Demob

Robert Morley

  • Downing Street in Perspective by Marcia Falkender
    Weidenfeld, 280 pp, £10.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 297 78107 3

‘The pool,’ writes Baroness Falkender ‘has every imaginable facility from changing-room and showers to a pantry for drinks and tea-making. Douglas Hurd’s two sons learned to swim at Chequers and so did mine.’ Chequers deserves a whole chapter, there are so many tributes to be paid. To the telephone girls, ‘quite simply the best telephone girls in the world’, who go down to operate the switchboard on the second floor every time the prime minister spends a weekend there. (They usually arrive only minutes ahead of the prime minister’s car but they use a different entrance.) To the delicious cream cakes, almost as much a feature of the establishment as the baked grapefruits marinated in liqueur with which dinner habitually commenced. Pickles and jams, she notes, are homemade and the brandy butter the best she ever tasted. No wonder she is disappointed when all this and much else besides comes to a rather abrupt end on the morning of Tuesday, 16 March 1976.

Harold Wilson, four times prime minister, an ambitious man who loved politics and was in the pink of health, able not only to endure but to enjoy the physical and mental strain of the highest office in the land, announced his resignation that morning. Not only Baroness Falkender but also Sean Hughes, the prospective Parliamentary candidate for Harold’s seat, describes the moment: he was teaching a class and was summoned from his desk by a caretaker, who commanded him to go home and change into a suit. ‘When I asked him what he was talking about, he said: “Harold’s spewed it.” ’ In the House of Commons, apparently, the reception was similar, with clerks flinging open the doors of the various committee-rooms to announce the news and the MPs sitting in stunned silence – presumably most of them were in suits already. Marcia, of course, was in the know: indeed had been trying to dissuade her chief from implementing a promise he had given his wife, who had pencilled in her husband’s resignation date four or five months earlier, marking it ‘D Day’ in very large letters.

Wilson emerges from this book as an exceedingly pleasant and unassuming man who practised what he preached: that enough is enough and that with the same problems coming up again and again, both a government and its chief minister lose their original vigour and freshness. Although resolution is still intact, a certain enthusiasm disappears. You really can’t say fairer than that and Marcia, when she is not distracted from her task by complaints about the dust in the Commons and the hassle to get tea served to her on a silver tray and not from a mug brewed in the outer office, gives at least a peripheral account of the last six years of the Wilson saga.

These years were on the whole happier for the country when Wilson was prime minister than when he wasn’t. The reason that Great Britain is usually happier and more relaxed under a Labour than under a Conservative government lies in the British instinct for self-preservation. The rich are more capable of exercising this instinct than the poor. Better-equipped, better-educated, better able to act on advice from tax consultants, they take a peculiar pleasure in outwitting a Labour government temporarily in control. There is always a way round Capital Gains Tax, but the poor in opposition tend to get trampled upon and in the final analysis battened down. Judges chide them for purchasing hi-fis, Conservative prime ministers for not putting their backs into what little poorly-paid work remains. Pressure builds up, and though no one as yet admits an explosion may come, Labour politicians are not slow to issue grave warnings about social consequences. Could it happen? A one-party dictatorship? Urban guerrillas? The possessed and the dispossessed fighting it out in a banana monarchy?

Marcia confines herself, in this book at any rate, to more immediate problems, not the least of which was the Land Deal Affair in which both she and her brother were caught up with a Mr Millhench, who was eventually prosecuted for fraud and for forging Harold’s signature on Downing Street writing-paper. Marcia never met him, but notes that not many British estate agents water-ski so expertly or collect Sten-guns complete with ammunition. The press had a field day. Land deals, however profitable and this one was alas aborted, are not permissible where Labour politicians are concerned: this is an essential Tory preserve in the eyes of the popular press. Marcia became a prisoner in her own house, much to the fury of the neighbours, who had to be restrained from coming out and throwing buckets of water over the reporters. Marcia watched from an upstairs window with Bernard Donoughue, who filled jug after jug and let it trickle slowly down on the heads of the more aggressive journalists to cool them off. She was incensed by the gentlemen from the Times, who, along with others, would knock incessantly on the front door and, when exhausted, even offered money to passing schoolchildren to take it in turn to ring the door bell. One night well after midnight, some friends who lived opposite lured the smaller night shift of newspapermen away momentarily, while she and her family ran quickly across the mews into a friend’s house (they had left the door on the latch for just such an emergency) and then through the back door some distance away. In retrospect, she notes, it seemed more like a scene from a film than a departure on a quiet family vacation. Very true, but if you don’t like the heat, as Truman might have observed, stay out of the mews. The press was back when, four months later, Wilson rewarded her with a peerage. There were, of course, precedents for his action: after all, Montagu Corrie was created Lord Wroughton by Disraeli. But the Times in a two-page study was less friendly on this occasion.

It is difficult to find a page in her book without a mention of the name of the man for whom she worked for 26 years and indeed continues to work. She still finds he remains an enigma and adds the surprising claim that whereas most people are all of a piece he is not. She finds it equally difficult to decide about his wife. Has she helped or hindered? Mary would have preferred her husband to have remained an Oxford don: ‘she never quite approved of his immersion in politics. At times we can almost hear her repeating Mrs Irving’s fateful question: ‘How long, Henry, are you going on making a fool of yourself?’ The great actor got out of the hansom cab and went his own way, but Harold gave Mary a date and stuck to it.

One of the most perspicacious of the book’s chapters is devoted to an examination of leading Labour personalities, but one is not quite sure how much these assessments of character have been influenced by Lady Falkender’s guide and mentor. In seeking to assess Tony Benn’s potential as a future Labour prime minister, she writes that his fantasy concerns the rule of the ordinary man but an ordinary man transformed into a superhuman of sparkling intelligence, total integrity and overflowing love and kindness. How that miracle is going to come about is never explained, but he believes that if you elevate the condition of his working man to a national philosophy all will be well. As Postmaster-General he kept a map of Great Britain hung upside down on his office wall, affirming that in this position it closely resembled a map of Italy and that the areas of poverty precisely corresponded to the areas of poverty of that land. Michael Foot, she feels, is altogether too old and she did not share his belief that if Reagan could make it to the White House he could do the same. She adds the surprising comment that he is more suited to the trench warfare of Fleet Street than to the battle-lines of politics. In her view, demobilisation loomed. Roy Jenkins is capable of generous and spontaneous gestures: he once gave Harold a gramophone record of Asquith making a political speech. To give a present like that, she notes, is true generosity. She quotes a colleague as saying ‘that the only thing Roy has ever fought for in his life is a table at the Mirabelle,’ but adds that the remark, ‘although possibly true at the time, has been confounded by his efforts in Warrington and Glasgow’.

She gives top marks to Peter Shore, only faulting his physical appearance, holding that his height, slimness and pallor make him look less solid than other public figures. When Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservatives, most of Mr Shore’s colleagues believed Labour would be home and dry at the next election: he was the only one to foresee the trouble ahead. He recognises that the women’s vote is of supreme importance. Hardly surprising, Marcia adds, seeing that his own wife has risen from a very senior position as a doctor to a very senior position in the Department of Health and Social Security. Marcia greatly admires Barbara Castle, perhaps at one time Labour’s answer to Mrs Thatcher, although her quarrels with Jim Callaghan led to his sacking her from the Cabinet when he took over the reins. As Harold often joked, women seldom make it to the top jobs. The Home Office lives in the past, the Treasury contains too many mandarins, the Foreign Office has been unduly influenced by Lawrence of Arabia and by the years spent by officials among the Arabs.

Downing Street in Perspective is a sequel to Inside Number Ten: it is the record of a thoroughly efficient secretary who did her utmost to see that life ran as smoothly as possible for her employer. This, after all, is the duty of a secretary and who are we to grumble if she seems impervious to the needs and wishes of most of the two thousand or so who bother to write letters to Downing Street each week? The complaints of individuals can be siphoned off and sent to individual MPs, she observes. Parliamentary questions are a more serious matter. It is apparently vital that anyone running a prime minister’s private office should know the rules of the House. How a Ten-Minute Rule Bill goes through Parliament and how private members ballot for their place in introducing a Private Member’s Bill. In addition, she must always be alert to anything that may happen in Parliament which will require the Leader’s presence. There isn’t all that much time to think of the correspondents, the needy, the unemployed, the sick, the criminals, the vagrants, the battered child, the cushioned porn merchant. What she must find time for is to alert Group-Captain Ms Thomas at Chequers that they will be arriving in time for dinner and can they have a duck and baked Alaska. Her book is rather touchingly dedicated to her two sons: ‘Timothy and Daniel to help secure their future’. Well, at least they know how to swim.