Lord Goodman, born in 1913, was a British lawyer and political advisor.
He was educated at University College London and Downing College, Cambridge, and became a leading London lawyer as Senior Partner in the law firm Goodman, Derrick & Co (now Goodman Derrick LLP). He was solicitor and advisor to politicians such as Harold Wilson.
He died in May 1995.
Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.
Your mother seems to have been the dominating influence in your childhood. Was your/other a shadowy figure by comparison?
He wasn’t a shadowy figure, but he was the less positive figure of the two. He was a very gentle, mild man, and I think he was a bit diffident about intruding, but we were as devoted to him as to my mother. My mother was enormously encouraging. She had all the pride of all the Jewish mothers put together. I don’t think she had great ambition for us, but she was a woman with a good sense of values and she obviously wanted us to be happy and successful, because if you’re not successful you’re rarely happy. She was always there for us, and if ever we had any kind of problem or trouble, she solved it without fuss. She was a very remarkable woman. She had been a schoolteacher originally, and a competent pianist. She taught Mrs Gaitskell Hebrew. She saw me beginning to become successful. I hadn’t been enobled and hadn’t even become the chairman of the Arts Council before she died, but I had had modest success and it gave her great pleasure.
I don’t look back on my childhood as the happiest time of my life, because I hadn’t really found a balanced situation there. There were uncertainties about relationships with people, about the extent to which one promoted one’s own activities and so forth. Anything that isn’t positive causes doubt and doubt causes unhappiness. I certainly wasn’t an unhappy child. I loved being a child; I enjoyed being at school. I was particularly fond of cricket, and I became an adept tennis player – I even got a tennis colour at University College London. I had a passion for reading, and I loved music. My father used to take us off to concerts on Sunday afternoons, and all of this conduced to happiness. Anyone looking at me would have said I was a happy boy.
I was educated at a grammar school established by one of the great trading companies, and it was a very good school. We had everything: a good swimming bath, the river on which we could row, an excellent sports ground. It didn’t ape the public schools, but it tried to extract what was best in them. I was particularly influenced by the English master because, for some reason, I was his favourite pupil. He played a great part in my life, and persuaded me of the glories of English literature.
If I had a son, I would not myself send him to a boarding school. I think that’s a folly. It separates a boy from his family altogether and in a sense it antagonises him, because a young child has to determine for himself why he’s been exiled. I’m not at all in favour of boarding schools, but I would send a son to a good day school. There are several, like St Paul’s, or University College School, or Mill Hill. Children require a certain amount of understanding, humane discipline, and a good school provides it.
My parents were always tight for money. My father was not a good businessman, but he contrived to get enough to give us a comfortable childhood. I didn’t have a luxurious childhood, but I managed to travel a bit. I remember that I wanted to go to Paris, and when I spoke to my father he said, ‘Well, what can you manage on?’ So I replied rather optimistically, ‘I could do a week on £5.’ He produced a five-pound note and off I went. I found myself very strained for money after about four days, but it was very enjoyable. Then I wanted to go to Rome, because I’ve always had a particular interest in Roman affairs and Roman law and Latin, which was a language I had a great affection for. So when I said I wanted to go to Rome, he asked for how long, and I replied a fortnight. So he produced £10. I stayed at a little pension called the Pensione Bus, where I had a semi-pension rate, which meant that I got breakfast and dinner but not lunch. Without any great hardship, I dispensed with lunch for a fortnight, and then had a piece of good fortune when, wandering through the Coliseum on almost my last day, an elderly American gentleman, seeing me carrying an English guide book, approached me and asked if I spoke English. When I confirmed that I did, he asked if I would mind showing him round the city, and we struck up quite a friendship. He turned out to be an American ex-judge who had come over on the melancholy errand of bringing his wife’s ashes, which he had promised to bury in Rome. He became very friendly indeed and took me out every day for another fortnight. I was therefore able to stay four weeks.
I always knew that I probably wanted to be a lawyer. There’s a conventional range of occupations for middle-class Jewish boys: you become either a lawyer, a doctor or an accountant, and I certainly never wanted to have anything to do with figures and I didn’t want to be a doctor. Therefore being a lawyer seemed a reasonable alternative, and I’ve always had a great affection for word’s.
You had a successful if comparatively modest career in the army. What were the values that emerged from this for you?
I’d been very spoilt as a boy. My parents’ influence was protective to the point of mollycoddling, and the army was a revelation. It introduced me to the human race and showed me what excellent qualities existed there. I never met any unkindness. I was in the ranks for a while, then I was commissioned and went up to a command headquarters, where I got some modest promotion and that was that. But I enjoyed it very much. I learned how important it was to get on with your fellow men.
The idea I was living on borrowed time during the war would have been a philosophical meditation in which I didn’t indulge. I never felt at all apprehensive, although I was a member of a very active anti- aircraft battery and we operated throughout the blitz on London, then in various other parts of the country, and were out during the bombing night after night. It never entered my head that I might be killed. I suppose, in a way, that I regarded myself as too precious a person for anyone to kill me. It was a form of vanity. I’m not heroic, but I don’t think I’m particularly cowardly either, and although I had several quite narrow escapes when, on various occasions, bombs fell too close to be comfortable, I can’t remember being worried.
You have been honoured by both Labour and Conservative governments, which seems a very unusual thing indeed.
If I had been a determined Marxist or a passionate Conservative, I don’t think the other party would have employed me. I was evidently a neutral in these matters, and not really interested in politics. The reputation I had, for what it’s worth, was that I was apolitical and that, on the whole, I didn’t have violent prejudices one way or the other. My sympathy was towards liberal causes. For instance, I always took a strong line about South Africa and made several critical speeches. A liberal cause usually had only to heave into sight to find me supporting it, but not every liberal cause. I didn’t believe in some of the more argumentative ones.
I don’t feel that I have strong political convictions. I believe we should have a world where there is, on the whole, little interference with personal freedom. We should live in a world where everyone is entitled to be educated, in which everyone is entitled to be looked after health-wise. I do believe, to that extent, in what many people would call a socialist society, but not to the point of submerging other beliefs. It’s true that I have a distaste for politicians, largely because I’ve met too many not to. I almost worshipped Jennie Lee, but she was an exception. And Nye Bevan was an extraordinary man, as was Hugh Gaitskell; and, in a strange sort of way, Ted Heath is extraordinary. These are all people who have qualities which rise above narrow political dogmas.
Where honesty in politicians is concerned, I don’t think it’s possible to be totally honest in any human context, but it’s even more difficult if you’re trying to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to adopt your views and vote for you. It would be imposing a tremendous moral strain never to exaggerate in the slightest degree, arid exaggeration is a departure from honesty. Someone with a distaste for duplicity might well be as honest a politician, or indeed anything else, as you could hope to find. In fact, that might be a great encouragement to people to vote for him. This was certainly the basis of Mrs Thatcher’s support at the start of her regime. People were persuaded that she was a change in the political scene, and that she was an honourable woman.
I have come to feel that our present democratic electoral system could be improved by ensuring that a greater number of people influence the elections. Certainly it could be improved by a system of proportional representation. One can be very dogmatic about this, because there are considerable dangers in a proportional representation which might, in the end, produce no government at all. But on the whole, I think we ought to have experimented with it. One of the things that can happen the way things are is that you can get such an overwhelming majority that no institution is safe, and that, of course, is a dangerous trend. We have seen the abolition of the Greater London Council, which clearly did very good work although it was open to objection because, in certain areas, people with extreme views got into power and did rather silly things. But they didn’t do things silly enough to justify its demolition, and its destruction was a result of a system which allows one party to hold a majority of a size the Conservatives have today.
The cardinal point about Conservatism is that it binds the Conservatives together with one simple precept, which is a respect for property. And one reason why the Labour Party doesn’t command that respect is because, by and large, it hasn’t got the property. The respect that the Conservatives have for the initiative of the individual all turns on wealth, and there’s no harm in that, but since it’s a respect for a man who can amass wealth, it overrides any respect for intelligence, health or any other consideration. The Labour party is meanwhile a very disorganised, disunited group, but it seems to be getting better. They have been able to shed their more extreme element, and that gives them a better chance of recognition. I think they will come back into power, but when I don’t know. It’s not impossible it’ll be at the next election.
At one point you undertook the task of trying to reconcile the difficulties in Rhodesia, and it looked as though you had managed to get an agreement.
I did get an agreement. What really happened was that the British government sent me out to negotiate with the Smith government, which meant, in effect, Ian Smith himself. I negotiated with him and we were able to evolve a constitution acceptable to him, tolerably acceptable to the more powerful voices in his government and not wholly rejected by anyone. Then, when it came to it, one of the imperatives was that it should be acceptable to the entire population, black and white. Well, that was rather a silly requirement. There was no hope, when one came to think of it, of an agreement negotiated wholly between two white men being acceptable to the blacks. Smith was a wholly honest man, may I say. I never found him at all devious. He was obstinate, but the moment you had worn down his obstinacy and he agreed something, that was the end of it. He never went back on his word. The reason why the initiative failed was that the British government had defined a negotiation as something between two whites. They couldn’t, in their wildest moments, have expected that that sort of negotiation was going to be either welcome or tolerable to the black population, which represented more than ten times the white population. When it came to it, Mr Smith assured us that it would be acceptable to the blacks, his reason for believing being, as he said, that his chiefs knew and respected him, would not betray him and would certainly vote in favour.
Now, Smith had lived in Rhodesia all his life and the Foreign Office had sent me out with a Rhodesian expert who had never before been to Rhodesia. As a result, no one warned me that the idea that the chiefs could control the tribes was completely wrong. The tribes controlled the chiefs. When the chiefs went back into the tribal lands, they were told to vote no, and to a man they did. The first mistake was to have employed someone, like me, who had never been to the country. My parents were born in South Africa, and I had been in South Africa many times, but never in Rhodesia. I knew nothing about the country. The second mistake was not to have sent me out with a genuine expert, because there were means of establishing that the proposed agreement was unacceptable to a great number of blacks.
The imposition of sanctions certainly worked in Rhodesia. That was a major reason for their seeking a settlement. When I arrived out there, people I’d never met before came up to me and tugged at my coat and said, ‘Please, please, get an agreement.’ The shops were almost empty of consumer goods. And sanctions are working in South Africa today. Very much so. I was in South Africa last October and the one thing perfectly clear was that they were obsessed with the fear of sanctions, and were producing literature and arguments, all specious and all designed to show that sanctions didn’t work and ought to be dropped. It was clear evidence that sanctions were working.
I don’t think Mrs Thatcher is right at all to ease sanctions. There has been no relative improvement at all, they’ve hardly changed anything. Apartheid is as intact as ever, with only a few minor changes. It would be folly, having got this far, to cease the one thing that is having an obvious effect on them.
What is wrong with South Africa is that, in terms of demography, it’s an idiocy. There are something like thirty million blacks being governed by three to four million whites. In demographic terms, it’s an outrage, and the whites have used their power in the most disgraceful way. South Africa is a heartbreaking place. There are various housing estates, including one called Crossbow which houses three quarters of a million to a million blacks. It’s thick with mud, and they live in the most improvised and rudimentary constructions made up principally of bits of iron, bits of tin, bits of cardboard. There is a water tap for every four houses, and no sanitation, just a bucket system. They manage somehow to keep these places relatively clean, but as conditions for human beings to live in, they are intolerable. The irony is that most people in Cape Town have never seen the place, even though you pass it on the way from the airport. There’s a callous indifference to human suffering that makes the present regime an outrage and makes reform an urgent necessity.
If you were to argue that the one man, one vote principle cannot work because the blacks are not educated enough, then I don’t know that one can say with complete confidence that there isn’t a large percent- age of the electorate in this country who are similarly unequipped to have a vote. The requirement to justify a vote is that a man would understand what is good for him. One saw it in Rhodesia. When they came to taking a vote on the proposed settlement, the blacks to a man turned it down. Their instinct told them that anything warmly approved by Mr Smith was not to their benefit.
As for making South Africa safe for democracy, who are you asking that it should be safe for – the three to four million or the thirty to forty million? I tend to think a secure solution is possible. Nigeria, for instance, is quite competently governed. You’ve got to remember that the difference is this: it is one thing to be governed by people of your own race, quite another to be governed by people of another race whom you have justifiably come to regard over the years as hostile. That is the basic consideration.
There is no reason to suppose that introducing democracy will stop the violence of black against black, but equally, there’s a strong reason to think it won’t stop unless democracy is introduced. My own feeling is that the black outrages against black are quite a different thing from white outrages against black, and that they won’t cause the same resentment. The black population of South Africa is very large, and it has been kept in a depressed position by the whites. Years ago there was a minister of education who said something to the effect that they would give them such education as they needed to carry out the simple humble functions they performed. That was a calculated insult.
Do you find that being the focal point of enormous pressure, as you were in Rhodesia, is something you are able to cope with easily?
I don’t think I’ve ever felt under an intolerable pressure from other people’s opinions. Perhaps I have an excessive and rather conceited faith in my own opinions, but I was never tortured by doubts. You couldn’t achieve anything if you were tortured by doubt. On negotiation, I’m immensely patient. In personal relations, I’m not so sure, but negotiation should be a continuous process until you have reached a conclusion. You should listen very carefully to what the other side have to say, and make quite sure that they realise that you do understand their point of view and that, if you are rejecting it, it must be for valid reasons.
I would consider myself to be a good listener in negotiation, and in normal life I’m not an impatient listener. Of course, in this world one has to listen to a great deal of nonsense, but I’m very tolerant of nonsense because I’m tolerant of the fallibility of human beings. I wouldn’t say that estimating your opponent is a very profitable activity. What you have to do is to estimate the strength of your case and the strength of a case which comes midway between the two cases, and ultimately it’s your job to propound a tolerable solution acceptable to both sides, or all three sides. But you arrive there by instinct. It’s not a calculated process.
The legal profession in England seems in turmoil at present, with one group trying to preserve its privileges and the other to trespass on them. Is it a matter of principle more than the scramble for money and power it appears to be?
It’s not a scramble for money. I once said that the strange feature of the English legal system was that, although lawyers didn’t enrich themselves, they could succeed in beggaring their clients, and this was an anomaly. I don’t think it’s a struggle for power either. It is really a struggle for prestige. It’s as simple as that. The Bar have a built-in conviction that they have a superior status, but they fail to recognize, first of all, how numerically inferior they are. In actual practice, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 barristers – and that’s probably an exaggeration – as against 60,000 solicitors, so it is obvious that if they are going to have a conviction of superiority then it must be a strong one because numerically they would be in difficulty. In fact the traditions of the Bar are really no longer appropriate for the twentieth-century situation, even less for the twenty-first. By this I mean their wigs and gowns, and their use of Latin, which very few of them understand or can construe. The whole edifice is built on a fraudulent tradition of custom – a firm conviction that a custom that has retained privileges for them and has maintained them in a superior position in relation to the rest of the legal profession exists by order of the Almighty. To some extent it stems from the class system in this country, but the strange thing is that a great number of solicitors and a great number of barristers all come from the same class, the upper middle class. They’ve been educated at public or independent schools, and most of them have been to Oxford or Cambridge, so there isn’t a great divergence of class. Nevertheless the Bar believe that their practices and traditions are better and finer. It’s largely based on the Inns of Court, for which they have a sort of masonic affection.
Meanwhile there’s very little doubt that our legal system is weighted against the poor man if he’s engaged in a battle. We like to pretend that there’s no advantage in retaining a better lawyer, but of course there is a great advantage, and I don’t know how that is going to be changed. There will have to be a more expansive legal aid system, and the reform now taking place, whereby you will be able to use a single advocate, will greatly cheapen the matter. Although the Bar deny it, it’s a matter of simple arithmetic. It is bound to be cheaper to employ one man rather than four.
But won’t it be very difficult to make the people who have money less privileged than those who don’t?
There are some things in which, by the decree of the Almighty, the rich are less privileged. They’ve no privileges in relation to fresh air; they’ve no privileges in relation to sea-bathing. Shortly they’ll have to discover that they’ve no real privilege in relation to justice.
But if you’re rich, you can go where there is fresh air. If you’re poor, you’re stuck where you are.
I’m not so sure. If you’re born on the seashore, you get fresh air; however rich you may be, you won’t be able to get more. I think that the extent to which money and justice are related is a bad thing, but it is much less so here than in the United States, although France is better than we are. They have something I have a special preference for, which is what is called a civilian system, that is to say, a Roman law system. I was trained as a Roman lawyer, and I lectured on Roman. Dutch law at Cambridge. It is a system which doesn’t depend on precedent. The English system means that you go back over every case decided since the year dot to see what cases have been decided in your favour. The Roman law system doesn’t depend on precedent at all, but on principle, and if the principle is with you, then you win the case. This, of course, is much, much cheaper than a precedent system. I would say there is quite a lot of reform that needs to be done in relation to the English legal system.
Why is our legal establishment so against introducing the American system of contingency fees in this country?
They’re against it because they think it’s infra dig. They consider it undignified for lawyers to work under circumstances where they’re paid only if they win, but there are other objections that are raised. One is that it is unfair to the losing party because he can’t get any costs. Once you start a litigation on a contingency basis, at the end of the day, if the assisted person wins the case, the defendant has no means of recovering the costs. It’s well controlled in America, more so than you would think from the impression that is being conveyed here by the people opposed to it. For instance, there are strict rules that the lawyer may not take more than a percentage of the win – 15 or 20 per cent. And there is a rule in some states that the court must feel that there is a prima facie chance of success. A man cannot undertake a completely hopeless cause for the purpose of advertising himself, or perhaps forcing a settlement from someone who isn’t very sure. It is, like every human institution, open to objections, but I would say that the objections fall down by the side of the alternative, which is that a poor man can’t sue at all.
When you dismissed as ‘poppycock’ the Bar’s fears for the independence of the judiciary under the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay’s plans for reform, yours seemed almost a lone voice, and the general reaction was one of closing ranks.
It was only the Bar. The Bar, as I said, is a tiny profession of about 4,000 active members. There was no closing ranks among the 64,000 lawyers. What it came down to was the vehemence of the Bar’s opposition and the pretensions they give to themselves, despite their small numbers. If you have an agreeable monopoly, it isn’t difficult to evolve a highfalutin principle to enable you to maintain it. There is no principle that enables the Bar to maintain a position which is ruinous to every litigant.
Yet they maintain that the cost will not be reduced.
That is to maintain that Mount Everest isn’t there. As I say, it’s a question of arithmetic. It is manifestly cheaper to employ one person than to employ at least three and possibly four doing the same job. If the problem were approached with determination and integrity, it would become enormously cheaper. As for the notion that standards will go down, what standards? They have sold the myth that they are superlative advocates, but if you go to the Law Courts on any morning and pass from court to court, the thing that will horrify you is the bumbling nature of the advocacy. There are half a dozen superlative advocates, Robert Alexander being one. There are a few others. Jeremy Hutchinson was a superlative. But the number can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and to keep to this pretence as the means of maintaining a disastrously expensive monopoly makes no sense.
Doesn’t it remain iniquitous that most people will be deterred from sueing because of the horrendous costs?
That is not so much a reflection on the law of libel as a reflection on our legal system. I quite agree that the costs involved are prohibitive, but there are ameliorations now under consideration, a very important one being that the action could be brought in the County Court, where the case could be conducted by a solicitor alone. This could have a dramatic effect on reducing the costs.
I haven’t myself represented many people in libel actions. I doubt if I’ve been involved in twenty libel actions that went to court in the whole of my career. I’ve always deterred people from becoming involved. A client is perfectly entitled to ignore my advice, of course, but if I thought the conduct of the action was in some way a persecution or an impropriety, I just wouldn’t do it. There’d be no reason why I should. I’ve refused to act for a client very many times. I am under no obligation to do things I don’t approve of.
When, in 1957, I undertook to represent Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman and Morgan Phillips after the Spectator accused them of being drunk on a British delegation to Venice, I agreed because the clients, and particularly Nye Bevan, who was quite a close friend, regarded it as very serious. He said, ‘I was sent abroad to represent the Labour Party at an international conference, and now I am told that while I was there I conducted myself like a drunkard.’ He took a very serious view of it, and he was entitled to.
Isn’t it a mistake to pick twelve people from the public at random to decide in a technically complicated case, such as the Guinness one now?
You underrate them. First of all, if you have twelve people, statistically there are bound to be two or three of average, if not above average, intelligence. If they don’t understand the case, it’s because the counsel who are explaining it to them are inadequate. My own belief is there is almost no case that a jury, given proper advice and instruction, cannot deal with better than a judge alone. There is something about a jury that inspires confidence. They will arrive at perverse verdicts, but never at insane verdicts.
Oddly enough, a judge’s going over the top in his summing up is often the reason why a jury takes the other side, especially if they feel that the judge is loading the case too much. They are twelve people, not twelve fools.
Lawyers never seem very popular as a group.
I would say the general dislike is justified for the very simple reason that you go in search of a lawyer only when you’re in trouble, and that is why lawyers are not loved. You won’t find that doctors who specialise in cancer are the best-loved members of a community, and there’s more reason for loving them than a lawyer who is going to try and extricate you from an unhealthy marital situation where your wife intends to take half your property. That’s why they’re not liked. It’s not because they are rich. If you look at the 1,000 richest men in England, or even at the 10,000 richest, you won’t find a lawyer among them. Lawyers do not make money. That is a simple fact. Certain barristers make huge incomes because they’re in great demand, but that is a rarity. It’s for the same reason that Placido Domingo gets higher fees than any other tenor. A highly accomplished barrister, like Robert Alexander, gets very large fees, which is only fair. On an average, lawyers are by no means extravagantly paid. I took three law degrees and obtained first-class honours in all of them, and I wouldn’t say that the rewards that have come my way are even comparable with what I’d have got if I’d become a merchant banker. I never wanted them to be.
When Lord Mackay was disciplined recently by his Church in Scotland for having attended a requiem mass for a deceased colleague, did that make you wonder whether there was a case for saying that someone like Lord Mackay, who holds high office, should not belong to such a narrow, restrictive Church in the first place, that the latter is incompatible with the duties and requirements of the former’?
The Church one belongs to must be a subjective consideration. No one can know what arguments propel me to remain Jewish. These are decisions that one makes for oneself, and they are decided inside you. I understand that Lord Mackay has now left that particular Church, and I must say I heard the news with great relief, but I wouldn’t seek to impose my own view about what are the right religious precepts for a man of skill and judgement. In many ways, the fact that he remained a member of the Church of his fathers was a very creditable thing. It’s true that it’s a Church which appears to be redolent of prejudice, bias and rather absurd notions, but even so, you can’t condemn the entire Moslem peoples for believing some of the idiocies they believe; you can’t condemn all Jews for believing some of the idiocies we are supposed to believe. These are matters of personal opinion, and so long as he is doing no damage to anyone else, no one has any right to interfere. You must remember that one of the great requirements of our present society is that people should have a faith, and I think that many of the difficulties and tragedies we encounter today are due to the absence of faith. Almost any faith is better than none. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, if you believe in cannibalism, that is a desirable thing, but whatever notions you may hold about religious precepts, to have some that are firmly held in your mind must be a good thing.
You are widely regarded as the best chairman the Arts Council ever had. Have its aims improved or declined since your time there?
As you know, at the moment there is a rumpus going on because it’s proposed by the minister of the arts, who is not a very experienced person, that the Arts Council should have a very reduced function and that regional arts associations should take on the major task of subsidising the majority of companies. I think this is wholly mistaken. To introduce local associations into the matter will be to introduce politics with both feet. I had quite a lot of experience in dealing with local authorities. Some were very good but a great many of them were awful, and the extent to which politics were brought in has, I’m afraid, had considerable support from this government. They view everything from a political viewpoint and don’t think anyone should be promoted to any office of importance unless he is a member of their party. Things haven’t improved; they’ve got worse.
A Labour government would have appointed a Tory to the Arts Council. Jennie Lee certainly would. You see, I’ve never been a member of the Labour party. When I said that what was wrong was the government policy of not countenancing non-Conservatives, someone remarked, ‘Ah, but what about you? Is it not true that they appointed a person of liberal sentiments?’ The answer to that was given by someone else, who said there was no party that wouldn’t have appointed me.
On the subject of art for the people, especially opera, is there not a case for saying that most of the people who are contributing to the subsidies are providing an agreeable entertainment for a fortunate minority in London?
Well, that is an unavoidable consequence. If you were to say that no minority interest is to be subsidised because it isn’t enjoyed by everyone in the country, then culture disappears. It is perfectly true, as I remarked many years ago, that one of the essential liberties of a free Englishman was freedom from culture, and if he doesn’t want culture, he needn’t have it. But that’s no reason for depriving anyone else of it. The number of people who want to go to the opera is greatly exaggerated. A lot of people would like to go, and a lot do, very cheaply. You can get, if not a seat, a position from where you can hear an opera for £2. At Covent Garden it’s extremely uncomfortable, but if you’re a young enthusiast, you don’t have to pay £100.
My feeling is that, if you provide cultural material only on the footing that the whole world can afford it, there are innumerable things that won’t be there. Education would disappear. You have to accept that a large part of desirable human activity is wanted only by a few special people. But those special people are very special. They dictate the shape and form of the country’s culture and education, and I don’t think there’s any terrible injustice. The injustice is for the state not to provide the money. When you think of the cost of a single battleship or a nuclear weapon, it’s absurd to say we couldn’t afford a few hundred thousand or even a few million for cultural activities. Yet there is a bitter resistance to this, and it comes from very rich people. That is because most of them would rather go to gaol than sit through a performance of The Ring.
The boycotting of Wagner by many Jews after the war was, incidentally, an absurdity. It’s ridiculous to regard music as untouchable because it was composed by a man who was an anti-Semite because he believed his illegitimate father was Jewish. The important thing to remember is that music has a quality and a standing of its own.
You once said: ‘It is an article of faith with this government that anything remotely progressive in politics should be stamped out. It would have been too much to expect them to keep the Arts Council immune from this.’ A great deal of anger seems to lie behind this statement.
It’s something about which I do feel strongly. The Arts Council was founded on two principles, one being that, although it accepts money, it accepts no political direction or dictation as to how to use the money! The corresponding and comparable principle is that, in giving its money to its various beneficiaries, it imposes no degree of political control. In fact, it has subsidized many very left-wing adventures since there are not a great many right-wing adventures because intellectuals are rarely right wing. And what the Arts Council has to do is protect the integrity of intellectual and cultural thought, and if it proceeds to stamp on everything that it or Mrs Thatcher thinks has any appearance of culture, then it destroys an institution of international value. I do believe that! in the main, intellectuals veer towards left-wing opinions. By left-wing opinions one means opinions that are not maintained by anyone who has a bit of money.
One of the complaints made by the orthodox supporters of the arts on the right is that right-wing plays are never put on. The answer is simple. There aren’t any right-wing plays. Go and search for them. You might trace a tendency towards right-wing drama in, say, John Galsworthy, but he was essentially a liberal, and if you see one of his most famous plays. The Silver Box, it was a cry for the dispossessed.
As for working to persuade the unconvinced of the validity of the importance of art and artists, I don’t know that I would persuade them. My father used to say that one of the principles of life is that a young donkey grows into an old donkey. I would make no effort. It’s quite impossible to inculcate a belief by argument. You can only do it by providing culture that the young can absorb and come to love.
In the area of education and the mounting failure of the educational system, more money should be provided and less introduced. We could then be as well educated as the French, for example. We’re a long way behind them at the moment. Happily we were never as badly educated as the Germans, because they were educated to tolerate enormities and outrages that would not be tolerated in England. There’s a lot to be said for our system. It’s one that encourages liberal ideas and makes it possible to live with liberal thoughts in a world where most people are illiberal. On that score, I’m a great admirer, and I can think of no other country in the world where I would wish to live, except perhaps one or two of the original British dominions, like Australia or Canada.
But what can be our grounds for optimism when we haven’t enough teachers in the schools, university funds are constantly cut, students are saddled with debt before they even begin their careers, some of our fellow citizens live in cardboard boxes on the streets . . .
I think that is an exaggerated statement of certain outrages that are very limited in number. You see, the number of people living in cardboard boxes is tiny, and they are nearly always drug dependent, and it is impossible to eradicate the drug desire. They are people who find it impossible to organise a sane life and provide themselves with a roof, but I don’t think that is a prevailing mood in any substantial number of people. England is more humane, more civilised than almost anywhere else. I won’t say that the Jews are universally popular, but they are not persecuted, and the only man who tried to mount a campaign of anti-Semitism was brought to a sharp halt.
Did you ever encounter anti-Semitism yourself?
As a Jew I’ve had rich rewards, and I don’t believe that being a Jew has interfered with them in any way. I’ve had appointments, I’ve had honours, and I can regard myself as being very fortunate indeed. I can’t attribute any misfortune of mine to anti-Semitism. It’s impossible to say that there weren’t people who, when, they came to review the situation, didn’t feel they’d rather appoint a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian than a Jew, but I’ve not encountered it.
We seem a lot more restrictive than the Americans on accessibility to information, Do you think freedom is divisible in some way?
Freedom is-’indivisible. I think the rules should be applied with common sense. If a man divulges the time at which he takes tea and that he takes three cups and he’s given two pieces of sugar, that is not a secret. On the other hand, if he proceeds to divulge the reasons why a particular civil servant wasn’t promoted and things of that sort, then that can be very injurious to someone’s career and is something in which there can be no public interest – or shouldn’t be, unless there’s some scandal associated with it.
The government’s latest piece of legislation does not provide public interest as a ground for defence. I think this is very difficult, because any civil servant who feels that there is a profit in divulging the secret would be able to present a case that it’s in the public interest. I’m not at all sure that you should be able to betray your trust because you believe there’s a public interest. It is for the government to determine what is the public interest, not an individual civil servant. It can’t be determined by anyone else. The trouble is there’s a great deal of hypocrisy about these claims, especially by the press. The claim to freedom is really the claim by the newspapers to publish titillating information that will sell more copies. That’s what the claim for freedom derives from, not from any lofty motivation. I think one has to have that in mind when considering the strength and nature of the claim.
You have known many national leaders of different political persuasions and all sorts of people in positions of authority and influence. Is that a world you find attractive?
I don’t find people of influence more attractive because they have influence. It is usually that they have attained influence because there is some rather arresting quality about them, and, of course, that is bound to be an important consideration in assessing your interest in them.
I have not admired very much people who are evidently self-seeking, but it would be wrong for me to indicate who such people are. I admired Hugh Gaitskell very much. I also had a considerable admiration for Ted Heath, although of recent years he has been much influenced by a sense of pique. The politician I admired most was Lloyd George. He was a man who made his own way from the most humble background by employing quite exceptional persuasive and oratorical talent. He was one of the great orators of the day. And it’s a source of great satisfaction to me that he was a solicitor.
To ask if he was a womaniser has nothing to do with anything. You might as well ask did he like curry? That a man likes women is so idiosyncratic a matter that it doesn’t bear examination. I don’t think he did his career any harm, because the investigatory journalism of our day didn’t then exist. Had it existed, Lloyd George would have been ruined within hours.
No, I don’t think the British are more hypocritical about sex than other nations. I don’t think they’re more hypocritical than the Americans, and the Europeans are also hypocritical in the sense that they have decided to conceal their feelings about it. The French are liberal to the extent that it would be unlikely that a Frenchman would be ruined because he had a mistress, but it would now be equally unlikely that an Englishman would be ruined for the same reason. There’s a general loosening of moral standards that is very welcome.
You knew Harold Wilson.
Yes, as well as anyone could.
He now appears to be a rather discredited politician, with the whole political establishment seeming to have deserted him.
I think that’s because he was an unsuccessful politician in the sense that he lost the ultimate election, and he is not the easiest man to support. He was an extremely kindly man, but he also had some massive faults, and one of those was that, before he did anything, he got into the habit of looking over his shoulder to see what the effect might be before he decided. That is a very grave defect in a politician, who should go boldly ahead and do what he thinks right. I liked him very much. He was very kind to me, and I’m not sure that he’s wholly discredited.
If he now seems not to be respected, that is because the organs of respectability are Tory organs. The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail are all Tory papers, the assessment of these people is a Tory assessment, and Harold Wilson was the most hated one of all because he was the one who provided the greatest risk to their beliefs and policies. I would say that has a lot to do with his present assessment.
Any desertion by his own party was on purely pragmatic grounds, because the public wouldn’t support him. I’m not even sure that his own party have deserted him. It’s easily said, but if Harold Wilson returned to leadership, he’d have a much greater chance of success at winning the election than Mr Kinnock. Harold Wilson was absolutely hated by the Tory press. The Conservative party has one inflexible principle which distinguishes it from the Labour party. Whereas the Labour party has all sorts of notions which add up to a policy or don’t, the Conservative party-has one notion only, which is to preserve private property. They saw in Harold Wilson a really dangerous threat to their well-being.
What view did you take of the alleged MI5 plot to oust Wilson?
It wasn’t an MI5 plot, but it was a plot by a few cowboys in MI5, and it certainly took place. My own offices were raided twice and I hadn’t any notion why until much later, when I discovered that they had been searching for documents that might in some way incriminate Harold Wilson. We had no such documents. I don’t think any such documents existed. But there certainly was this disgraceful activity on the part of a few hot-headed fanatics, who saw in Harold Wilson a danger to their whole scheme of life. Of course, we didn’t know of this until long afterwards.
What advice would you have given, had you been asked, on Harold Wilson’s so-called ‘Lavender List’ of honours?
I did in fact offer some advice, I won’t say to whom. It was an extremely unwise and reckless list, and my advice would have been not to go ahead with it. It couldn’t have mattered two pence to Harold Wilson whether some unworthy businessman -was going to get a knighthood or a peerage, so he had no great personal advantage to get out of it. He had a certain weakness towards particular influences, and he didn’t have the strength of character to resist them. I think the ‘Lavender List’ did him great harm, but I’m equally sure that there was no element of corruption in it and that he was doing it because he thought he was obliging someone or other. He should have had a stiffer resistance to obliging people.
Ted Heath, too, is not highly thought of at present.
If Ted Heath is not highly thought of at the moment, it’s because he has attacked the existing Conservative front. I’ve known Ted Heath since he was a schoolboy, and I met him in a rather unusual situation. I was a very junior partner in a firm in which my senior partner had a passion for rose-growing. His ambition in life was to become the president of the National Rose Society, now the Royal National Rose Society – everything being royal these days. He achieved his ambition in the last year of his life, but before that, while I was still in partnership with him, he used to go regularly down to Broadstairs where he had a patch of ground where he grew his roses. Being rather a thrifty man, he said to me one day, ‘You know, it’s too expensive to keep coming down here. I’m going to build a little cottage.’ He got his plot of ground and he had the cottage built by Mr William Heath, Ted’s father, and that’s how I got to know him, and we’ve been, I won’t say close friends, but very good friends ever since. My impression of Ted was that you didn’t have to know him long to know what was in him. He’s not a complicated character. He’s good natured, honourable, sympathetic and kindly. Obviously he has the usual vanity of a man who has been prime minister and wants to be prime minister again, and he has a number of massive faults, but they’re more than counteracted by a great number of massive virtues.
Aneurin Bevan was a great hero of mine when I was a student. Do you think that, had he lived, he might have mellowed and perhaps even risen to be prime minister?
One of the great tragedies of the post-war story was the deaths of the two people who would have made a significant impression on the Labour party. The first was Hugh Gaitskell, the second Nye Bevan. Had Nye lived, he might easily have become the leader.
Gaitskell was a man of moderate comment but absolutely rigid principle, and he compares very favourably with the rest of the Labour party leadership. In my view, he was an outstanding figure. First of all, he was an extremely nice man, secondly he was very articulate, and thirdly he was a man of firm purpose but moderate speech. He would have made a very good prime minister.
Michael Foot, though a great admirer of your powers, once spoke of what he regarded as your ‘stunning political naivety’. Do you think of yourself as politically naive?
I think of myself as politically disinterested. That may amount to naivety. Michael Foot himself is a man of great naivety, and his greatest naivety was to believe that he could possibly become the leader of the Labour party. He is a scholar and a man of great integrity, but he was mildly corrupted politically by a feeling that a great prize was within his grasp.
You describe yourself as a subscribing Jew, comfortable with the Jewish faith and race, hut not formally practising. Do you ever feel uncomfortable about Israel or the Israeli position vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Mine is one of the loudest voices of protest. I paid various visits to Israel recently and sought every opportunity to tell the government how wrong I thought their policy was in relation to young Arabs. And I do feel extremely uncomfortable about it. I think it is very wrong that a community and a race, if you like, that claims to be fully civilised has been shooting young Arabs by the hundreds. I have no doubts at all that the policy of the Shamirs and Sharons is a reactionary policy that should have no support from liberal Jews.
As a former soldier, did you feel indignant when the Jewish underground, in their fight ‘against the British Mandate, killed British soldiers in Palestine immediately after the war?
No, I didn’t feel indignant. It was one of the unhappy inevitabilities. One very much wished that it hadn’t happened, and particularly the episode of the sergeant. All of that was very horrible to a British Jew.
Would you say that the Middle East problem is just too intractable to find a solution?
Oh, it’s easy to identify intractable problems. You’ll find one in Cyprus, one in Northern Ireland, one in Nigeria. There are intractable problems, and one just has to wait and do the best one can to oil the machinery. There is perhaps more likelihood of a solution in the Middle East than elsewhere, because the Arab world is quite practical. What they have never been able to recognise is the enormous benefits that a civilised Israel would bring to the Middle East, but I think that is the sort of recognition which one can hope will come about.
The Israelis, however, have now adopted a policy which I think is thoroughly unfortunate, and that is apparently to accept that they have an empire-building function. The worst position you can have between two conflicting nations is when one of them believes that they have God’s support for empire building.
You said in a recent interview that you have always had a sense of being an onlooker, which sounds strange, coming from someone who has been so thoroughly engaged in so many things.
I’ve always had a sense that I’m not as seriously committed to an course of conduct as other people. I know in my own mind that I’m ready to find a solution that isn’t necessarily the orthodox one. In that way I regard myself as being more of an onlooker than many other people.
As for my reaction to emotional upheaval, I would be very ashamed of panic or loss of control. There are a great many things that induce irritation in me, and I think they’re the orthodox things. I have a deep sense of justice and thorough intolerance of injustice, especially when it is to the weak and in particular in relation to children. This is a catalogue of rather obvious virtues, but I don’t think I’m given to the more sensational emotions. I don’t boil with fury and go out and attack people with axes. I’d require a lot of provocation before I attacked anyone with an axe.
I’m certainly not intolerant of mediocrity, since you ask, or one would have to be intolerant of ninety-nine per cent of the human race. Nor would I arrogate to myself the right to judge everyone. I’m intolerant of inadequacy where someone is doing a job that requires a special talent which he hasn’t got, and then, like most people, I get a little irritated, but I certainly wouldn’t arrogate to myself the right to determine whether someone is mediocre or not.
Do you ever feel loneliness?
I don’t need people all the time. I’m perfectly happy to spend the afternoon reading a book, or watching a television programme, or going to the cinema or to the theatre. Last night I heard a wonderful performance of Verdi’s Requiem. That gives me delight. I don’t need other people there holding my hand. But that is one of the great advantages of the arts: they are a consolation for loneliness.
Do you ever regret not having married?
I can’t say I regret not having married, because I could have married. I had some interesting opportunities. There have been women who have been influential in my life. I don’t intend to particularise them, but certainly I can think of three. It would be impossible for me to mention them. That would be breaching their privacy, not mine. I do regret not having children. I have a great affection for children, and would have enjoyed very much playing some part in bringing them up, but you can’t have everything in this world.
On a television interview you said you did not want to reveal to a million viewers your reasons for not marrying. Isn’t this creating a needless mystery?
It’s not a needless mystery. It is a belief that, in certain aspects of one’s life, one is entitled to privacy. I do not owe the world an explanation of my personal and private life, and I don’t intend to give it one. If it’s a mystery, it’s quite a healthy mystery, and scholars can investigate it for the next hundred years. I certainly don’t intend to elaborate on it. It’s not a sinister mystery, I assure you.
Have you felt more drawn to religion with advancing years?
No, I haven’t. I regard most religions as superstitions, and I certainly haven’t been drawn towards any particularly active superstition as I get older.
You have led an exemplary life, have defended and championed the underdog, yet you must have been, like everyone else, exposed to all kinds of temptations. Did you ever succumb?
Succumbed to temptation? I don’t think consciously. If a temptation rose up in front of me, I would walk round it. I’m sure there are many areas of my behaviour which I now regret, and many decisions I’ve made that I think were wrong. It would be a very strange human being who didn’t believe that, but I don’t think I’ve consciously succumbed to temptation. I don’t think I had many wild oats to sew. Some people sow enough wild oats to make it an agricultural problem, but I had no great interest. I wasn’t addicted to drink or drugs. I smoked heavily at one time, but gave that up. I’m probably beginning to sound altogether too virtuous. I had encounters with women which gave me great comfort and pleasure, but that’s all I can say about it. I’ve not been devoid of human feelings.
There are certainly things that I’ve regretted, but not burning issues, not things that wake me in the middle of the night, shrieking in my bed. I have a high degree of complacency. On the whole, I think I’m reasonably satisfied with myself. That is not a virtuous thing to be, but it does make life easier.