This Sporting Life

R.W. Johnson

  • Iain Macleod by Robert Shepherd
    Hutchinson, 608 pp, £25.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 09 178567 7

It was one of the most attractive aspects of Iain Macleod that he was not easily taken for a professional politician. After depressing his hard-working doctor father by getting a lower second at Cambridge, he was quickly sacked from his first job at De la Rue’s, mainly because he found it an almost impossible struggle to get to work in the morning after staying up into the wee hours playing bridge and poker at Crockfords. Sometimes he would have to write his father urgent letters asking him to bail him out of his card debts; but more often he won. He was earning £3 a week but sometimes won £100 at a sitting. After he got the sack he became a full-time card-player and, until war broke out, earned up to £2500 a year tax free (at a time when average male earnings were about £200 per annum). An international player, he and his friends sat up late into the night at a club in Acol Road in Hampstead, devising the Acol system – still the most widely used in the bridge world.

Macleod had three passions: bridge, racing and poetry. One of his favourite pastimes was to challenge friends to find him a piece of English poetry that he didn’t know – sportingly, he warned them off Eliot since he knew all his work by heart. The war interrupted but did not stop his playboy-poet life. In 1940 his unit fled before the advancing Germans to Neufchâtel, where they dug a trench to shelter from attack and turned up the skull of a First World War soldier. Macleod immediately imagined the dead addressing him:

ye are here, ye men of war,
digging trenches – digging graves
dying where we died before.

He spent much of the rest of the war in England commuting to various army camps from Crockfords, where he continued to gamble, often right through the night, usually winning even when he wasn’t sober. Once, returning late and drunk, Macleod demanded a short game of stud poker before sleep of his friend and superior officer Alan Dawtry. Dawtry ticked him off for drinking and said he was going to bed. Macleod, incensed, announced, ‘I’m going to shoot you!’ and drawing his service revolver, began blasting away at the lock on Dawtry’s bedroom door. Finally he charged the door down before collapsing in an inebriated heap. The long-suffering Dawtry picked him up and put him to bed. Next morning the two men had an icily correct conversation at breakfast until Macleod said: ‘I think you owe me an apology.’ ‘What for?’ ‘For not playing stud poker with me last night.’ When Dawtry wrote to congratulate Macleod on becoming Minister of Health, he received the following one-liner in reply: ‘Bloody silly, ain’t it? I’m glad I missed you.’

Two things changed Macleod’s life. He went to staff college and realised that he was more intelligent than the rest: suddenly he understood that he could afford to have real ambition and decided on politics. Conservative, of course: his mother was a Tory and in any case, the world of Crockfords knows instinctively that socialism is its enemy. But a liberal Tory, indeed a Tory radical, for his father was a tough-minded and humane Liberal, a tradition too honourable to betray.

The second thing was D-Day. Macleod landed amid much confusion and wandered round the body-strewn beaches, consuming a great deal of Christmas pudding and whisky. Finally, he looked at his watch: ‘It was exactly midnight. I had lived through D-Day. We had expected anything up to 40 per cent casualties in the landing, and somehow I had been convinced that I would be killed. Now, equally unreasonably, I became convinced that ... there would be a life after the war.’

Returning from the war, Macleod went into the Conservative Research Department and, with Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell, became one of Rab Butler’s young men. These attachments were to last throughout Macleod’s life, although he found Powell a somewhat eccentric, angular character. Powell had decided that being a Tory politician meant that you had to learn to hunt, so he would rise at an ungodly hour from his lonely bachelor flat and travel to hounds by tube, dressed in full hunting pink, amid somewhat bemused workmen. Though he shared a love of poetry with Powell, Macleod was appalled at the idea of early rising, let alone hunting – his life was one of late nights, pretty women, and heavy smoking and drinking over the card table. Later on, boring government meetings would be spent writing love poems or charming love letters, penned, with glorious indiscretion, on Ministry of Labour notepaper. Exactly how Macleod’s marriage worked is a question which Robert Shepherd is far too respectful to answer.

Inevitably, Macleod’s wit and somewhat dissolute charm appealed far more to Tory selection committees than did Powell’s heavy earnestness, hunting pink or no. In 1948 Macleod was selected for the safe seat of Enfield, while Powell trudged through 19 consecutive constituency rejections despite Macleod’s determined lessons in charm. Not that Macleod was what would be called a good MP today. He hated constituency work and never held a constituency surgery in his life, taking the attitude that people knew where to find him if they wanted him. He loathed socialising, would make only the most robotic appearances at fêtes, preferring to sit in a corner with a drink. The only exception was the Young Conservatives, to whom he was devoted – well, all those pretty girls. He was made for the stage of Westminster and this was where from the start he excelled, though he continued to supplement his salary by writing a book on bridge and by regular winnings at cards. He wasn’t just a powerful and witty speaker: he had the unusual advantage of possessing detailed knowledge of housing, health, social policy and other domestic subjects which bored most Conservatives.

Macleod’s use to the Tories was that, in practical terms, he was more progressive than quite a few MPs on the Labour benches. He was passionately determined that the Tories should not sink back into reaction, that they should accept the NHS, build council houses, work for full employment and generally show that you did not have to be a socialist to be humane and generous. He helped found the One Nation group to propagate his views, bringing in Heath, Maudling and Powell, but he was not destined to be on the backbenches for long. In a debate on the NHS he rose to take on the speaker all Tories feared most, Aneurin Bevan. A few months later, Churchill made him Minister of Health.

Macleod was so shaken that he had to go to a phone box to find out where on earth his ministry was. He announced that he would be the first minister not to ask for any new legislation: the point was to make the NHS work properly, which meant endlessly badgering the Cabinet for more money for more hospitals. Bevan could have no complaint about that and Shepherd’s book carries a photograph of the two men at a rugby match together. But Macleod had to give up bridge tournaments for a while after the sight of the Minister of Health playing an all-night session at White’s caused a degree of scandal. The Treasury had been hoping to cut NHS funding but Macleod routed the attempt by setting up a committee to examine NHS expenditure: the crucial brief was written by two young welfare radicals, Richard Titmuss and Brian Abel-Smith. He also set up the first committee to investigate the effects of smoking: both the Treasury and Lord Salisbury wanted to suppress its Report and Macleod, anxious to placate such powerful colleagues, chain-smoked his way through the press conference which, to the Treasury’s dismay, first announced the causal link to lung cancer. The Cabinet, much discomfited by this embarrassment to some of their key allies, hurriedly accepted an offer from the tobacco industry of £250,000 for cancer research.

Not long afterwards Macleod announced that he was ‘bored’ with his sixty-a-day and henceforth smoked only two or three small cigars. About smoking as about sex, he hated moralising: as a matter-of-fact libertarian he believed individuals knew best how to lead their own lives. When, later, he was one of the five ministers selected to check whether John Profumo was lying about his relationship with Christine Keeler, Macleod distinguished himself by avoiding his colleagues’ ponderous circumlocutions. ‘Look, Jack,’ he said, ‘the basic question is: “Did you fuck her?” ’ Sadly, Profumo continued to try to lie his way out with mealy-mouthed statements about there being ‘no impropriety’. Wondrously, the Tory elders accepted this. Perhaps they thought Profumo was teaching her card tricks.

After Health, Macleod entered the Cabinet as Minister of Labour. Not for the first time, his abilities at poker stood him in good stead, though the trade-union leaders, however tough, found it hard to dislike a man so determined to cut defence spending, end conscription and maintain full employment: indeed, Vic Feather and George Woodcock, both future TUC General Secretaries, would visit him in secret to give him private briefings. The Suez crisis and Eden’s departure put Macleod on the spot. He had always supported Butler but when Salisbury came round to make his soundings – ‘Well, which is it to be, Wab or Hawold?’ – Macleod had seen enough to say: ‘Macmillan.’ Butler was desperately upset by his failure to secure the leadership – as he was to be again when Macmillan went. He naturally looked to Macleod to champion his cause and felt betrayed when Macleod’s continued rise took place partly at his expense. Macleod fought hard for Butler against Home but in the end he seems to have believed that Butler was a calm-weather leader. Macmillan later admitted that the Tories might have won the 1964 election under Butler, but in that case, he added, they would definitely have lost the following one. I wouldn’t be surprised if Macleod’s view of his much-loved patron was not all that dissimilar.

In 1958 Macleod got shoe-horned into the London bus strike by the maladroit interference of Harold Watkinson, the Transport Minister, and the intransigence of Frank Cousins, the TGWU leader: it was the first great set-piece battle between a union and the government. Shepherd brings this out well but misses altogether the significance of the strike which stands, as we look back, at the very centre of our recent social history. Macleod held firm until the busmen cracked, but London had no buses for three and a half months. Gaitskell tried a censure debate against him, which led to the worst Parliamentary mauling of the Labour leader’s career. Macleod’s speech, the Guardian wrote, ‘has not been matched in power for some years in Parliament. Mr Macleod held the House throughout. Even when he was savaging Mr Gaitskell the Opposition was too much under his spell to make a demonstration against him.’ After that Gaitskell, conscious of the damage the strike was doing to the Labour cause, was careful not to line the Party up behind Cousins.

The strike had many meanings, many effects. Until then, there had always been a notable Trotskyite presence within the busmen’s ranks; the failed strike saw the end of that. More significantly, the strike helped win the 1959 election for Macmillan – there was a conspicuously higher Tory swing in the constituencies which had been most affected by it. More surprisingly, the TUC leadership had been thoroughly annoyed by Cousins and came secretly to see Macleod during the strike, begging him to stand firm and ‘take Cousins down a peg’, for if the Government caved in, the whole case for wage restraint would be lost and they would come under pressure to follow Cousins’s lead – something they were most anxious to avoid. This quite remarkable collusion between the TUC leadership and a Tory Minister of Labour represented perhaps the highest point of the corporatist Butskellite consensus.

Cousins smelt treachery and, as he went down to defeat, vowed revenge on Gaitskell and his TUC fellow-travellers. Two years later he got his chance: with Gaitskell and the Labour establishment on the ropes over the Bomb, Cousins walked into the CND lobby, thus tipping the scales in favour of unilateralism and striking Gaitskell a shattering blow. In that sense, the whole unilateralist drama of 1960-1 – and its long-lasting resonance – was a result of the 1958 London bus strike.

Finally the strike represented the last stand of the white busmen. They could no longer afford to live on reasonable terms in Central London on the wages they were receiving. If the Government was to avoid the expense of paying them more (or making an equally expensive capital investment in labour-saving technology), it either had to get (lower-paid) women in to do the work or find someone else who would accept the wages they were willing to pay. What they did was set up a recruiting drive in the West Indies, encouraging first thousands and finally hundreds of thousands of immigrants to come over here. The social and political consequences changed not only the bus crews but the country tout entier.

‘Iain, I’ve got the worst job of all for you,’ Macmillan told Macleod straight after the 1959 election. In fact the Colonial Office was just what Macleod wanted: his fear had been that his Scottish origins would lead to his getting marooned at the Scottish Office. Under the previous Colonial Secretary, Lennox-Boyd, things had gone from bad to worse in East and Central Africa, culminating in the Hola Camp atrocities in Kenya. It was urgent to get away from an African policy based on detention and repression; there was emergency rule in Nyasaland, all hell was threatening in the Rhodesias, things were nearly out of hand in Malta, Tanganyika and Uganda, and ninety thousand people were being detained without trial in Kenya. Lennox-Boyd had been intending to resign before long in order to take over as chairman of Guinness (the family firm), and, characteristically, it was decided that the crisis in Africa must wait until he was ready to go.

Macleod set out with the intention of complete decolonisation, of being ‘the last Colonial Secretary’. Macmillan knew what he was doing, but Macleod’s determined radicalism sometimes alarmed him and he did not find Macleod easy – ‘very high-minded, very excitable, often depressed’. Macleod achieved his end in just two years, despite fierce resistance from white settlers, the Tory Right and, occasionally, stubborn black politicians. He had never set foot in Africa before his appointment, but the speed and skill with which he grasped the complex realities of a whole series of countries, travelled, negotiated, cut through obstacles and drove deals, is awesome even today.

It was a consummate performance, which no other British politician could have rivalled and there is no doubt that he saved many lives and bought much goodwill, as well as bruising many egos on the way. Above all, Macleod and Macmillan were scared by the example of the Algerian war and determined to avoid anything like it in British Africa. The sadness is – though Macleod can hardly be blamed for this, and what he did was in any case both necessary and right – that he handed huge tracts of Africa over to Nyerere, Obote, Kaunda, Kenyatta and Banda: an unlovely crew who wrought hideous damage to the economies and civil liberties of the countries they took over. The most difficult of the black African leaders, however, was the Kabaka of Buganda: ‘He regarded himself as a King and he regarded me as a hireling of the Queen. And he didn’t really think he ought to talk to me. He thought he ought to speak to the Queen ... I have dealt with some of the most stubborn trade union leaders in this country and ... some of the most obstinate leaders with different coloured faces that you could possibly find, but none of them came near the Kabaka for sheer, blind, pigheaded obstinacy.’

In the end even the Kabaka got talked into a deal which, but for Obote’s megalomania, would have held. A greater problem was Sir Roy Welensky, who not only dug in his heels at every point but showed a considerable variety of street-fighting skills, not least in feeding Lord Salisbury and the Tory Right with a constant diet of anti-Macleod propaganda. Macleod’s attempt to develop some personal rapport with Welensky over dinner at home failed entirely. He loved satire and played Welensky some of his Tom Lehrer records, including his favourite about the Bomb, ‘We Will All Go Together When We Go’. Welensky, whose tastes stretched only as far as light opera, was appalled by this black humour and merely added it in to his list of complaints to Salisbury. All of which had final issue in Salisbury’s denunciation of Macleod in the House of Lords, a wholly unprecedented personal attack by a senior Tory on a Conservative cabinet minister. Macleod, Salisbury claimed, had betrayed ‘the white communities of Africa’:

It is not considered immoral, or even bad form, to outwit one’s opponents at bridge. On the contrary, the more you outwit them ... the better player you are ... the Colonial Secretary, when he abandoned the sphere of bridge for the sphere of politics, brought the bridge technique with him. At any rate, it has become ... the convinced view of the white people in Eastern and Central Africa that it has been his objective to outwit them, and that he has done it successfully.

Macleod, the Marquess concluded in the famously damning phrase, was ‘too clever by half’. The attack was damaging not just because of Salisbury’s status but because even Macleod’s closest friends had to admit that it was in some part true. Macleod was an international bridge player, well used to sizing up his opponents, calculating the odds, keeping his cards close to his chest, and going for the kill. Had Salisbury been at the Colonial Office he would doubtless have been the cause of large-scale bloodshed but for some that mattered less than the unnerving speed and despatch Macleod had shown. The taunt stuck and when, two years later, Macleod, then Leader of the House and Chairman of the Conservative Party, resigned over the way Home was chosen as premier over Butler by a secret cabal, the fury of the backwoodsmen against this too liberal traitor knew no bounds. It was made even worse when Macleod, by then editor of the Spectator, spilt the beans about the succession struggle. Shepherd reproduces some of the telegrams sent to the Spectator:

WHAT A NASTY LITTLE BIT OF WORK YOU ARE STOP FIRST NOTICED YOUR EYES AT THE BLACKPOOL CONFERENCE ON TELEVISION STOP THANK GOD YOU’RE NOT PRIME MINISTER

Inevitably, Macleod’s hopes of the leadership disappeared. To make matters worse, the Party seemed to be drifting away from his ideas to what he called, with fond contempt, ‘Enochery’. In 1966, however, Heath asked him to be Shadow Chancellor – and was surprised by his choice of deputy. ‘Let me have Margaret Thatcher,’ he said – for he had noted her drive and energy. Macleod was passionately anti-hanging, pro-abortion and broke finally with Powell over his ‘rivers of blood’ speech (‘Enoch’s gone mad and hates the blacks’). Thatcher shared few of his views, but she never forgot who gave her her first big break and has sent flowers to his grave every year since his death.

Macleod died suddenly of a heart attack just a month after taking office as Chancellor in 1970. He was 56. Shepherd, who has done well to bring so engaging a figure back to notice, writes sadly but not entirely convincingly of ‘the loss and the legacy’. No doubt Macleod would have been a brave, reforming Chancellor but it’s hard to imagine that he would have done anything to compare with what he had achieved at the Colonial Office. Had he lived he might, of course, have succeeded Heath as leader in 1975 (he would have been 61) – except that by then the tide was going out on his sort of One Nation thinking. Certainly, he was able to enthuse a Tory Conference like no one else – Heseltine has been only a poor man’s Macleod. But he always had enemies within the Party; perhaps too many thought him not really a Tory at all, too ironic, too fly. ‘The Conservative Party,’ he wrote in the Spectator soon after his resignation over Home, ‘always in time forgives those who were wrong. Indeed, often, in time, they forgive those who were right.’ This sort of thing would merely lead to more sour mutters of ‘too clever by half’.

Many liberals end up as gallant losers because they don’t have the killer instinct, they’re too self-defeatingly nice. Macleod, like Bobby Kennedy, was that rare thing, a tough-minded liberal, willing to get his hands dirty to do the right thing and win: it was one of the reasons he was a Tory. Such people do not get to the very top but they are more valuable than many who do. What was so fine about Macleod was his courage. Faced by a potentially hostile Tory Conference, he very straightforwardly took them on: ‘This is the last thing I shall say as Colonial Secretary. I believe quite simply in the brotherhood of man – men of all races, of all colours, of all creeds. I think it is this that must be at the centre of our thinking.’ And then having cited Burns –

It is coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man the whole world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that

– he added: ‘And this is coming. There are foolish men who will deny it, but they will be swept away.’ Not many would have dared say that to Salisbury’s face at a Tory Conference.

Macleod was not just a calculating three no trumps man; he was wise enough to be quixotic, to go for the grand slam. After Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech Tory right-wingers tried to de-select Nigel Fisher, MP for Surbiton, because of his liberal stance on immigration. Macleod, the Shadow Chancellor on the verge of power, put his head on the block for Fisher: ‘If you go I go.’ Fisher, who had not even asked for his support, was quite overcome, for he knew how desperately unpopular such a position was with the Tory faithful and how little Macleod could risk another resignation. As the young John Major pointed out, ‘not many politicians would have done that.’