William Deedes was born in 1913 and educated at Harrow before becoming a journalist with the Morning Post (1931-7). During the war he served with the Queen’s Westminsters and from 1950 until 1974 he was Conservative MP for Ashford. Between 1962 and 1964 he was minister without portfolio. He had long been associated with the Daily Telegraph, which he edited from 1974 to 1986. He was made a life peer in 1986 and died on 17th August 2007.
I first met Lord Deedes in 1991 when with Richard Ingrams, Auberon Waugh, Alexander Chancellor, and a host of well-known friends, we were about to launch the Oldie magazine. Lord Deedes was very supportive of the project and I got to know him rather well. We subsequently became friends after I interviewed him at length in 1992.
The following year when my next book of interviews More of a Certain Age appeared Lord Deedes provided a review for the weekend Telegraph, declaring: ‘This is the age of the interview, and most newspapers employ journalists practised at bearing the soul of the personality in the news.’
It was therefore disconcerting to ‘come across someone who excels at bearing souls and is not properly a journalist at all’. All of us have feelings ‘too deep for expression, thoughts we are reluctant to share even with those we love, let alone strangers’.
‘This is where the interview takes the character of safe-breaking with skeleton keys. Naim Attallah is a dab hand with skeleton keys. He is the smartest burglar in the business. Click, click, one by one the tumblers go down and the safe door swings open. Out of context the questions might sound ‘abrupt and impertinent’ but they follow a long stealthy approach from someone who has done his homework. When, in the first series of interviews, Attallah netted me, I was mildly alarmed by what he had already found out.’
Lord Deedes was a gentleman of an old generation that no longer exists today; honest and humble he remained active and true to his principles throughout his long life.
Here is my interview in full, which I believe will give the reader the real measure of this remarkable giant of Fleet Street.
How do you recall your childhood … was it a happy time for you?
Not altogether because when I was six my father, who was living peacefully on £900 a year with five servants, suddenly inherited a large shattered castle. From then on life became exiguous and if you’re young, even if you’re only six or seven, you feel the anxieties of your parents. Living as we were on a tumbledown estate after the First World War, when farming was bringing in nothing, many acres had to be sold off to make ends meet. Therefore I remember my childhood as being privately happy, because I had the land to roam over, but anxious also because I sensed that the foundations of life were shaky as a result of father’s predicament in taking on for family reasons more than he could cope with.
Yours was quite a large family … five children I believe. Did you see that as an advantage at the time?
Yes, because I think there is a lot to be said for boys being bullied by sisters. I’m the only boy and I owe a great deal to my sisters who prodded me at certain times when I needed it. I have always felt that my sisters had more ambition for me than I had for myself. People nowadays who go in for much smaller families lose an ingredient which bigger families enjoyed. It’s difficult to define, but you build up a certain inner relationship which lasts all your life. It’s not an essential dimension, but it’s a useful one. I’m grateful for it anyway.
I wonder which of your parents now seems to you to have been most influential in your life? Perhaps that kind of question seems too overtly psychological. Do you think parents really have the strong influence that is always attributed to them?
I was aware of tension between my parents because my mother, who was Protestant Irish, born in Dublin and conservative in her outlook, greatly desired that I should go to Winchester and follow her brothers there, which I proved too stupid to do. My father, on the other hand, had a great many newfangled ideas which he alternated rather rapidly with his political views. He had had a curious background. He had gone to the Boer War at the age of seventeen, which did his health no good and he was really an invalid most of his life. He was ostensibly a landowner, but he was also a socialist. In fact he was greatly attached to the Labour Party in those days and stood for parliament once as a labour candidate, then as an independent candidate. About that time – it was around the birth of the Labour Party – he shared a feeling that society was unequal and there was too big a gap between the well-to-do and the rest. He had what you might call the Edwardian, old Etonian conscience, and I look back on him as a very respected Christian socialist. He was left of centre for what might be described as inner reasons rather than ideology. There was one period, for example, when he bought every book he could lay his hands on about Mussolini. There was an endearing enthusiasm about my father’s political beliefs and in the early stages he even thought Hitler might do Germany a bit of good. My mother, however, was a staunch conservative and found all this rather difficult. So as a child I remember my mind being pulled between my mother’s innate conservativeness and my father’s rather dashing radicalism; but this may have done me no harm at all. I didn’t follow one or the other, I just realized there was a difference. As it happened, however, I did follow my mother eventually.
Do you think your relationship with your own son was very different from your father’s with you?
No. I’m ashamed to this day by the fact that my relationship with my son, who was born during the last war, was more like my father’s with me. In other words, I was almost the last of that generation of men who did not feel that a great intimacy with his children was part of a father’s duty. Today I find that my own children share the lives of their children in a way that never occurred to me. If my children enjoy most success now I am always the first to attribute this to my wife because my own contribution was minimal. Frankly I was neglectful and I treated my children as my father treated me. And, of course, there were nurses and governesses to look after them.
I suppose there will be people to whom your life will seem to have been remarkably privileged: a childhood household with five servants, school-days at Harrow, your own son sent to Eton. Has it been as enviable as it seems?
Not a bit. I actually left Harrow a year early. My housemaster sent for me one day and said: ‘I’ve very sorry … we had a letter from your father to say that he has been seriously affected by the Wall Street Crash.’ Everyone was very sympathetic; the housemaster even gave me a couple of quid to pay my fare home. But I suppose there was a bit of privilege in my getting my first job on the Morning Post since the paper’s managing editor had just got a gun in Uncle Wyndham’s shoot and as a quid pro quo I got a job on the paper, but I still had to work my way.
You are obviously a very political animal. Was that interest the result of family background or was it something that developed out of your career as a journalist?
It was more family background. I think the Deedes family have had a member of parliament in every century since 1600. A year as a lobby correspondent in 1936-7 certainly gave me a taste for politics and so when an opening arose after the war I wasn’t unfamiliar with what the work would entail, but I suspect it’s mainly heredity.
You have been both a cabinet minister and a distinguished journalist. Which do you think is the most influential position in the end? What I had in mind is that while a cabinet minister has a good deal of authority he must be constrained by government policy, so I wonder just how much room there is for manoeuvre?
There’s never been any doubt about this. A politician is by far the stronger figure for this reason; he is a decision-making figure. Journalists can advocate, campaign, attack, and though they can make themselves immensely influential, they can’t make decisions. Only a member of parliament, and even more so a minister, can actually do that, and therefore the two are not really comparable. In terms of power the politician has always got it over the journalist. The journalist might look at times to be more powerful, particularly if you have a figure like Northcliffe or Maxwell or Murdoch, who decides to attack politicians and possibly appears even to change a government; in reality, however, the politician always has the stronger position.
Was Beaverbrook powerful because he was a journalist baron or because he was a politician?
Beaverbrook had another value altogether. Beaverbrook was a major contributor to the social revolution in Britain. I remember my pre-war Daily Express very well, and that newspaper was revolutionary in saying to the reader: ‘You’re as good as any other man.’ Beaverbrook was a great believer in making his readers feel the equal of royalty, plutocracy or the aristocracy. He did more to make the reader feel that he was on the up and up than any other proprietor I’ve ever known. His huge empire and all his political convictions appeared to be very strong and influential but the real revolution he brought about – though he may not have known what he was doing – was to tell his readers that their daughters would look as good at Ascot as anybody else’s. It was immensely influential journalism. I didn’t like him, but he had a great instinct.
You spent your entire career as a journalist on a right-wing paper, or one which is certainly thought to be so. Have you ever had any doubts about that political allegiance?
I think I can truthfully say no. I would be regarded in Mrs Thatcher’s terms as a wet, and I am wet, though I’m dry on a number of subjects, South Africa, for example. I’m more of a wet on social issues – possibly I owe something to my father and my uncle, both of whom were in the other camp. I’ve shifted here and there, I’ve had minor changes of opinion, but I’ve never regretted being on the right or having to write for a right-wing newspaper.
In the hard times in the 1930s there was, it is always said, some sense of community, but now in the 1990s even that is disappearing; a political philosophy has emerged which seems content to place more emphasis on the individual. Do you think this is a healthy trend?
I used to go to the distressed areas as a reporter before the war, and one of the things that struck me was that even in places like South Wales, Newcastle upon Tyne or West Cumberland, where there was real poverty and a shortage of food, there was a definite social empathy; they clung together. If one week you literally couldn’t afford a loaf of bread you relied upon your neighbour to give you half a loaf of bread. It was a very different social pattern from what we have now when neighbours are almost strangers one to another. I don’t understand the reasons. All I know is that there is a great contrast between (shall we say) the society I found in Newcastle when I went up there in the thirties and the society that has just been uncorked by recent events and reported in the press. Society has become more self-contained, much more cellular. I use that word because modern living is like a beehive in which everybody is in a cell rather than in human association. The other day I went to Moscow and I was very struck by how much more socially interdependent the Russians are. I rather envied them. I talked to countless people on the streets, and I saw almost a throwback to the years before we had home entertainments and distractions which kept us apart. The Russians are very dependent on human association, and it’s something that we have – I won’t say sacrificed – but it’s something we’ve let slip.
Do you ever have a feeling that politicians have misjudged the degree to which rhetoric can be substituted for reality? I have in mind the way figures, for example, can be manipulated; even if bad they are presented as reasonably good. Doesn’t that sort of thing damage the trust needed between government and governed?
That is a difficult question. There is far less direct connection between the people and those who govern them that there was in the past. When I began in politics, public meetings were de rigeur; they’re very rare today. In my view there is no better recording of where the shoe pinches than at a public meeting of not more than say eighty to a hundred people; even thirty to forty will do. I don’t know any better way of discovering what lies inside people’s minds and hearts. I am astonished at what you get out of people if you give yourself the time to talk to them for more than ten minutes. It’s something that’s irreplaceable; it’s not something you can read in the papers, or something you can guess. In the great public meetings of the past, politicians did have the advantage of learning from people directly what hurt them. Indeed in very distant days this is what the sovereign did until the whole thing became too burdensome. This is something missing now in our modern democracy and it may in the end prove to be its undoing. One form of redress is for ministers to appear at public meetings where public feeling will make itself felt. I have been to meetings that have been broken up and the minister left in doubt as to what people thought. There were times in the 1920s when Lloyd George’s ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ produced massive demonstrations. Today, unless you get some extravagant demonstration by young people in Newcastle, there is no outlet for public feeling, no forum. It’s no good telling me that Any Questions or Question Time or any rubbish on Thursday night is going to replace that, because it doesn’t. It may be good entertainment but it doesn’t get the vox pop.
You were once minister of information. That must have been an ironic situation for a journalist. Wasn’t there a danger in that position of suppressing exactly the information that as a journalist you would have been trying to reveal?
Absolutely. As a journalist I have always supposed that the cabinet had countless secrets which I’ve never been lucky enough to find out. As a minister without portfolio, I could not think of anything the cabinet had decided which the press had not already got hold of. From the outside you appear to be attacking a fortress when you’re a journalist. From the inside you appear to be in a mud castle, the walls of which are rapidly being eroded. In other words, you’ve got no protection. The cabinet ministers for their own reasons talk to their cronies in the press over lunch and then the ministry of information becomes redundant. I’m bound to say towards the end of my two years in that job a sense of superfluity overwhelmed me [laughter]. I was most grateful for the experience, but for future prime ministers, it’s not a job that ought ever to be included in any cabinet of sensible men.
Why is there such distaste among British politicians for allowing the people who elect and pay them to have information about the way they are to be governed? The Americans are infinitely less secretive but their government remains intact.
I’m not a great subscriber to this school of thought. First of all I think that countries fundamentally have differences and it’s a mistake to think that the system in one country is going to work in another. I understand the American freedom of information; I understand their First Amendment, I also look without much envy at their libel laws. I have been in America and seen public figures completely destroyed by the freedom with which the Americans are allowed to attack or investigate and expose, and I am therefore not starry-eyed about their system. Nor am I absolutely convinced that the so called blanket of secrecy which the press feel is kept over everything here really exists. Having seen it from both ends, I can assure the press that far less is covered over with secrecy than they believe. I don’t believe you can run any business, let alone government, without a degree of confidentiality. Good government does depend to a certain extent on trusting that colleagues will not, for their own purposes, blow government business to the press or to the public. Of course, the public have a right to know what is being done in their name, but there’s a balance to be struck. I was on the Franks Official Secrets Committee. With Oliver Franks, probably the best chairman I’ve ever served under in my life, we spent fifteen months going through this whole problem of what should be said to the public and what should not. In the end, as you know, we fenced off defence, some fiscal treasury matters and certain foreign affairs matters. I am powerfully persuaded that good government has a right to a degree of secrecy. What that degree is will never be agreed between the press and government. I’ll accept your point that we are more secretive here than we need to be; I don’t accept that the American system would be the better one.
But would you support a kind of freedom of information – not the same as the Americans’, but one which would enable the public to get more information? The present state of affairs is surely not very satisfactory.
Experience shows that in Canada and in America where there is a right of the public to discover certain information, they don’t always look for what you think they would look for. They look for your income tax return; they look for detail which is frankly not relevant to the public weal. All right, there may well be a case, if it increases public confidence, for giving more access to what government is doing, but don’t be disappointed if having granted them access, you find it’s not used to a very high purpose.
There is now, and has been for some time, pressure for an act guaranteeing a right to privacy. Do you think that it is a sensible thing or are the private lives of public figures of legitimate public interest?
I’ve thought about this a lot. I have to say that I think the lives of public figures are of public interest and legitimate areas for press enquiry. I regret the fact that we should find it interesting that a cabinet minister has a liaison with a woman other than his wife, and I think we should not confuse public interest and prurience. There’s a distinction between the two, but we shall never agree on what the distinction is. And so I accept that the private affairs of a public man may become a matter of public interest. However, I draw the line where children are concerned. Very few people in the press ever calculated the effect upon a child at school of an accusation (on possibly not very solid grounds) against its father or it may be the mother. Of course if it is proved that a man has indulged in criminal activity, then too bad if the child suffers, but I’ve seen tittle tattle about public figures which has made children at school terribly miserable. When there was a brief interest in my own private life, the only newspapers I really despised were those who encouraged my children to talk on the telephone. That is not a form of journalism that I think is acceptable; but I’m liberal and I have to accept that you go into public life in your private misdemeanours become public property. In a democracy you must go along with the public mood and people today are very sensitive about any affection of superiority. The most potent word in the English language today is ‘inferior’ and any politician who may have delivered a homily on the subject of one-parent families and is then found to have a mistress in Rome, Paris and Vancouver should be exposed. The public are entitled to know and to draw their conclusions.
You were minister without portfolio in 1963 when the Profumo scandal broke which eventually led to Macmillan’s downfall. Did you see that as inevitable at the time? Would it be different now?
In retrospect I think there were a number of errors made in addition to the original error, that is to say I think there was a certain amount of press hype, and I’m not speaking now as one who was a minister at the time. The whole tale became almost a satire of the British in their moral suit of clothes. This is reinforced with hindsight by the fact that Jack, with whom I was at school and have known all my life and am still very fond of, has in the intervening twenty-five years reclaimed his status and his right to be regarded as a good man in a way which none of us can emulate. I regard this as a very interesting moral tale. Those who would be the first to condemn Jack and would still be saying, ‘Oh, but didn’t he tell a lie to the House of Commons and so on…’, very few of them can hold a candle to what he has done since in Toynbee Hall. I have a secret respect for people who have a tumble and recover, and this includes Jack, it includes Nixon, and it even includes Bob Maxwell. I respect the people I’ve known who have taken a big fall and recovered. I doubt my own capacity to do so.
But would you condemn Profumo for his sexual morality, or for telling a lie to parliament? Which was the more serious?
The falsehood to parliament was the serious aspect of the case, no question about that, but the circumstances in which he was induced to make that unwise statement have always mitigated what he did in my view.
When I interviewed leading women in France for my book, it was suggested to me that indiscretions were considered to be among the perks of being a politician. Do you think the British are simply more hypocritical or is it rather a matter of competition between newspapers, the need to sell?
I think we must respect national differences which have historical backgrounds. The French have a view about sex, the British have a view about sex, and that is just one problem we’re going to run into when we start a federal Europe. I am not prepared to make invidious comparisons, but I do think that we have developed a class of newspaper in this country now which knows that the published peccadilloes of public figures sell like hot cakes. I think possibly we sell more hot cakes in this country than the French do in theirs. Indiscretions in Paris would simply not produce the fuss they produce here. I’ve never found a word to describe the British attitude towards sex. It’s still really schoolboys’ lavatory-wall stuff and this is what the newspapers cash in on. I’m not devoted to the French, I don’t find myself naturally attracted to them, but I do deeply admire their more adult and mature attitude towards sex, and the more I look at what our tabloids breakfast on, the more I envy the French. It’s going to take a very long time to get this silliness out of the British system.
When Lord Lambton left politics he remarked that there was a world of difference between doing a thing and being found out. That remark was seen by some as being a sophisticated response, by others as cynical indifference. How do you see it?
Lambton was a minister at the time, and I do think that ministers have a certain duty to keep their private affairs from exciting the News of the World. Lambton was making a philosopher’s point, but the fact is that he was a disgraced minister and I do not think that any amount of satire or humour can really rationalize what he did. I’m quite consistent about this. If you’re in public office, you have a duty to your colleagues and to your government to live in the context of your times. It’s no good saying, ‘If I were in Paris nobody would take any notice of my going to bed with a black woman and a white woman.’ The fact is if you’re in the UK and you have the News of the World looking over your shoulder, then you must take that into account.
Do you ever think that journalism is bound to be constantly concerned with the trivial because of its ephemeral nature? There’s nothing quite so dead as yesterday’s newspaper. Perhaps the serious papers are just entertaining a different set of people from the tabloids. Or would you argue that there is a difference?
The answer to that is to make a comparison between today’s newspapers and the newspapers of the thirties or even the fifties. I’ve just had to look through the newspapers of the fifties and I am mildly alarmed, as a professional journalist, to discover the extent to which, especially in popular newspapers, the content of serious news has gone down and the amount of trivia has gone up. Assuming that newspapers are guided by men who know where public taste lies, this is a disturbing commentary on public education. I don’t want to be too tendentious, but when people abuse the Star or the Sun or the News of the World, I ask myself whether they’re picking the right target. Let’s take the old Daily Mirror of Cudlip’s day, or the old Daily Herald of Southwood’s. I look back on them and, alas, I fear public tastes are not what they were at one time. The appetite for serious news has virtually vanished. I think the attention span is much shorter than it was … television has something to do with this … and there are many children now who find it almost impossible to read through a whole book. But this is something outside the realm of journalism.
Journalists often like to present themselves as opinion makers. They certainly give opinions but do you think they actually change minds or do they rather bolster prejudices?
The irony here is that in the old days when they knew what was news and what was opinion, and the editorial columns of the papers were strictly confined to the opinion, then I think they did influence people. I’m thinking of something like The Times editorial which recommended that Czechoslovakia should yield to Hitler and save Europe a grave embarrassment; or of some of the leading articles even in the Daily Mail during the First World War about the shell scandal, the shortage of shells on the Western Front. Now the irony is this: the newspapers have rather self-indulgently enlarged the realm of opinion, and they no longer separate news from editorial. Most news is presented in a way to persuade you of this or that. For example, news about Mr Kinnock in the right-wing newspapers is designed to persuade you that he’s in a mess. Nowadays you have far more columnists than before, opinionated fellows (like myself, I suppose I have to add) who write weekly or daily columns and who are expressing views all the time. It follows that the influence of newspapers has greatly diminished because their spread of rather subjective material is such that the public has become almost inoculated against it. People are very careful today about accepting what any newspaper says, so the newspapers have defeated themselves.
Before the war the unemployed were, I suppose, relatively unaware of what one might call the context of their poverty. There was a social cordon sanitaire around them, but the situation is now very different. Put bluntly, they can see what they are missing. Is that not bound to produce great social unrest and a see-saw of repression and resistance?
I think about this. Before the war, the problem for many people was literally getting enough to eat. Today it’s rather different. Poverty today relates to what other people have in relation to what you yourself have. We’re dealing with comparative standards of living. You’re asking me if I think that this is more inflammatory than the old hunger standard, and I’m not sure. There are manifestations amongst young people that they are prepared to show their discontent in a way which the old poor were not – car nicking, and so on. In theory a different standard of life shouldn’t lead to a revolution, yet in a way I think it does. I’ve just been in the Sudan where people are almost at the end of their tether through lack of food, but there is no mood of revolution there, no rising up against the government. You have to remind yourself that when people are denied the necessities of life they go very quiet, but when they’re denied the so-called good things of life which they see widely advertised in our consumer society, there is probably a more inflammatory situation.
I recall you writing about Tyneside and drawing attention among other things to the prevalence of one-parent families there. What do you think can be done about that? Is it a sign of social disintegration?
We’ve learned recently that about a third of the children in this country are born out of wedlock. I do not doubt that there are many lone mothers devoted to their children, but there is no question that more children are in some way handicapped, and therefore the state has to concern itself. It’s not a matter of morality, it’s a matter of public welfare. Furthermore, a degree of public cost is involved in this. If you look at the figures you will discover that the number of children born outside wedlock creates quite a heavy bill for a government. My philosophy about this is really lamentable because I am a great believer in a self-correcting mechanism. I do not ever think that politicians can alter human behaviour.
If the government feels it a duty to make sure that the parents of those children suffer in no way at all and are treated through public funds, then in my view you will delay the working of a self-correcting mechanism which I deeply believe in. One generation learns from the previous generation. If the government neglects the problem and allows the public to see that a one-parent family suffers in a way which is unacceptable in our sort of democracy, then it is my belief that the self-correcting mechanism would work sooner. But we have to compromise; we have to do the minimum to prevent the children being handicapped and at the same time be aware as politicians that our powers are limited – we cannot correct the situation.
Very soon now we shall be in Europe … how do you think it will develop? Is it going to be a federal organization in the end?
On certain terms we can as readily share the culture, history and economy of Europe as any other nation. My principal anxiety is this: that if the architects of Europe with every good intention move too fast, become too enthusiastic, work towards a federal Europe too quickly, they will sow the seeds of conflict. If they overstress conformity then they could produce a reaction against the whole concept of Europe and defeat their own best endeavours. That is the centre of my European belief. I am pro-European as anyone who can remember both world wars has to be. Even Mr Delors is preferable to Marshal Foch. However, you must have proportion, historical proportion. I do not want to see Europe defeated and undermined by excessive zeal, and I think that could happen. There’s a limit to the notion whereby European cultures, beliefs, civilization and peoples can be pulled into what some imaginatively regard as being akin to the United States of America, which had totally different origins.
Do you think that Mrs Thatcher is right in her views on Europe?
I think she’s right in her views, and wrong on how she expressed them. Her instinct was that there would be a public revulsion against a demand for excessive conformity. It’s an instinct I share. She was perhaps clumsy, perhaps over-forceful in the way in which she expressed her opposition to all this, but I know and you know that many in Europe were secretly rather grateful for the things she was saying. She lacked finesse, she could have harnessed people’s anxieties, but instead she antagonized them. That was her mistake.
You have served as a cabinet minister so I suppose you must approve of the centrality of ‘market forces’, but won’t an attempt to emulate America in that way produce the same large underclass with all its attendant problems? There are already riots in the streets of Cardiff and in Oxford for whatever reason…
In Russia the underclass is incomparably larger than the underclass in the United States or in the UK. If you go to the food markets you discover that at one end the poor relations are scrabbling for food at government prices and at the other end there is Californian food for those who can afford it. I’ve never seen a country with greater distinctions between the poor and the privileged. So before we say that the market economy leads to impoverishment as indeed it does for a proportion of the population, let’s say that we’ve got something built in here which is difficult to avoid. To some extent a degree of human poverty is unavoidable in almost any society. I can’t think of a formula by which you can avoid a certain number of people going to the wall. But ours is better than anything they’ve got in Africa, or Latin America, or the Soviet Union. What I think the wealthier societies have to do is to find a means, without crippling themselves, of tempering the wind of the shorn lamb. I’m a great believer in Keith Joseph’s philosophy – that the real advantage of a market economy is that you can afford to do more for the impoverished people than by any other means. That is the only solution to what you’re postulating.
From time to time you have complained in the context of the newspaper world of the way accountants now rule the roost. Is that not the inevitable outcome of the political faith you have espoused?
I do think that newspapers are at risk of becoming too prone to the advice of the marketing man, and I have seen in my time a very big shift from the authority of an editor to the authority of those who have to sell the newspaper. Editors are now more and more persuaded by marketing people to cater for a certain class of public that they say is necessary for the health of the newspaper. The irony about newspapers today is that we’re now employing some of the best minds that come out of the universities. I’ve never known a period in which we’ve recruited abler people to journalism, incomparably abler than the people we had a generation ago or in my early days, yet this is not reflected in the quality of the newspaper. Journalists are now much better qualified; they can actually write English and do joined-up writing, yet we have on the whole a more trivialized, a brasher, perhaps less informative set of newspapers. I’ve only ever had one view about the press: it is there to offer people the basis for making their decisions. And that function has not actually improved under all the better minds from Oxbridge and other universities. That is one of the sadnesses.
With the demise of communism and the triumph of capitalism, are we not going to have a world which simply dances to the tunes played by the United States?
We’re between acts at the moment, the curtain is down, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. But I’m quite sure of this: that the human race, being born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards, has problems that are not going to be cured by the death of communism. I don’t know that we’re going to live in a tranquil and easy-going life and I am doubtful whether in the end we’re going to see this rather simplistic solution of the United States prevailing over all. One of the things I worry about with the United States is whether behind all the wealth and the dollars, it is actually a nation in decline. My impression of Eastern European countries, by contrast, is that they are going to evolve some compromises between the failure of Marxism and the falsehood of capitalism, and I think we may find some new formulas developing which will be of great interest. A country like Hungary, for example, may well produce something which is better than anything we’ve yet attained.
You have spoken of ‘capitalism in the service of humanity’, but that is surely a utopian idea. Most liberals would disagree and argue that in the first instance capitalism is necessarily at the service of capitalists. Isn’t it the ‘overflow’ which serves the rest?
We’re talking about the most efficient way of dealing with human resources which must in the end provide more of the means which every nation has to find for dealing with the unfortunate section of the population which has to be – to put it bluntly – subsidized. Communism did not work, though many had high hopes of it, nor did fascism, so we have this imperfect mechanism, the market economy. It may be a very bad system, but we’re now learning that nobody yet has produced anything better. In so far as it can provide enough to enable a country to look after those below the line, then it is a good system. What else can we do? If you say to me that you doubt whether capitalists ever wished to help, and that most of them are out for what they can get for themselves, then I say that is where government has a role to play. It is for government to decide what capitalists should keep to themselves and what governments should lay their hands on for the benefit of the unfortunates.
You sent your own son to Eton. If those who can afford private education do that, does it not dilute the pool of talent available to teach the vast majority of our children?
When I was in the army I was sharing a room with a man who was going to have a house at Eton. We agreed that we ought to put faith in the future – it was just before D-Day – and my son had just been born. My friend said, ‘There are preferential terms for penitent old Harrovians, so would you like to put your son’s name in a book?’ and so I did. We both survived and so my son went to Eton. That’s the story there. I accept that the English private education system is now becoming exorbitantly expensive, and I think it’s just possible for this reason that there is a limited future for it. I also accept that we are internationally almost singular in our public schools. But I have never believed that their existence damages the national system. The national system is not in a very healthy state, but that does not in my view relate to the public schools. I don’t accept the theory that if parent of children who go the private sector were required to use the state schools they would exert enormous influence. I don’t see any harm in the public schools continuing. They are enjoyed by labour supporters as well as conservative supporters, so let’s have no humbug about that. I myself set a very high value on them. There is a great inclination to reduce standards in education generally, to make exams easier, to reduce the rigors of the academic world. And it seems to me absolutely imperative, however noxious or class conscious it might appear, to keep a sort of yardstick against which you can measure quality. I know this is a very aggressive thing to say, but I feel this very strongly. I do think state education has gone through a very bad patch, that it is on the slide, but if you abolish the only comparative standard you’ve got, not only in terms of academic results, but in terms of discipline and what you turn out, then I don’t think you’re doing society any good.
But aren’t you maintaining the class system? That’s the danger that I see.
I think the class system in this country, compared with the twenties and thirties, has altered far more than anybody can believe. The speed at which we have reduced the enormous differences in class since the First World War is barely recognized today. I would wish in many ways that we had rather more of a pyramid, that all the old grammar schools, one or two grant-aided schools and the rest comprehensives. The distinctions are too great. But I don’t think there’s any need for public-school masters to beat their breasts with guilt and say (as they often do) that they barely have the right to exist. I think the class thing can be exaggerated. It’s unimportant compared to standards, which are immensely important.
I imagine you were an admirer of Mrs Thatcher.
What was your feeling when she was obliged to resign?
I felt very worried about the way in which it was done, and wrongly thought that it would have a very bad effect on the Conservative Party. I underrated its resilience and the ability of Tories to gloss over what I regarded as a rather doubtful episode historically. The sacking of a conservative leader on a ballot is an unusual occurrence, and it’s not in my view in the tradition of the Conservative Party. I never approved of the Humphrey Berkeley rules in the first place. My initial feelings lasted for about three months and then to my surprise I realized I was wrong. Judging from the most recent meetings I’ve conducted, the conservative public have accepted the outcome with far less bitterness than I expected. Some credit for this is due to John Major who has conducted himself well for a man who had very little chance to think out what he was going to do before he had to do it. Some credit is also due to Mrs Thatcher who, notwithstanding the efforts of the press to involve her in bitterness, has in fact, like her husband, stepped outside any sort of controversy. The Conservative Party constantly surprises me.
Had Mrs Thatcher remained would we have fared better?
The action was unfortunate, but I think that it was ultimately for the benefit of the Conservative Party. I’m not revealing anything I shouldn’t, but I have a feeling that retirement had been uppermost in her mind for some time and but for the recession all this might have come about in another way. The most difficult decision any prime minister has to make is not when to call a general election, but when to go. For historical reasons no prime minister wants to go on a low, and I think Mrs Thatcher of her own nature might have called it a day a little bit sooner had it not been for the fact that the recession left her with a sense of ‘I’d better see this through.’ As it was she was not allowed to make her own decision and was forced out through a concatenation of circumstances – the Rome summit, the Howe speech, the Heseltine challenge and then the denouement. I’ll sum it up by saying that the Tory Party has had rather more luck than it deserves.
I can readily understand that as the editor of a national newspaper you must have been extremely frustrated by the practices and demands of the print unions, but what view do you take of the idea of trade unions, do you think they are necessary to ensure that employees are not exploited?
The fact of the matter is that those print unions so overplayed their hands as to make life unsupportable, and in so doing they did their fellows a bad turn. One of the great ironies of modern times is that the dockers behaved in such a way as to empty the docks of London, and the printers of Fleet Street who came from much the same background behaved in such a way as to make Fleet Street untenable. Now the newspapers have moved into the vacancies in the docks left by the dockers. It’s true, there’s a lot of management today which needs superintendence by vigilant trade unions, I’ve no doubt about that. As part of our meritocracy, there is a standard of modern management which looks awfully like the steel masters and the iron masters and the cotton masters who rose in Victorian times and who treated their work forces very badly. I am totally convinced of the need for a vigilant trade union to keep management from exploitation, but it’s unfortunate that excessive zeal by the printers and some other unions have led to this state of affairs. I don’t think Mrs Thatcher emasculated the unions, but there is a balance to be struck between leaving trade unions to fulfil their role, and at the same time not enabling them to cripple the economy for reasons which are irrelevant.
Who made the deepest impression on you in your role as a politician?
Though he was dead before I became an active politician, the man I’ve always followed more closely than anybody else was Stanley Baldwin. I have all his speeches, I constantly refer to him, and I’ve always regarded him as a thoroughly underrated member of the Conservative Party for several reasons. Firstly he understood the doctrine of one society. We talk about a classless society, but look up some of Baldwin’s speeches and you will see that he was the first man to realize that if this country was going to get anywhere we would have to get there together. The General Strike conflicted with Baldwin’s philosophy, but with all the criticism that is levelled at him, it has to be said that against all predictions through the thirties he got us into the Second World War more or less as one people; this is not a thing that I underrate at all. Similarly, I’ve thought often that Alec Home represented something which is missing in British politics now, namely the figure who has better things to do but goes in out of a sense of something which is not ambition, not a desire to better himself, not a desire to win. There is an element of public service about Alec Home which is an essential ingredient of English public life. Think of the way in which when he surrendered the premiership he was perfectly happy to continue as foreign secretary. There was a degree of selflessness about that which I think the modern Tory Party, which has become rather self-regarding, would do well to take up.
You served under several prime ministers. How did you asses them?
I’ve always had a theory that every prime minister has one special historical function in his time. In Winston’s case it was obviously the war. With Alec it was rather different. Just when the Tory party was becoming was becoming very inward looking and material Alec reminded us of other values; he set a certain example. Macmillan’s primary function was to speed up the process of independence for the colonies. He knew that after India there was no alternative but to dismantle. The wind of change was essentially his business. Eden was really too shortlived to have any particular function except to remind us perhaps through Suez that – as Kipling called it – our dominion over palm and pine had diminished, had in fact finished. Eden was a historical reminder that we were not where we thought we were (I’m thinking of Suez).
What about Thatcher?
The most important thing about her was that in age in which women sought equality her example was of greater value than all the equal opportunities acts put together. She came at a critical moment for women and was a huge encouragement to them. I’m pro-woman and anti-feminist in a funny way, if you know what I mean. I think it’s stupid not to make more use of the abundant talents of so many women, but I’m not in favour of all these artificial arrangements to make certain that every woman has a position she doesn’t necessarily want. And Thatcher embodied all that. She also broke down a whole lot of adhesions in the Tory Party which had become a slightly clublike organization. As a Tory MP for twenty-five years I knew there were certain understandings, but she would have none of it. She had her own idea of how to go about things and she changed the whole way of thinking in the party. She never felt herself handicapped by anybody who looked down on her; she never felt handicapped by any minister who opposed her.
When the war came, do you think you were more aware than other people of fascism and what it meant because of your background as a journalist?
I wish I had been. It’s one of my laments that although the politicians of the 1930s have been roundly abused for failure to know what Nazi Germany was doing, a great amount of unapportioned blame lies with the journalists of those years. As journalists in the thirties we failed lamentably to produce as we should have done a loud enough warning note of what was happening in Germany. There were reasons for this. Proprietors and editors were too much in the pocket of those in the Foreign Office who wanted to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt. The great thing was not to rock the boat, not to write something that was going to infuriate Hitler. There was a certain element of responsibility attached to this but it was fatally misconceived. As a result of the British up to 1938 they did not get the warning that they should have had from the free press.
At present there is a bill going through parliament designed to provide people with the right to reply to incorrect information. I know you feel it is an awkward way to deal with the problem and that it would be exploited. But is it not a problem which has to be tackled? How would you do it?
It ought to be done by the editor and if the editor fails to give the reader a right of reply, then I am quite clear in my mind that we have to go to a statutory right of reply which will land us in a most unholy mess. We shall have to entertain not only a right of reply on fact, but on opinion, and once you’ve started to do that it will run and run and there will never be an end to it. I only hope every editor understands what the penalty will be. Mind you, I’m very sceptical, more sceptical than Lord MacGregor, about any parliamentary move against the press. I know my political parties on this score. No party before, or even after a general election is willingly going to antagonize the newspapers by taking a step such as the statutory right of reply. It is a perfectly reasonable sword of Damocles for people like Lord MacGregor to hold over editors’ heads but my political instinct tells me that there is not the slightest possible prospect of either a conservative or even a government under Mr Kinnock doing it. Politicians know which side their bread is buttered.
Is there any effective way of reconciling the freedom of the press with the protection of the individual, or for that matter of minorities? There are already restrictions about inciting racial hatred, for example. On the face of it, it seems very proper, but all governments love to restrict the press – think of the D notices…
I don’t myself regard the press as unduly threatened by the Official Secrets Act or by D notices. I worked as an editor for nine years before I even had to refer to a D notice, and I think the newspapers for their own reasons tend to exaggerate the extent to which their ability to tell the public what they ought to know is impeded by D notices or fear of official secrets, or, to go wider, fear of defamation or libel. I think the balance in this country is just about right. Every now and again we get huge libel damages ad people say the law is an ass. I think we went through a rather exceptional period in which juries lacked guidance from the judge, but that probably will be corrected. In terms of the Temple Court, I’m rather old fashioned; I think that newspapers should not be free to ridicule judges and to attack them in public and say that their sentences lead one to suppose they ought to be in lunatic asylums. Furthermore, the prejudicing of a trial of an individual by pre-press trial as happens in America is, to my mind, obnoxious. To hell with the First Amendment on that score. Let’s not have the illusion of loosening the law of secrecy which is simply going to lead to a raising of the levels at which documents are marked confidential or secret. You can take the horse to water but you’ve got to make the horse drink, and no system with which the civil service will not cooperate is workable or of any value at all, whatever politicians say. If the civil service considers that the law of secrecy is not inimical to the public good then the law will remain what it was, regardless of what parliament says. So I don’t want to get into that situation. For the moment we’ve got something which everybody cooperates with. I can’t remember in twelve years of editing the Daily Telegraph feeling impeded about telling my readers something they should know; other editors may have different experiences, but I’m afraid I’m individual, I’m odd man out on this.
Would you ever have prevented publication of something on moral grounds, as it were, or because you yourself held strong views on a particular subject?
No. I’m entirely beholden to the tradition of the paper. As you well know the Daily Telegraph carries a page 3 which is the envy of some of the tabloids. As the old News of the World used to say, all human life is there on our page 3. There are very few known sins that aren’t at some point recounted on the Daily Telegraph’s page 3, and I would regard it as obnoxious if on subjective grounds I prevented something from being printed. If it is within the tradition of the paper, my personal views on the matter are irrelevant.
Do you believe in censorship at any level?
Don’t let’s mix up censorship and editorial judgement. The latter, whether it is in broadcasting, in television or in newspapers, has to be exercised. I absolutely hold to that. But that is not censorship. A lot of modern authors regard any failure to publish what they’ve done as an act of censorship, but it is not, though it is sometimes an act of editorial judgement.
When you decided to stand for parliament, did you have an ambition to reach high office or to implement some particular scheme? What was it that prompted you to take up so different a career?
There were about eight members of my family who had been in parliament before me and they had all chugged along quite cheerfully. There’s a wonderful passage in Henri Leroi’s Life of Disraeli in which there is described an encounter in the Carlton Club during the fall of the coalition. Somebody rushes in and says to the chief whip: ‘There’s no need for the coalition to fall. There are good men waiting … such as Deedes, Snoops and Swift’ … to which the chief whip replies, ‘These are not names that I can lay before the Queen.’ I don’t think any of my relatives held high office; they just felt quite content, as I did, to represent a constituency. So I entered parliament with the idea that I was perfectly happy to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and if anything came of it, it came. But I wasn’t very keen, truth to tell, because all my life the Daily Telegraph has been a very generous host to my small talents and I didn’t particularly want my connections with the paper to be interrupted by politics. I could work for the Daily Telegraph as a member of parliament but it would have been difficult as a minister. So I can honestly say that I went in hoping to chug along happily as a backbencher.
Working as a politician must have been very different from being a newspaper man or a soldier. Did you find it a congenial environment?
Absolutely not. It’s as different as you can imagine. A journalist has to live on his initiative; if he gets an idea, he can pursue it. Provided he gets his bosses’ countenance he can get on with it. In Whitehall it’s a totally different world because everything you do is subject to scrutiny. You’re part of an enormous chain, and the process through which your bright idea has to travel are unimaginably sick, and so you get rather discouraged, unless you’re a very powerful figure which I never pretended to be. It was the contrast between journalism and ministerial life that made me think that I preferred journalism.
As an MP you were once concerned with the drug problem. Some people such as Judge Pickles take the radical view that their use should be legalized. Taking drugs might then become a habit like social drinking and they could be taxed. What view did you take?
I worked chiefly in this field with people like Barbra Wootton who took a more radical view than I did. I swotted up the subject and was helped by doctors, and I must first of all say that it is not a moral position I hold on this. But I do take the view that there are enough health hazards – and other hazards – strewn about the feet of young people today without adding one more. I know that it may be said that if you legalize cannabis or even harder drugs you avoid damage to the law which is being made a mockery of at the moment by people, often well-connected people, who smoke cannabis around the clock. All right, that is a fact. But the higher priority in my view is not to add to hazards that already exist in the way of alcohol, and so on. I’ve also had it argued to me that fewer young people would smoke cannabis if it was legalized, since it’s the illegality which appeals. This is all very beguiling but I simply don’t accept it.
Which side were you on in the great poll-tax debate? Is it true, do you think, that its demise represented the triumph of political expediency over principle – its fairness was much trumpeted by government ministers at the time?
I’ve always accepted that a mistake was made here. What threw ministers off their balance was the misconduct of a minority of councils who proved extremely difficult to bring to account; they were overspending, and they were doing it in such a way that there was no chance of their electorate throwing them out. The government was driven to the poll tax by a desire to produce the mechanism which would make a small minority of councils more accountable. Now, if you produce a large law fundamentally to deal with a minority problem you embark on a very dangerous course. The result was of course that they trapped both the good and the bad; everybody got it wrong. It was a brilliant idea on paper, but they failed to apply to it that acid test of practicality. If a law is not enforceable it is a bad law.
You were for many years part of the Peterborough column – really a high-class gossip column. Do you think you could have been a gossip columnist in the mould of Nigel Dempster, for example?
I’m an admirer certainly. It really consists of knowing a tremendous number of people, and what is more it satisfies a tremendous human want. Provided it’s not malicious or libellous, there’s no great harm in tittle-tattle about people; it’s a service to journalism. I’m not prepared to be tendentious about Nigel Dempster or any of the other columns. I would be ill suited to them, partly because I prefer writing about things rather than people, and it’s not quite my cup of tea. But I wouldn’t be ashamed to do it.
Five years ago you accepted a peerage. There is some disquiet about the honours system in this country: so often such things seem rewards for political loyalty. Do you think this is fair in a democracy such as ours?
I’ve had doubts about all prefixes in honours, that is to say anything that goes in front of somebody’s name. I think that suffixes, however, are rather different. I also believe that this country with a social revolution which has travelled much faster than most of us appreciate, is growing out of the honours system. The system as it’s now constructed has a limited life, but I would prefer to see the country grow out of it than have a swift termination. I find certain difficulties about the House of Lords because, for reasons I can only surmise, the temperature of the House of Lords is kept at the level of an intensive-care ward, and I find it very hard to concentrate my mind when I’m there. The heating arrangements are excessive, but that’s a purely personal problem.
I recall that you wrote somewhere that politics kept you apart from your son when he was young, and indeed he explained that he has avoided politics as a career partly because of the effect it might have on his own family. Have you ever regretted this side of things?
I have in a way. Had I not had an admirable wife my children would have suffered. A great many children suffer through the excessive zeal of their families in public life, so I would think more carefully about it given my time again. In reality, and far beyond my deserts, my children do not seem to have been adversely affected by my preoccupation with public affairs. As for my son, he has made a considerably greater success of his life in journalism than I ever did and in fact is now in a position of responsibility in which politics are ruled out anyway.
Laurence Marks in a profile of you spoke of your ‘determination to keep the Telegraph independent of the Tory government it supports’. What does it mean to be independent in that context?
Not to find yourself in the pocket of any minister, including the prime minister, of whom I was personally very fond but whose company I avoided in relation to anything to do with the Daily Telegraph. If I learned one thing before the war, apropos of the relationship between the foreign secretary and The Times at the time of Munich and relations between proprietors and ministers in the thirties, it was that there were great dangers in editors getting themselves too close to people in office. Once you are made a repository of a confidence, an invisible mechanism starts to work; you play it the way he would like to see it played and not the way you should play it. So I found as an editor it was imperative to be perfectly friendly with all ministers, to accept invitations, to go and talk to them, to be briefed by them, but it was important to keep a certain distance; that seemed to me as an editor to be the most important thing. I’m sure my successor, Max Hastings, does exactly the same thing so that editorial judgements are totally independent. It doesn’t matter what arises, you have made no commitment; you have no agreement, and you have no understanding with any minister, and you are therefore free to say ‘this is rubbish’.
Every decade had its own conflict. The sixties saw the evolution of so-called free love and student power – in England we had Tariq Ali and in France we had Daniel Cohn-Bendit; the seventies saw the emergence of feminism; the eighties saw Thatcherism at full throttle. The nineties bear witness to the beginning of the end of communism … where do you see the next conflict?
Just when we think that the communist world has ended and the threat to our existence is diminished, we begin to worry ourselves – and rightly so – about certain faults and crevices which are beginning to appear in Western civilization. The big issue for us in the next decade is how to tackle very rapid and not altogether beneficial changes in our society. It’s almost impossible for ministers to interfere with certain courses which society takes, and in the ethical and moral field, I wonder how far we can depend on what Reginald Maudling when he was home secretary called the self-correcting mechanism. The really important political issue in the West is going to be to what extent government has a responsibility to interfere, and to what extent we are prepared to wait and see how far learning from our own mistakes will work. I put full confidence in the second, not much confidence in the ministers.
In my interview with Prime Minister Edith Cresson, which was published recently in the Observer, she caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that a large proportion of Anglo-Saxons are homosexuals. Although her claims are not based on any scientific research, would you not say it’s true that most Englishmen are not comfortable in the presence of women?
Well, a proportion are certainly not. I can perhaps best answer by relating an experience when I was chairman of our home affairs committee. Mr Butler who was then shadow home secretary said to me: ‘Bill, I hope that you will be able to persuade our party to oppose the Abse bill’ (the legalizing of homosexuality). I think it’s the only time in my life I was perhaps right and Mr Butler, who has a magnificent intellect, wrong. I said, ‘Rab, bear in mind that altering the law will not be enough. People being what they are, this will be followed by a long and continuous campaign of self-justification.’ To be told that you are legal is not enough; you must also feel that you are socially acceptable. And indeed I think I have been proved right in this, for you will observe that the law as it stands is not enough and pressure is going to be put on the prime minister to alter it yet again. People are not content with finding themselves within the law, they are insistent upon a form of social equality. The homosexual today desires and indeed insists not only on equality in employment but in all department, that he should be regarded as – in Mrs Thatcher’s well known phrase – one of us.
But why do you think it is that many Englishmen are not very comfortable in the presence of women?
In this country there has always been a sort of shyness between the two sexes. When I went to my first deb dances in London, there was always a certain reserve, but I don’t relate this to homosexuality about which my views are complex. I was in San Francisco not long ago and watched one of these gigantic marches of homosexuals protesting about the failure of the government to deal with their problems. It is jolly difficult at my age to avoid drawing any conclusions from certain phenomena. I fight against this very hard. If you are going to remain in active journalism , you don’t want to regard every symptom that you don’t like as a process of degeneration, but I do find this new phenomenon gives me pause, and I think that a world in which virtually everything has become socially acceptable is a world in which standards, frankly, have slipped. There is far more freedom for people to indulge in habits which twenty or thirty or forty years ago would have been regarded as socially unacceptable. The degree of tolerance which has entered our society is too high. There is a great struggle among the liberals in Hampstead as to the misuse of part of the Heath by homosexuals, and the liberal camp is divided. One set say they have every entitlement to do what they wish to do, another set of liberals say that they are interfering with the freedom of families who want to walk round with their children. I find that a very interesting conflict. But I do believe there is a lack of restraint in public behaviour today, and I’m not absolutely certain that this is an advance in a civilized nation.
Most people hate to grow old, yet old age brings maturity and often peace of mind … what are your own feelings on this?
I count myself jolly lucky at my age to be kept actively working five days a week, because I’ve come to the conclusion that as you get older, you have to look at your mind, very much as when you’re young you attend to the fitness of your body. The great risk of old age, unless you exercise your mind, is that you become a tremendous bore to other people. There is a great tendency for your mind to close in on itself, and then all you really do is go on about the past. The great virtue of journalism is that it keeps your mind concentrated. People ask why I don’t write my memoirs. The practical reason, apart from the fact that I rather object to the idea anyway, is that I cannot possibly devote my mind to thinking of what’s going to happen tomorrow, which is, for journalistic purposes, essential, while half my mind is occupied with digging out what happened yesterday. And tomorrow on the whole keeps me fitter.
What weakness, if any, would you attribute to yourself?
I really admire people who have a bit more dash about them. I’m cautious, over cautious. I do too much thinking before I leap. If I’m pushed into it I will take initiatives, but I suffer from a certain passivity. It sounds a rather odd thing to say, but every now and again I get mildly alarmed at the extent to which someone of my rather limited intellectual capacities has succeeded in doing certain things. I’ve done a certain amount of self-education but not nearly enough, and therefore my capacities are more limited than you might suppose and occasionally it looks to me as if I’m like one of these children who are accused of getting very easy A levels and that is how I’ve slipped through my life.