficulty is not merely that America does not put pressure on Israel, who is militarily and economically dependent on her, but that Israel effectively controls American policy in the Middle East. The consequences of this extraordinary – and, for the Americans, humiliating – state of affairs are far-reaching. The great majority of Palestinians are in exile; the rest live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Having lost three-quarters of their country, the Palestinians are not allowed an independent state in the remaining quarter. Lebanon has been wrecked. Other Arabs are fearful of suffering from Israeli expansionism. The Soviet Union gains in prestige; and pro-Western Arab states are undermined by their subjects’ contempt for the impotence of their governments. America tries to disguise its feebleness and double standards by making out that the Palestinian issue is secondary to the problem of Soviet penetration. Nobody is deceived, and the risk of a conflagration in the area grows.

Monetarism and History

Ian Gilmour, 21 January 1982

Soon after they have ensnared their young victims, the Moonies brainwash them, I am told, into hating their parents and families. Other Californian cults may do the same. The British Conservative Party is a long way from California, and it is still some way from being a cult: yet in recent years odd things have been happening to the Conservative Party. Conservatives have been asked to believe that virtually everything done by post-war Conservative governments was profoundly mistaken and a serious deviation from the path of true Conservatism.



21 March 2002

Stephen Holt complains that I wrote of Hume’s History of England instead of his History of Great Britain (Letters, 25 April). But I am in good company. Blair Worden, whose book Roundhead Reputations I was reviewing, writes on page 219: ‘In 1754 David Hume’s History of England …’ It is true that the first two volumes of Hume’s history were called History of Great...

Arafat’s Palestine

5 September 1996

Jacob Mendlovic accuses me of being ‘highly selective’ with my facts (Letters, 2 January), but that is only because all his factual statements are misleading or simply wrong. For example, he talks about the Palestinians’ ‘endless slaughter of Israeli civilians’. Any slaughter of Israeli civilians is deeply deplorable, but has Mendlovic already forgotten the Israeli slaughter...
It is a pity that, before criticising the book reviews written by Avi Shlaim, Robert Fisk and myself, Rafael Ruppin (Letters, 11 May) did not take the trouble to read the books we were reviewing. Had he done so, he could not have allowed himself to serve up to your readers such large portions of hopelessly out-of-date Israeli propaganda: for instance, the canard, repeated by Mr Ruppin, that most of...


12 July 1990

Professor Honderich’s letter (Letters, 26 July) makes it easy to understand how he made his errors about Burke and others. ‘According to Ian Gilmour’s review of my book Conservatism,’ he writes, ‘I speak of Lord Hailsham’s “undergarment", say that the Russian political system has fallen only as short as ours of being ideally democratic and discuss books by...

White Russian Deaths

24 November 1988

Ian Gilmour writes: Apologies. Mr Knight is correct. ‘Uncertain death’ would perhaps have been better. Mr Horne’s account runs: ‘Some of those repatriated committed suicide; some were summarily executed; most were despatched to labour camps, where many did not survive the abominable conditions. Krasnov, Shkuro and some of the other old émigrés were eventually executed...


7 February 1985

Ian and David Gilmour write: Mr Farrell wrote an interesting review in the Journal of Palestine Studies but he can hardly claim copyright for every argument he put forward. His points about confusing a majority with a plurality and about the Christian Palestinians would have occurred to anyone who read the book carefully and knew the subject; and indeed they had occurred to us. Mr Farrell was the first...

America and Israel

18 February 1982

SIR: Mr Wieseltier (Letters, 15 April) neatly proves my point. He does not dispute, because he can’t, the evidence I gave that Israel has systematically frustrated a comprehensive settlement since 1967. Nor does he dispute that for most of that time American governments to their shame have gone along with that objective. To Mr Wieseltier this is not because of Zionist pressure but because Israel...

Monetarism and History

21 January 1982

Ian Gilmour writes: Despite his opening remarks, Professor Pressnell does not disagree with much of what I wrote. His disagreement is chiefly with things I did not write. For instance, I did not suggest that the years 1951-1964 were wholly successful: I said that our competitors did much better, and that our governments made many mistakes. I did not talk about Stop-Go because, unlike the Professor,...

Hail, Muse! Byron v. Shelley

Seamus Perry, 6 February 2003

Ian Gilmour’s deft and learned book is concerned with the lives of Byron and Shelley up to the morning on which Byron woke up and found himself famous. The poets weren’t to meet for...

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Ian Gilmour is one of the most leftwing figures in British politics: a feat he has achieved by not moving. He remains upright amid the ruins of a Keynesian political economy while the two major...

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Ian Gilmour could scarcely have timed the publication of this book better. The last few weeks really have been a Marxist ‘conjuncture’: a heightened moment when social realities can no...

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Not Many Dead

Linda Colley, 10 September 1992

Ian Gilmour is a distinguished and highly intelligent example of a once rare species: he is a Conservative with a cause. Unfortunately for him, however – and perhaps for the rest of us as...

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Leaving it alone

R.G. Opie, 21 April 1983

Sir Ian Gilmour has written a splendid book about a splendid subject. The question he asks is: ‘How did Monetarism capture the Conservatives?’ It is a genuine mystery, and also a very...

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