Help Yourself

R.W. Johnson

  • Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling by Lewis Baston
    Sutton, 604 pp, £25.00, October 2004, ISBN 0 7509 2924 3

In the spring of 1974, as reports multiplied of his involvement with crooks such as John Poulson and T. Dan Smith, Reginald Maudling disappeared to Paris with his wife, Beryl. The Daily Mail’s Harry Longmuir had little difficulty locating him in the ‘Président’ suite of the George V. Checking in himself, Longmuir spent a whole Sunday morning with a confused, disorientated Maudling in his dressing-gown. Maudling chatted away amiably – providing damning copy – while drinking the contents of Longmuir’s minibar.

Many elements of Maudling’s story are present in this vignette: his love of the good life for himself and, especially, for Beryl; his likeability and accessibility to journalists who, as a result, long protected him; his ever-worsening alcoholism; and his insistence on a style of living which he could not afford and which drove him into dependence on Poulson and others. The fascination of Lewis Baston’s excellent study lies largely in the unfolding inevitability of this morality tale. The movement from the young Maudling, working genially alongside Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell in the late 1940s – Rab Butler’s three brilliant young men, all potential prime ministers – to the later figure, greedy, corrupt, drinking himself to death, his reputation in ruins, has an almost tragic cadence. (Since it is a tale in which the disclosure of interests is much to the point, I should add that Lewis Baston was once one of my own students.)

Baston’s final verdict is that Maudling was a decent man: ‘His sins were the sins of the warm-hearted . . . he was a good man, who did wrong for very human reasons . . . he came into public life to do good and make things better . . . the world is better off for Reggie.’ In large part this is because Maudling was the embodiment of Butskellism, of the politics of consensus. As Baston points out, his career – from joining the Treasury team in 1952 until his death in the winter of discontent of 1979 – exactly brackets the age of consensus, swept away a few months later by Margaret Thatcher, ‘that bitch’, as Maudling called her.

Another reading is possible. Maudling’s generation – growing up during the Depression and the war – were, more than most, attracted by the notion of putting division and conflict behind them. But not everyone was equally attracted by consensus politics: both Macleod and Powell were, in their different ways, far more determined to do what they thought right. As anyone who lived through that era knows, consensus for consensus’s sake appealed fatally to a certain kind of bonhomous Englishman, a man like Maudling, for whom the middle way was always the right way – was, indeed, the English way. Inevitably, this meant relegating principle – only fanatics and ideologues were driven by ideas – in the search for whatever went down well with the middle ground. The trouble is that the middle ground is as likely to get things wrong as anyone else; in the 1930s it had been pacifist and, as Thatcher quite correctly saw, it had since 1945 presided over a long national decline about which it was completely fatalistic. Private Eye’s cartoonist Timothy caught the mood perfectly with his picture of an old buffer being swept down into a whirlpool, mumbling: ‘Tide of history, old man, tide of history.’

Maudling’s tastes were decidedly unTory: he was a Hegelian, a devotee of Keynes and Freud, and an agnostic. As a student he loathed the Officer Training Corps and had little time for the Oxford Union; he also detested blood sports and Tory Party conferences. But besides being clever and charming, he was also a heavy drinker, a trait which enormously commended him to Churchill, whose speechwriter he became in 1946. By 1949 he was said to be one of only three people to whom Churchill ever listened, but Churchill was in his dotage when he returned to power in 1951 – hence the importance of Butler, the great patron.

From the first, Maudling showed the typical qualities of the consensus-seeker, going along with prevailing winds (during his wartime work for RAF intelligence he had shown no qualms at all about the bombing of Dresden), sometimes having bright ideas but backing away quickly if they met resistance. An early devotee of floating exchange rates, he quickly shelved the idea when it failed to find support. At the Ministry of Transport he was a great supporter of the Comet airliner but, having moved to the Ministry of Supply, he was faced with the disastrous Comet crashes, and decided to veto the planned V1000 jet on the grounds that the future lay with turbo-props, not jets. This meant that when the Boeing 707s appeared there was no British competitor, and when BOAC begged that Rolls-Royce engines at least be used in the Boeings, Maudling dismissed this obviously sensible (and ultimately successful) idea. It is, indeed, difficult to find any disastrous blunder of those years which Maudling did not enthusiastically support. He strongly backed the Suez expedition, was partly responsible for the early nuclear power programme which produced the Windscale disaster (the report on which he suppressed) and pushed the car industry to locate new plants in Merseyside, resulting in the most strike-prone factories in Europe. Typically, he was also in favour of the distinctly better idea of abolishing retail price maintenance, but when he saw how strongly it would be resisted he backed off. Edward Heath soon showed that he was made of sterner stuff by pushing through its abolition and, when he took over the EEC negotiations from Maudling, there was a clear increase in drive and energy.

Nonetheless, Maudling’s instincts on Europe were wiser than Heath’s, precisely because he was the very soul of Middle England. Whereas Heath went all-out for entry and was willing to push the demand for a federal Europe under the carpet, Maudling shared from the first the deep popular unease at the EEC’s political baggage. A country which had fought a titanic struggle for its independent survival in 1940 was, he realised, never going to feel comfortable with the loss of national sovereignty. When he was negotiating with the EEC he had sought a free trade area in industrial goods, leaving agriculture out of any agreement: in a sense EFTA was his godchild. He admitted EFTA was a second best but when asked in the Commons whether straightforward British entry to the EEC might not have been the best solution he replied that it would have been the third best: what he wanted was the biggest possible Europe – but simply as a free trade area, with the minimum political baggage. In the end, of course, Britain has found herself pushing for precisely that: a wider and wider free trade Europe in which the prospect of political unity recedes with every new member. But being who he was, Maudling didn’t stick long with this vision. Once Heath won the day he quickly rallied to a less sophisticated Europeanism.

Politically, he is best remembered now for the somewhat suspect boom he unleashed as chancellor in 1962-64. Harold Wilson, worried that the Tories led by Maudling might be unbeatable, always claimed that the 1967 devaluation was the ultimate result of Maudling’s irresponsible stimulus of the economy – and the mud stuck. In fact, this was unfair in that it never addressed the real charge. Trying – in what was still a period of full employment – to accelerate clear of the dreadful constraints of stop-go was a brave experiment, but nothing was more certain than that such a boom would run into a sterling crisis, on the one hand, and, on the other, into the determination of the trade unions to exploit a tight labour market. Either sterling had to find its own level or there had to be some reform of labour relations, or both, and nothing could be done without spilling blood. So Maudling backed away from both – just as he favoured decimalisation and a Channel Tunnel in theory but did nothing about them in practice. At the same time he found it so hard to say no to the government’s spending departments that by spring 1964 he was advocating an early election on the grounds that ‘the government has now ceased to govern’: that is, that it had lost control of public spending – which was his responsibility. The real charge was that Maudling was absurdly amiable, that he entirely lacked a killer instinct – exactly the judgment that Tory MPs made when they elected Heath over Maudling in the 1965 leadership election, a blow from which Maudling never recovered.

It was the same at home; indeed, Baston argues persuasively that this was where the trouble began. Maudling’s father – another Reggie – was an actuary, comfortably off, and amusing and generous. But his mother, Elsie, was tough, domineering and status-driven, and Maudling, an only child, was eager to escape from her. Chancing early on Beryl, a pretty dancer/actress, Maudling, who saw himself as an unprepossessing fat boy, was entranced and seems never to have looked at another woman. But Elsie hated Beryl as a jumped-up little Jewess and refused even to attend their wedding. Maudling cut all ties with his mother – he went on holiday rather than go to her funeral – and buried himself in his family, adopting a wholly permissive and placatory attitude towards all his children and, most of all, to Beryl who, unfortunately, was just as status-driven as Elsie had been: she wanted not just money and the good life but to cut a figure as a patron of the arts. The tragicomic result was Maudling’s long struggle to endow the Adeline Genée Theatre (named after Beryl’s old dance teacher), a vast and vastly expensive white elephant into which a great deal of his ill-gotten gains were poured.

What makes Maudling’s business career particularly reprehensible was that here he showed no lack of the killer instinct. To the end he pretended that he had been innocently caught up in other people’s wrong-doing and seemed genuinely hurt and bemused to find himself increasingly accused of being a crook. Baston has performed a considerable service by dredging through the minutiae of Maudling’s business life and the various inquiries and investigations abutting on it, but he would be the first to admit that a great deal remains hidden, probably for ever.

What is quite clear, however, is that Maudling made a beeline for crooked businessmen, apparently spotting opportunities for influence-peddling right from the start. No sooner was he made a minister than he appointed Freddie Bennett as his PPS, an astonishing choice, for Bennett was so truculent and difficult that he was to win a Sunday Express poll as ‘universally the most and deservedly disliked’ Tory MP. No one could understand why Maudling would choose this man, who also had a well-established reputation for crooked financial dealing, but this seems to have been precisely what appealed and he traded heavily on the introductions and opportunities Bennett was able to provide. As early as 1960, Maudling had met the even more unscrupulous Poulson, through whom he became involved with several major Arab wheeler-dealers, notably Mahdi Tajir, the billionaire fixer and effective vizier of Sheikh Rashid of Dubai. Next came Jerome Hoffman, an out-and-out fraudster. When Hoffman’s Real Estate Fund of America collapsed Maudling claimed he had only been tangentially involved in it, but in fact he and Hoffman had launched REFA together and Maudling actively touted its fraudulent prospectus to his contacts. Poulson may have been a crook but after just one look at the REFA brochure he threw it away and took care to distance himself from this transparent scam. Next, one finds Maudling involved with Sir Eric Miller, he of the Wilson honours list and endless crooked deals. Miller, who lavished favours on Maudling, ultimately blew his brains out as the DTI inspectors closed in. Yet another of Maudling’s dodgy associates, the notorious Roberto Calvi – who helped him hide away his funds in Liechtenstein – was found hanging from a London bridge.

For a long time only Paul Foot in Private Eye had the temerity to question Maudling’s honesty. Mainstream editors and journalists were decidedly protective of him and, as Baston notes, there was a continuous establishment cover-up. Those investigating the string of scandals and commercial collapses which these shady dealings led to had a striking tendency to get taken off the job before it could be brought to a conclusion. Over and over again, Maudling’s evasions and lies were accepted simply because powerful people liked him. When the Observer’s city desk investigated the REFA scandal the article got pulled and instead, Nora Beloff wrote an article attacking Private Eye for ‘smearing’ Maudling – and then, absurdly, sued the Eye when it exposed her.

In fact, the situation was far more scandalous than even the Eye suspected. Not only was Maudling, a former chancellor, using every sort of tax dodge, secret bank account and offshore money haven to cover his tracks but, unknown to Parliament, he was acting as a ‘financial director’ for the sheikh of Dubai when he was an opposition spokesman on foreign affairs – at a time, moreover, when large sums of money were being offered by Gulf rulers to keep a British military presence east of Suez. According to Poulson, Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi (later the president of the United Arab Emirates) rounded on Maudling when he discovered that Maudling had received a million-pound bribe to favour Dubai’s interests during the negotiations on the formation of the UAE.

Meanwhile, despite being, as Robin Day put it, ‘bone lazy and quite useless after lunch’, Maudling, though out of joint with new Tory thinking (privatising the phone system, he told young Tory researchers, was just ‘not on’), was still clearly number two in the Tory Party and became home secretary in Heath’s government. It was here that his laid-back, pleasure-seeking style really found him out. It started badly. For some time the USSR had been pushing its luck by blatantly increasing the number of its intelligence agents on British soil. MI5 was desperate to cut them back. As usual, Maudling wanted to do nothing, but he was overruled. Over a hundred spies were expelled, to exemplary effect. Then Northern Ireland exploded and he botched things completely. As one army officer told ITN:

Reggie Maudling had no idea. He would never go out. We would get people to meet him and he would wander round and say things like: ‘Are you going to Ascot?’ He was hopeless talking to community leaders on the streets. After his first visit here he sat in my office with his head in his hands and said: ‘Oh, these bloody people! How are you going to deal with them?’

As he flew back to London he said – within earshot of the press – ‘For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.’ There followed the disasters of Bloody Sunday and internment before Heath snatched the inflamed province away from him.

The blundering hardly stopped, however. The 1972 miners’ strike turned largely on a trial of strength at Saltley, where the government knew it was essential to stop Arthur Scargill and his pickets from closing the coke depot. But Maudling, as usual, had been lackadaisical in his planning and Scargill won the day – and with it the strike. ‘The government now wandering all over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to – and being massacred all the time,’ Douglas Hurd wrote in his diary. Only months later the Poulson affair burst into public view. When Maudling refused to resign, the cabinet secretary cleverly insisted that the Metropolitan Police be involved in the inquiry. Since Maudling could hardly be the minister responsible for the Met and simultaneously the object of a Met inquiry, he was forced to step down. Amazingly, Thatcher later made him shadow foreign secretary before sacking him, reasonably enough, for ineffectiveness. He ended his days as the butt of Beryl’s recriminations: all her hopes of social success dashed, she would hit him and hurl things at him, treatment he would take with a sad shrug. ‘Tide of history, old man.’

Baston asks why he did it. He doesn’t think it was greed – Maudling was soft-hearted and generous – and ends up, as we have seen, arguing that Maudling’s sins were pretty venial. Yet we have not learned since of any other major front-bench figure who was as crooked as Maudling. And doubtless, if we knew the full story, things would look a lot worse than they do already.

If, like Maudling, you are committed to seeking consensus for its own sake, as opposed to acting on principle, why be in politics at all? The problem with the ‘it’ll all be the same in a hundred years’ argument is that it means that nothing you do really matters. Jim Callaghan, Maudling’s admirer and friend, was of this school and would happily boast, after retirement, that all he’d ever really managed to do was put cat’s eyes in the middle of the road. But if you’re not in politics to change things, are you there just for the fame and success it may bring? In which case, why not help yourself when you can? Everything suggests that this was Maudling’s attitude almost from the start. He became a Lloyds’ name while a minister, which was against all the rules; his civil servants wondered at his acceptance of all manner of lavish gifts; at the same time he was readier than most to preach the need for wage restraint, for compassion, for harder work and greater productivity – all the values of moderation – while showing a quite immoderate zeal for the opposite things himself.

Baston is clearly right that Maudling was charming, tolerant and warm-hearted, but everything else in this book merely proves that such virtues are nothing like sufficient. One finds oneself in greater sympathy with Thatcher’s more robust attitude. ‘When I told him that he had to go, he summoned up enough energy to be quite rude. Still, out he went.’