Monthly Archives: April 2010

Parliament Unravelled

This Thursday sees the publication of What Are They Doing There? by Julia Jeffries and Hazel Johnson.

The book is a meticulous study of how Parliament operates and who inhabits it. For the last decade at least, this sombre place of power has turned itself into a circus where greed and dishonesty seem to be rampant among its members.

With the General Election campaigns in full swing, are we to assume that the next lot will reform, or is it all simply fodder to win our votes?

Read this book if you are truly interested in politics and fed up with the amount of rubbish that the contestants are throwing our way. The wiser we become about the true nature of our politicians, the less we are likely to be deceived. This is a wake-up call, before we miss the boat.

Be bold and decisive. Hurry to Daunt Books on Fulham Road and purchase a copy of the book before stocks run out.

You’ve been warned – or you will be sorry.

The What Are They Doing in There? launch will take place at Daunt Books Chelsea this Thursday, 15th April, from 6.30pm.

No Longer With Us: Nigel Dempster

The following is taken from my book, Singular Encounters.

You were born in India, bet left when you were six. Do you remember anything of that life?

I remember everything because it’s almost as if it were yesterday. There was sunshine and jungles and the sorts of things you can’t believe a child had: elephants and tigers in the garden, pythons and boa-constrictors. We literally lived in the jungle, 133 miles south of Calcutta. I know the distance because when you buy a ticket in India it tells you exactly how long the train journey is. I’ve got a very clear memory from the age of two.  I can say that because we had a dog that I remember dying when I was two.  The whole joy of being born in India was there ther4e were no guide-lines.  You never felt that you had to do anything; you never felt you had to get up in the morning. I had no form of discipline. I learned Hindustani since that was the only language my ayah spoke, it never occurred to me that there was any world outside. My ayah would sleep at the end of my bed, guarding me from the world.  She was a wonderful person.

My father ws managing director of the Indian Copper Corporation, and we lived where we did because the mine was nearby – about the third largest copper mine in what used to be the Commonwealth. He employed something like 12,00 miners and was a tremendously hard-working man with no interests in life except mining. His whole joy was his work. He certainly had no interest in women or children, but would work seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, and all his people remembered him for that.  When he married my mother he told her, ‘All right, you can have children, but don’t expect me to have anything to do with them.’  A great treat for me was, he thought to take me down the mind, so instead of being taken out to the zoo or to a film, as would have happened in England, my entertainment was to be taken down the mine. I can remember at the very early age of about four, descending 4000 feet into the bowels of the earth an seeing all the miners. It’s an extraordinary memory I have of watching people knocking things out of rock deep underground.

My memory of India is one of total joy. We never wore shoes, we had a swimming pool, a tennis court and a staff of about fifteen. We even had what was called a sepoy, who, rather like the guards at Buckingham Palace, stood in a guard-box at the entrance to the house to make sure no one came in who shouldn’t. There was no one who wanted to come in, so it was quite ridiculous. But it was an idyllic childhood, and so privileged, though everyone lived like that as far as I was concerned. I was born when the war was on, not that I knew about it. The only thing to occur to me as strange was having two airfields within about ten miles, one a US airbase and the other RAF.

The officers used our swimming pool and tennis court, and I charged them gum in the case of the Americans and I can’t remember what in the case of the British – whatever was going probably. It was a wonderful life, without responsibility, without care.

In later years, I went back several times. At thirteen it was difficult, because although I had only been away six years, everyone was speaking to me in Hindustani and I couldn’t understand. I was there for the summer holidays for two months, and was glad to be back, but by then I’d become English, having been at an English boarding school in the meantime.

When the time came for me to leave for England in 1947, it never occurred to me that anything different was going to happen because my mother had explained that this was where I’d have to go to school, even though my father came from Australia. My father was forty-seven years older than me, and his father fifty-seven years older than him, so the Australian connection had vanished and my parents looked towards Britain as a place to educate their children. I saw nothing wrong with it, but what happened was a tremendous shock because I couldn’t read or write and was coming up to my sixth birthday. The reason why I couldn’t read or write was that I hadn’t wanted to. In India I had spent most of my time in the servants’ quarters, learning wonderful folklore and hearing stories of their lives.

The first thing that sticks in my mind about England was the cold from the beginning of the winter of 1947, which was the coldest winter until 1963. My clothes were totally inadequate. I’d never known such numbing, freezing cold, and in those days, of course, schools didn’t have central heating. Also, I had never had to live in a disciplined society, but had always done exactly what I wanted. If I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t eat; if I didn’t like the food I used to throw it about. The only discipline had been provided by my father, who sometimes used to beat the hell out of me with his belt, but that was fair enough.

The next thing about England was the austerity, because in India we had everything: milk, butter, animals we could kill. One of the great delights of my childhood in India was the cook’s compound, where I watched him behead chickens. In England, where there was very little food, the fact came as a jolt, and certainly food has been something uppermost in my mind ever since. I wake up every day looking forward to meals, and I’m sure that’s something to do with that period of my life. My prep school was very small. There were thirty boarders, and I was the youngest by far. It was an extraordinary life, and I almost forgot the previous life in India, because I realized that you had to adapt, and if you didn’t adapt you were dead. You knew, if you didn’t get on, awful things were going to happen to you – you would be put in Coventry, people wouldn’t speak to you. You could literally not be spoken to because you had body odour. I remember boys at school and how awful calamitous things which they had nothing to do with haunted them for the rest of their lives.       ‘

But the first person who influenced my life was my English master there – a man called Michael Gardiner, who was a bachelor, I suspect an eternal bachelor. He was enormously interested in the English language and made me interested too. He was also a Catholic, and I remember our having a spirited discussion about Jimmy Goldsmith, of all people. I must have been twelve at the time, and the news was that Jimmy Goldsmith’s wife, Isobel, had died in childbirth producing a daughter, also called Isobel. I started discussing this because the papers, which were rather blurred in those days, made it look as if Goldsmith had said, ‘Save the daughter but let my wife die,’ In fact, if you read up the story, you discover that what happened was that his wife had a brain haemorrhage that virtually killed her, then the child was born, and after that his wife died. Michael Gardiner told me that the Catholic ethic was that you save the child rather than the mother, and over that we had a tremendously spirited discussion. It’s curious that it should have been about Jimmy Goldsmith, who now lives a couple of hundred yards from me. After prep school I went on to public school.

Would you send a child of your own to Sherborne?

The extraordinary thing about Sherborne is that it’s become a much better school than when I was there. The only reason why I went there was that my mother, who came from the Dartmoor area, remembered it as the best school in the West Country, the West Country starting, I suppose, somewhere near Salisbury and running through to Cornwall. When I went there in April 1955, it was a good, modest, second-rank public school. It goes back a thousand years, and Sherborne Abbey apparently has the remains of Alfred the Great who was said to have been educated there. It’s a beautiful part of the world, and my mother was entranced with its beauty. It’s a much better school today; it’s got tremendous endowments. If I had a son, which I never will, and he wanted to go to boarding school, I can’t actually think of a better one. It’s academically very sound, its sporting record is tremendous and it produces rather nice boys. Having said that, there are only about five of my contemporaries whom I still see out of, I suppose, a thousand boys I knew in my day.

Why do you say you’ll never have a son?

Well, unless I marry again. Certainly my wife doesn’t want to have another child. We had a daughter in 1979, and that seems to be it. I also feel that people have children for all the wrong reasons. We had a child for the right reason. We wanted a child and we got a daughter, whom I dote on, adore. I think people who go on having children till they have a son do it for all the wrong reasons. Many do it for reasons of inheritance, and it’s a crazy motive. Why not just stop when you’ve got what you want; why buck fate? Anyone is lucky to have children that are normal, happy and healthy. One in ten children in Britain is born with some abnormality. I know enough people, like Jocelyn Stephens, who have suffered that way.

When you left school at sixteen, did you have any idea at all what you were going to do in life?

In those days, the whole public school careers system wanted to put you into the established trades, and in 1958, when I left, that meant the City, which meant stock broking, Lloyd’s of London, merchant not commercial banking, or chartered accountancy. There were other professions which you positively did not enter, journalism being one. You could just about go into advertising, which was a coming thing in those days, a fledgling industry. But everyone who left Sherborne went into either the industries, which people thought would give them a leg up into the future, or into the army, the navy or the air force. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, and leaving was a terrible shock to me, because I hadn’t meant to leave so early. But I had been at boarding school ten years, and it was far too long. I had become rebellious and achieved a certain notoriety at the school. Everything that went wrong was blamed on me. I’d started people drinking, smoking, and talking to girls, which was not allowed. You actually used to get beaten at Sherborne if you talked to a girl. In the summer of 1958, I was booked to go to Davies’s, a tutorial establishment in Addison Road, Holland Park, but the first thing I did when I came to London was to get a job as a porter at the Westminster Hospital. The money was good – something like £8 or £9 a week – and if you worked the night shift you had to wheel bodies out and put them in the mortuary. I discovered more in those two months than I would ever have known otherwise. I saw bodies having their heads cut off at post mortems; I had to put stiffs into fridges at three in the morning. It was a quick growing-up process.

Then I did go to Davies’s, the reason being that at .Sherborne I was top of the class in English and history, for which I would win prizes, but bottom of the class in my other six subjects. The other people who were trying to get their exams were Etonians thrown out of Eton, Harrovians thrown out of Harrow. We all realized that the last thing we wanted to do was pass exams, so we’d go and have lunch in different places. Suddenly we learned that there was another life, and no one I met at Davies’s ever achieved what they went there for. I realized I must have a new life, and one of the people at Davies’s, whose father was a broker, said, ‘Go and see my father’, and so I got a job as a broker at Lloyd’s, literally on my seventeenth birthday, and entered a new world. Suddenly in Lloyd’s there were people from Eton, Winchester and Harrow, and I discovered the extraordinary life of debutante parties in the late 1950s, at the time when Harold Macmillan was telling us we’d never had it so good.

You could go about London and be wined and dined for nothing, though there wasn’t much sex around in those days. In the late 1950s, perhaps 5 per cent of the girls went to bed with men; in the late 1960s, perhaps 5 per cent didn’t. It never occurred to the people whose parties I went to that I was any different from those who introduced me. I got into that stream and stayed there simply by being amusing, charming and nice to the girls and their parents. There was an enormous amount of snobbishness. I’m sure you’ll find hundreds of people out in the shires, thirty years on from the deb season of 1959, who will say, ‘What a filthy little yob Nigel Dempster was. I always knew he was a parvenu. He gatecrashed my sister’s party’ – that sort of thing. So what? It doesn’t worry me.

I don’t think they gave a thought to me being Australian. They might even have thought it slightly romantic. All people really cared about in those days was that you didn’t sleep with their daughter, and very few did. The deb parties were proliferating. In 1959, every day from the beginning of May till the end of July, there were at least two cocktail parties, and each weekend there were at least three dances. You could choose which county you wanted to go to dance in. All it required was a white tie and tails. My first weekly pay cheque was £6, plus 2s. 6d. (12 ½ p) a day in luncheon vouchers. I also got an allowance of £200 a year from my father, and on that one could live very well. I shared a flat in Lennox Gardens, which cost £2 10s. (£2.50) a week and was a good address. The rest was free, except for the cleaning of your clothes.

I don’t think money made much difference. Girls liked men because they liked men. A girl who liked a man with a car was a girl who had a different view on life. But in those days we were all children. We fumbled each other occasionally; we made love if we were lucky. Very few girls were overtly after men with money, and I think it went on personality, I was still only seventeen, and it was amazing, because I was younger than the girls, and at seventeen or eighteen girls are much more mature than boys the same age. I simply don’t know how I did it. It must have been with gritted teeth and perseverance, because I was very much a baby, though I had been seduced very young. In Devon, my home was with my grandparents, and about three miles up the road in Budleigh Salterton I had a friend with a large house who used to give parties in the basement. We’d fumble around with girls and, without knowing what we were doing, used to get laid. That would have been when I was fourteen or fifteen. It wasn’t a satisfactory experience, but it wasn’t terribly unsatisfactory either.

What sort of qualities do you need for work as a gossip writer?

First, a phenomenal memory. Secondly, an acquaintanceship with a wide section of society. No one could have invented a better gossip columnist than me because, by a quirk of fate – my upbringing – and luck I managed to meet an awful lot of people. I remember having dinner at No. 11 Downing Street, because Reggie Maudling’s daughter was there and there you were, right in the midst of the government. From seventeen onwards I met all the children and grandchildren of the people who were Establishment Britain. That’s why, to this day, they can say, ‘God, that creep, that bastard,’ but we knew each other, and because I had an innate interest in other people, I’m able to remember how, where and why I met them, what their ages were and who they were with. I have that sort of encyclopaedic memory and can recall things you can’t get in cuttings. It’s having a vast log-jam of past memories – that’s the gossip columnist’s art. By some fluke I managed to acquire it.

It never occurred to me that I’d become a journalist. In those years being a journalist was a very grubby profession; journalists were grammar school boys who wore dirty macs, behaved badly and worked in an appalling part of London called Fleet Street, which was somewhere you never went. Those of us in the City used to look west towards Fleet Street as if it was a sort of nuclear rubbish tip.

How do you check the information that comes your way? There must surely be lots of people who try to exploit your column for their own interests.

None whatsoever. If people were to ring up saying, ‘Would you write about me?’ you’d make them look so ridiculous. It’s rather like a man asking a woman, ‘Would you make love to me?’ He fears rejection. Similarly, no first-person attempt to infiltrate is ever made because people fear being humiliated. My view has always been that if you don’t want to get into a column then, like the Aga Khan, you surely will. I’ve been in gossip columns now for twenty-seven years, and I’ve never known anyone get a story beneficial to themselves into -the columns I’ve worked on.

As for checking information, the information these days comes first hand. Part of the deal has to be that informants get paid for what they tell. Every part of the newspaper, from front page to back, is marked up every morning for payment. Sometimes we have seven or eight items a day. Sometimes our bill for payment to informants is as little as £50, sometimes as much as £500.

Everyone believes that gossip column stories are about marriage break-ups. It’s absolutely untrue. The number of stories about marriage break-ups come to perhaps one every two or three weeks, and when they happen they are of historical importance. It needs to be noted that the Duke of X has left his wife because it’s something to go into a book, a part of history. The idea of Fleet Street gossip columns being grubby little areas where we expose the seamy side of people’s lives is wrong. Most of the stories are about money, privilege and power, and the other area is basically the historical aspect of Britain – births, marriages and deaths, with divorces obviously included.

A gossip column has got to be scandalous in terms of raising an eyebrow because you can’t have a column which simply massages the back. There are two sides to every great person: the public side – the approbation of the masses – and the private side. That’s life. If you get into some sort of dialogue with a journalist, as people in public life want to do, then the journalist enters into a pact with them. They get publicity for what they’re doing, but as soon as things go wrong in their life, it would be foolish to have these rich, powerful and privileged people believing they can then pull the shutters down and say, ‘Look, don’t write about me anymore.’ They’ve incited the public’s interest, and I’m afraid they’ve got to realize that once you’re started on the treadmill, you keep going.

What sort of editorial freedom do you have?

When I went to the Daily Mail in August 1971, the paper had just merged with the Daily Sketch and something like 300 people had lost their jobs. Paul Callan and I were the first two signings to the new Mail to start columns, and I can honestly say that, from that day to this, I have never suffered any form of interference from anyone. I can assume that is a sign of great success, because you only interfere ‘something that’s going wrong. I’ve never been asked by the editor or the proprietor to put in a story. I’ve never been asked to take one out.  The measure of Lord Rothermere’s urbanity is that, when I came back from the United States in 1973 and went to work on the Diary, my very first story on 8 October was that Ladv Annabel Birlev, who was married to Mark Birlev and after whom Annabel’s in Berkeley Square was named, was having another baby. She’d already had three, and this was her fourth, and the story went that Mark Birlev was not the father but Jimmy Goldsmith was.

I  rang up Jimmy, whom I knew even in those days, and said. ‘There’s a story that you’re the father of the baby Lady Annabel Birley is expecting in Januarv 1974,’ and he laughed and joked but I wrote the story just the same. It appeared on the Monday, and on Monday evening Lord and Lady Rothermere went into Annabel’s to be met by Mark Birley in a high fury. I think Lady Rothermere was allowed to stay but Lord Rothermere was thrown out, and the measure of my esteem for Lord Rothermere was that I never heard a whisper about the story at the time. Five or six years later, someone asked did I know that my very first column as Nigel Dempster on the Diarv my proprietor was thrown out of Annabel’s? My response came close to worship Anyone else would have had me fired, but I never even heard about it.

If the trade of the gossip columnist is trivial, I think that all of life is trivial. Kierkegaard said all life will be gossip, and I suspect that trade gives a far greater insight into the workings of those people that are above us in terms of power and privilege, position and money. People aren’t that interested in the pronouncements from the pulpit or what’s happening in the House of Commons, because the British are very cynical race. No one cares what politicians say. We know they are all liars, cheats and fools. What we want to know is what’s going on in their backgrounds, why they’re saving whatever, why a certain minister does this, a politician that. The answer invariably lies in their personal life, and this is why the gossip columnist is as invaluable now as he was two hundred years ago, for the only way the British public knew King George III was mad was through gossip. The reason why the serfs, the ordinary working people of Britain, realized things were going wrong was through gossip, because there weren’t any newspapers in their time.

What we do today is an advanced, streamlined version of village gossip, and we provide a fantastic service. People want to know if those who are rich, powerful and privileged are having a better life than they are. They’re having a better life materially maybe, but things are going horrifically wrong for them too. Cecil Parkinson’s daughter is a drug addict; the Duke of Marlborough’s heir is a drug addict; the Marquis of Bristol, with 4,000 acres and £20 million, is a drug addict who has been in prison. It gives people a sort of comfort.

Investigative journalism can be defended as part of a free society. If a minister, for example, has a liaison with a foreign embassy official, or shares a prostitute with one, it might well be in the public interest to reveal it. But if someone’s husband or wife leaves, or takes to adultery, doesn’t broadcasting it merely compound the misery?

Gossip columnists only print stories long after they’ve happened. Rarely do you write in the middle of a story. What you’re doing is dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. People go off with other people, people have hiccups in their marriages. By the time it gets into a gossip column, it’s history. The people involved have explained it all to their children, they’ve moved out, moved into other houses, and it comes as something of a merciful release to see it written in a decent newspaper like the Daily Mail because then they don’t need to answer any questions any more.

The profession can’t be called intrusive because the people who are written about on the whole welcome journalistic attention. In this day and age, it’s not enough to exist. You have to be seen to exist. People enjoy publicity and realize that if you are in the spotlight for whatever reason – birth or ancestry, accumulation of wealth, inheritance – it’s a two-edged sword.

If you ask me whether we need a right to privacy in this country, I say absolutely not. The only reason anyone wants a right to privacy is if they’ve got to hide something. The privacy bill in France was introduced by a libidinous premier with a saucy wife. Pompidou didn’t want the French papers writing about him or his saucy wife. Pompidou’s personal life was a sorry mess, and so he passed an Invasion of Privacy Act, which means that in France you cannot write about any aspect of the private life of a public person. It also means that there are all known forms of chicanery going on. The French public have no idea whether their peers are murderers, rapists, finaglers, thieves or liars, and that’s very sad.

Over the years there has been a call for a privacy bill here, but it’s always come from members of parliament who have been exposed. In the 1970s, I exposed Maureen Colquhoun, who was Labour MP for Northampton and a lesbian. Many of the voters in Northampton may well not have known about her lesbian tendencies, but they certainly did when she and her girlfriend, Babs Todd, sent out change-of-address cards with a Sappho motif. I got hold of one of the cards and exposed her in the Daily Mail as a lesbian. All I was doing was bringing to a wider public what she herself had advertised, but all hell broke loose.

I was reported to the Press Council. I was this and that and all the rest of it. Meanwhile Maureen Colquhoun’s leftist friends in Parliament -including one Arnold Latham, who was MP for Paddington, I think, and a particularly unattractive little man – tried to bring in a privacy bill.

Every time you hit the raw nerve of an MP – and the most recent is this one called John Browne, the MP for Winchester, who has caused his ex-wife great financial hardship – they start a rumble for a privacy bill. I never see the decent MPs who have their lives rent asunder, like Cecil Parkinson or Roy Hattersley, calling for privacy legislation, because they understand the rules of the game. And the rules are very simple: if you behave yourself, you won’t be written about, and if you don’t it’s no good hiding behind a cloak of privacy.

I started off in this business with an enormous number of friends and ended up with very few, but the few I’ve ended up with are the same friends I’ve had for thirty years. All the people I’ve known for a long time understand that, if they do something horrible or heinous, it’s going to end up in a column, and they’d rather have it in my column. They know it’s a decent newspaper it’s going into, and they know I’m not going to twist the quotes. The whole point about being British is that you realize that, if you’ve done wrong, you put your hands up and say, ‘Got me!’

As far as outside pressures go, people realize that they’ll get nowhere trying to put pressure on a journalist, at least one of my standing. Therefore the pressure comes in lesser ways, such as, ‘What do you want to know? Can we do a deal? Could you perhaps say this rather than that?’ People know that they can only put pressure on someone if they’ve got a lever, and no one has a lever on me. I don’t need the money, I don’t lead a salacious private life, so I can’t be blackmailed on either count. No one can say, ‘Look here, you’ve committed adultery with my sister, how dare you write that story.’ I’m not saying I lead an unblemished life, but I am saying there are no areas of my life about which I can be pressured. The only pressure is internal pressure. If I write something, how is it going to affect my future?

I’m also helped by not leading a social life myself, which is a great joy. I belong to the most egalitarian club in the world, the RAC, which is full of very middle-class people, and our common delight is playing squash and running. I run marathons, the most egalitarian form of sport on earth. People who stop being friends with me I don’t regard as friends anyway, because they can’t expect a journalist to behave other than the way he does. You can’t give a party at which something extraordinary happens and not expect a journalist who is there to write about it. Certainly people like Peregrine Worsthorne can’t resist it. For example, we were all invited to a party at Jimmy Goldsmith’s on what happened to be a General Election night, and Jimmy had said to everyone that they could either come and not write about it or write about it but not come. So I said, all right, I’d come but I wouldn’t write about it.  Then I was furious the next morning to find that Peregrine Worsthorne, who had been there, had gone and written about it.  The thing that makes me angry is that journalists should be viewed in this curious way. I don’t know whether Jimmy will ever invite Worsthorne again, but the point for me was that I stood by my word.  Nevertheless journalists are journalists and people must realise that occasionally they break every rule because the urge to tell overcomes the need for discretion.

Finding myself the occasional butt of other gossip columnists has, in fact, only reinforced my views about accuracy, because what I’ve discovered in ninety-nine percent of items written about me is there inaccuracy- dates and places wrong, names and people wrong.  All that has done is convince me to tighten guidelines to staff even further, so we check everything not once, not twice, but three times.  We make the most ludicrous checks. Sometimes we spend two days ringing up to make sure ‘Susue’ is not spelt ‘Suzy’, because once you get one thing wrong, people doubt the veracity of the rest. I was brought up in the Fleet Street of the old days.  I joined the Daily Express in 1953, when Lord Beaverbrook was at the helm and you used to get sacked if you spelt a name incorrectly or got someone’s age wrong.  Nowadays journalism is so sloppy.  There’s no form to it. I despair. The last redoubt of accurate journalism is in the gossip column.

Have you ever had information which you did not print for non-journalistic reasons?

I’ve always printed everything I’ve ever known, because for a start, I work on the assumption that, if I don’t print it, someone else will; and if someone else ill print it, then I should have printed it in the first place.  I must qualify that, on the other hand, by saying that I don’t write homosexual stories.  The Daily Express column has gone markedly downhill over the past eight or nine years simply because of its preponderance of homosexual stories.  They seem to find homosexuals intriguing.  Why I don’t know.  Certainly the editors have never been homosexual.  Homosexual stories have never been part of my diet, and the reason I wouldn’t print them is simply because I find them tasteless and not because they impinge on my relationships with other people.

Once you said in defence of your profession: ‘It is not the exposure of an indiscretion but rather the indiscretion itself which causes hurt.’ Isn’t that special pleading?

No. I know a lot of people who are privileged, who have ancient titles, a lot of people who have money and who are never written about. I could name you two or three dozen who live in houses filled with Reubens paintings and Chippendale furniture, Louis Seize this and Louis Quinze that, but these people are never written about because they’ve never done anything. They’ve led blameless lives, quiet, happy existences. Their children live likewise and the public and gossip columnists are unaware of their existence. If everyone lived that sort of life, then gossip columnists would obviously not have subjects for gossip.

You can very much lead your own life and avoid the press and public censure simply by leading a blameless, boring life. As soon as you start mixing it, you’re going to be caught out, especially in this day and age. And once you’re caught out, you’ve got to come to a decision. I don’t lead a stainless life. I gamble, I drink a lot. But what I do doesn’t affect my ability to write and comment. Once you lose that ability, then you’ve had it.

The kind of thing you’re looking for in a gossip column has got to be financial or sexual or anything aberrant to the mind of the normal person who lives in Bootle or Chipping Norton, Budleigh Salterton or Bideford – people who lead Christian lives and have decent relations with their neighbours. Where I come into it is that I’m very much middle class, middle Britain. My background is not the rarified ionosphere of social life. I take a middle-class view, much like that of the Daily Mail itself. And I’m shocked by what people do and how they behave, and the stories that appear in my column are very much there because of my shock at what goes on. Richard Ingrams is the same, another middle- class moralist. We’re helped by the fact that we lead fairly humdrum lives. I’m not an adulterer, not an alcoholic, not a thief, not a finagler, and anyone who is any of those things tends to jar on me, because I think this is not how one was brought up to behave. Basically the gossip column is a pulpit from which you’re saying, ‘You shouldn’t be doing all this, but you’ve done it and now you’re paying for it.’ In the old days, they would have been put in the stocks and had eggs thrown at them.

I don’t think we can ever be accused of causing hurt for the simple reason that any hurt and harm have already been occasioned by the people themselves. All we do is report what’s happened. If you murder your wife, you end up in court and it’s going to be written about. If you do something of an unworthy nature and you’re a great, powerful or privileged person, one day it will come out. All we do is follow the age-old journalistic practice of producing for the public stories of interest about the people in positions of power and privilege. I don’t incite people to leave their wives or to leave their husbands. I don’t incite them to become heroin addicts. I can’t see how I can be blamed for the original act.

Which stories have you been most proud of?

I think there are very few stories in our world in the last twenty years that I haven’t started. The best story of the last half century, the one story that got away, that I was never offered, was that madman Fagin sitting on the Queen’s bed in Buckingham Palace. But apart from that, just about all the stories which have enlivened gossip life in the past twenty years have started in the Daily Mail diary. It’s been a fantastic achievement, but one that was only realizable because it had at the heart of it The Daily Mail, a very good newspaper with a highly regarded patrician chairman, Lord Rothermere, and the best editor in the business, David English.

I have always had a very clear idea of my position. I work extremely hard six days a week. I’m the only journalist in the history of Fleet Street to have a column on both a daily newspaper and a Sunday newspaper, and on top of that I have various other outside interests. I’m contracted to TV-am to appear fifty-two times a year, to ABC in the States and so on. My reward for hard work is that I shouldn’t be criticized. When I’ve been subjected to criticism in the past, I’ve always felt that if I’m going to be criticized, I’m not appreciated, and if I’m not appreciated, I’m going to leave. It’s as simple as that. I’m awfully confident of my ability to find another role in the market place, and I’ve always felt that the best way of doing anything is to do it in public, which is what I exhort the people I write about to do. I’ve always had very public rows with editors and with my proprietor, and he with me. And it’s always helped to clear the air. It’s never been for financial gain, but entirely to preserve my professional integrity. The fact that I could run my column from Mars if I wanted, and no one would interfere, shows I’ve taken the right track.

You have regularly condemned the way some of the royal family are harassed by reporters and photographers, but where do you draw the line where they are concerned? Couldn’t it be said that you simply want them to be harassed to the point that suits your own purposes.

By great fortune I’ve never needed to harass the royal family. Contrary to speculation, I rarely see the royal family. It just so happens that last night I went to a cocktail party which Prince Charles also attended, but that is another matter. What we have is confrontational journalism, a form of journalism usually exercised by photographers who harass not just the royal family but film stars and whoever – pushing up against them, knocking them to the pavement and then photographing them; and there you have the story the next day – members of royal family or Robert Redford jostled to pavement, shouting and screaming. ‘You fucking  photographers!’ That’s not my tiling. Our stories about the royal family are done at a remove. We don’t get within miles of them.

They never see us, we never see them. Our stories come from friends and, l dare say so, even relations. I’ve never harassed any member of the royal family. I’ve never had a conversation with any of them, except at dinner. Our stories of the royal family are intimate stories about their personal lives, and I say personal rather than private because I don’t think they have a private life. Obviously they do have personal lives, and the royal family, like anyone else, could have a private life simply by being private.

But  weren’t yon once very critical of a certain member of the royal family on a chat show in the United States, culling Primess Diana ‘a fiend’ and a ‘little monster’ and saying that Princess .Margaret was ‘obsessed with bisexuals’ I never regretted that because all that I said was true. I told the American television show about Princess Diana’s behaviour towards diaries, and it wasn’t I who invented the words ‘fiend and monster’. They came from a high-up member of the staff, not just a butler, valet or chauffeur. The Anthony Holden book on Charles and Diana totally vindicate what I said, which was that the marriage was going through a very bad period and she was behaving as she did because she was furious with Charles for neglecting her. A wife who is neglected behaves like a fiend and a monster, that is to say, she was being what Charles thought of as selfish. In fact I saw my remarks as a fine piece of journalism because they showed I was in the middle of a family row, and what better gossip can you have than that?

I was hardly the first person to draw attention to the fact that Princes Margaret liked bisexuals. In my own book on Princess Margaret, I pointed out that the man who became her escort for almost eight years, Roddv Llewellvn, had previously shared a double bed with Nicky Haslam, an interior decorator, and lived with him for at least six months. However, I never said what they did in that double bed. Every time I’ve been asked to go on television to explain something during the last sixteen or seventeen years, everything I’ve said has been borne out later in a book or a biography.

For the future, I cannot see the royal family lasting beyond the death of the Queen. The Queen is sixty-four this April, the Queen Mother ninety this August. The Queen, I would have thought, has a life expectancy of at least another twenty-five years, by which time Prince Charles will be sixty-six. I do not believe that the forces Mrs Thatcher unleashed – the yobs, the lager louts, the young who don’t really have any feeling of history – will be royalists. You can only be a royalist if you have a knowledge of history, if you understand what the royal family’s contribution to this country has been over the last thousand years. The lager louts of today are the parents of tomorrow, and I do not believe that their children will feel any empathy towards the royal family or think that Prince Charles is a good egg. The people who think Prince Charles a good egg are those around at the moment, and the only reason why the royal family is in favour is because Princess Diana is a pin-up, a jolly good pin-up too. In twenty-five years’ time this country will have grown out of the idea of kings or queens, and when Charles ascends the throne, as he will as soon as the Queen dies, I think the gig is up. There will be a referendum at some stage after that, and the referendum will say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

It was an aristocrat who said to me that Dempster had done more than anyone to maintain class divisions in this country.

Others have said I’m a communist because, by constantly delving into the unsavoury elements of the aristocracy, like revealing that Lord Blandford, the Duke of Marlborough’s heir, and Lord Bristol were drug addicts, I was undermining the class system, I think myself that, by writing about them in the way I have, by making it amusing and immediate, I have helped to keep the class system afloat. People want to belong to a class system which is admired, and we’re never going to be without a class system in this country as long as there are titles and a royal family, and there are always going to be people who want to join.

Mrs Thatcher has changed British society during the past decade. Is that change for the better or for the worse?

She has changed it in such a way that she’s made a new class of spiv. Now, whether the spiv would have risen without Mrs Thatcher I don’t know, but she has given the green light to spivvery. All round Britain, but especially in London, you see illiterate yobs driving £60,000 cars and you’re bloody sure they’re not paying taxes. Mrs Thatcher has allowed these people to proliferate and profit, and it’s the by-product of her greater design, the entrepreneurial society. Against that she has got to be praised for bringing down taxes. When I married my wife she was paying 98 per cent on unearned income, and I was paying something like 82 per cent on earned income. Those draconian measures to tax one out of existence were crazy, so that’s the good part, but I deprecate what she has unleashed upon us.

What exactly happened to cause your rift with Private Eye?

There was only one reason. I went to work for Private Eye because I liked Richard Ingrams enormously and had known Auberon Waugh since my schooldays. I never got paid because I didn’t want money and didn’t ask for it. During their problems with Goldsmith I never took any salary, yet raised, I think, about £9,000 for their appeal, from among my friends. So I was working for Private Eye out of a sense of mischief and a sense of love for Richard and Auberon Waugh and Patrick Marnham. Clearly I was a very great selling point, and the acceptable face of Private Eye throughout all those struggles. People used to look on Private Eye as a rabble who poked fun at their betters, and tee-hee. I was the only person who had any position in society. ‘Grovel’ of Private Eye worked on a decent newspaper; his wife was a duke’s daughter; he appeared on television and was a public person.

During the Goldsmith case, I was the centre-forward, very much taking on Goldsmith and his gang because I was on the same level as them, so to speak. That all passed, and in the early 1980s Ingrams was introduced to lan Hislop, who I thought then, as I do now, was talented in the way of being able to write jokes, but no journalist. The fact that he was appallingly unattractive didn’t help him. He was a runtish figure who looked like a sort of bat you see at London Zoo, and was always oiling up to Ingrams and no one else. I’m not saying he should have oiled up to me, for I wouldn’t have given him the time of day. But then it became apparent that Ingrams was going to leave Private Eye, which, one must remember, was practically his only form of income. Although he did the occasional radio show Private Eye was his whole life, whereas it was a very minor part of mine: maybe 5 per cent, and certainly less than 1 per cent of my income. I therefore became rather disquieted at Richard’s absences and the fact that, during his absences, a totally unpredictable man was in charge of what I was doing.

I don’t know that I ever spoke to Hislop at that time. I certainly can’t remember having a conversation with him. I would go and do ‘Grovel’ and that would be the end of it. Then came what I most feared: a disgraceful act. I was playing squash in the RAC when Liz Elliott rang me up at about half-past eleven on the Friday and said, ‘Look, we haven’t got a “Grovel” column.’ I said, ‘Aah, I don’t want to do one.’ She said, ‘You’ve “got to do it, we’re relying on it. We’ve got a blank page.’ So I left the squash court, went to Private Eye, sat down at a typewriter and wrote the thing, the main item being that Sir Geoffrey Stirling, head of P & 0, had had an illegitimate daughter. This was yet another blah blah blah, because he was one of Mrs Thatcher’s blue-eyed boys and one of her unpaid political advisers. Underneath it I inserted a story which was in the ‘Grovel’ folder about Cecil Parkinson and his new secretary and there were various other items.

I handed the ‘Grovel’ copy over, and for the first time in my life Hislop was there. I said, ‘Look, these stories I can vouch for, but this one about Parkinson. I know nothing about.’ Now, what normally happened on a Friday or a Monday at Private Eye was that the lawyer would ring me and say, ‘Look, this story . . .’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, it comes from a friend.’ That Friday the lawyer didn’t ring, on Monday he didn’t ring, so I assumed Hislop had either had it passed by the lawyer or taken the story out. It was nothing to do with me anymore. Then someone, in Private Eye perhaps, leaked the story to Parkinson. He issued an injunction for libel and had the issue scrapped. The first thing I read was that lan Hislop, who was meant to be the editor of Private Eye in the absence of Richard Ingrams, had done what I feared, which was to tell the world that I wrote the story.

That was wrong on two counts. First, as an editor he should have protected his sources; secondly, I hadn’t written the story in the first place. I walked in and screamed at Hislop, ‘You know nothing about journalism. You’re a little shit. I never want to have anything to do with you again. This has just gone to prove everything I’ve said to Ingrams about you. You have no knowledge of journalism whatsoever and I’m not going to put my reputation on the line for you.’ And that was the end of it. My reward for having worked mostly without pay, certainly without any form of proper recompense, was that for the next three or four years I was written about, sometimes three or four times in the same issue, invariably in an unpleasant manner. They even said I was being paid by Peter Cadbury to write about him in a flattering way, or worse, being paid not to write about him. So I sued and won and got, I think, £8,000 plus costs. Cadbury also sued and won, so that vindictive little paragraph cost them about £25,000.

There were no other reasons for ending my Private Eye connection. I’m a professional Fleet Street journalist of some standing, and I helped out in what I believed to be a good cause, which Private Eye was originally. Then suddenly it became a commercial venture; they tried to make money. The reason I left was because I didn’t see why I should have my career threatened by a man like lan Hislop, who couldn’t understand that the first thing an editor does is protect his sources. The reason why Private Eye has never had a decent story since dates from that time, because everyone in Fleet Street saw that Hislop didn’t understand the basic tenets of journalistic behaviour.

I wouldn’t say there’s bitterness on my part, because that’s a negative emotion. I just think Private Eye is now a rather pathetic magazine of very little interest. There is no information in it as there used to be in the old days and you’d go golly or wow. Now I know more than they do, week in, week out.

I haven’t spoken to Ingrams for a very long time. I’ve rung him once in the last two years. I feel that originally when Richard was involved in Private Eye, it was an excellent publication because it took on the Goliaths and, win or lose, went on taking them on. Then it became a tool for abuse. You don’t use a publication to bash your enemies. You simply don’t do it.

It is often noted that men with macho images are given a high profile in your column, suggesting you have a secret admiration for men who make a name for themselves by seducing women.

The only reason they get into the column is because, if you’ve got mistresses, you’re an interesting person. Jimmy Goldsmith denies he ever said, after his marriage to Lady Annabel Birley, ‘When you marry your mistress you create a job vacancy.’ I told him he should stop denying it and go down in history as the author of one of the immortal remarks of our time. The point is that if you have a lot of women, then you are attractive and my readers find you attractive. The fact that you’re a womanizer, like Dai Llewellyn, who was engaged to three attractive girls at the same time, is something readers enjoy, even though these people all come to grief in the end.

Jimmy Goldsmith hasn’t come to grief yet.

He’s come to grief emotionally. He’s got problems ahead with the present mistress, I imagine. But I don’t write about such people because I respect or admire their macho side. It’s simply one of the crazy vagaries of life that people behave in this way – like sultans or potentates – and others love to read about it.

Lord Longford said of you, ‘I like Nigel Dempster, but I can’t bring myself to approve of him.’ And the Mail art critic, Paul Johnson, called your trade a loathsome business.

I get on very well with Lord Longford and his wife, and I was a great friend of his late daughter Catherine. As for Paul Johnson, if he finds my business so loathsome, why is he collecting money by writing for my newspaper so frequently? I find him loathsome. I find him humbug. As someone once said about Paul Johnson in his leftie days, he eats more oysters than a duke. He is a terrible snob, the sort of person who’d be oiling up to my wife’s father if he were alive. He’d have loved to have met the Duke of Leeds.

It has sometimes been said that you make an intransigent foe. Is this balanced, would you say, by your loyalty as a friend?

I don’t think I’ve ever been intransigent and I don’t think I’ve ever been a foe. I haven’t got it in me to hate anyone. I don’t hate lan Hislop, for instance. I just think he’s a twerp. People who are loyal to me are friends. We’ve always been friends and obviously I help them and they help me. I’ve never conducted a campaign against anyone, because if you were to do that as a gossip columnist, you’d lose your job. You’re not employed to conduct personal campaigns but to write about the people out there who interest your public.

It doesn’t happen that I walk into a parlour of my enemies and I’d be a damned fool to do so. I only go to places where I want to go. Anyway, who are these enemies? I’ve outgrown all my childhood enemies from when I was in my twenties to thirties. I’m bigger and better than they are. I work hard and I’m appreciated. The only people who are enemies now are those who have suffered by my exposing them, and I’m very happy to have such people as enemies because they should be exposed. There are a lot of unpleasant people around.

You married twice into the aristocracy. Is that a world where you feel entirely at home?

Ever since I went to deb dances in 1959, I’ve known a world which is populated by people who, if not aristocratic, are related to the aristocracy, simply because that is the tribe. When you mix at a certain level, it becomes almost impossible not to marry someone who isn’t related to the aristocracy. It’s just coincidence that, of the two women I’ve fallen in love with, one had a mother who was titled and the other had a title of her own.

You’re not an Englishman, but most Englishmen, even those who are heterosexual, prefer the company of other men. What’s your feeling about that?

If you’ve gone to an English public school and been brought up in a sporting ethic, you like to spend your leisure hours doing sporting things. You can’t play squash with a woman, or golf with a woman, or tennis with a woman, because women are not very good at it. British men who have been to public schools tend to stick together because their pastimes are male-oriented. I take women out to lunch, not because I’m trying to have affairs but because whatever they do interests me, but the major part of your leisure hours must be spent with men.

Do you have ambitions outside the world of newspapers? For example, you breed horses.

I don’t think I would be happy to leave that world, but obviously it’s going to happen in the not too distant future. My whole life has been spent working ten to sixteen hours a day, six days a week.  I wouldn’t know what to do it I didn’t work those sort of hours.  My wife always says I’m the only person among my friends who works, but I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t.  Breeding a horse is a two minute job. In fact horses ejaculate so quickly its about a thirty-second job. It just wouldn’t be enough.

Politics and Politicians in the New Millennium

What has happened to politics and politicians in the Mother of Parliaments since we entered in to the new millennium?

We used to pride ourselves that our elected representatives for the most part observed standards of integrity second to none among the world’s democracies, yet the first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a rapid decline as these standards have given way to cynicism and distrust in the public perception.

Politics were once seen as a gateway for those who aspired to lead and influence the course of history from the viewpoint of their own firm set of ideals. The opportunities such power offered were rarely matched elsewhere. Originally the gentry had been quick off the mark in realising the potential afforded to them in adding to the financial comforts already at their disposal, but the vast majority were not so fortunate and needed to work hard and improvise in order to break into the world of politics. They had to cope with disadvantages of birth and financial status, though today those social distinctions are, to a large extent, no longer valid.

The parties of the right and left now have different means of financing their campaigns and any lingering disadvantages have long since been consigned to the rubbish heap.

But why this decline has happened is the burning question that baffles the nation. Moral standards have plummeted and a new breed of politicians seems to have gained ground, whose main motivation lurks between the pursuit of power and self-advancement. The idea that a political vocation to put your country’s interests ahead of personal benefit has been totally eroded. The trend coincides with the passing of a previous generation of great politicians who inspired and stimulated the country with their insight, their political valour and, above all, their true courage in adversity. Today the very word ‘truth’ has been demeaned as the perception has grown that it is merely a cover up for lies. On our television screens we see a constant, shameless display of ‘spin’ and reluctance from our leaders ever to admit to guilt, even when they are caught with their trousers down, figuratively speaking. As the Chilcot Inquiry demonstrated to the public, the word of a politician is concocted to mislead rather than clarify, and ends in a  morass of chicanery and deceit.

Part of the problem, as I see it, goes back to the advent of Margaret Thatcher, who preached the gospel of the form of capitalism known as monetarism, where the individual rose above the community and money making became a religion.  The justification for this was the ‘trickle down’ theory, where the accumulation of wealth would leach back down through society to benefit those at the lower levels.

That this was a delusion hardly needs pointing out today.

Margaret Thatcher was a remarkable politician whose achievements can never be overlooked, but she perhaps unwittingly sowed the seeds of greed and the ruthless pursuit of money. In the wake of her departure, matters only became worse. The addiction to money gained momentum even in the ranks of New Labour, whose fervour in this regard took on a new dimension. Under the Blair government the love of money became an irresistible commodity, not only in the City but also among politicians. Blair himself led the way, and is now reputed to be an unapologetic multi-millionaire whose sole motivation seems to have been the acquisition of wealth under the banner of socialism. It has come to look like a shameful display of double standards and contradiction of everything that the Labour Party originally stood for.

But Blair is not the only one to blame. It seems the bug of money has infected a majority of serving politicians across the party lines and that we now find, in an advanced democracy such as ours, a lowering of ethical values that threatens to deal a mortal blow to the way we are governed. It is an ironic spectacle to see Members of Parliament accused of fraud turning around to claim parliamentary immunity from prosecution. What bare-faced cheek it is for them to believe they are above the law, when they are supposed to be the guardians of those very laws they now ignore in application to themselves.

Looking back to the 1940s and earlier, the feature to emerge is the stature of the great political figures of the time who made the British nation the envy of the world. Whatever one’s own political convictions, it is impossible not to give admiring credit to the likes of Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee, Sir Stafford Crips, Ernest Bevin, Aneurin Bevan, Harold Macmillan, Rab Butler, Ian Macleod, Richard Crossman and Jo Gimond.  This is to name only a few from the long list of politicians who graced the nation with their talent, dedication and a real commitment to what they truly believed in.

When I first came to England, Aneurin Bevan was my political hero, and I was fortunate enough to hear a debate between him and Churchill from the public gallery. It was indeed a clash of titans, carried out with erudition and wit, highly informed and to the point in those days long before the ‘sound bite’ undermined the art of rhetoric.

When I became owner of Quartet Books, one of my first acts was to publish in paperback Bevan’s polemic In Place of Fear.

Unfortunately figures of this statute have simply retreated from the political arena.

For the fact is that nobody worth their salt is likely to embrace politics today in case the association does nothing to enhance their personal standing. Parliament has transformed itself into a circus, devoid of self-esteem, where words do not correspond with deeds and the credibility of the house has sunk to its lowest level in two decades.

The future looks bleak on the political front; to the point where what we really need is a new broom to sweep away all the rot that has accumulated in the new century if we are to return the institution to its illustrious past.

We need a new breed of outward-looking politicians.

These and many other aspects are touched on in a book Quartet is publishing next week, pertinently called What are they doing in there?

The  authors, Julia Jeffries and Hazel Johnson, tackle the questions that everyone in the country wants to know the answers to, especially in the lead up to the general election on 6th May. They take a long, cool look at the House of Commons from within and without.

Given the personality obsessed popular press, it seems to the outsider that personal or financial scandals are the only way for MPs to ‘raise their profile’. Has this profile raising become more important than working for the good of the country?

Is Parliament unique in its make-up of miscreants and mavericks, or is it simply a reflection of society itself?

As we peer in at them, do we see ourselves reflected back as in a mirror, all of us Thatcher’s children, whether we like it or not?

Here is a book that sorts the wheat from the chaff, substance from spin, but also offers advice for the next team that comes up to bat.  And it will make compulsive reading for any of those interested in politics, who find themselves in a quandary over how to exercise their choice at the ballot box this time round.

‘It is an indictment of society that we know so little about how we are run and ruled. It is that old, old cliché, but “the personal is the political”. Where we shop, every letter we (used to) post, every train we catch, every NHS appointment – everything is a political act about which we surely need reminding. And we better wise up to it soon.’

A Most Enjoyable Evening

Last night I went to the Royal Albert Hall to listen to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, by invitation from the Qatar Foundation.

Although Arsenal, my favourite football team, was playing the crucial game against Barcelona in the Champions League, I sacrificed viewing the match as the musical program at the concert opened with the Overture from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner, conducted by Maestro Lorin Maazel.

That in essence propelled me to the Albert Hall since, as a Wagner addict, I could not let the opportunity pass me by, and I was curious to find out how the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra would cope with a complex composer such as Wagner.

To my great surprise, the evening turned out to be most enjoyable and the orchestra, full of young talented women, played Wagner with the gusto it deserves and gained the approval and delight of an appreciative audience.

The second piece, entitled Arabian Concerto and Salute, composed by Marcel Khalifé and conducted by Lorin Maazel, was in my view the hit of the evening. It had everything going for it, from eastern promise to a haunting melodic structure. One felt entranced by the musical fusion of both east and west, and it was played beautifully by the orchestra, showing a particular flair worthy of its conductor.

The last piece, Qatar Symphony, composed and conducted by Dr Salem Abdul-Karem, was not in my view equal to the rest. I found it overlong and repetitive. However, its energy and power was in some way its saving grace.

The state 0f Qatar, which gave us the Al Jazeera television network and now the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, is leading the Gulf states in its quest to spread Arab culture and its heritage throughout the western world.

Bravo Qatar! And keep the good work going.

No Longer With Us: Lord Amery

You grew up in a family which was as much part of the Establishment as any could be. Has that ever worked to your disadvantage, do you think?

It worked both ways, though I don’t agree that my family was so very much part of the Establishment. My father was a fellow of All Souls, but he didn’t have money or any particular family connections. He got on to The Times and later became a leader writer and a supporter of Joseph Chamberlain in the tariff reform campaign, but that hardly puts him in the Establishment class. Perhaps at the end of it all he had graduated into it.

But you went to Eton, did you not?

Yes, of course. That was not a difficult thing to do, however, and it hardly makes me part of the Establishment.

Was your father the most influential figure in your life?

Certainly. He always treated me as an adult and would talk to me about economics when I could hardly understand it. I grew up imbibing the atmosphere of politics and I met Churchill and other leading figures when I was seventeen or eighteen. It was part of the air I breathed. And later in the early part of the war when I was catapulated into the whole morass of Balkan intrigue, we had the shared experience of political interest in that part of the world. This made a great difference and established a partnership between us which otherwise might have been difficult to achieve.

Most children seem to have a period of rebellion, quite often when they are students. They become Marxists for a while or hopelessly idealistic about the world. Did you ever waver from the Tory traditions in which you were reared?

Yes, indeed. My youthful political career was not exactly straightforward, and not all that Tory. When I was eleven years old my father took me to the House of Commons where I met Lloyd George who asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told him I wanted to go into the navy. ‘Why the navy?’ he asked. ‘There are much greater storms in politics, you know. If you really want the broadsides, walking the plank and blood on the deck, this is the place.’ The scales fell from my eyes, and his comparison of modern parliamentary life to Treasure Island made me opt for politics. My father was of course delighted, but I kept in touch with Lloyd George, and whenever we had mock elections in my school I was always a liberal candidate. Then I examined Communism and Fascism and it was only when I went to Oxford that I opted for the Conservative Party, though I also joined the Labour and the Liberal clubs so as to be able to go to their meetings.

Some people have suggested that the driving force of your ambition may have been a determination to honour a well-loved father’s memory. Do you see it that way?

I certainly inherited my father’s views on the Commonwealth and the importance of Britain as the centre of the Commonwealth and a leading power in Europe, and all my life I was greatly influenced by his thinking. The year after he died I fought what I thought was the last great battle of the Commonwealth, the battle over Suez. When we gave in at Suez it was really the end of the Middle Eastern and African empire which Britain had built up over many decades. I was very sad at that, and it seemed to me then that our only chance of playing an important role in history was within Europe; and so while I did my best to defend what was left of the imperial position, in Cyprus, in Aden and elsewhere, Europe has become increasingly the important area for British influence to exert itself. I see no other.

At the Oxford Union you spoke in favour of conscription which reversed the notorious ‘We will fight for King and Country’ motion of some years previously. Did your conviction spring from the mood of the time or was it ingrained in your background?

It had been ingrained. My colleague in the debate was Randolph Churchill, who had by that time become a friend. It was the first of several campaigns that we fought together. When I left the debate, I went at once and joined the Royal Air Force reserve.

You had what people would call a good war, risking your life many times in undercover operations. How do you look back on these years… with pride, with nostalgia, perhaps with incredulity?

I have to confess, with enjoyment. There were of course moments of danger, moments of discomfort, but if you look at the whole spectrum of that sort of life it was pretty agreeable. Sometimes there were three or four days without anything to eat at all, then there would be a roast sheep. And then there were the times when we were sitting around in Cairo waiting for the next assignment, where all the delights of the flesh were available. Denis Healey once said I was nostalgic for the life of Richard Hannay in the Buchan novels. I don’t think that’s true, but I did enjoy those days.

Didn’t you work for the Secret Service?

There were always two secret services, intelligence and operations. I was in operations. My role was always to do things, to blow up trains or bridges, or to shoot convoys. One of our more dramatic coups was when the Bulgarian government wanted to arrest, and perhaps to kill, the leader of the peasant party. I supervised the arrangements which brought him out of Bulgaria in a diplomatic bag. He was transported to Istanbul where we unpacked him and released him for his future activities.

Were you ever a spy?

The word is of course derogatory, and a spy is someone who learns or acquires information. If the spying side involves itself in operations it loses its security.

Apparently you made the suggestion to Churchill that he visit his weary troops in the desert, and as a result you are sometimes dubbed ‘The Victor of Alamein’. Do you think that visit had a significant impact on the outcome of the war?

Who shall ever say? What happened was this: I was flown back from Cairo to London to report on our plans, and when I came to my father’s house, I found him lunching with Harold Macmillan, then a junior minister. They asked me what the mood of the troops was and I told them I thought the 8th Army was rather demoralized. When they asked what could be done, I told them that it would be difficult to change the balance of forces, but the balance of morale could conceivably be altered by Churchill visiting the troops himself. I then went on to the SOE headquarters where I received a telephone call summoning me to Downing Street. When I arrived, there was the Prime Minister in a boiler suit with a rather weak whisky and soda in front of him. Alanbrooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff was also there, and the PM asked me to tell my story. Of course the Field Marshal didn’t like the idea of a junior captain, not even in a regiment, criticizing the morale of the army and he kept trying to interrupt, but Churchill said, ‘Let him talk.’ I told him if he went out and talked to the troops it would have a dynamic effect on morale. When I left Churchill thanked me, but I heard nothing for a while. Later of course he did go, and it was his private secretary, John Martin, who said to me afterwards that my talk had inspired Churchill with the idea, so to that extent I could claim to have won the Battle of Alamein.

You were a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. Did you have any sympathy with the Republicans?

I went three times to Franco’s Spain. The first time was in the spring of 1937, and I came away rather pro-Franco. I went again in the summer of the same year when I met Philby, who was then The Times correspondent, and very pro-Franco, rather more than I was myself. Then in a hotel bar I ran into a German colonel of my acquaintance who was fighting on Franco’s side. We had a drink together and, referring to the Munich agreement, he said, ‘I think we’ve got the better of you this time.’ That was the moment I understood that the Germans and the Italians were about to fight against us, and this-changed my whole attitude. The Germans and the Italians were using Spain to advance their control of Europe at our expense, and once I realized that, there followed a kind of Pauline conversion. I came back to England determined to see what I could do to oppose it.

You mentioned Philby. Did it ever occur to you that he could be a Communist spy?

No, I met him once during the war and once after the war, and he appeared on both occasions to be a rather right-wing Conservative.

In 1950 you married Harold Macmillan’s daughter. In political terms I imagine this was a mixed blessing in that there were the inevitable cries of nepotism and an element of resentment that you had a direct line to the Prime Minister. Was that difficult to deal with?

I would want to get the story in perspective. Macmillan was then not even in office, and when he did get into office it was as Minister of Housing, so he wasn’t at all a senior figure. I’d also known him before because his son Maurice was one of my closest friends at school, and I had often been to their house. But there were many steps between him and the premiership. I liked Harold but my affection for his daughter was entirely personal.

Macmillan aroused very different opinions, both as a man and as a politician. Some people thought him devious, a charlatan and ultimately a very cold man. In so far as you could stand back from family ties, how did you view him?

Every Prime Minister has to be to some extent devious and cold; he has to sacrifice people. If you’re at No. 10 Downing Street you have to keep the Party together, the Cabinet together, you have to drive through the policies to which you’re committed. And Macmillan served all these well. He was enthusiastic for Europe, though it took him a long time to get the Cabinet and House of Commons to accept his proposal to join Europe, and then he was defeated by De Gaulle. He was always determined to maintain Britain as a nuclear power which now everybody accepts, even the Labour Party; but it wasn’t accepted in those days, and he fought a good battle. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he gave in too soon to American pressures over Suez -I don’t want to say he lost his nerve, but he became frightened by the run on sterling. He then made it his first objective to repair relations with the Americans, which he did. And we have to remember that inflation in his time never topped three per cent.

And yet people call him the father of inflation.

There’s a lot of nonsense talked now about the Macmillan government and its effect on the economy, but in the light of the circumstances of the time he was doing just about the right thing.

But how would you rate him as a Prime Minister?

I wouldn’t put him in the Churchill or perhaps even Disraeli class, but I think he held his Party together, he held the country together and he was vindicated at successive elections. He was a very remarkable political operator.

When I interviewed Mollie Butler there was no doubt in her mind that Macmillan was determined from the first day of his leadership to the last never to be succeeded by Butler, even though Butler was the obvious candidate. Do you think that’s true?

Yes. He thought of Butler as an extremely able, intelligent political leader, but he didn’t regard him as a commander-in-chief. I don’t think it was jealousy – in fact he had very good personal relations with Butler.

Most people believe that Macmillan rigged the results of the investigation into whom the Party wanted as his successor, and Enoch Powell even wrote an article entitled ‘How Macmillan Lied to the Queen’. What view did you take at the time and what view do you take now?

I don’t think he rigged the election. What happened was fairly simple: the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Whip consulted the members of the Party as to whom they would like as leader. There was a strong vote for Quintin Hailsham and a strong vote for Butler. We were all asked, myself included, whom we would choose if we couldn’t get the candidate we favoured, and there was a very large vote in favour of Alee Home. The Prime Minister had no alternative but to tell the Queen that the Party was divided between Hailsham and Butler, but there would be a consensus for Sir Alee Home; and so Home got it. I don’t call that rigging it.

Why do you think Enoch Powell in particular opposed Alee Home?

The official reason was that he didn’t think a fourteenth earl had the right image for the modern Tory Party, but I think it was really that he wanted Butler to succeed. He thought that if the leadership of the Party refused to accept Alee Home then Butler would have it, but when the time came Butler wasn’t prepared to throw his hat in the ring.

That Butler was prepared to serve under Home was commendable in itself, was it not?

It was a matter of political morals.

What did you think of Enoch Powell at the time? I believe you have described him as something of a werewolf.

He was always a friend of mine, I always liked him, but he does have some of the characteristics of a strange creature.

Butler is often referred to as the greatest Prime Minister we never had and indeed people often say you are the greatest Foreign Secretary we never had. Do you think these labels are ones which emerge only when we have events in some kind of historical perspective, or is it the case that you felt at the time you were being passed over?

Let’s take Rab Butler first. I think if elected he would have been a great Prime Minister; what I’m not sure about is whether he could ever have been elected by the people. Of course he was an able man, but he lacked charisma and I don’t think he was a natural leader, though he was a great chief of staff. In my own case, the only comment I would make is that there is a difference, not always appreciated, between diplomacy and foreign policy. Diplomacy is the art of negotiation; foreign policy is determining where the interests of your country lie. Looking back on the years between the wars I had a dearer view of where the interests of our country lay and would have fought for those rather than attempted negotiation. Anthony Eden, who was perhaps the greatest negotiator we ever had, fought very hard over Vietnam, where there was no great British interest, yet he surrendered in what I thought was an area of vital interest, in the Suez Canal Zone in 1954. This effectively meant the end of the Commonwealth as a world force, and a major defeat for Europe, and for British influence in Europe. Later on there was the Rhodesian crisis where again Lord Carrington achieved a great success in producing agreement between the different sides, but in my view at the expense of vital British interests in Southern Africa. So I have sometimes said that we have to be careful not to let diplomacy triumph over foreign policy; I would have put the latter ahead of the former.

Don’t you think the loss of the Commonwealth, or the loss of the empire, was only a matter of time?

Not necessarily. It might well have survived. The resilience of the old Commonwealth was quite remarkable – in 1931 when we went off gold, in 1940 when we went into the war, in 1945 when we came out of the war – and with a little encouragement we could have kept the system going for quite a long time, perhaps indefinitely.

Would it be fair to say that your views are right-wing as opposed to middle-of-the-road?

I never know what people mean by right-wing. My views on domestic policy have been rather centre, some might say slightly wet. Where foreign policy is concerned I’ve always taken the Churchillian view that you first of all identify the enemy, and having made up your mind where lies the threat, who is the enemy, you must stand up against them and take whatever precautions are needed to counter them. I’ve always thought it right to defend British interests and to take a fairly long-term view of what they are.

When Alee Douglas Home became Prime Minister your position became increasingly difficult and there was a move to oust you from government. Do you look back on that period as being particularly difficult?

Unpleasant… but these things happen. I was perceived as an extravagant minister, with Concorde, TSR2 and space projects, and people were beginning to say we must cut back on public expenditure.

Do you think they were justified in trying to remove you?

No, I think I was right. Concorde has been a great technological success. It may not have been a moneyspinner but it’s been our little space programme and it hasn’t lost any more money than space has lost to the Americans and the Russians. And the TSR2 and the PI 154 would have been remarkable aircraft – they haven’t found anything better twenty years later.

I suppose you came closest to becoming Foreign Secretary when Lord Carrington resigned over the Falklands. Were you disappointed not to have been chosen?

I don’t think politicians should be disappointed. But it was perfectly true, there was a strong movement from the Tory backbenches to make me Foreign Secretary at the time, and I would have enjoyed the opportunity.

Your career was badly damaged during your time at the Ministry of Aviation in the last days of the Tory government -I’m thinking of the Ferranti business. How serious was the damage in your view?

Not very serious. I think I overcame that. The Ferranti family were prepared to cough up the money which we thought they had unduly gained. They repaid the debt, perhaps even more than they should have done.

Before 1962 your career was extremely promising, and you were tipped as a possible Minister of Defence. Are you philosophical about the volatility of political life?

You have to be, otherwise you couldn’t go on in politics. I’ve never been very keen on securing a particular job; it’s been much more important to achieve certain policies and objectives. There’s no point in being embittered.

You were Aviation Minister when Profumo ran the War Office. What view did you take of the Profumo scandal?

I supported him as far as I could: He was a friend, he’s remained a friend, and I thought he was not really as important as the media made out.

The official reason why Profumo had to go was that he lied to the House of Commons, but of course the real reason was his involvement with a prostitute. Isn’t that the ultimate in British hypocrisy?

I think they could have tolerated the involvement with the prostitute; the real reason was that he was led into a situation where he told a lie to the House, and this was an indefensible position to be in. Had he not lied to the House, and had simply admitted to the affair, he might still have had to resign but would have remained in the House of Commons, and continued to claim the viscountcy which was the right of any Secretary of State in those days. – .

The number of scandals involving MPs has increased over the years, or at least the diligence with which the media expose the scandals has increased. Do you think the private lives of MPs are a legitimate area of public interest?

In principle no, but of course if an MP or a minister gets himself into a flagrant position it’s bound to be discussed.

Discussed is one thing, but hounded out of office is another.

Where do you draw the line between the two? None of this is new … it went on in the last century, and it goes on today. I think the public will accept a good deal, and any incidental action on the part of a politician does not necessarily render him incompetent; on the other hand, a man who gives a Iead in not only political but moral affairs, obviously can become a little ridiculous if he’s caught in the wrong situation. Before the Second World War, the rule was that if the wife didn’t complain the press had no right to complain, but in those days a divorce was a clear block to continuing in political life. That convention has now disappeared; indeed it’s sometimes said that you can’t get into the Cabinet unless you’re divorced. But the balance has not changed very much; things go on very much now as they did before.

Thirty years ago you signed the Concorde deal with the French. Was that your proudest moment?

No. I suppose my proudest moment was when Nasser proved me right about the Suez Canal, and I was able to say in the House of Commons, much more politely than I’m saying it now, ‘I told you so.’

You seem always to have had a thinly disguised suspicion of America and the Americans. Even in the 1960s when the cold war with Russia was at its height, you said you were more alarmed by the Americans than the Russians . .. what was the origin of this alarm and suspicion?

Objective historians recognize that it was the aim of American foreign policy to destroy the British, French and Dutch empires. I myself became aware of this during the Second World War when I was attached to Chiang Kai Shek’s headquarters in China. It became quite clear that although American policy was well aligned with our own in Europe and the Middle East, it was quite plainly anti-British, anti-French and anti-Dutch in the Far East. And Suez was the touchstone, Suez was the coup de grace.

So you don’t believe in the so-called ‘special relationship’ between ‘Britain and America?

On the contrary, but it doesn’t alter the fact that there was an American policy to destroy the British Empire; and it succeeded.

Do you have difficulty in accepting the view that without the American’s we would not have won the Second World War?

I don’t see how we could have won without the Americans. I remember a curious occasion-January ’41 I think it was – when I was invited to a little dinner party where Churchill and Harriman were the principal guests and the talk came round to how the British were going to win the war. There were still oranges on the table, though they became rarer as the war went on, and Churchill picked one up and said, ‘If I were a worm wanting to get into this orange I would crawl round it until I found a rotten spot.’ He then turned to Harriman and said, ‘But you’ve got to keep the worm alive until it finds the rotten spot.’ Without the Americans I don’t think we could have won the war, but we’d already got to the point where we weren’t going to lose the war.

Did you yourself ever have any doubts about that?

At the time when Rommel came to Alamein, I think my heart never doubted, but my head may have wondered a bit.

Your own patriotism during the war must have made your brother’s behaviour all the harder to bear. I wonder how you think it was possible for two brothers from of the same parents and brought up in the same environment to have turned out so differently. You must have asked yourself this a million times – what is the answer?

Although you talk about the same environment, he had in fact lived on the Continent for several years, and that made all the difference. He’d been involved in the Spanish War, and then came very much under the influence of Doriot in France. He was convinced the Germans were going to lose the war and that the Communists would sweep over the whole of Europe. This was a view that became increasingly prominent in the occupied countries. Of course it was not for him to intervene, and he was able to do so only because of my father’s standing. He should have kept his mouth shut, but he felt he had to say something. It was regrettable but understandable.

It is difficult to imagine the depths of disappointment, the shame, the anger which must have been wrought on the family at the time, feelings which must have been made worse by the heightened tension of the war. How did you all cope? Did you talk about it, or was it suppressed?

It wasn’t suppressed. My father offered his resignation and I offered mine; we were both quite clear that it was the right thing to do, but we were both refused.

Did your father ever manage to come to terms with what had happened?

Yes. He came with me to say goodbye to my brother in prison and indeed he wrote a short verse in the taxi which took us there, and I think it sums up his feelings: ‘At end of wayward days / You found a cause / If not your country’s./ Who shall say whether that betrayal of our ancient laws/ Wastreason or foreknowledge? / He rests well.’

In the course of my research I was struck by the fact that although you said you might have killed your brother with your bare hands if you had met him during the war, after you saw him in prison your feelings changed. Compassion took the place of anger, blood was thicker than water perhaps?

I think that is about true. Also, if I had seen him during the fighting he would have been with Hitler and I would have been fighting against Hitler, but when I saw him in prison the war was over and the Russians were dominating half of Europe.

Did your brother’s plea of guilty come as a shock especially after all your efforts on his behalf?

No, I think it was a logical act.

Albert Pierrepoint, the famous hangman, said that of all the people he executed your brother was by far the bravest. Did that make the pain all the harder to bear?

No, I think it was appropriate. He was an Amery.

As an MP you have consistently voted against capital punishment. Is that shaped directly from your personal experience?

It has been influenced by it. Within our legal system when someone is charged for a potentially capital offence there is a considerable delay while the lawyers prepare their case, then there’s the trial, the appeal, and even when that is rejected there is the appeal for mercy. All this takes a long time and it exacts its toll on all concerned, especially the family, quite apart from the person charged.

You were a vociferous opponent of the Official Secrets Act and were against the lifelong confidentiality imposed on former members of security and intelligence services. Why was that?

There used to be a very flexible arrangement under which former secret agents could publish their memoirs if they had first of all submitted them to the proper authorities. This was a very good system and it should be allowed to continue, because it is right that people who spend their whole lives in the Secret Service should be able to explain to their family and friends what they’ve been doing, provided it doesn’t endanger future operations. It is wrong to have a blanket veto on anybody writing anything, even about what they saw of butterflies in Anatolia. I produced what I thought was a rather good amendment which was accepted by the Home Secretary of the day. But he then went back on it – orders from No. 10.

Do you think Mrs Thatcher made herself and her government look foolish over the Peter Wright memoirs?

Yes. She was his best publicist.

In a BBC interview with Robin Day in 1979, just after the Commons debate on Anthony Blunt, you remarked that there were a dozen traitors in the House of Commons, a remark which you later – under pressure – unreservedly withdrew. Why did you make that remark in the first place, and why did you then feel bound to withdraw it?

I was not in a position to prove that the members concerned had been bought by the enemy; I could only have attempted to prove that objectively they were siding with the enemy. Mr Speaker asked me to withdraw my remark, otherwise there would have been a long and complicated debate. And so I withdrew.

You had great doubts about American foreign policy, especially in South East Asia and in the Middle East. Did you therefore have doubts about the Iraqi war and the reasons, largely dominated by America, for going to war?

I had no doubt about the American decision to go into the war. I still have the greatest doubts about their decision to stop. In Churchill’s famous words: ‘I don’t know whether I would have dared to start; I would never have dared to stop.’

You once said of Mrs Thatcher: ‘Her aims have usually-been defensible, but her methods deplorable.’ What did you mean by that?

I don’t remember ever saying that, though I remember seeing it in print. I’ve always had great respect and considerable admiration for her. We didn’t always agree about Europe, but she made a great Prime Minister.

You have crossed swords with Ted Heath in the past over oil sanctions and he sacked you from the opposition front bench, and yet on other matters you have been closely aligned. Am I right in thinking you have a high regard for Ted Heath?

We’ve known each other since student days at Balliol. I’ve always liked him, and I am a strong supporter of European union, though I think he goes sometimes too far in that regard. I thought he was wrong about Rhodesia, and wrong about the Suez Crisis when he was Chief Whip, but we have a good relationship.

And was he wrong about Mrs Thatcher?

Well, that was his opinion.

You’re very diplomatic. It has often been said that personal loyalty is one of your best attributes. Do you regard loyalty as a necessary political virtue?

Personal relations play a much greater part in politics than is generally understood, and loyalty to friends at home and abroad is of great importance. Sometimes necessity makes you change friends, but if you have to change friends you should always take steps to ensure that it is done with proper decency and decorum.

The Tories at the moment seem riven with disloyalty . . . but isn’t that ultimately a more honest approach than the normal closing of ranks in political parties?

I’m not a great believer in open government, and I confess I’m rather shocked by the speed with which friends of mine publish their memoirs. They bare all sorts of secrets which would have been thought very indecent until quite recently.

Politics can sometimes be a dirty business. Have you ever felt a distaste, or at least an ambivalence towards the political life?

No. If you go into the business you should be prepared to get your hands dirty.

As a politician you concentrated your energies on the wider issues of national importance – some said at the expense of your own constituency and the local interests of your own people. Do you think that is a valid criticism?

Not really. I managed to retain the wholehearted support of both my constituencies, in Lancashire and in Brighton. But I’ve always thought that the fate of more people is determined by what goes on abroad than with what goes on at home. Whether with the old imperial connection or the modern European connection, or issues of peace and war, or issues of export and import the British people are terribly dependent on what goes on in the world.

What would you describe as your greatest failing?

Perhaps it was to take up positions that were not popular at the time – I’m thinking of my support for Britain’s imperial and Commonwealth role when it was unfashionable (though probably right), and my tendency to make realistic judgements in foreign affairs when these were thought rather reactionary. I’ve usually been a little out of phase with the mood of the time.

If you were to relive your political life, would you do it differently?

I don’t think so, I might have made greater efforts to soften some of the things I said, and I might have tried to sell my views rather more plausibly to audiences who didn’t want to hear the truth; but I would still have taken the same line.

Do you think you will be vindicated by history in all the causes you have chosen to champion?

All is saying a lot, but I’ve already been vindicated to a very large extent in many of them. The chaos that has overtaken Africa as a result of a premature decolonization speaks for itself; the successive Arab-Israeli wars came about directly as a result of Britain’s withdrawal from the Suez Canal Zone; and the anxieties I expressed about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, alas, were proved to be well-founded.

You were an adviser to BCCl. Wasn’t that a major embarrassment to you in view of what happened?

No, because I was merely a consultant. I was only ever asked for my judgement on the political climate, the validity of investing in Africa or in Europe. I was never involved in the banking or the finance, nor would I have been capable of helping in that way; they simply wanted political advice, which I was happy to give them at the invitation of the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, who was a good friend of this country and a friend of mine.

But didn’t you suspect anything at all? Weren’t you taken in?

I was never anywhere near their books. I had no idea what they were doing. I certainly don’t think I was taken in.

You began life with many advantages: financial independence, public schooling, intellect, powerful connections. You still live in the house in Eton Square in which you were born. Do you ever think that these factors have effectively removed you from the lives of the vast majority of people in this country?

No. Don’t forget I was for eighteen years Member of Parliament for Preston in Lancashire, a very marginal constituency, and in order to keep the seat I had to see very much how everybody else lived. I never felt out of touch.

How did you cope with the death of your wife, your companion for forty years?

Of course it was a terrible blow, I can’t conceal that, though up to a point I was prepared because she had been ill for a couple of years.

Do you ever think you might see her again in another life?

I don’t know. These are mysteries which are not unveiled to me.

Were women very important in your life?

The whole problem is this: Which is more difficult? To have to do with women, or to do without them?

And what is your answer?

It is a dilemma. Further disclosures will await my memoirs.

Though you have had a very distinguished career in politics, many have remarked that it is so much less than you should have had. You give no outward sign of being disappointed. Does that reflect your inner feelings also?

What is the use of being disappointed? In life one learns that the prizes don’t always got to the ablest or to the ones who were right; they go to people who are better connected, or have the ear of the powers that be. It’s stupid to be disappointed.