Perhaps my most productive year for interviews was in 1992. Among the great and the learned whom I took on was Lord Shawcross, one of the most remarkable barristers of his generation.
Born in Germany in 1902, Hartley William Shawcross was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1925 and became senior lecturer in law at Liverpool in 1927. After service in World War II, he was Attorney-General between 1945 and 1951 and president of the Board of Trade (1951) in the Labour government.
He was chief British prosecutor at the Nuremburg war criminal trials (1945-6), led the investigations of the Lynskey Tribunal (1948) and prosecuted in the Fuchs atom spy case (1950). He resigned his parliamentary seat in 1958, saying he was tired of party politics and began a distinguished career in various public organisations and business directorships.
He was made one of Britain’s first life peers in February 1959, and sat in the House of Lords as a cross-bencher. A somewhat controversial politician, moving from the left to the right, to join the fledgling Social Democrats at the end of his long life, Shawcross resisted suggestions that he should write his memoirs, holding that he had nothing to apologise for, and nothing to explain. Nevertheless his autobiography, Life Sentence, was published in 1995. He died, aged 101, in 2003.
My interview with him follows:
Lord Shawcross, you have a remarkable number of really quite different activities in your life. Which has given you most satisfaction?
A very difficult question. The one thing that I found most agreeable was being the father of a family.
Much more than being attorney-general or an illustrious QC?
My work as attorney-general was extremely interesting; looking back on it I feel I did it reasonably competently, and I remember it with a certain amount of self-satisfaction.
You have been in government, the head of various panels, and a businessman on a large scale with wide experience. Do those activities require the same qualities or very different ones?
They probably require different ones. The legal position, of course, demands an adequate knowledge of the law, and if you are an advocate, as I was, some power of exposition, but you’re not generally concerned with problems of policy, except in so far as this involves a particular legal question. I would have thought that the most important quality is common sense and a degree of honesty, integrity.
You began your political career as a socialist, but I suppose there would be few who think of you any longer in that light. Does that surprise you?
No. It depends of course what you mean by socialism. I was always a radical, still am. I come of a radical tradition, and in the 1940s, up to the 1950s, socialism was the creed of most radicals. Mr Kinnock is now saying very much what I said in 1951. He has abandoned socialism in the old sense, and socialists are really now social democrats in the Continental sense.
You sit on the cross benches in the House of Lords. What was it about socialism that began to make you uneasy, and when did that unease start?
It started about the middle of Mr Attlee’s government when I found it really wasn’t working. One of the first measures for which I had a major responsibility was the reform of the trade union law, including the restoration of the rights to engage in almost unlimited picketing. I was sure the trade union members would be loyal and would not abuse this right. But in fact, within a year or two, it was being gravely abused; we were having mass picketing and a lot of unofficial strikes. That I think was my first disillusionment. Then I was president of the Board of Trade which brought me into contact with industrialists and the working of industry. I was only there for nine months, but I learned a lot, and then I realized that state control of industry was not working efficiently, and that it was characterized by a great deal of bureaucracy which it was almost impossible to eradicate from the system. I also realized more and more how important the ideas of personal incentive and individual gain were to the individuals concerned. They wanted to do the best they could for their families, as I did myself, and that was what encouraged them most to hard work, rather than the idea of social service.
You knew Attlee well?
Very well, and I admired him. I think he will go down in history as a very able prime minister. He was of course deputy prime minister throughout the war, and responsible for a great deal of the more detailed work on day-to-day administration while Winston Churchill was the great leader. Attlee was a tower of strength to him, and although socially they didn’t get on very well, Winston did rely on him as being an honest and responsible and helpful person during the war.
You turned your back on the Labour Party in 1958…
To say I turned my back on them is a bit hard. I left them certainly and went to the cross benches. In the House of Lords when I spoke at all, which wasn’t very often, I was often critical of the policies of Harold Wilson’s government – who wasn’t? – but on other occasions I supported them. I haven’t completely turned my back on them, and I left my own constituency on very friendly terms.
Many people at the time and since said that it was in order to reap the rewards of the boardroom. How do you answer that?
There is some truth in it, but I could of course have remained at the bar. What happened after the fall of the labour government at the end of 1951 was that I went back to practise at the bar, and I built up probably the leading practice of the time, although fees were in real terms not so high as they are today; according to the newspapers, I was making the largest income at the bar, but I couldn’t save anything. The taxation rate at that time left me with about sixpence in the pound. I had a wife who was much younger than myself and three children, and we had no private means. I was very much concerned with the obvious probability that I should die long before my wife did and probably before my family had grown up, and that I must make provision for them. That really forced me to go into industry where I could enter into some arrangement which insured a pension covering my wife. That was the basic reason for leaving the bar. I could of course have gone on the bench, but that didn’t attract me for one reason and another.
There are repeated efforts made by the right to tar all socialists with the totalitarian brush. Is there any sense, do you think, in which socialists are bound to be anti-libertarian?
When I was a member of an undoubtedly socialist government, we were to some extent anti-libertarian because we believed in the efficacy of controls. A great many control and restrictions on liberty were essential during the war, and we carried them on during the period of demobilization and reconstruction after the war, but it must be remembered that even after the Labour Party went out of office in 1951 and the conservatives came back, a good many controls had still to be continued, such as rationing of one kind and another and exchange controls. Some degree of restriction on complete liberty is probably necessary in any system of ordered government and is more likely to occur when that government is of the left rather than the right.
The larger-scale experiment with socialism – I mean communism – really does seem to have gone badly wrong. Why do you think that was? After all, it’s not such a bad ideal.
There was a strong, largely underground movement of communism in this country in the period immediately following the war, naturally encouraged by the success of the Russians during the war. The communists made a very great effort, with some success, to secure control of the trade unions. I was very much involved in it in a way, because I was aware of the underground efforts the communists were making and I helped to support the more orthodox, right-wing trade unions. I was involved in the case which destroyed the communist leadership of the electrical trade union, for example. In the end communism failed because it took no account of the natural instincts of people both to improve their own condition and to enjoy a certain amount of freedom and liberty.
It looks increasingly likely that the immediate sources of trouble are going to be racial, ethnic and religious. How can troubles which stem from such sources be resisted? So much of the fervour and hatred is irrational, it surely can’t respond to rational arguments.
I wish I had an answer to that. I don’t think anybody has. The antagonism between the races is probably not so obvious as it was earlier, but I’m not sure about it. We are taught now to avoid offensive expressions that were quite common form in the old days. At that time to say a man was a nigger was, I think, not nearly so offensive as it is to say it now. The religious conflict is much more difficult to deal with, and I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to it. I’m a member of the Church of England, I go to church occasionally, but I’m not engaged in any religious crusade myself. I believe it’s very important that people should believe in something, and I am very happy to include amongst my friends people of very different religions, but the antagonism which is appearing in some places now is very worrying.
As you get older, do you become more or less religious?
Possibly I have become a little more religious with age. It may be that as I get nearer the end I become more hopeful that the end will not be final, that there might be something beyond it, but it doesn’t absorb much of my thinking even now. All I can say is that I have a little hope that I may meet round the corner those who precede me.
You said once: ‘Things ended for me completely when my second wife died.’ Has the passage of time eased the loss?
Not really. I have a family who are very caring of me, and I’m very fond of them. We are a close knit family, and I have a very small group of friends and a particular companion, but I still think constantly of my second wife, and indeed of my first wife. I had two very happy marriages and I look back on them with great gratitude. My enthusiasm for life did rather come to an end with the death of my second wife, which came as a terrible shock to me. I had never anticipated living after her, and had fully intended not to do so, but circumstances made that course impossible.
Do you believe you will see her again?
I hope I may. I carry in my pocketbook, even today, something that one sees quoted much more often in memorial services. It’s a prayer that was written by Henry Scott Holland: ‘Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room, I am I, and you are you; what we were to each other we are still; call me by my familiar name…’ and so on.
You have argued powerfully against the resumption of trials of war criminals, and yet you were the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg. Are the two positions consistent? How do you defend the charge that this suggests if you can get away with it for long enough it does not count?
I am against these trials, wholly against them, because experience has shown that the evidence of identification on which these trials would depend is always one of the frailest forms of evidence. People’s memoirs are very often misleading, and after even a few days, evidence of identification becomes unreliable. After forty-five years it’s utterly unreliable and some of the recent trials have shown that. They seem to have made a mistake in the current trial taking place in Israel, and they’ve adopted the extraordinary course of having found the man guilty under one particular identity, and then, apparently accepting that the identification was quite wrong, they have charged him with a different set of crimes, which seems to me a monstrous injustice. There is no possibility that these trials could be fair; that’s the only reason I am opposed to them.
Did you feel any sympathy with any of the accused at Nuremberg?
No. I was opposed to capital punishment, I always have been, but I felt that if capital punishment was ever deserved it was deserved by these men. And I was very surprised that some of them got off altogether. Schacht, for instance, who in his earlier days had made a very important contribution to the Nazi movement. He was a natural genius who had built up the Nazi economy into the very efficient war machine that it became, and he was very fortunate to be released. Von Papen was another who had contributed significantly to the Nazi regime, and I thought that he should have been punished. I had no sympathy for any of them.
What about Hess?
I thought Hess was mad; the very idea of flying to Scotland and meeting the Duke of Hamilton, and he could bring about a peace, shows that he was a little mad. At the trial a team of doctors said that he was mentally affected, but that he could understand what was going on. They were perhaps influenced by the fact that they were representatives of the victorious powers, but his conduct during the trials was obviously that of a madman. I assumed at that time that the life sentence was meant to be commuted to a much shorter term, as it is in every country in the world except the former Soviet Union, who insisted that he be kept in prison.
Of all the criminals who were there, who impressed you the most?
No question about that, it was Goering, Goering was absolutely outstanding; a man of very great intellectual ability and with a very strong personality, who sat at the end of the dock, listening to the whole of the proceedings very intently. From time to time something would go a little wrong; you would ask a question to which the expected answer was Yes, and the whiteness would say No, and if then you caught Goering’s eye, he would shake his head sadly, or smile, and you had to be very careful to avoid smiling with him. As Norman Birkett said, he could have dominated the whole court if he’d tried to. He was very remarkable, and at the end of it all when he had been sentenced to death, his last statement from the dock was that he had sworn allegiance to Hitler in death as in life, and he said: ‘I swore that, I meant it, and I still do.’ He had great courage, and he knew that he as going to defeat the gallows in the end anyway.
You were the chairman of the Take-over Panel at one point. Why is there such a thing? It seems at odds with the whole notion of a free market; if one company can gobble up another, why shouldn’t it?
No reason at all, provided it does so by open and honest means. The panel was set up in order to ensure that it should be done fairly, not by insider dealing or intrigues of one kind or another which are unjust to the shareholders, or potential shareholders in either company. That was the whole purpose of it, not to stop over-takers, which have often been beneficial. Prior to the establishment of the Take-over Panel by the governor of the Bank of England there had been some bad cases of dishonest conduct. The open market is a very important thing provided it is open and honest.
How far do you think the government ought to interfere in business? There is a great deal of talk about the market place and the healthy effect of competition, but some of the most successful economies, like the German and the Japanese, are heavily interventionist.
That is a matter which is partly the result of our different history and upbringing. The Germans are much more used to intervention and discipline than we have ever been. I was born in Germany and I got to know a fair amount about Germany even before Nuremberg; verboten was a very familiar word in Germany and still is. I don’t know so much about Japan but they are also much more accustomed to a dominant class than we are in this country. I believe we have a lot to learn both from the Japanese and the Germans, and it may well be that their system of supervisory boards is a good one which will require much more examination that we have hitherto been prepared to give it.
Twenty years ago you said that the British judicial system was at once the envy and the admiration of the world. Do you think you could find anyone to agree with that now? In fact do you still think it is true?
It is still true. Unfortunately there have been a number of cases recently involving apparent deliberate perjury on the part of the police. In my day, altering the verbals, as they call it, was virtually unknown. Recently there have been cases so bad that the judges at first couldn’t believe what had occurred, and they were perhaps not sufficiently vigilant in scrutinizing the evidence given for the prosecution and the police; but I still think that our system of appointing judges with their independence and integrity is a good one. Of course, our system of justice is quite different from that of the French under the Code Napoleon, and theirs may have a lot to be said for it, but I certainly prefer our way of appointing the judiciary to the American system. I think our Bench on the whole is extremely good.
Don’t you think that the time may have come for a radical overhaul of the legal process and professions in this country? All sorts of things seem to be out of control – unsafe convictions, grotesque anomalies in sentencing, and so on.
The commission which is now enquiring into the administration of the criminal law will probably come up with some safeguards, but I would be surprised if any drastic revision were required. I think it very significant that in this recent case of the Guinness No.2 trial the forewoman of the jury found it appropriate to write a letter to the Financial Times criticizing very strongly by implication the action of the judge in stopping the trial and in suggesting that juries could not understand trials of this kind. And she made it pretty clear that the jury at least thought that they were following the trial very closely and wished it to go on. What is needed is very great care in ensuring honesty on the part of the police and very severe punishment for those policemen who are found guilty of offences such as have occurred. What has been happening is that police officers have convinced themselves that they have arrested the people who were guilty of the particular charge they’ve been investigating, but the admissible evidence has not been sufficiently strong to satisfy the very rigid requirements of our law, and they have therefore tried to improve on the evidence by concocting statements which they attribute to the defendants, but which were not in fact made. I think it very rare indeed, if ever, that the police concoct deliberately false case against somebody whom they don’t believe is guilty, but what they do do is try and ice the cake, which is absolutely wrong and ought to be severely punished. On the other hand, I think we ought to do away with the rule that a person accused of an offence may refuse to answer questions. The rule we have now that no comment must be made by the prosecution on the silence of the defendant is one which seems to me to be absolutely contrary to the principles of justice. The innocent man demands the right to speak; it’s his great sword; the guilty man shelters in silence.
Is it not time to prevent juries awarding absurd sums of money to people whose feelings have been hurt?
Yes, I think the awards by juries in these cases have been quite absurd, and are largely due to the juries’ dislike of the activities of certain sections of the press in invading the privacy of individuals, or in casting doubt on the sexual probity of particular people. I think juries are averse to the sensationalization of sex in this way, and although they read all these papers, they don’t like it when it comes to a particular case, and they feel that the press ought to be punished for it. It may be necessary in these cases, and possibly in all cases, to have damages fixed by the judge and possibly assessors with special experience.
What view do you take of the libel laws? Years ago Robert Maxwell was branded as someone not fit to hold an office of trust, but nothing whatever was done and the threat of libel actions kept everyone at bay until the pension funds had disappeared.
I was the first person to cross-examine Robert Maxwell, and it was in consequence of that, a very long time ago, that the board of trade, my old department, set up an enquiry and concluded, as the City panel had done, that he was unfit to be a director of a public company. It is quite extraordinary that responsible people, including the heads of many of the banks, disregarded that and accepted Maxwell as being an honest and reliable man. I knew Maxwell quite well, because I cross-examined him for about nine hours and I formed an opinion that he was absolutely unreliable; but I recognize that he had a great deal of personal charm which seems to have carried him forward in spite of the very adverse verdicts, first by the City panel, and following that by the board of trade. There’s a lot of criticism to be made against some of the people who assisted him in his business activities, the banks who lent him money without sufficient safeguards, and the people in important places who consorted with him.
Were you affected by what you call his ‘personal charm’?
During the case I came to realize that he had charm. At the end we had to settle the press statement at about 2 o’clock in the morning, and when we showed the draft to Maxwell, he was very upset by the terms of it, and he wept, literally wept. I was rather moved by that, and I made one or two modifications so that it was slightly less harsh. But the report we made was so damning none the less that I felt Maxwell must hate me, and as I didn’t like him, I took care to avoid him in the years that followed. I don’t think I ever spoke to him until about eighteen months ago when I went to a press luncheon at the Savoy given by Lord Stevens, then of the Evening Standard. When I saw Maxwell was on the list of guests, I resolved to avoid him, and I went to the end of the Lancaster Room, found some friends there, had a drink with them, and told them I was keeping out of Maxwell’s way. But up he came, held out both his arms, and said, ‘Hello Hartley, old boy, how good to see you!’ He had never called me Hartley in his life, but what could one do but shake hands with him? He certainly had that sort of charm which I didn’t succumb to myself, but many people did.
Regarding the right to privacy, you stated in 1970: ‘The world is a much less private place than it used to be, and those who engaged in public life are a legitimate subject of interest to the public at large.’ Do you think this legitimate interest extends to sexual morality, bearing in mind that American political candidates are judged to be fit or unfit for office largely on personal matters which have little to do with politics?
If a man engages in public life, it is a matter of legitimate interest to the public to know what sort of man he is. Is he the sort of man we can trust? Amongst the considerations that many people would have regard to, would be his sexual fidelity. Within reason, therefore, there is a legitimate interest in the sexual behaviour of public men, that the newspapers are entitled to expose. I don’t think they are justified in hounding men in public office, but if they find that a man is notoriously unfaithful to his wife, disregards the interests of his family, has one mistress after another, I think that is a matter for legitimate concern on the part of the public.
But does it make him politically a less able man because he’s sexually active?
It’s not a question of sexual activity; it’s a question of sexual morality. Is he a man who is faithful to his word, is he true to his friends, is he true to his wife? If he’s not married, and has no obligations of that kind, then his sexual activities are of much less concern, but if his is promiscuous, that is a matter which the public is entitled to have regard to in deciding whether he is fit to govern their lives.
After the recent revelations about Paddy Ashdown, his popularity increased significantly. What do you think this demonstrates? That we are unwilling to follow the American model; that we are adopting a more mature, less censorious attitude; or is it all orchestrated by the media?
I think it does show that we don’t like the American attitude to these problems, and it may show a greater degree of sophistication. The Great British Public accepted that this particular incident had occurred a long time ago, that his wife knew all about it, that she had forgiven him, that their marriage was happily continuing and that it was quite unfair to rake up this shortlived incident of many years ago. I think it was a good reaction on the part of the British public, and a good reaction against the press publicity given to what after all is a fairly trivial incident.
Why should barristers have a monopoly on pleading in the High Court? This does not happen anywhere else in Europe and it looks remarkably like a lucrative closed-shop arrangement.
It’s the result of the historical development of the legal system in this country. Here we have always had a division between those who are advocates in court and specialize in advocacy, and those who are attorneys, as Trollope called them, who do non-litigious work. The result has been that we have had a special class of person who has specialized in advocacy and court work. He has no direct association with his client at all. He has no incentive to put the evidence or take any measure which is not strictly honest, and he is supposed – these are the words of a famous judge – to act as a minister of justice. He is there to assist in the application of the law with complete independence. That is the theory. On the whole it’s adhered to, although there have been notable departures from it, but I think our system has maintained a much higher standard of independence and honesty in the administration of justice than would have been the case if the two professions had been one.
So you’re in favour of maintaining the system as it stands now?
It’s been very much modified by the reforms introduced by the present lord chancellor, and solicitors have been given certain rights of audience and more opportunity of going on the bench. I’m not dismayed by that. It means they can now be appointed to the bench if they have any obvious merit, and they can do advocacy if they think it worthwhile. But in America where the system doesn’t exist, all the big firms have trial lawyers who specialize in the trial work and other lawyers who don’t, and if you go with a case to a Wall Street lawyer, you probably end up by seeing all the partners in the firm, and paying a fee to each of them. Our system is probably much cheaper – although it’s far too expensive now – and is very efficient in maintaining a degree of independence on the part of the bar.
When you were practising as a QC, which case gave you the most satisfaction to win?
I don’t know that one really derives a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction from winning a case. I had some cases which I won but did not expect to, but I don’t remember them with any particularity. I had a very bad memory for cases, and once a case was finished it was finished. In fact, I can claim to have forgotten all my cases; I don’t know why that was, but they went completely out of my mind, and the only way I can remind myself is by looking at press cuttings. I’m astonished sometimes when I read the cuttings to know that I was in the case at all.
In 1970 you were warning of the consequences of ‘a sickness in our society and politics which bodes ill for us all’. Do you think that prophecy has been fulfilled, or was it premature?
I was very disillusioned with the way that party politics were being conducted at that time; everything one party proposed was automatically opposed by the other. I thought we should try to seek a much greater consensus, and at one time when the country was in a bad state of recession I almost suggested that we ought to have some sort of coalition government to improve matters. That was the sickness; we were all too suspicious of each other and not prepared to cooperate enough.
At one point you were chairman of Thames Television. Did you feel at that time any obligation say to ensure a high standard of production, or was it just a matter of maximizing your shareholders’ profits?
I felt that we had a very great responsibility. I was in fact the first chairman of Thames Television. I remember I was in New York at the time I received a telephone message from the head of EMI telling me that they had joined up with another company to establish Thames Television. The television commission insisted on their having some sort of impartial chairman, and would I agree to take the job on? He also told me that I could quote any terms I liked. I was naïve about that, and I accepted a ridiculously small salary compared with what people get nowadays. My job as chairman was to help ensure that the company was very responsibly conducted, and we did some very good things. I was astonished when the franchise was not renewed; I think it’s a great misfortune.
Are you in favour of the BBC charter changing, or should it retain total independence as it has now?
It ought to have independence, yes. On the whole it is the most responsible of the broadcasting organizations, and the present system has justified itself, so far as it concerns the BBC. I wish I could think that there was the same responsibility on the part of all the independent companies.
Every government in recent times has levelled criticism of bias against the BBC. Is this paranoia do you think, or is there some substance to it?
There’s possibly some substance to it. The BBC think their task is to be critical rather than supportive and that is the reason why every government has criticized them for bias, but my impression is that on the whole people in television are more inclined to be left wing than right wing, and so there is always a certain degree of leftish slant. I believe the leaders of the BBC are on their guard against this, however, and as a rule succeeded in avoiding anything that is at all scandalous.
In 1974 you made a statement on corruption in high places and how you were prevented by legal privilege of secrecy from disclosing your ‘incontrovertible evidence’ and thus having the offenders pursued. At the time you said: ‘And so the evildoers continue to flourish.’ Do they still continue to flourish, in your view?
I made that statement when I was still at the bar, and had a great deal of work concerning financial and industrial problems. Occasionally one came across cases of dishonesty, like the one that you’re referring to, which were very serious. I think that cases of financial corruption in government or in the higher ranks of the civil service are very rare, but I’ve no doubt that such cases do occur to be severe in dealing with them. Recent developments in the City have been very disturbing indeed. When I first came into the City standards were undoubtedly very high and the old adage, my word is my bond was accepted. Nobody would act on that nowadays I’m afraid, and that is a very bad sign. There has been a lowering of moral standards because of the intense competition and the desire to get rich quick which permeates our society nowadays.
What view did you take of Mrs Thatcher when she was in power?
I thought she was a very remarkable and able woman. I didn’t by any means always agree with her policies, but I thought that she had a stronger personality probably than any prime minister I’ve known, and that she succeeded in dominating her cabinet probably more than any prime minister, even Churchill. This was not in itself a good thing, because the constitutional theory is that the prime minister is the first amongst equals, but this had ceased to be the case with her. Mr Major does not have the same dominant personality, but Mrs Thatcher on the whole was a woman who has had a considerable effect on the development of life in this country, and history will probably give a more favourable account of her than we’re inclined to do at present.
Did you approve of her curbing the power of the unions?
Yes, entirely. I was the lawyer who was responsible for making the alternations in the law and introducing the Trades Disputes Bill in 1946, so I say with regret that Mrs Thatcher was right in restricting their powers. The trade union leadership had abused the powers given to them, and they had to be restricted. What she has done is not likely to be drastically altered by a labour government, so the position of the trade unions is now weaker but more responsible, and better from the point of view of the well-being of the country.
Although Mrs Thatcher was a tremendous force in politics she is not taken as seriously as before. Do you think this is the universal fate of those who lose high office – their charisma vanishes with their status?
No. It wasn’t the case with Churchill who was defeated in 1945 by a very large majority, but his charisma and personality remained. Wherever he went, enormous crowds cheered him, and although I was a strong opponent of his, and very critical of him, I always said publicly that I would not have been there, able to criticize him and attack him, if it had not been for his leadership in the war. He had saved the country during the war, but he was not a good prime minister during the peace. Later on I became very friendly with him, and indeed acted in some minor cases as his legal adviser. Without a doubt he retained his charisma. Harold Macmillan also had a certain charm which remained after his defeat; Harold Wilson on the other hand went exactly the other way. I don’t know if I agree that Mrs Thatcher has lost her charisma; she still attracts crowds, and I find her a very interesting and agreeable woman, but she has of course very strong opinions of her own with which I don’t always agree.
Why do you think she was thrown out?
I wouldn’t have believed it possible that a prime minister could be thrown out of the cabinet while she was actually abroad in Paris conducting the country’s business. I had anticipated that there would be a tremendous outcry, but it all went off very quietly and calmly, and on the whole she behaved very well. She has deliberately remained rather quiet because she doesn’t want to attack the conservatives in the run up to an election.
You were openly critical of Harold Wilson for what you saw as his reticence about the political motivation behind the strikes of the early 1970s. Were you generally critical of his premiership?
Yes. I was critical of him from the time that he left the labour government in 1951 when Attlee was in hospital; he followed Nye Bevan and resigned from the cabinet and produced something of a crisis. I didn’t like him, and although I knew him fairly well, I was never a personal friend, and I was critical of his policies. He on the other hand was very fair towards me. I was unaware until quite recently that he regarded me as his main rival and competitor for the leadership of the Labour Party. I’d never really competed for the leadership, but Harold Wilson told another MP that I was his main danger, and if I’d wanted to be leader and prime minister that nothing could have stopped me. I never realized he felt that about me and in any case I never saw myself as prime minister. The only time I might have taken the first step in that direction was when Attlee resigned from the leadership after he’d ceased to be prime minister. Amongst the potential candidates was Herbert Morrison who had been a great friend and supporter of mine. He’d given me my first wartime job when he became home secretary. I had an interest in becoming foreign secretary, which was my one ambition in politics, but he felt he must take that job because it was the next in importance to the premiership. He was an honest man, but a Little Englander who knew nothing about foreign affairs and only took the job because he thought it was a step towards the leadership. When the time came for a leadership election I might have stood, but I didn’t, and not having become the leader of the Labour Party I would never have become prime minister. The rest of that story is too elaborate to go into now, but I was surprised at Harold Wilson’s much more friendly attitude towards me than my own towards him.
Do you believe there was a dirty-tricks campaign against Harold Wilson?
I never had any reason to think there was any campaign of that kind. Anything is possible, but I would regard the idea that the secret service could have plotted against him as extremely unlikely. The heads of the secret service are appointed by the prime minister of the day, subject to an all-party degree of supervision. This is not regarded as a political appointment, so I cannot imagine that they would deliberately plot against the prime minister. It is conceivable that they might conclude from their own information that the prime minister himself was behaving in a way which was contrary to the interests of the country, that he was in league with the Soviets; there were suspicions of that kind undoubtedly, a general feeling that his association with the Russians was too close – that was certainly the political gossip. If the secret service had any concrete evidence that the prime minister of the day was behaving in a way which was treasonable, or seditious, the head of the service would have been in a very difficult position and he would have had to do something. But I don’t think it possible that the secret service would engage in any secret and dishonest campaign against the prime minister. I think that is highly improbable.
Of all the labour elder statesmen Harold Wilson is the least talked about, the least respected perhaps. Why do you think that is?
It’s partly the fact of his disappearance from public life, due to illness, and the very curious circumstances in which he resigned, quite unexpectedly, giving no reason at all, and even today we’re still speculating about what the reasons were. Did he, for instance, know that he’d got a very grave illness coming on and decide that he would resign before it became obvious? That is a possible explanation, but I’ve no idea whether it is the correct one. The final honours list was regarded with great surprise and disfavour and his policies had not worked out very successfully. The country was a mess at the end of his premiership. People also felt that he had a curious relationship with his secretary, that she had a very strange influence on him. I don’t think they worried about any sexual relationship, but they thought she had a rather sinister influence on his political judgement, and they didn’t like some of his friends.
But do you think history will be kinder to him?
No. I don’t think that he’s done anything that would earn much praise in the history books.
Do you think the press council really does any good at all? After all, it is rightly called a watchdog because it can’t bite, it can only watch.
I was chairman of the press council and I wanted it to exercise much greater power, but the newspaper owners were always opposed to giving it real power and for a long time it consisted entirely of press people, without any independent element. It took some time before we got independent people on to it. It still is dominated by press people and it has always set its face against any really effective sanctions. There ought to be sanctions which involve dismissing a journalist who’s transgressed, and even sacking an editor, but they won’t do that. So it is a body without many teeth, but I don’t think it’s useless.
And it is incestuous…
Indeed it is. I’m afraid that here may have to be changes in the law. The worrying thing about the press now is the extent to which it is purveying trivialities, mostly sexual trivialities, but all the newspapers, even the quality ones, have deteriorated.
Are you in favour of a freedom of information act?
In America it is very fully observed and it is quite extraordinary that information which we should regard as confidential, the Americas are quite happy to have divulged. Here, government officials and members of government are perhaps too much inclined to think that everything they do is so important that it must be secret. On the other hand, as an executive officer of Asprey and Mappin and Webb, you could not allow your staff to talk to the newspapers whenever they found anything which they thought might be a nice little titbit. If they gave away your private correspondence, you’d sack them. You must have confidence that you can discuss things which will not be repeated, and in the case of a government, you must be able to discuss some matters in cabinet or reach some decisions which you can’t publish. So I think some degree of secrecy is inevitable.
What about the Spycatcher affair?
Yes, the government did look foolish there. I think we overdo it, but I wouldn’t go as far as the Americans go. I think the Americans have interfered with the efficiency of their government and made it sometimes reluctant to reach decisions because of the fact that they would be exposed to immediate publicity.
It is very fashionable these days to have voluntary codes of practice, but why should those controls that the government thinks necessary not be statutory? One can imagine the sort of attention a Robert Maxwell would give to a voluntary code of practice.
Some codes start as voluntary codes are eventually incorporated in the law when a convenient opportunity arises, but one mustn’t overload the law, and if matters can be dealt with by a voluntary code that’s a good thing. What one needs as a condition of such codes is professionalism by those who are affected by them, a sense that it is their duty to themselves and to their profession to adhere to the code and find that people are only interested in seeing how close they can go to breaking it.
If you could do whatever you wanted, what aspect of the law would you change?
I would certainly change the criminal law about the defendant not being required to give evidence. That is the main obstacle to a great many people being convicted who ought to be convicted.
Apart from wishing to become foreign secretary, did you have other ambitions which you haven’t attained?
I often wonder, looking back, whether I shirked public responsibilities in favour of a family life. I’m afraid I lacked ambition in the ordinary sense. I married very young, before I was qualified for the bar, a girl who turned out to be very ill. She was gravely ill at the time I married her, gravely and fatally ill.
Did you know then?
I didn’t know at all; I discovered it within a day or two. But we had twenty years of happy marriage – no sex, no children, but happiness, and though it ended in tragedy after twenty years, I look back on it with gratitude and remember it all very vividly. I married again very quickly having been advised by one particularly close friend not to observe the conventions. We had three children and we had a very happy married life. My main ambition was really to enjoy this, to have enough money to live reasonably comfortably and make provision for my family after I’d died. I had another thirty years of marriage before that too ended in tragedy. During that time I could have been chief justice. I was offered that position twice by Attlee, the first time because I was attorney-general, the tradition in those days being that if the lord chief justice fell vacant the attorney-general of the day was virtually automatically appointed. I thought that was absolutely wrong; I was a very young man, pretty well unknown to the public, I’d only been attorney-general for just over a year, and so I refused it. And Attlee was very pleased. Later on I was offered the position of master of the rolls, on the same basis, that it traditionally went to the attorney-general. I again refused it, and later still I had the possibility of becoming lord chancellor. I refused that too, and looking back on it, I wonder whether I was really being rather selfish, and concerned more with my own comfort and family life than I ought to have been. The same thing’s true of the possibility of getting to the top in politics. The result is that I am nothing.
Are you disappointed in life?
My life has been content. I’ve had great sorrow, two tragedies … three really, because my younger brother, who was a QC also, died in an accident. But I was very close to my parents, and I’m very fond of my own family with whom I have an excellent relationship. I don’t feel disappointed or embittered; I feel that I’ve had a happy life, not a very useful life, but a happy one.