One of the reasons I like being asked to write for the London Review of Books is that it is one of the few publications in Britain that allow a writer to return to old ground. Most papers insist on the semblance, at least, of some new slant, if not on new facts. Otherwise it’s yesterday’s news. The situation has, I believe, dire consequences for public life. Those in power come to believe that because the world is always ‘moving on’ they will not be held accountable for their actions. Chickens do not come home to roost any more.
Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire campaigners against NIREX’s attempts to test, as suitable for nuclear waste disposal, the clay of Killingholme and Fulbeck have invoked the precedent of Crichel Down, an area taken over by government during World War Two. When it was no longer used for military purposes, the Down was put up for sale. The previous owners claimed maladministration, and said they had a right to the return of their erstwhile property. Mistakes were identified on the part of rather junior civil servants, and the minister nominally responsible, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned from office as a matter of principle. Such a situation is light years away from 1986, when a British prime minister is truculently unapologetic about the actions of civil servants, not remote from her as Dugdale’s were from him, but as close as Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were to Richard Nixon. The ‘misunderstandings’ over Westlands were attributed to those civil servants such as Mr Bernard Ingham and Mr Charles Powell whom Mrs Thatcher sees many times each day. Isn’t this something we should be concerned about? Three decades after Crichel Down, however, all the House of Commons and the country seem to do is to shrug its collective shoulders.
Part of the explanation is the high rate of turnover with news stories, but part is the system of patronage which is now gripping the Conservative Party. Promotion is what matters to most new Conservative MPs – though this may be fuelled less by personal ambition than by the expectations of local Conservative Associations. When I was first elected, in the early Sixties, there was a phalanx of knights of the shire who did not hanker to become junior ministers, but who knew the difference between right and wrong. Not even that Duke of Newcastle described by Sir Lewis Namier had more patronage at his disposal than Mrs Thatcher has enjoyed: and Sir Robert Walpole and his successors were vulnerable to visits from grandees, who called on him with the word that it was time for a change. As a friend of mine, a Conservative Privy Councillor, put it when I said post-Westland that I was not asking for a general election, just for a change of prime minister: ‘Tarn, my dear, it’s not like the old days. Leaders, now, are elected, and election does make things so much more difficult!’ I have come to the reluctant conclusion that there is a heck of a lot to be said for the Magic Circle, in keeping heads of government from their greatest follies. Nor do I refer only to the Conservative Party. I voted out of conviction for Neil Kinnock and believe that he will make a considerable prime minister: but it has dawned on a number of the more perceptive members of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy that by devising a Byzantine system of election, involving the whole rigmarole of the Party Conference, they have made any leader impregnable, de facto, until such time as he or she wants to quit. This was hardly the intention in 1981! Together with the ever-increasing speed of ‘events’ – the greatest influence, as Macmillan has told us, on any administration – patronage inoculates governments against the effects of scandal. If a prime minister knows full well that he or she cannot be delicately removed by Six Grand Persons and True, tapping the shoulder in Number 10 and saying, ‘Time for you to go, never glad confident morning again,’ he or she can play for time. And time allows the defensive system of patronage to be thrown into operation.
But quite apart from speed of events, and from Prime Ministerial patronage, there is a development in Parliamentary mechanics which has gone generally unnoticed, which is considered by the pundits as a trifling matter, but which has also led to a deterioration of standards. This is the farce of the Open Prime Ministerial Question. As Paul Johnson’s Oxford Book of Political Anecdotes[*] reminds us, the House of Commons has always been a loud, ribald and unruly place. But what I am talking about here is a new development. The net result of the present set-up at 3.15 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays is that the interrogators get nowhere, since our detailed, specific questions, handed in 14 days before, are unlikely to be high up on the Order Paper, and that the public understandably thinks that the House sets a disgraceful example to the nation. Noise is generated, questions and answers often drowned in hullaballoo, yah-booh dominates, and the Prime Minister slides off every potential hook.
Harold Macmillan used – rightly – to transfer to departmental ministers any question that was not the Prime Minister’s particular responsibility. This meant that there were usually eight or nine questions of substance on the Order Paper, in the hope that the Prime Minister would be able to answer in some depth, after reflection. The rot set in with Harold Wilson, who could not resist playing the universal expert and was reluctant to transfer PQs, since he wanted to show how his finger was on the pulse of every aspect of government. The upshot of all this is that it has become virtually impossible to interrogate a prime minister. Select Committees do not fancy calling their PM in front of them, because the majority is always drawn from the governing party, whatever the political colours of the chairman.
Some members of the Labour Party – they are to be found anywhere across the left-right spectrum – will confide to you that to get rid of Mrs Thatcher before the next election would make another Labour government less likely. This is not a judgment I share. For the sake of Britain we should be, and should be seen to be, doing our utmost to replace her. Besides, when the chips are down, she may prove a more formidable adversary than any other potential Tory prime minister. In the real world, there is only one possible way – and it is only ‘possible’ at best – of removing Mrs Thatcher from office. It is to nail her very specifically as a sustained deceiver. Hurling generalised abuse is no earthly use: she thrives on it. Abuse simply plays into the hands of those who promote her image.
The first set of identifiable lies from the Prime Minister arose out of the events surrounding the sinking of the Belgrano. If I do not dwell on this topic, it is partly because since the Ponting trial there has been a general acceptance, however lethargic, of the fact that the Prime Minister lied. Then there were the miners’ strike and the Libyan bombing. Those of you who stood for hours in picket lines in 1984/85, who were present at Orgreave or elsewhere, who sweated your guts out raising money for the miners, or received miners’ families into your homes, will remember all too well that throughout the entire strike Mrs Thatcher maintained that ‘it is a matter for the National Coal Board.’ Though we could not prove it, most of us suspected that Downing Street was involved up to the neck.
Now look at the interview in Phillip Whitehead’s programme, All the Prime Minister’s Men, with the truculent David Hart, broadcast on 17 July. Who was David Hart, you ask? David Hart was Mrs Thatcher’s key personal adviser during the miners’ strike whose activities so enraged Ned Smith, the experienced and thoroughly decent Personnel Officer of the Coal Board, and his colleague, the late Geoffrey Kirk, both of whom strove for honourable solutions. At key moments in the strike, Hart boasted, he advised Mrs Thatcher that settlement of the dispute was ‘politically undesirable’. The Labour leadership should demand to know the status of this Rasputin, and what exactly did occur between Hobart House – at various stages even MacGregor wanted to settle – and 10 Downing Street. It is a tragedy that Geoffrey Kirk’s book telling the inside story of the strike will never be written and published. He was working on it when he was drowned in waters not far from Raasay in Skye, along with two boys ferrying peat to the island, in a boat that was said to be overloaded. The boys – brothers – were experienced seamen, and had done the journey with peat many times before.
Mrs Thatcher was being provocative when she appointed MacGregor. If she had simply wanted a ‘hard man’, she could have had Jimmy Cowan, the Deputy Chairman, who has been talking to Mick McGahey for the last quarter of a century – and no miners’ strike. But then to be deprived of the miners’ strike would have suited her about as much as being deprived of the Falklands War after April 1982 – the Enemy Within and the Enemy Without. Mrs Thatcher will use any difficult position for her own political advantage. The Argentine Junta in 1982, the NUM in 1984: she did not care about resolving the problems of the South Atlantic or about resolving the problems of the coalfields. Ian MacGregor’s memoirs will soon be published: Mrs Thatcher should be plagued with questions as to her actions during the Edinburgh negotiations in the autumn of 1984.
On the Libyan bombing, Mrs Thatcher should be forced to come clean about the evidence she claims to have about Libyan involvement in the killing of a US soldier in a Berlin night-club. In fact, it was a Syrian-based guerrilla group who were involved. And it is sheer cant for the Prime Minister to pretend that she authorised the use of British bases because the Fills were more accurate than the carrier-based aircraft, and would therefore cut down civilian casualties. More important still, it is cant for the Prime Minister or anyone else to pretend that any British prime minister has control over American nuclear weapons, based in Britain. Rear-Admiral Gene La Rocque, Director of the Centre of Defense Information, 600 Mayland Avenue, Washington, made this quite clear in a letter to the Times on 7 March 1983.
Momentous issues of this kind are unlikely, though, to prove her downfall. More dangerous is the matter of the Law Officer’s letter. The Report of the Select Committee on Defence on Westland decision-making is required reading for those who wish to get rid of Mrs Thatcher. The first issue is the Government’s discrediting of the former Secretary of State for Defence: ‘The view seems to have been taken,’ the Select Committee writes, ‘that as long as he remained in office and promoted the cause of the European consortium, the activities of the Ministry of Defence could be countered by steps taken elsewhere in Government.’ Those steps included the instigating of the famous letter written by the Solicitor-General, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister, and then its deliberate leaking into the public domain. The Prime Minister’s excuse throughout has been that it was essential, in the interests of shareholders, to correct so-called ‘material inaccuracies’ in a letter written by Michael Heseltine to Lloyd’s Merchant Bank. This apparently had to be done quickly in order to be in the hands of Sir John Cuckney before his press conference on 6 January. The Select Committee, however, takes a different view: ‘Since the information was passed by telephone to Westland in any event, the reason given by the Prime Minister for releasing the information to the Press Association begins to look flimsy, to say the least. Sir John Cuckney told us that the information made no difference to his policy at the press conference.’ What then was the real reason? ‘It is clear that the passages chosen for selected disclosure from the Solicitor-General’s letter were calculated to do the maximum damage to Mr Heseltine’s case and to his personal credibility.’
What about the role of 10 Downing Street in all this? First, we have to distinguish between the chief officials – Bernard Ingham, the Chief Press Officer, Charles Powell, one of the Principal Private Secretaries – and the Prime Minister. We all know that Miss Bowe and Mr Mogg of the DTI were required to get clearance from No 10 for the release of the letter – if possible, they were to get No 10 to release it itself. No 10 of course passed the buck back to the DTI. The Committee points out: ‘As far as the disclosure of the Solicitor-General’s letter was concerned Mr Ingham undoubtedly realised the implications of what was about to take place and wished to distance No 10 and the Prime Minister from the consequences.’ They go on to say, on a more important point: ‘It is quite extraordinary that five senior officials accepted apparently without demur that giving extracts from the Solicitor-General’s letter to the Press Association was “the only way to do it in the time”.’ What is even more surprising is that Bernard Ingham did not veto the release of the letter – and report the request at once to the Prime Minister. As for Sir Robert Armstrong, the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Home Civil Service, it seems clear that he allowed himself to be used for the unsavoury purpose of an attempted cover-up. Sir Robert didn’t direct his inquiries to the ministers concerned: it was only the civil servants who were called in to give an explanation. ‘The disclosure of the Solicitor-General’s letter without his permission was an improper act,’ the Select Committee reports.
Now for the Prime Minister. She will no doubt take comfort from the Select Committee’s statement: ‘The evidence is that the action of the Prime Minister’s office on 6 January in relation to the disclosure was without her direct authority. She has stated that she had no knowledge on 6 January of what was taking place. We accept this.’ However, that does not answer the question of when she was in fact informed: ‘The Prime Minister told the House that she did not know about Mr Brittan’s “own role in the matter of disclosure until the inquiry had reported”.’ That was on 22 January. The Select Committee offers no comment on this important matter – except to recite a series of questions asked in the House of Commons during the course of the 23 January statement. On that occasion the Prime Minister’s reply to direct and simple questions was almost as evasive as Mr Brittan’s response to the Select Committee.
Mrs Thatcher refused to answer for the simple reason that she and Bernard Ingham decided to leak the Solicitor-General’s letter even before it was suggested to Mayhew that he should write the letter. The whole point of getting the Law Officer to write such a letter was to use it in public. When pressed, Mrs Thatcher blamed civil servants’ ‘misunderstandings’. When the Law Officers threatened resignation – thereby posing a real threat to her government – she agreed to set up an inquiry.
Scandals which in past decades would have shaken political reputations and led to ministerial sackings seem to be all around us. Yet little happens. If the going gets tough, there are ‘misunderstandings between civil servants’. Yet no civil servant is actually disciplined – for the very good reason that they have been acting under ministerial instruction all along. When an irate Attorney-General threatens to have the Constabulary call at 10 Downing Street to see the Prime Minister’s closest advisers, an inquiry is set up by the head of government though she already knows exactly how it all happened.
[*] The Oxford Book of Political Anecdotes edited by Paul Johnson. Oxford, 270 pp., £10.95, 18 September, 0 19 21421 X.