The last few months have produced a fine crop of books by or about prime ministers: some are biographies, some are diaries and some collections of letters. I have read so many of these books that I now feel I have been living with prime ministers in a familiar way. Six prime ministers have made their appearance, often bearing with them the promise of further volumes to come. Maybe I have missed some prime ministers from earlier centuries, but then the species was only in the process of evolution. Prime minister Attlee, after reading a life of Walpole, reflected: ‘I wonder who really ran the country in those days.’ The remark is relevant for later centuries.
Here is my list of prime ministers who have occupied my reading time during the last few months. I started with Palmerston, a biography, first of two volumes, perhaps cheating a little when this volume only gets Palmerston to the Foreign Office, but no matter – it is packed with fascinating information; Gladstone, biography, the massive first volume of two, also yet another volume of his interminable diary, a work I have skipped since its outset; Disraeli, a miscellany of works which I also passed by, Disraeli not being my favourite man – Michael Foot can have him; Asquith, 600 pages of love-letters to a girl not half his age; Churchill, first of two volumes of biography by an American writer, a disquisition on his political philosophy, and a massive collection of documents relating to his career in the years 1936-39 which makes up 1600 pages; lastly, Attlee, biography all in one volume and containing very few documents – whether this last is a merit or a fault I cannot decide. Lloyd George I suppose has been written about quite enough already. If he had appeared in my present list it would have contained most significant prime ministers for the last two centuries.
During my devoted reading of the last few months I have acquired enough material to stimulate reflections without number about prime ministers. For the moment, I limit myself to two. What strikes me most forcibly is not so much the amount written about prime ministers as the amount they wrote themselves. And until recently that meant actually writing with a pen, not dictating to a secretary, still less to a dictaphone. Palmerston did not confine himself to writing letters. He himself wrote most of his dispatches when he was Foreign Secretary and often wrote his state papers when he was prime minister. He also wrote leaders for the newspapers when he had nothing else to do. Palmerston’s handwriting was an exquisite work of art, and I often admired its beauty in the distant days when I used to study his foreign policy. Gladstone wrote his diary in his own hand, volume after volume of it. Asquith wrote legibly with some distinction. In the course of three years he wrote over five hundred letters to his girlfriend Venetia Stanley. At the same time he conducted the great affairs of state by private hand-written letters. No wonder political events took so long. The rot set in, I think, with Lloyd George, who did not write a clear script. Not surprisingly his secretary became also his mistress and ultimately his wife. Churchill also depended on secretaries, a whole army of them. Attlee has left little evidence. Sir Lewis Namier was an enthusiastic advocate of graphology and claimed to diagnose the character of prime ministers from their handwriting. I doubt this, but there is plenty of material to experiment with.
The other topic which the biographies of prime ministers provoke is their sex-life, or in more general terms their relations with the other sex. To start with Palmerton, he kept a ledger of his sex achievements, which were prodigious – once or often twice a day. The entry ‘Fine Day’ meant an outstanding performance, an asterisk a commonplace one. Lady Cowper was his mistress for thirty years and he married her after Lord Cowper’s death. This did not prevent his having other affairs, including a more or less permanent mistress in a Piccadilly cottage. Gladstone told his son that he had never been technically unfaithful to his marriage bed. I have no idea what this means. At any rate it did not prevent his spending many evening hours with prostitutes, allegedly to redeem them. Disraeli was a rake when young, and later preferred the company of elderly ladies.
Asquith is the talking-point of the moment. For three years he sought Venetia Stanley’s company and wrote her long letters nearly every day. The burning question is: did they or didn’t they? The editors of his letters ‘are almost certain that Asquith never became Venetia’s lover in the physical sense.’ I agreed with the editors’ judgment until I came across a letter ending: ‘You know how I long to... ’ Now what are we to make of that – merely that Asquith wanted to hold Venetia’s hand under the carriage-rug? I doubt it. Attlee is the simplest and most straightforward, as he usually was. Mrs Attlee told her daughter: ‘Sex problems? Clem and I didn’t have any sex problems. Everything was marvellous from the start.’ Such a tribute almost makes me forgive Attlee for authorising the making of the British atom bomb without telling Parliament, let alone getting its permission.
Gladstone once said that he had known 11 prime ministers and that seven of them had been adulterers. This gives material for a parlour game: who were the seven? The start is easy: Canning (with Queen Caroline when she was Princess of Wales – unlikely, but George IV thought so); Wellington (too many to count); Earl Grey of the Reform Bill (Duchess of Devonshire); Melbourne (Mrs Norton – disputed); Disraeli (mistress traded to Lord Lyndhurst); Palmerston (too many to count). Who was the seventh? Did Gladstone count himself?
I turn my mind to more prosaic parlour games. With my offspring I began with Beggar my neighbour, went on to Happy Families and finally arrived at Racing Demon. This last tore the cards to pieces and thus ended the progression. The game for four that I prefer is Fives at Dominoes – a simpler version of the pub game Threes and Fives. Cribbage is also a good game for four, but it is on the monotonous side if played the whole evening: the pegging-boards are the most attractive feature of it. I have often tried bezique, Churchill’s favourite game, but could never master it. Picquet is incomparable: full of suspense and surprise, with even an occasional reward for playing more skilfully. I still play it quite often with any participant I can rope in. As a boy I was crazy on Ludo, to the despair of the grownups. When I reached the age of discretion I wearied of board games. Monopoly has always seemed to me a social catastrophe. A year ago Brian Taylor, my first cousin once removed, invented a game called Kensington which was beyond me, though I hope it rewarded him. Now I am offered a book of Sandhurst Wargames,[*] which extends from the Middle Ages to the Second World War. These are games I shall never understand, let alone play. It would be much better for the world if everyone else took the same line.
And now for once I venture some comments on events in the world of politics. I have been a member of the Labour Party for just over sixty years and have observed the many witchhunts of the past with persistent disagreement. There was only one justified ground for expulsion: a group or party that ran rivals to Labour candidates. This has always kept the Communist Party out of the Labour Party, quite rightly. But with the Militants it is the exact opposite: they are eager to run as Labour candidates and are always the most enthusiastic workers for Labour at general elections. I can think of many members of the Labour Party who were not expelled from the party long after they should have been. For instance, Ramsay MacDonald was not expelled until he had actually become prime minister of the anti-Labour National Government. He would have been out long before if he had tried to lead a coalition of the Left. Just the other day the ponderous machinery of the Labour machine did not catch up with its right wing until they had already defected to the so-called SDP.
Before the leaders of the Labour Party embark on yet another witch-hunt they might consider the witch-hunts of the past and reflect where they led. There was a witch-hunt in 1939 – I cannot remember why – which had the astonishing result that when the war against Germany broke out the Labour politicians who were the most outspoken opponents of Hitler were not members of the Labour Party. A few months later, still in 1939, members were expelled from the Labour Party because they opposed going to war against Soviet Russia for the sake of Finland. Many of those expelled at that time were still outside the Labour Party when Soviet Russia and Great Britain became allies in 1941.
I can think of many other absurd expulsions. For instance, in 1947 some twenty Labour Members were expelled from the party for sending a telegram of good wishes to Nenni, the finest Italian Socialist of his generation. I cannot remember whether there were any expulsions over Korea, but I know there was plenty of trouble for those who opposed British entry into the Korean War. And opponents of the Falklands war have not been exactly welcomed in the Labour Party.
It is nonsense to denounce the Militants for being Trotskyites or even Marxists. They have no idea what being a Trotskyite means and no more has any one else. As to Marxism, it used to be an honourable title. William Morris was a Marxist. Hyndman, a founder of the Labour Party, was a Marxist, or so he said. There is perhaps a case for expelling Keynesians from the Labour Party, since Keynesianism is a device, not successful nowadays, for saving capitalism, and Labour is supposed to be a socialist party dedicated to the ending of capitalism. It would be much better to forget about witch-hunts and get on with winning supporters, Militant or otherwise.
[*] A Book of Sandhurst Wargames by Paddy Griffith. Hutchinson, 64pp., £9. 95, 15 November, 009 150451 1.