Monthly Archives: May 2014

Lord Callaghan

Lord Callaghan was born in 1912 in Portsmouth, where he spent his early years. He entered the Civil Service as a tax officer in 1929 and served in the Royal Navy during the war.

He joined the Labour Party in 1931 and entered Parliament as MP for South Cardiff in 1945. In 1964 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Harold Wilson’s government. He was Home Secretary (1967-70) and Foreign Secretary (1974-6) and in April 1976 he was elected Prime Minister on Harold Wilson’s resignation. He resigned as Leader of the Opposition in 1980 and was made a life peer in 1987, the year in which he published his autobiography, Time and Chance.

He died in 2005, one day before his ninety-third birthday, having been the longest-lived British prime minister to date.

I interviewed him in June 1999 and found him easy to talk to, and a man without any false pretensions. I ended up liking him without even trying.

Here is the full text of our encounter.

Your extraordinary political career, your rise from humble beginnings to hold the highest office in the land, the only person in fact to have held all four great offices of state – all this is well known and documented. But I’m curious about Callaghan the man – as opposed to the politician. Would you agree that they are not the same person? 

Yes. With close family I don’t convey the same impression as I seem to convey publicly, though I suppose the principles and standards by which one lives as a private person should also inspire what one does publicly. I can’t say I always live up to that, though I try. The world of politics is rather rougher than the world of the family or close friends, but I think principles and standards emerge automatically when you do something. It is very difficult to disguise them or run away from them.

Would you say that you are gentler in private life than in your political life? 

In my early career that was certainly true. In later life, I am so gentle that people often fall asleep when they listen to me.

Would you say that life for you has been defined in terms of politics, or do you regard politics as something apart? 

It has been defined in terms of politics. I wanted to live in a way that one would achieve certain aims. Politics is a very demanding mistress but if you are going to be in a position to influence events and do particular things you must give your life to it. We all came back from the war determined that Britain would not be the same place it had been in the 1930s or the 1920s; we wanted to change Britain, and we devoted ourselves to that.

When you became Prime Minister the Sun newspaper delved into your background and discovered that your father had changed his name and date of birth to avoid being traced when he ran away to sea… 

Yes, I have since been in touch with family members on my father’s side. I discovered that he had a cousin living in Australia, my father’s brother’s daughter, and she was able to tell me some very interesting stories. My father, who was by way of being a bit of a joker, used to tell my mother never to look up his family because they were either in jail or had been deported to Australia. He seems to have been right to some extent.

Your father, a Catholic of Irish descent, left the church in order to marry your mother, a Protestant, and you and your sister were brought up as Baptists. The Sun also turned up a Jewish grandmother, highly unusual in an Irish Catholic family. What effect did this religious mix have on you? Did it make you more or less sympathetic to different religious groups? 

More sympathetic, not so much for religious reasons but because I found the different groups to be attractive people with attractive faiths. I’ve always admired the Jews who came here greatly to our benefit when Hitler pushed a lot of them out of Germany. In 1938, when my wife and I had been married for only six weeks, there was an appeal to take in refugees from Germany and we were lucky enough to have an editor stay with us. Our families were rather concerned that so quickly in our married life we had somebody in our house, but he was a splendid man and I learned a great deal from him. As for Catholics, I have always admired – perhaps envied is a better word – their certainty, which I must say I don’t share myself. And when one comes across a man like Cardinal Hume, one has to respect a faith that produces such a man.

Your biographer Kenneth Morgan describes how as a Home Secretary you succeeded in showing understanding of both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland. He notes that you referred movingly in the House to your own religious background, saying, ‘I remember how my own parents regarded the Catholics.’ How exactly did they regard the Catholics? 

I’m afraid we were terribly bigoted. My mother felt very strongly that it was wicked to be a Catholic, and she expressed it in no uncertain terms.

Your biographer also quotes the view of many observers at the time that if you had remained at the Home Office after 1970, instead of being replaced by Reginald Maulding, your combination of fairness and decisiveness might have led a way out of the conflict. Given the evidence during the last twenty-five years of hatred on both sides, is it still possible to believe that? 

I admired Reggie Maulding and he was in many ways a friend, but I thought when he went to the Home Office that he was too laid back for Northern Ireland. It needed constant intervention, and I had a man there whose job was to make sure that the channels never got silted up. In terms of the larger question, no, I don’t think I would have been prevented the developments in Northern Ireland; I might have delayed them, but as the IRA gained strength that settled the issue. Peace might just have been a possibility when O’Neill was the Prime Minister in the 1950s. He had a breadth of outlook which was far wider than a number of Irish politicians on both sides, both Protestant and Catholic, who are terribly introverted, or at least have been in the past.

Doesn’t it look as if even the present peace plan has failed? 

I think we’d better wait and see. I’ve never condemned any move that has been made, although I did feel at one stage that every time a British government produced a solution one or other side would attack it. At least we have now got all groups supposed to be working towards the peace settlement, and I wouldn’t want to destroy any feelings of hope and optimism that might exist. But it is the most difficult problem for this country, as well as for Ireland itself.

Your father died aged only forty-four when you were nine years old, and you felt his loss deeply. How do you think this affected you as you grew up? 

Only in later years have I come to realize that it affected me deeply. Children are extremely resilient and they bounce back, which I did, but I’m sure it did have an effect on me at the time in terms of my behaviour at school, for example. I wasn’t conscious of it since one didn’t examine oneself then the way that we all seem to do now. What I think I missed was the solace, the comfort and the example that a father would have given me when I was young.

Under the first Labour government there was no pension for your mother. It is almost impossible to imagine how she and others managed to feed and clothe children in these circumstances. Do you remember life as very hard? 

I didn’t think of it as very hard at the time. When I remember what I had to do, then it can seem rather hard in retrospect. For example, we lived a lot on the charity of the chapel, and when I came home from school on certain days I was told to call in on the fish auctioneer who was one of the chapel deacons. He would wrap up in a newspaper one or two fish that he’d subtracted from his sale, and we would have that. Otherwise our midday meal tended to be bread and dripping and a cup of cocoa made with water, which has put me off it ever since. But by comparision with some others life wasn’t hard. I have recently written a foreword for Roy Mason’s autobiography. As a young boy of fourteen, he went down the pit, and in a seam two feet high, three foot six inches wide, he would lie on his side shovelling coal. My life doesn’t compare with that kind of hardship and I cannot disguise my admiration for him.

According to your biographer your upbringing in Baptist fundamentalism has left you with ‘a Calvinistic sense of guilt, inadequacy, inner torment, and almost a neurotic sense of tragedy’. Considering what you have achieved, we should perhaps all wish for such burdens to bear… 

[laughter] Well, certainly there is an everlasting sense of guilt, but I’m not sure about the tragedy. My father was evidently an eternal optimist and I think I probably inherited that side of his character. But I do have a feeling that I have not done what I should have done; I’ve never been able to escape that, even today at the age of eighty-seven. Ridiculous, but there you are.

Did you perhaps feel that it was difficult to live up to your father who had packed such a lot into his short life – running away to join the navy, rapid promotion, a dangerous expedition in Nigeria, serving on the royal yacht, and so on … wouldn’t any boy feel that was a hard act to follow? 

I wasn’t conscious of that until more recently. Today everyone is looking at their navels and I suppose I have fallen into the habit too. But during my active life I wasn’t very introspective, and I don’t think I ever consciously felt that I had to live up to my father.

Were you conscious of having a special relationship with your mother, as the youngest child and only son of a dead father? 

No, I wasn’t. It seemed quite normal. I obviously had affection for her and I know she had a deep love for me, and a great pride in me. Whether I reciprocated as fully as I might have done, I wonder sometimes. When your mother finishes up in a rest home you do inevitably feel you might have done better by her. She would never have said so, however. She was an extremely independent, strong-minded woman.

You became a Sunday-school teacher, and it was there that you met your wife Audrey when she was sixteen. Audrey was your first love, but was she also your only love, or did you go out with other girls before you settled down? 

[laughter] Not formally, no. I gather there’s an old lady in Portsmouth – she may have died by now – who used to claim we went out together, but I don’t remember it.

You were obviously both religious young people … did you give your children an upbringing similar to your own, or had you both changed your views by then? 

My wife really had charge of that side of things, and she had never been as strict or disciplined as I had had to be in Baptist tradition. So the three children had a much freer upbringing than I did. I’m glad to say they are all very good characters and I’m proud of all of them.

At some point in you political rise to fame you became ‘Sunny Jim’ to the tabloid newspapers and were accepted as such by the rest of us, yet Kenneth Morgan sees this as ‘one of the less appropriate soubriquets for this sometimes difficult and bad-tempered man’. How do you respond to that? 

I must have given him some rough treatment when he used to come and see me [laughter]. I suppose I didn’t live up to my name. Of course I’ve got a bad temper, though it is better now than when I was in active life. I couldn’t suffer fools if they were people I worked with. If on the other had it was one of my constituents who was in real trouble and didn’t know how to handle things, then of course I wouldn’t begin to feel that way. But with my colleagues I would sometimes get very bad-tempered.

Morgan goes on to tell us that you are thought by some to be a bully and that Roy Jenkins has described you as ‘an aggressive pike, eating up the minnows’. Do you recognize yourself in any of this? 

I only bully people who are my equals; I wouldn’t ever bully someone weaker.

You are seen as reassuringly traditional in your views – a monarchist, a patriotic Englishman, slow to see the need for devolution or a Bill of Rights, a conservative with a small c, a man who found himself more in sympathy with some American Republicans than Democrats. Have you found it difficult to accept the idea of change in general? 

Well, I can accept some of that. I do need the case for change to be proved. On the other hand, when I entered Parliament had no difficulty about the change that was necessary in our institutions; nor do I have any doubt about it now, but it’s different when change is made for change’s sake. I therefore tend to want to see the evidence before I go along with the idea of change. I’m very good at analysis, but not so good at imaginative leaps; that is my weakness, but then I always said I would employ others to do that. My strength is understanding people, knowing what they are likely to react to, winning their understanding, their sympathy, their agreement, and being able to get to the nub of a problem very quickly. My weakness is not being able to find solutions very easily.

Were you ever driven to despair by the antics of the far left in the Labour Party, and were you at any time tempted to leave the party? 

I despaired very much of the far left, but I did not despair of the Labour Party. I am one who believes that fashions and attitudes swing like a pendulum; they go from one extreme to another without really settling in the middle. Occasionally they will settle temporarily in the middle, and if you happen to be there at the time then you’re very lucky. Did I ever think of leaving the Labour Party? Never. Would I leave my family, would I leave the party that gave my mother a pension, the party that gave me the opportunity of going to secondary school, the opportunity of being a Member of Parliament?

And then to be Prime Minister… 

Well, it was actually more important to be a Member of Parliament. When you are young like that, it is the acme of your being to represent people. It was a wonderful thing and I shall never forget it; 1945 was an annus mirabilis as far as I was concerned.

Morgan alleges that your old-fashioned beliefs about the role of women may have affected your relations with Barbara Castle, and that your hostility to her plan ‘In Place of Strife’ may have led indirectly to eighteen years of Tory rule and Mrs Thatcher’s destruction of the unions. Is there any truth in that? 

No, I don’t think for one moment that I have been anti-woman. I would like to be careful about what I say about Barbara, because frankly I am now too old to persist in long-standing quarrels and disputes, so I will confine myself to explaining a little of my objection to what Barbara was doing, rather than to Barbara herself. I was also a little piqued at the time since I had been handling the development of industrial relations on the party’s line, and then somehow Barbara took hold of it with Harold’s encouragement and went away for a quiet weekend with a few people and came up with an answer which was in my view totally superficial. It was intended to deal with unofficial strikes – though it would have done nothing of the sort – and I believed that the argument that was used was shoddy. I don’t like shoddy arguments, hence my opposition to what was done. Of course, I suppose I must carry some responsibility for Mrs Thatcher’s treatment of the unions, but they carry a lot of responsibility themselves in terms of weak leadership and irresponsible wage claims for thirty-five per cent at a time when I was offering five per cent. Wouldn’t they love to have five per cent now! But I should have been quicker on my feet. When I became Prime Minister I was twenty years older than Tony Blair is now, and I think I was getting a little tired.

You left the Baptist church, but did you retain your Christian faith? 

I didn’t formally leave the Baptist church, I just stopped going. Am I a Christian? That’s a difficult question, a very difficult question. I suppose I am, and I suppose I shall be buried as such, but I find some of the tenets of Christianity hard to accept.

Tony Blair is a committed Christian and makes no secret of it. Do you regard this as a strength or a weakness in a Prime Minister? 

Whichever way I answer that I’m going to get caught. I don’t wish to make a criticism of Tony Blair so I think I am going to bow out of that question.

Well, some people accuse Tony Blair of parading his Christianity and also of being hypocritical in terms of defending the bombing of Yugoslavia, for example, while talking of morals and justice … do you have any views on that? 

I don’t wish to discuss Tony Blair.

All right. Perhaps you can say what you yourself felt about the bombing of Yugoslavia. Would you have taken the same stance? 

I didn’t have a moral objection. I had a political objection to it, not to the bombing as such but to the policy that was being followed, and I conveyed my views privately to George Robertson, the Secretary for Defence. The government was faced with a very different situation, and this is one reason why I wouldn’t utter public criticism, because I think the government is entitled to support in those circumstances. Even if you express privately your own views you should not undermine what it is doing. But I think I would have to say that we are only at the start of this problem. You can relieve the humanitarian distress, but you cannot, I think, resolve it by force.

Anthony Howard has suggested that you have been treated with distain by some sections of New Labour … is there any truth in that? 

I think it is the fate of most people who have led the party to be reviled by their successors. It doesn’t concern me really. New Labour had to distance themselves from the Labour government of 1974-9 in order to win an election, but that doesn’t leave me with any sense of grievance.

In 1967 with your three children all married and starting families of their own, you and Audrey bought a farm in Sussex. Private Eye immediately accused you of suddenly becoming wealthy because of your association with rich businessman Charles Forte and Julian Hodge. Although the charges were unfounded, they must have been very damaging. How far did they hurt you and your wife in your personal lives? 

I didn’t take much notice. I can tell you the simple arithmetic of the situation. We has a house in Blackheath which I sold for fourteen thousand pounds, with a mortgage of course. I transferred the mortgage and added on to it by buying the farm for twenty-two thousand pounds – hardly a big deal. [laughter] One thing that did hurt me was in my connection with Julian Hodge, and that was a budget issue. A motorcycle manufacturer in Lancaster had written to me with a story about the impact of some duty that we had on motorcycles, saying it was killing his industry. I thought he had a case and that this duty, whatever it was, could go. Then about a fortnight before the budget Douglas Jay came to me from the Board of Trade and said that if we were doing it for motorcycles we should also do it for three-wheeler cars since they were always classified together. Of course it had never crossed my mind that Julian Hodge owned the Reliant motor company in the Midlands. The press built a huge story on the basis that I had relieved the three-wheeler motor-car industry because of my close links with Julian Hodge. There wasn’t a word of truth in it. I was younger and more sensitive in those days, and I really got angry. When I had been Chancellor for only a few weeks, a short letter appeared in The Times which read: Dear sir, Since the war there have only been two kinds of Chancellors of the Exchequer, those who left in disgrace and those who got out in time. Yours faithfully… [laughter]

From everything I have read, you are the rarest of beings – an honest man, in both your private and public lives. Do you, however, believe that the private lives of politicians should remain private? 

I wish I were as honest in thought as your question implies. I fear that I am dishonest in thought on some occasions, and I don’t live up to the standards that I like to espouse. But yes, I think politicians’ private lives should on the whole remain private. I read the other day that three journalists are now investigating Alastair Campbell’s private life, which I think is monstrous. What has his private life got to do with the public interest, or the way he is doing his work? I have nothing but contempt for so much of the press nowadays.

As Prime Minister you took over from a largely discredited Wilson… 

This sounds like a very loaded question…

No, his being largely discredited is surely a matter of historical fact. In any case, you yourself said early on that you wanted ‘to redeem the tawdriness of the Wilson regime’ – these are your own words. Did you regard this as a huge challenge or opportunity? 

I think all I want to say about it is that I had my own methods of conducting government and Harold had his. Harold had a great many advantages and virtues but we each of us conducted our governments in our own ways. I have no criticism at all to utter.

Let me ask you this then. Do you think historians in the future will be kinder to Harold Wilson? 

I said that myself at the cabinet meeting when he retired. Remember that there were occasions, especially over Europe, when Harold Wilson sacrificed his own feelings for the sake of his party. He and I were of one mind about the party; in that sense we were both Disraelians, and the party mattered. We were both determined that we could never go through 1931 again, or anything that gave rise to a split in the party, and Harold at times went through great difficulties which arose from the very creditable view that he shouldn’t split the Labour Party. Harold was a kindly man who was surrounded by people who weren’t as good as he was. He had ideals, especially about race and about the Third World. He was also a man who liked to please, and perhaps that led him to decisions that he would not wholly have wanted to take.

Your worst time as Prime Minister, and perhaps as a man, came in ‘the winter of discontent’ when all the essential services we brought to a halt by the power of the trade unions. In Kenneth Morgan’s words, you were ‘becalmed in a kind of depression, almost ennui’. Do you agree with that analysis? 

Yes. It was the only time in my life when I didn’t enjoy being in politics. I loved being Prime Minister, I had a whale of a time, but I did not enjoy that last winter. It’s fair to say that I became becalmed; I couldn’t see my way out of it or find a solution, I don’t know why. I was also tired, no doubt about that, and I wasn’t nimble enough on my feet.

You said afterwards, ‘I felt I let the country down.’ Can you elaborate on that? 

It was my fault in the sense that I was the leader of the country, I was the Prime Minister, and we had got ourselves in a position that was really disgraceful. It was probably a combination of weak leadership among the trade unions and insensitivity on my part, but I must carry the can. I very much regret it. Even at my present age, if I were to go back and be Prime Minister now I would certainly take more initiatives than I did then.

Was your dismay perhaps also to do with the fact that you had worked for and defended the unions all your life? 

Yes, I’m sure that was an inhibiting factor. I cared about trade unionism as an ideal. People would laugh at this now, but to me the way in which men and women had banded themselves together when they were oppressed was a wonderful thing. I always felt deeply about social injustice and about the weak being trodden underfoot. I thought it was a very great movement, and I believed they would reform themselves. After that experience I came to the conclusion that they can’t reform themselves; they have to have some external parameters within which they are required to live. The modern trade union leaders do so, but they are a different group of people from those we had then. There were some good leaders in the 1970s, but also some very bad ones.

One wouldn’t like to admit it perhaps, but don’t you think it was Mrs Thatcher who changed the unions? 

I’m not so sure about that. She was a factor, yes, but I don’t think she was the mainspring of change. It was a combination of the trade unions themselves recognizing their own excess and a new generation of young managers coming up who thought of men and women at work, not as units of labour or resources, but as their most precious asset. That as much as anything contributed to the legal framework which was instituted.

You expected to be accused of nepotism when you appointed Peter Jay, your then son-in-law, as ambassador to Washington, and indeed you were criticized. But you made the appointment on David Owen’s recommendation that Jay was the best possible choice, and also because you knew his career had suffered a setback through being related to you. Have you ever, at any time or for any reason, regretted making that appointment? 

No, never. I knew from the start that I would be attacked for it, and when David Owen first came to me I sent him away, I said, no I can’t do this, you’ve no idea what people will say, and so on. For weeks he tries to find somebody else – at least I hope he did – but he came back and said that Peter was the man he wanted. So I said, ‘Well you’re the Foreign Secretary, if he’s the man you want, you’d better have him.’ I don’t regret it. Frankly, it was a small incident in my political life.

Your biographer tends to dwell on your feelings of inadequacy caused by the lack of a university education. What difference would that have made, do you think? Do you honestly think you could have achieved more with an Oxbridge degree? 

I suppose you can’t do more than be Prime Minister can you? [laughter] No, what I regret is not lack of achievements, but the fact that I don’t have a trained mind. I recognized that my contemporaries – people like Tony Crosland and Healey and Jenkins – had experiences open to them that were closed to me. They were discussing social, moral and political questions when they were eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old; they were reading accordingly, enlarging their minds, discussing large questions, and they were able to do this effortlessly because university had trained them to do so. I had the advantage of living life in the sense that I was in the navy and so on, and that probably made up for university in practical terms, but I did envy many of my contemporaries. With me it was a laborious process of catching up, and frankly I am still catching up, still learning new things, still finding new truths.

You have lived to see your reputation, if anything, enhanced in retirement, which has not always been the case with former Prime Ministers. Do you attribute this to good luck or to good judgement on your part? 

If I were to say good judgement, you would say, what a vain character he is, and if I were to say good luck, you would say, well, that man’s got no judgement. I think we are all evaluated as time goes by and I should not be the slightest bit surprised – though I shan’t be here to see it – if there is another evaluation after I die and people come to the conclusion that I was the worst Prime Minister since Walpole.

How would you most like to be remembered? 

In the simplest way. As somebody who, despite his faults and his mistakes, really cared about ensuring justice, a measure of equality and compassion in what he tried to do. I am not a great man, but I would like to think people felt that I cared and I tried.

The French are at it Again

There are many things you can admire about the French: their literary output and their cinema.

They also encourage art through government subsidies and are willing to confront racism with a giggle.

A film entitled What Have We Done to Deserve This? is filling cinemas with audiences who are lapping up a comedy about ethnic tensions – one week after voters flocked to far-right parties during European elections in which the anti-immigrant Far Right made significant gains.

The film, which is uproariously funny, highlights France’s difficulties in wrestling with its multicultural identity with a comical style that has attracted almost six million people since its opening three weeks ago.

The comedy revolves around a well-heeled bourgeois couple whose four daughters pick husbands from ethnic minorities. It had cinema-goers in hysterics but some are not amused by the flippant treatment of the subject, which the French in general regard as taboo.

Le Monde, read by the intellectually-leaning elite, described the film as ‘one hour and fifty-eight minutes of racial clichés’, accusing it of making light of deep-rooted prejudices. Others criticised it for dispensing with the dark side of racism for the sake of a few easy laughs.

However, for some, it is a worthy exercise to remind people – if only for the length of the film – of the euphoria in 1998 when victory in the World Cup by a multi-ethnic football team gripped the nation and united France as never before.

The film’s popularity might have had a positive effect, as reports of veiled Muslim women laughing as loudly as conservative ladies in Hermès scarves.

Some pundits are predicting the film could break all records as being the most successful in recent French box office history.

The film’s protagonists are Claude and Marie Verneuil, pillars of bourgeois respectability who aspire to marry their daughters to well-off Catholics such as them. But the first picks a Muslim lawyer of North African origin, the second a Jewish entrepreneur, and the third an Asian banker.

The Verneuils are cock-a-hoop when their youngest announces she’s engaged to a Catholic, but to their utter dismay in walks a West African. However, things turn out well in the end. The fathers bond over a fishing trip and a long wine-fuelled lunch must have replaced any misgivings.

The moral of the story is expressed by one of the sons-in-law: ‘In the end, we’re all a bit racist.’

One critic dismissed the film as an example of celluloid patriotism and Marseilles therapy in which recent French films, a bit like Love Thy Neighbour and other British television sitcoms of the 1970s, present a fantasy world designed to make people feel better about their racially-divided society.

‘Everyone has prejudices about everyone else,’ says Philippe de Chauveron, the director. ‘We have no choice but to live together and understand each other.’

In the real world, though, racial tensions in France have never seemed more fraught. Unemployment and anxieties about immigrants and insecurity have been the major factor in the rise of the far right National Front. The mood in France under the socialist government is causing great concern, not only to the rich but to those whose livelihoods depends on the prosperity of the nation – which seems to be hitting the rocks at the present time.

What Have We Done to Deserve This? is at least a temporary respite to the gloomy atmosphere that has beset France since the election of President Francois Hollande, whose tenure has so far been appalling to say the least.

He needs to reinvent himself and seek the wisdom of The Almighty if he is to survive the vicissitudes of time. And at present, this looks rather improbable.

A Whinge and a Plea

The Britain I knew when I landed here in 1949 is alien to me today.

Everything has changed and not always for the better. In fact, I dare say things have deteriorated to such an extent that a lot of what Britain stood for has gradually vanished over the years to be substituted by a new wave of thoughtlessness and a lowering of behaviour standards that seem to be the norm in everything we do.

The political scene is now below par, compared to what it was. The dedication and the vigour to serve the nation have equally disappeared and the electorate is left with a bunch of politicians whose main motivation is power and the pursuit of affluence.

The ruling classes are now openly extravagant, and their barometer keeps rising while the struggling majority feels the pinch and bears it with alacrity.

Unlike other countries, we are less disposed to revolt against authority and have much greater respect for the law.

Measured against all that, we have incredible talents in multiple human endeavours which we export all over the world – whether it be in science, technology, fashion, literature or the entrainment sectors.

It is the politicians who have lowered our expectations and caused an imbalance in our society. They are therefore to be blamed for any misgivings we face.

Mahatma Ghandi once said, ‘Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.’

If our politicians were to heed these words of wisdom, we would once again show the world the greatness that has made Britain a shining light in its political acumen and its high standard of democratic principles.

Self-Belief is Indispensable

A new behavioural study puts confidence ahead of talent.

Researchers in the US have found that people admire the cocky and unctuous, even when their pretensions are exposed.

‘Confidence is compelling to observers because, in the absence of information to the contrary, they assume it reflects superior ability.’

Actual talent appears to be irrelevant, they added. ‘It is important to note that being perceived to possess these valued characteristics is the key to attaining higher status – in fact, it is not necessary to actually possess these characteristics.’

The study, by academics at the University of Pennsylvania and California, is the first to suggest that the gloss of competence lingers even after it is shown to be a sham. While the mainstream theory holds that people found out as being over-confident are ‘punished’ by their peers, the US study indicated that social groups were much more tolerant of failure to match mouth with trousers.

‘If confidence creates persistent peer impressions of social skill or task ability, groups may not penalise confident individuals with lower status, even after discovering these individuals’ confidence is unjustified by their actual task skills,’ the authors said.

I have always maintained that confidence is primarily the key to success. It opens doors, even to those with less talent than others. The impression one gives is highly rated and is not always contingent on the skills one may have.

Presentation is a key factor, and that emanates from over-confidence and the ability to snare people into believing what you do not possess in terms of talent.

People in high positions are not necessarily equipped for the job. Their confidence bears no resemblance to reality. They are the elite of conmen who turn failure into a false vision of success.

Even governments today, and particularly in Britain, reward failure with a seat in the House of Lords – whereas bankers, whose catastrophic tenure brought the country to its knees, seem to move to other lucrative posts with ease and without any apparent hindrance as to their past record.

In brief, we are all actors on the world stage – and those of us bereft of any recognisable talent can still reign supreme with inflated confidence and a cockiness to boot.

It’s worth noting, however, that democracy as it is practised today needs redefining. The system lacks integrity and is manipulated to suit those in control.

Will we be able to change all that? Not while man’s greed for enrichment and power remains his driving force. And the omens are not encouraging.

Peter Jay

Peter Jay was born in 1937 and educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a first class honours degree in PPE.

From 1967-77 he was economics editor at The Times and during the same period presenter of the ITV programme Weekend World. From 1977-79 he was ambassador to the United States.

In 1980 he became chief executive of TV-am and later presented A Week in Politics for Channel Four for three years until 1986. He was then appointed chief of staff to Robert Maxwell at Mirror Group Newspapers.

From 1990 until 2001 he was economics editor at the BBC and presented editions of the Money Programme.  From June 2003 to May 2009 he was a non-executive director to the Bank of England.

I interviewed him early in 1994. I found him precise in his answers without cutting corners and, with a brilliant analytical mind, he was not easily dissuaded from his intended path.

Amiable throughout our two-hour encounter, I was rather impressed and not put off by his exuberant self confidence. In fact, I liked him more than I expected.

You grew up in a political family. Did that early contact with the cut and thrust of politics turn you against embarking on a political career yourself? 

I grew up in a particular kind of political family. My father was the kind of politician who was ideas-driven, not power-driven. Politics to him arose out of his studies of philosophy and economics and in his own writings there is a conviction that by managing the nation’s affairs in a different way people, especially poor and unemployed people, could be enabled to live a better life. That’s why he joined the Labour Party and remained in it all his life. Cut and thrust wasn’t what politics was about; it was about principles, ideas, policies and the amelioration of life for people in general. To answer your question directly, I don’t believe the existence of the subconscious, but I grew up semi-consciously assuming that I would end up in politics; for no other reason than it is a natural disposition of sons to assume that they will follow the trade of their fathers. Somewhere along the road, I must have come increasingly to the feeling that it was not a life that I really wanted. I realized that deep down I would be a lousy politician and I didn’t want to be one, from which moment I felt hugely relieved. There certainly were things about political life as I observed it which made me realize how disagreeable it could be for a serious minded person. My father was a deeply serious person, and probably the most fulfilling part of his life was in the war years mobilizing British industry to produce the armaments for the war effort. Then, for 13 years he was with the party in opposition. But if you’re the person my father was, this does not appeal; it’s 13 wasted years. Not because you crave office and power but because you’re in the whole thing in order to implement certain policies which you believe are terribly important for the country. If all you can do is criticize the other lot, then that is frustrating and disagreeable. Another thought that increasingly come home to me was how disgustingly we treat politicians. For example, if you’re a politician and you participate in any kind of public discussion on radio or television the rules more or less require that there is somebody else present to say whatever you said is rubbish and that the opposite is true. That’s what’s called balance or impartiality. Politics in a pluralistic society is about compromise, about teamwork, about coalitions, about groups of people agreeing together for short to medium term purposes to do things that none of them fully believe in because life can’t go on  any other basis. So it’s important to respect the necessity for that kind of wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms. If you just hate that kind of thing, it’s as well to recognize that you’re no good at it and do the things that you are good at.

You did have one unsuccessful attempt to stand for election in 1970. Was that a serious foray into politics or were you just testing the water, so to speak? 

It’s an exaggeration to describe it as standing – I didn’t even get to the stage of being a prospective candidate. But it is quite true that in 1970 I got as far as attending two meetings, one at the local furniture makers’ trade union and the other at the Fabian Society. That was when I realized how much I hated it all, and anyway I didn’t get beyond the absolutely pre-primary stage.

You went to America quite late in the sense that you delayed until your late 20s. Was that simple lack of opportunity or did it not attract you initially? 

It wasn’t simply lack of opportunity because I could have gone in 1960 when I was selected for the traditional Oxford Union debating tour of the United States. This was a time just after I graduated when I was in a high old state of indecision about which of five or six different lines to follow. I found these decisions very difficult to make but I ended up rejecting the debating tour. Thereafter I had no money to go to the United States on my own account and anyway I was working as a civil servant, but five years later in 1966, I was invited by the Ford Foundation to go on a three-month tour. My employer, the Treasury, kindly gave me three months off to go, and that was the beginning of a very long and continuing love affair with the United States.

What is it that you find so attractive about the United States? 

It’s the vigour, the optimism, the confidence that problems are exciting, that they can be tackled and overcome. It is the friendliness, the hospitality, it is the sheer quality and ability of its citizens. Of course I’m speaking subjectively about the people I met and knew. It’s also a paradise for children, and therefore it was a very attractive place to live for five years with my own children. Insofar as any generalization is permissible, you can find everything – the good and the bad in the rest of the world – raised to the power of n in the United States; if you want to look for bad things, whether social, personal, political, or environmental, you’ll find them in the United States more than anywhere else. You’ll find the funniest people, the most boring people, the cleverest, the stupidest, the richest, the poorest. I’m not expressing enthusiasms for the bad things about it … nonetheless, they have the openness, the ability, the respect for intelligence, the whole ‘why not?’ attitude. These are all clichés, I’m not claiming any originality at all, but it swept me off my feet. And in my opinion I was right to have the feeling. It is a marvellous place.

When you were ambassador in Washington you made the much quoted remark: ‘Anyone who left here to return to Britain would be very foolish.’ If it was as foolish as all that, why did you come back? 

I don’t remember making that remark, nor have I ever seen it quoted before. I’m not questioning your research, I just can’t believe that I would have said that since it sounds like a rather unsuitable thing for a British ambassador to say. If I did say it, it would have been my personal private observation. From the point of view of scientists who’ve got good research opportunities, or academics, or journalists with interesting jobs, whether for British or American papers, or maybe people in money, finance and banking, it’s a very exciting place to work. A young person or a young middle-aged person in those positions would have to have very strong personal reasons for wanting to give all that up. That would have been the context. In my own case there were personal reasons for returning, but in addition I became involved in the bid by the TV-AM group for the new breakfast franchise. During 1980, the year when we were bidding for it, I was commuting between Washington and London, spending about two thirds of a month in London, and one third with my family in the United States. And then on the 28December of that year, a date I remember well, we won the franchise and from then on it was a full-time job. I was doing a number of interesting things in the United States, but nothing comparable, so from then on I was committed to being in Britain.

In a sense your enthusiasm for America is a bit surprising. It does not seem to fit easily into a pattern of socialism. There is a huge underclass living on or below the poverty line there and a marked unwillingness to act effectively.

As I said, the enthusiasm I expressed about the United States is a personal feeling; it is not an endorsement of all the things about the country which are bad. I have never felt any approval, or even tolerance, of the American social and economic system, most of all as it affects the most disadvantaged people. The disagreeable aspects that you rightly draw attention to became very much more accentuated in the Reagan period, though of course there was poverty and unemployment and inequality in very high degrees long before. But Reagan was rare, possibly unique in this century, in not only making those problems more rather than less acute, but positively setting out to do so. The Reagan era occurred after the period in which I formed these enthusiasms.

When you were appointed ambassador to Washington there was a lot of adverse comment. It was, I suppose, inevitable that the cry of nepotism should have been raised. You were not a professional diplomat and Washington must have been the plum job. Why do you think you were chosen? 

I know in a very precise way why I was chosen. I should preface my answer by saying that you’re quite right, Washington is the plum job, also the most demanding job, and in the post-war period in that job, though not in any other British ambassadorial appointment, there had been an equal number of career and non-career appointments. My appointment was controversial, not because it was non-career, but because I was a journalist and because I was related by marriage to the prime minister. The reason I was appointed was that David Owen had been searching for someone he could appoint to this position in order to overcome what he saw as a problem of there being a closed circle of career Foreign Office officials in certain key positions in the Foreign Office in London, the Washington Embassy and elsewhere. As he perceived it, these officials were conducting policies separate from, and sometimes in conflict with, their ministers, and he felt it necessary to stop this. He took the constitutional view that ministers were appointed by the Queen to run the government and civil servants were there to help, assist and advise them, not to conduct a separate policy. David Owen wanted me for the job, but there was a problem of my connection with the prime minister. Both of us were loyal, and in my own case devoted to the prime minister; the last thing in the world I would have wished to do was to damage him. David had talked to him before he had approached me, and after the some consideration the prime minister gave his approval, though he obviously would have preferred that such a problem had not been presented to him. Even when David suggested it to me, I more or less fell off my chair with surprise. I then insisted on talking to the prime minister myself. I said, ‘We both know this is going to be politically damaging to you. On the other hand, you’re the wisest politician I know, and if you tell me that you’re content to ride this out, it’s a very exciting challenge and I will do it. But if you have any reservations at all, let’s forget it.’ He answered, ‘You go ahead and do it, I’ll deal with the politics,’ which showed the nobility and generosity of the man. He could very easily have vetoed it, and I need never have known. But he was like that; if he thought something was right he was not going to stand in the way for reasons of avoiding political trouble.

You obviously got on well with him… 

I was extremely fond of him and remain so to this day. I admire him, I like him, and I have enormous respect for him, but I don’t want to give the impression that I thought I was a sort of chum. He was a great man, I was a boy. I had enormous respect for him, and still do, in every possible way. And my respect for him was increased by that episode because I think three politicians out of four would have said they had enough problems to deal with.

We hear a great deal from time to time, even now, about the special relationship between Britain and the United States. How evident was it in your time as ambassador? And does it exist in reality? 

I will tell you what I used to say about this and what I still believe: nothing is more stupid in my opinion than for governments, British and American, but particularly British, to talk about a special relationship. Even in the Winston Churchill/Franklin Roosevelt period, the more you read about that, the more you realize how desperately difficult that relationship was up to and including the Atlantic Charter, until both sides were actually fighting. Then it got easier, but that was late in the day. The second point is that the special relationship is better practiced than talked about; it is the property of the peoples of the United States and Britain, it is not the property of governments. I always used to say that the relationship between Britain and the United States was like the relationship between a man and his mistress; it required no solemnization by priests or lawyers; it was not written on a piece of paper that it would last for a thousand years or for ever; it would last just as long as the mutual affectation lasted.

One of the first things that Mrs Thatcher did on coming to power was to sack you as ambassador in Washington. How did you interpret that at the time? 

The factual premise is not correct. Oddly enough, the process was just the opposite. The first thing I did when the result of the election was known, was to telephone the private secretary at No. 10 and say, ‘Please inform the new prime minister that my post is in her hands.’ That is the proper and correct thing to do if you’re a non-career appointment. I then received a message from Mrs Thatcher saying, ‘You’re doing a wonderful job, you can’t be replaced, please carry on for the time being,’ and also a similar message from the new foreign secretary, Lord Carrington. I wasn’t sure whether or not I would be able to carry on; it depended on the policies of the new government. In relation to strategic arms control and to the Rhodesian negotiations, there were lines which the new government could have taken which would have made me feel so unhappy that I wouldn’t have wanted to be there. But actually they didn’t take either of those two lines and so at that stage there wasn’t a problem. And then about three or four weeks later I got a letter – which I still have – from Peter Carrington, written in his own hand, a frightfully strange communication to the effect that the press seemed to have built up an expectation that the government were going to make a change in Washington, so he supposed they had better do so after all. So it was not the way you describe it; far from being sacked I offered a resignation and was told to carry on, which I did until Peter Carrington’s letter. I have a great admiration for Peter, so this is not a criticism; I merely recite historical events as they occurred.

You are now the BBC’s economics editor. Do you see this as a stopgap job, or do you regard it as a post you would be happy to remain in indefinitely?

Very much the latter if the BBC is happy to have me. Being a journalist, particularly an economics journalist, has been a big slice of my life. I hugely enjoy it, and in my opinion this decade is going to be an absolutely fascinating period for economic policy it’s true I feel schizophrenic about what I like doing. I never have had a career path, and things don’t lead naturally from one to the next; they jump about all over the place. There’s a bit of me that is basically an administrator or a manager, a leader if you like, and there is a bit of me which is a journalist, a commentator. In retrospect, in mellow middle age, I am probably happiest doing one of those things for a while, and the other for a while, but my job at present is not in your sense of the word a stopgap. One of the things I’ve noticed is that under the age of 40 if you do a lot of different things people say, why doesn’t he make up his mind what he is? Is he a journalist, a civil servant? But frankly, what people say doesn’t matter; the important thing is to fill your days with things that you find enjoyable and fulfilling.

On the subject of what people say, you have had some rather unkind things said about you by other members of the corporation – ‘not wanting to muck in’, ‘rather arrogant’ and so on. What do you think prompts such responses? Do you think you are naturally aloof in some ways? 

I had no idea that these comments had been made. I find the BBC exceedingly friendly, a nice place to work. I’ve been received with great friendship and tremendous help and support, and I was not aware that anybody had expressed the sentiments that you describe. But the BBC is a very big place, I’m very thick-skinned, and people are perfectly free to criticize, and perhaps they’re right. However, I don’t think that the people in the economic and business unit, which is my particular patch, would say I was aloof; rather the contrary, I think. We have great discussions about our work and how to cover different stories, and it’s all pretty egalitarian.

Now you have had some experience at the BBC, what is it that prompts you to feel that the licence fee is not the best way to finance the corporation? 

It’s a very long and complicated argument. The services which broadcasting, television and radio currently deliver are of the kind best suited to the price mechanism in its classic form; in other words where consumers buy things in relatively small packets, pay for them when they buy them, thereby exercising their right to choose what they want, what they don’t want, and by so doing send market signals to the producers and suppliers. A classic piece of market economics. That works at its best in my opinion where you’re selling very large numbers of very small things, in this case programmes or each individual’s consumption of a programme. In the long term that is the right way for both information and entertainment publishing to be supplied. However, it is also true that you will not achieve that consumer sovereignty so long as the consumer is not actually buying the products, but is merely being given them free because the advertiser is paying for them. What’s going on is that the publisher is selling audiences to the advertiser, not selling programmes to the consumer, and each act of viewing is equally valuable, because that’s one viewer reached by the advertisement. Now under those conditions all the valuable and benign effects of the prime mechanism break down, because the whole point of market forces is that you or I will pay more for a better pair of trousers or a better meal in a restaurant, than we will pay for another one, and the market can then respond to our demand. If, however, the makers of trousers or of meals all received the same sum from advertisers for everything they produced, irrespective of whether it was a good meal or a bad meal, a good pair of trousers or a bad pair of trousers, then there would be only a pretty low-level meal or a basic pair of trousers made and delivered. In my opinion it is not for parliament or wise men or the Archbishop of Canterbury to say what quality should or shouldn’t be given to the public. With books you get a range from trash to great literature, but if you’re selling audiences to advertisers you don’t get a range, you get homogenization round a lower standard than the public choice would actually want. So until such time as it is technically possible to charge for the act of consuming, viewing, in the same way that you charge for the telephone, so that there would be variable prices depending on what you’re viewing, it is vitally important that you continue to have choice and the only way that you can preserve choice is by planning choice, as it were, and the only way you can do that is by having something like the BBC publicly financed. There are better mechanisms than the licence fee for publicly financing it. The obvious one which I’ve advocated for decades is simply to add a surcharge on to all sales and rentals of television sets and associated equipment, calculated in the first year to produce the same as the television licence produces. Then you get away from the poll tax aspect of the thing. Secondly you get rid of all the collection, policing and evasion problems that go with it; you simply collect the fee through the retail network.

Your career started with a bang. You were president of the Oxford Union, the youngest ambassador Britain ever sent to Washington, but since then there has not been quite the same glitter. Were you aware of things at some point starting to go wrong? 

Your frame of reference in looking at it like that is perfectly natural – is it going up, is it going down, has it got glitter? But I’ve never thought about life like that, and I wouldn’t want to. Things happen and what is important is whether you enjoy them, whether you think they are worthwhile, whether they’re interesting or helpful to the people you care about, your family, your friends. I remember writing in my early 20s when I was reflecting on the nature of the classical civil service, or indeed on the middle class professional career, that there was a fundamental irrationality about the way in which the professional middle classes looked at career. The measure of success is always related to where you were on the last day before you retired, that if you were head of the civil service, or if you were at the top of any other profession on the last day, then it was ‘successful’. If on the other hand you weren’t , then it was ‘a failure’. This is an absolute contradiction of everything that commonsense and economic analysis suggest; if you are going to make an investment, the return you look at is not the return on the last day, it’s the sum of the returns over the whole period. And secondly, because of time preference, the return tomorrow is more important pound for pound, than the return the day after or a year later or ten years later or forty years later, so the closer the thing is the greater weight you give it, the further away it is the less weight you give it. The right way to think about this is not to see a career as ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’ depending on where it is on the last day, but to think of it as a working life; the worth of which to you is the sum of all the days. That is much the more sensible and humane way of looking at life, and I am constantly amazed that mine has worked out so much better than I expected or had any right to expect.

Yes, but your contemporaries all acknowledged your brilliance, you had the ‘right’ background, you married the prime minister’s daughter, you had all the trappings of fame and distinction, and your career showed such early promise. Then something went wrong. What was it? 

If people thought that I was engaged in some kind of cursus honoris to great eminence and distinction, then they were wrong. It is true that there were a number of episodes in my early life which would have perhaps fitted that model, but that wasn’t how I thought about it. I could painstakingly take you through it, item by item, how it happened that I did the Oxford Union; how it happened that I did the civil service exam. It was my father who wanted me to be a civil servant, and I thought the simplest way to deal with this since I didn’t have the courage to say to him that frankly I did not want to join the civil service was to take the exam I expected to fail. I didn’t fail, so that plan went wrong. I didn’t marry the prime minister’s daughter; I married somebody whom I fell in love as a student, whose father later became the prime minister. He was an opposition spokesman on colonial affairs at the time I married her. Life, certainly my life, consists of a series of absolute accidents. It is true that the early accidents were rather high profile, but I’ve always described my life, not only ironically, as a long pursuit of anonymity. This seems to be an ever receding goal, but nonetheless, that’s how I think of it.

Have you enjoyed your encounters with power? 

Let me answer your question very specifically, because this is something I formed a clear opinion on very early in my life when I was the private secretary to the permanent secretary of the Treasury, hobnobbing with chancellors and prime ministers and so on. There is no power in British society. Power means the ability arbitrarily to command this or that, just because you want it to happen. Now it may be that there are people like Saddam Hussein who exercise power, but in highly developed, mature, pluralistic societies of no great world influence like Britain, there is no power because power is infinitely diffused. If you actually watch at first hand the inner centres of government conducting the business of the government, these are not men who are saying, ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Give him a million pounds!’ These are men desperately trying to find ways out of absolutely insoluble and intolerable dilemmas, and the so-called solutions all have terrible disadvantages attached to them. So this is an exercise in dodging brickbats; it’s very high profile, yes, and if it is done honourably, it leads to great distinction, but it is not an exercise of power in the sense that any sensible man would understand it. There may be some business where there is a very strong dominant leader who is exercising power and saying, fire him, fire him, like some medieval potentate, but that is unusual and often such people come unstuck after a while. This has always been my opinion from that early observation; it is a complete will-of-the-wisp invented by tabloid newspapers and writers of very inferior novels to make the story sound more exciting and more simple than it really is. It is not true, in my opinion, that I have ever exercised power, or indeed that anybody else has.

The TV-AM enterprise did not work out as you had hoped. I know that you were hoping early on that you could introduce a more substantial sort of journalism to the world of TV. With the experience of TV-AM behind you, do you think that is still possible? 

I think it’s absolutely possible; I also think it was perfectly possible in the case you mention. What happened in the TV-AM story, or my early part of it, is that after winning the franchise and building the company, getting the studios created on time and on budget, we did not actually deliver on air in the first month the programmes we’d talked about. I don’t want to go into the painful reasons for that, but it was nothing to do with the five presenters who were absolutely magnificent and held things together on air despite a lot of chaos behind the scenes. We made some quick changes and by March the ratings which collapsed in February were recovering and were on track to be in April what they needed to be in order to satisfy our advertising goals. What then happened was that there was a good old fashioned coup d’état. Jonathan Aitken wanted to be king. All is fair in love and war and business, and he made a threat that if he didn’t become king he would call an extraordinary general meeting and the company’s financial advisers advised that if that happened, even though he would lose (I had about 65 per cent of the votes, he only had 35), some of the financial backing for the company might be withdrawn. I took the view, rightly or wrongly, that it was ridiculous to hazard the whole life of the company for the sake of a personal scrap between me and Jonathan as to who should sit on the throne. I’d had all the fun and excitement and success of winning the franchise and setting it up, so I thought, well, if Jonathan wants to be king, let him. After I’d gone, the IBA – idiotically in my opinion – refused to allow Jonathan to remain in that position even if he gave up his seat in parliament which I think he would have done. That led to his cousin being appointed, after which the affairs of the company collapsed. Unlike me and Jonathan he did not know anything about the business and he also had a number of crazy attitudes, not least towards women, which were disastrous and caused the ratings to collapse again. The whole spring advertising wave was lost, the cash flow went to hell, the company had to be given away. The other crazy thing that the IBA did was, having thus caused the collapse, they then panicked and totally unnecessarily abandoned the central principle of their own franchise. It was they who had invented this franchise, it was they who had invented its defining terms – graven on my heart – ‘primarily but not exclusively news information and current affairs’. Since TV-AM was not fulfilling the franchise, all they had to do was to give it somebody else who could fulfil it. It would have been fulfilled, as indeed the BBC very successfully fulfils it now. I therefore blame the incompetence of the IBA for failing to understand what was going on, failing to have the courage to stick to their own principles, for causing the crisis by refusing to allow Jonathan to sit on the throne, and thus for the fact that their original conception was not fulfilled.

The presenters were widely perceived as prima donnas… 

Precisely the opposite was true. The five presenters were very well known and distinguished, but their professionalism, their hard work in that first month when they were not receiving the support from behind the scenes which they should have received, held it all together. They were the very opposite of prima donnas: they were loyal, they were disciplined, they were professional and they never made trouble of any kind; they could not have behaved better.

Jonathan Aitken described you as ‘the best example of impeccable behaviour from a departing chief executive I have ever seen’. Was there a lot of swallowing of pride and effort of will involved, or was it down to native good manners and good breeding on your part. 

You invite me to be very arrogant. I was clearly confronted in the marbled parlours of Barclay’s Merchant Bank in Gracechurch Street with Jonathan’s formal statement: he would move for an extraordinary general meeting to throw me out and install him. It was like Solomon and the babies, because this was passionately my baby. I was faced with the choice: either you fight, in which case your baby will be killed, or you go gracefully, and the baby will survive, though it will have a foster mother, as it were. Manifestly you don’t have to be some kind of saint to see that the right course in that situation is to say, well, I’ve had two or three very exciting years; if Jonathan wants that much to be king, let him be king, and let the company survive.

In a way you have had quite a lot of ill-luck with women in your life, though I expect others might put it differently. How far have these theoretically private matters impinged on your public career? 

They’ve not impinged on my public career at all. They are, as you say, private matters.

Nora Ephron’s book (and subsequent film) and the controversy surrounding the birth of your son Nicholas must have been traumatic. You have always said that being in the public eye teaches you to build up a layer of resilience under this sort of pressure, but surely it must take its toll? 

I’m very proud of Nicholas. I see him regularly, he’s a lovely boy. I’m fighting great battles at the moment with the local education authority and indeed the Department of Education to get them to give him the support he needs with his learning difficulties. In the early stages I wasn’t sure whether or not I was his father, and that’s why I insisted on having scientific evidence, because I thought he was entitled to know, and I was entitled to know. Once I was sure I was very proud and fond of him. He’s a good son. I’ve said in the past that I think in some ways Nora is the single most evil woman I’ve ever personally encountered, the only person I’ve ever known who would sacrifice her own children as well as other people’s to her own personal promotional and career gain. That’s all I have to say about her.

Do you think it’s reasonable that the press should exploit such situations when public figures are involved? They would certainly argue that the public interest is best served by revelation, but what view do you take? 

I take two completely different views, depending on whether I’m the journalist or I am the subject. If I’m the journalist, I have always had an absolute rule – and Richard Ingrams can confirm that this goes right back to the discussions we had as undergraduates – that morality applies to what you do to other people without their consent; it doesn’t apply to what you do alone or with other people with their consent. That is a definition of what ethics is about according to J S Mill, and according to me. As a journalist I never would, I never have, considered it legitimate to write about the private domain; as a subject I would never ever complain, I never have, I never will. I believe in Enoch Powell’s statement that men in public life who complain about the media are like ships’ captains who complain about the sea. They chose the wrong line of work. As a subject you must expect it, you must regard it as normal, you must not be bothered by it, and you must always be polite and courteous to other journalists who, as they see it, have a job to do, even if their interpretation of the job is not one that I would as a journalist ever adopt. That has always been my position very strongly and I adhere to it to this day.

You once said: ‘The happiest things in life are the sharing and the building of a family or a relationship … and to do that successfully you cant keep stopping and starting from scratch again with one relationship after another.’ Is that a view you still take? 

Yes, absolutely. In my opinion a family relationship is something which is built over a long period of time; half of the stuff of the relationship today is made up of the memories of things that you all did together in the past. Sometimes you’re forced to start again because somebody dies or something goes hopelessly wrong or whatever, and therefore it’s not an argument that you should then retire to a monastery if that happens, but it is an argument that the very strong and obstinate and determinedly pursued aim should be to build this one great thing. I think if you do find that you have to start again, you should start again in that self-same spirit.

What puzzles a lot of people at the time of your going to work for Maxwell is that after a glittering career, you would opt to work for someone who already had a tarnished reputation – he was certainly known to be a bully. It seemed a bizarre appointment in a way. Did you have no sense of selling your soul, or your dignity? 

Perhaps I take myself less seriously or less pompously than other people do. At that time, in 1986, nobody else was offering me a job that would be demanding and fulfilling in that sort of way. I was on the edge of boredom, and boredom in the middle life is a very dangerous thing; not only does it corrode the mind and the character, it is also unpleasant in itself. As to the question, was there a problem about going to work for Robert Maxwell, a controversial figure? Firstly I took very careful and specific soundings in exactly the way that one does these things. I asked the Foreign Office and the Bank of England if there were any reasons why I shouldn’t take the job. Of course I didn’t expect them to give me reasons, I just wanted to know from certain very senior people whether they would give me a nudge and a wink not to go and do that kind of work. But I got a complete OK from both. Secondly I consulted all the people I most respected, including very senior ex-Labour Cabinet ministers who had known Maxwell politically over a long period, and they encouraged me to go ahead. Thirdly there was the question of whether I should be bothered about the famous 1970 report. In my opinion that was a discredited document for three main reasons: one, that they themselves had acknowledged a serious error in their first report, and produced a second report which withdrew some but not all of the findings of the first report; two, that the Department of Trade had in effect admitted that Maxwell had been denied natural justice, in that if you accuse somebody of a very serious misdeed you should, in accordance with basic principles, tell him what he is accused of so that he has the opportunity to defend himself; and three, that it was all getting on for 20 years ago. So there seemed to me to be absolutely no reason not to take this job on. There were also many good things about Robert Maxwell which I liked, including the fact that he enabled the Daily Mirror to survive and publish a little bit of party political balance in our national press. At the same time I said to myself, if he ever asks me to do something or I become aware of him doing something which isn’t right I can always walk away. So I think I would have had to have taken myself much more seriously, been much more pompous than I hope I am, to have been deterred by the kind of consideration implied in your question.

You described Maxwell as ‘a heroic and romantic figure whose courage and generosity I admire’. Is that how it struck you at the time? 

Absolutely, and I mean it now. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that he had those qualities that I described. He could also behave disgracefully to people, and sometimes he did. There were lots of disagreeable sides to him, but he was undoubtedly a heroic figure, a romantic figure; he dreamed dreams, extraordinary futuristic dreams, and he did some great things. If the newspaper reports are right as to what he was up to in 1991, and one has to assume that they’re not completely invented, then during that period he behaved in business terms in an absolutely disgraceful way; but I never saw any sign that he was doing any of those things.

But was the experience with Maxwell worthwhile? Did you learn anything from him? 

I don’t think I learned anything from him. It was exhilarating, it was exhausting, it was extraordinary, and there was a great sense of camaraderie amongst colleagues. But that was all.

What exactly did you do for Maxwell? 

Administration. It’s hard to describe. Maxwell didn’t have the foggiest idea about modern business organization; his personal headquarters were in extreme administrative chaos. Like any minister in a department he needed a private office and a sort of permanent secretary, so that information flowed upwards, decisions flowed downwards. He needed somebody to bring order to all that chaos, while he got on with his next dream or business plan or whatever it might be. I was excited by that challenge … after all I’d been a private secretary in Whitehall, and though it’s hard to make this sound credible, I love administration, it gives me a real aesthetic pleasure. Gradually I came to realize that it was impossible, because he was incapable of accommodating himself to the disciplines of administrative order. The thing I learned in Whitehall is that the hinge between the minister and the department order. The thing I learned in Whitehall is that the hinge between the minister and the department is crucial; if that fractures then the whole machine breaks down. To begin with I thought that I could explain those very elementary procedures to Maxwell but I then realized that he was somehow temperamentally incapable of accepting them, and that he was actively hostile to any form of organization as such. This was symptomatic of the romantic hero in him – his natural style was to be at the head of a band of horsemen who were galloping across the Asian Steppe, capturing a city here and a city there and moving on; insofar as there was any ‘organizational structure’ in such a band of horsemen it was that every now and then they would stop and have a huddle and then the leader would say, right this is what we do next, and off they would gallop again. Maxwell could scarcely bring himself to read anything that was more than about two or three lines on a piece of paper, and then only for some mysterious reason if it was received through a fax machine rather than in any other way. Most of it was a farce; it wasn’t some great giant conspiracy or plot, it was just straight, low farce, of absolute and continuing chaos.

When you look back at your life, do you have any regrets at all? 

I have a few. I would have been wiser to have left Washington immediately I left the embassy, though I had strong private reasons for not doing so. Another very specific and intense regret centres on the day of the great TV-AM melodrama, 17 March 1983, after the encounter in the Barclay’s Merchant Bank that I described to you. I passionately wish I could have the second half of that day back again and so what I omitted to do. I remembered to call my children and tell them what was going on so that they were not stunned by newspaper headlines, but what I failed, fatally failed to do, was to tell Anna Ford and Angela Rippon and the others that evening, or that afternoon, what had happened. Strictly speaking I had signed a most solemn legal undertaking not to tell anybody, but I do wish I could have told them because it would have saved them from the very noble but by then ineffective gesture they made the next morning. Anna and Angela in particular took a very brave and defiant stand about what was going on when in fact the die was irrevocably cast by them. I bitterly regret that I didn’t think of telling them. I think that Anna at least has always felt that I let her down and it is very natural that she should feel that; it’s one of life’s awful accidents and I regret it bitterly. These are my public regrets; I shan’t go into my private ones, but they are not very large.

A Picture of Budding Youth

The glamour of a pretty young girl is not only uplifting in a gloomy world but a real treat when everything else looks contrived and wooden.

As I have always loved the ambience and warmth that femininity brings to the fore, I sometimes come across a slinky young thing that takes your breath away.

Her beautifully shaped body, luminous and captivating, imparts the kind of elegance that you rarely see these days where natural beauty is forsaken for a manufactured one.

This intelligent and energetic young lady of immaculate breeding has in no time at all won my admiration and rekindled my love for the opposite sex.

Not that this was ever a problem, but her late intervention, so to speak, gloriously rejuvenated an interest that had perhaps slackened with the passage of time.

I now feel carried away with this new elixir of life, in the shape and form of a sizzling maiden whose attributes shine so brightly in the firmament where Venus reigns unchallenged. Her name is Silvy and her provenance is without parallel and I love her dearly. When she walks she glides with a bewitching frisson that’s hard to define.

All I can say, eat your heart out Pippa Middleton for you have met more than your match. Only the young Brigitte Bardot could in all honesty have stood a chance.

Strictly Come Dancing

As a great fan of Strictly Come Dancing, I was very sorry to hear that Sir Bruce Forsyth has decided at long last to step down from the show after a decade.

I can understand his decision as he was already feeling the strain at the age of eighty-six, and was fluffing some of his lines with his usual élan.

The public nevertheless loved him and he will be sorely missed.

However, the announcement by the BBC that Claudia Winkleman is to join Tess Daly as the pair to host the show comes as no surprise. They were widely expected to land the slot after impressing viewers with their performances in the weekly results show, and during Sir Bruce’s absences.

The pair will take over in the autumn when the series returns with Daly switching to Sir Bruce’s role of introducing each of the dancers and asking the judges about their reactions.

Winkleman, who will be upstairs hosting the post-dance interviews, said: ‘I have loved Strictly since the second it appeared on our screens and I’m honoured and thrilled to now be part of the Saturday night team. Working alongside Tess is always fantastic and I can’t wait to spend the weekends with her, our amazing dancers and the greatest judging panel on the planet.’

Daly, on the other hand, said: ‘I’m so pleased that I’ll be working with Claudia – she’s long been part of the Strictly family and I’ve loved doing the Sunday show with her. It’s really exciting having two women host the show, and we are great mates so there’ll be lots of fun to be had – and, of course, I’ll look forward to being reunited with Brucie for the Children in Need and Christmas shows.’

It’s all very well to cast two women who each in her own right is a successful television personality, but the strength of Strictly built over the years was the affinity that existed between Sir Bruce and Tess Daly – who frolicked and had the kind of frisson that the public was entranced by.

It is unlikely that the two women will generate a similar relationship to delight the audience in the same vein.

To achieve this, it needs the sexual banter that often manifests itself between man and woman to galvanise the whole sensual atmosphere of the show.

It’s a bold step that the BBC has taken and I sincerely hope it will work. I will be more than happy to eat my words and still feel the better for it if the show triumphs despite my reservations.

Men’s Castration in Every Which Way

Marketed by the publishers John Murray in 1900 as a work of non-fiction, An Englishwoman’s Love Letters became a sensational bestseller within a matter of weeks.

The publisher’s advert in The Times just before Christmas (19th December 1900) sought to appease the demand in a tone unthinkable today:

Mr Murray regrets the inevitable delay which purchasers are experiencing in obtaining copies of this book. He is doing all he can to expedite the work. So immediate and unprecedented a success holds him excused.

Written by a much embarrassed English man of letters, brother to the better known poet A. E., Laurence Housman wrote them as ‘Anonymous’ because he was fed up with being broke. His Introduction set the scene and gave the lie:

It need hardly be said that the woman by whom these letters were written had no thought that they would be read by anyone but the person to whom they were addressed. But a request, conveyed under circumstances which the writer herself would have regarded as all-commanding, urges that they should now be given to the world; and, so far as is possible with a due regard to the claims of privacy, what is here printed presents the letters as they were first written in their complete form and sequence.

It was not the first time pornography had come to the aid of the publishing cause or for that matter infiltrated the literary world.

Its success showed what many publishers already knew: the best market for titillating porn are female readers. It is the great unspoken guilty secret of the ‘feminist’ book buyer. While condemning the male groper around the tea machine at the office, the ravishing by a big hunk of a man or, even better, multiple big hunks, graphically written in lurid paragraphs, can pass the time on the Kindle on the Underground very nicely thank you.

The internet has increased the sale of the bodice-ripping, carnal fantasy market tenfold with the ability for women to read porn on tablets without their nearby passengers ever realising. (Many men seem to want to read Mein Kampf in the same manner, but that’s another matter.) Both are perilously on the edge.

For poor men reach their sexual zenith at the age of nineteen – when women have hardly begun their own – and are definitely the weaker of the sexes since they don’t have the benefits of those multiple orgasms which women claim to achieve. We are easily knackered.

The old adage that men are obsessed with sex and think about it every second of every day might have been true long ago but a sharp reversal has now taken place. Women have excelled in their new found role and are now the sex fiends we once were. They take pride, and brag about their seduction capabilities and their sexual stamina that overpowers the male in its durability, and become more rampant with age.

May their reading habits continue to swell poor publishers’ pockets who have, of late, been castrated by the economic downturn that has claimed many a flourishing enterprise. A word of caution, however:+ porn without the essential literary embellishment is short-lived  and unlikely to stand the test of time.

Leila Tannous-Dawton

Last Friday, a celebration of the life of Leila Tannous-Dawton ONC, organised by the British Lebanese Association, took place at the Embassy of Lebanon in London.

A speech for Leila written by Professor Suheil Bushrui of the University of Maryland who was unable to be present due to circumstances beyond his control was read on his behalf by Sir David Miers, former chairman of the British Lebanese Association. My own contribution was a short address to commemorate her life and our friendship as I knew it.

For the benefit of those who were not present, here is what I said.

Excellencies, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen – having perhaps outlived my sell-by-date at the age of eighty-three, I feel privileged and honoured to be invited to say a few words about a remarkable lady whose sheer presence turned darkness into light and despair into hope.

She was an irrepressible icon to follow and emulate – a great example of a woman destined to leave her distinctive mark in whatever direction she opted to take. She was truly unforgettable.

In essence, she remains a national treasure for her admirers dotted in many parts of the world; a guiding light in an era where things that matter are sacrificed for the sake of personal enrichment.

As we are here to commemorate and at the same time celebrate the life of Leila Tannous-Dawton, I shall therefore refrain from mixing my words with regrets or a measure of sadness – for her life was well lived, full of zest and inner contentment, which we all hope and aspire to achieve one day.

I met Leila when we were both of a certain age, having forged our way to become respectable oldies yet not bereft of our youthful enthusiasm, which throughout the years never dimmed nor lost its intensity.

Leila was a woman of many parts. She saw life on a grand scale, always hungry for knowledge with a capacity to absorb and dissect information and, above all, she was gracious enough to share her vast experience with others.

Her generosity of spirit was legendary. There was never a hint of a whinge or a whiff of pessimism in her outlook on life, except perhaps when she encountered mediocrity or faced undignified behaviour from those of us who should have known better.

She was proud of her Lebanese roots and fought tirelessly to acquaint the West with our rich heritage, be it in science, literature, astronomy or last but not least our warm and renowned hospitality.

I loved this luminous woman with every bone and breath in my body, for she reminded me of two earthy old ladies who lived in Nazareth; unlike Leila, they were illiterate, but nevertheless had great wisdom gained from a hard and harsh life, and to whom I owe everything I have ever accomplished. My little book, The Old Ladies of Nazareth, bears witness to that.

For the last few years, before Leila departed to her heavenly abode, I rang her at least twice a week and had a meaningful conversation that one could call enlighteningly gossipy – and I felt relaxed and the better for it. Her voice was music to my ears, and believe it or not I felt nourished by its resonance.

Do I miss her, you may ask. Of course I do. But I know that her spirit never left us. All we have to do is look up to the heavens and talk to her. I am convinced that she can hear us and feels with a certain pride that her life on earth made her so many friends, and that her legacy will shine interminably for generations to come.

Leila, I bid you au revoir – but not goodbye – for I know deep in my heart that we shall meet again.

In the meantime, please keep your eye and vigilance upon us, lest we lose our way. You have been our guiding spirit for so long that the mere thought of its absence will leave us with a vacuum hard to bear.

However, I know for a fact that your watchful perseverance will save the day and our loss be thus redeemed.

And as I conclude this brief address, I would like to acknowledge that Lisa Zakhem’s tribute to Leila was straight from the heart, beautifully expressed and surpasses anything I could say or do. God bless you all.

Sir Ronald Millar

Sir Ronald Millar, whom I interviewed in 1994, was a jack of all trades but brilliant at most.

Born in 1919 to a professional actress, Dorothy Dacre-Hill, he was educated at Charterhouse and King’s College, Cambridge. He served as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1940-43, when he was invalided out.

He began his theatrical career as an actor in the company of luminaries such as Ivor Novello, Alistair Sim and John Gielgud, and spent four years as a screenwriter in Hollywood – The Miniver Story (a sequel to Mrs Miniver), and Scaramouche, among others – and had some notable successes in the West End, many through dramatisations of the works of C. P. Snow (The Affair, The New Men, The Masters). He also wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Robert and Elizabeth.

As a political speechwriter he worked for Edward Heath for four years before working for Mrs Thatcher and, after her departure, he worked for John Major. He was knighted in 1980 in recognition of his contribution to Mrs Thatcher’s speeches, which included the now famous phrase: ‘The lady’s not for turning.’

His autobiography A View from The Wings was published in 1992. He died on 16th April, 1998.

Those of you who read the interview below will realise just how much I liked him, and enjoyed our encounter.

Your father was killed in an accident when you were only 18 months old so you knew him only from photographs, but your mother kept him alive for you with stories which you could never hear often enough. Did this turn him into an impossibly romantic and glamorous figure in your mind? 

Not really. Later on in my life many other people talked about my parents as the ideal couple, two people who were really made for each other. They lived on the river in the days when the river was a very romantic place to live. It seemed to have been an ideal relationship, but that didn’t make me regard my father as a saint or anything of that nature. I never knew more than the photographs, but he didn’t become an icon.

Were you conscious that your family circumstances were not like those of other boys? 

I never noticed it really. I never knew what it was to have two people who had charge of one’s life. My mother was a very remarkable woman, and she acted as mother, father and everything else.

Psychologists are fairly certain that the first few years of childhood set the pattern for life. Is this very evident in your case, would you say? 

There is some truth in it, but my mother was very conscious of the fact that a boy alone with his mother could become very tied to the apron strings, so she was extremely careful not to let this come about. I went off to boarding school in Bexhill at the age of 5 and a half, which of course is far too young in normal circumstances, but as she was an actress and touring all around, she didn’t want me to get involved with the theatre in any way. It was no life for earning a really good living; more than half the profession is always out of work and so she was always very careful to keep me a little bit at a distance. Enormous waves of affection broke through of course, and we were very close in spite of it all.

But did you suffer, even momentarily, any sort of rejection when she sent you away to school? 

I didn’t understand it for about half an hour or so, but kids adjust with the speed of lightening, and I soon settled down with the other prep school boys. It could have been a rather neurotic childhood, but it wasn’t. She was a very astute woman.

Would you have been happy to send a child of yours to boarding school? 

As a matter of fact I wouldn’t, but she had very good reasons. Her determination not to let me become a kind of symbol, a replica of my father, was what was in her mind, and I think she was probably right. I learned to be independent very young and that, as life turned out, was invaluable.

In those days it was not thought entirely proper for a woman, let alone one’s mother, to be on the stage. Did you experience embarrassment on account of this? 

No, I loved it. The theatre was wildly exciting, an escape route for a young boy, and I was spoiled rotten by the stagehands. It was all very stimulating and new, and other kids didn’t have this experience. I would go backstage and stand in the wings watching my mother acting, and the stagehand would take me up into the flies above the theatre, showing me how then curtain went up and down, how the lights came on and changed colour. This was a romantic experience which of course imbued me with a love of the theatre that has gone on all my life.

Did you feel a sense of pride to see your mother being acclaimed on the stage?

Oh, I thought she was the cat’s whiskers, yes. But I thought that anyway. I didn’t know what it was all about, but it seemed to be a sort of wonderland, an everlasting pantomime, and of course it had an enormous effect on me and has done to this day.

On the whole you seem rather to have enjoyed school life at Charterhouse. Do you think in some way it was a substitute for the family life which had been denied to you because you didn’t have a father? 

No. I feel it was a stepping stone, a means to an end, an education. My mother was absolutely determined that I should have a solid, safe job, and not get involved with things like the arts, or the theatre, or God forbid, the movies. She wanted me to have an intellectual background.

You describe your eagerness to serve in the war as having nothing to do with heroism and everything to do with romanticism. Did the reality of war finally hit home, or were you able to keep it at bay until you were invalided out? 

It always remained to me a kind of unreality. In a way it was another kind of stage show going on. I had been brought up in this way and had been involved in arts theatre projects, and the Footlights at Cambridge, and somehow or other the war seemed a by-product of this slightly unreal world. It never really occurred to me that I would be killed … until afterwards; then I thought, my God, I might have been. I was not without fear because I was a bit of a damned fool; I had never really taken on board the fact that at any minute I could have been wiped out.

After leaving the navy you decided not to return to Cambridge. Was that because you felt fundamentally changed by war and unable to get back on the previous road? 

I felt I had grown up in the war, that it was a quite different world that I came back to, but I also felt I had been changed by it. I didn’t any longer feel I could go back to more exams, getting a degree and all that. I had done a lot of exams – life had consisted in ‘Don’t write on both sides of the paper’ – and after I had been in the war, I thought, my goodness, that’s schoolboy stuff.

The theatre was in your blood. But did it also seem like an escape route from the horrors of war? 

No, not a bit. The horrors of war were still going on. The blitz was still on in London, and in the provinces where we toured – Plymouth and Coventry and Liverpool – there was still bombing. The war was perhaps more real to me on land than it had been at sea.

What prompted the transition from acting to writing? 

Accident. I called my book A View from the Wings, but I nearly called it An Accidental Life, because time and time again things happened in my life as if something was guiding me this way or that. With great impertinence I often used to change my lines as an actor. I was generally encouraged to do it, though if anyone had done it later in a play of mine I would have killed him. Finally someone suggested that if I could alter lines so well I should have a go at writing a whole play. That’s how I became a playwright.

You had a close alliance with C P Snow, adapting several of his novels for the stage. Were you attracted chiefly to the moral issues which are exposed by Snow? 

Partly, but not entirely. I found that his books had a great core of drama, and very interesting characters, but the essence of drama in them was smothered by a novelist’s style of writing that he came to call rest passages, though I’d never heard that expression. The plays that I made out of his books came to be known as ‘Snow without tears’. I don’t know if he ever knew that, but it was widely said.

What did he think of your adaptations? 

He was very pleased because it made him a lot of extra money. The first one I did was based on his novel The Affair which I had warned him might have only a limited appeal, and my God, it ran a year in the enormous Strand Theatre. Naturally we were both encouraged by this and he wanted me to do The Masters which dealt with many of the same characters, but I refused on the grounds that people would regard it as a rehash. I wanted to do The New Men, which was all about the making of the first atom bomb, but people didn’t want to go and see a play about nuclear fission. We were living under a threat of the bomb, and I hadn’t spotted the fact that this might not be entertainment for young honeymoon couples, or ladies up from Harrogate. So that only ran three months. After that I did try The Masters which he and a lot of people thought was the best of the three, and that had another long run, about nine to ten months.

Some of your plays in the old tradition came to be seen as unfashionable and often provoked the critics to vituperative reviews. Did this worry you or upset you? 

No, no; criticism up to a point can be helpful if you listen carefully. James Agate was the doyen of the dramatic critics in my early days and was responsible for my first lay coming into the West End. If he liked what I’d done, that was OK with me. I had my audience, which was not the audience of what ultimately came to be the Royal Court, but there was room for both.

Bernard Levin described your play The More the Merrier as ‘the kind of horse leech of a play which needs to be picked off the body of the English theatre before it bleeds the patient to death’. What was your reaction to that kind of criticism? 

I thought he was an idiot. He’s an entertaining writer and journalist, a man obviously of considerable intellectual capacity, but my plays would never be the kind he would like. Well-constructed plays which didn’t use four letter words weren’t intended for him. He supported the idea, and he probably was right, that it was time to move on from what came to be known as kitchen sink plays, because the class consciousness of Coward and Rattigan had been prevalent in the theatre for donkey’s years. But no, Mr Levin didn’t worry me. A lot of people admired him and a lot of people execrated him, and I was somewhere between the two. I admired his writing but not his judgement.

Were you ever tempted to return to acting? 

I thought originally that my whole life would be as an actor. It was marvellous to go to the theatre every night and act. I suppose it was a kind of escapism. But once I had really become involved as a playwright I began to realize that I didn’t have to go every night. I had to go to rehearsals, I had to re-write, but once I had written the damned thing I could go and see other plays or go on the river, or take a holiday. So I wasn’t tempted to go back.

Your involvement with prime ministers came about accidentally when you were invited to write Mr Heath’s final election broadcast in 1970. How did you feel about being asked – were you flattered, intrigued, curious…? 

I wasn’t flattered. I was certainly intrigued and curious. I thought Mr Heath had lost the ways and means of communicating and I wanted to help him restore them. That led on to other opportunities, to Mrs Thatcher, and ultimately to Mr Major, though I must stress that I was not the only one who wrote for these prime ministers. I happen to have written for three which is unusual, but there was a kind of team around and I always worked with one or other of them. I happen to have been the longest and best-known permanent speech writer, first of all for Mr Heath, and then for Mrs Thatcher, who inherited me, and then for John Major who inherited me from Mrs Thatcher, but believe me there are other very good writers around.

How well did you get on with Mr Heath? Were you ever close to him as a person? 

No. I don’t think many people were in the political world. He was a shy man who seemed at times to be rude, but he was not. He was simply withdrawn and reserved, and this gave rise to a feeling that he was rather off-putting and not a friendly man. I think he missed out a great deal in life and it came about through his innate shyness which perhaps stemmed from his social origins. He lacked outer warmth and also humour, although he could be very jolly at times. He wasn’t an easy man to know, but he was a man worth knowing.

Your professional relationship with Mrs Thatcher lasted 16 years during which time you became extremely close to her and came to admire her very much. You have said that you understood her. Did you also understand why other people took a different view of her? 

Perhaps it was because they weren’t constantly with her as I was. With Margaret it was a very different story from working with Ted. She was outwardly warmer as a personality, and I think because I didn’t have an official job she found it very easy to get on with me. She couldn’t actually tell me what to do, nor did have any fear – as others might have had – of being fired. I was a kind of maverick, and our relationship developed and became a very close one. She became of very great importance in my life.

People who criticize her say that perhaps she became too theatrical for her own good in the end, that it was Margaret Thatcher the actress bereft of any real feeling towards her audience. 

That’s nonsense. She had great feeling. She wasn’t by nature a good orator, nor was she her own best friend. Again her whole approach was governed by her origins, by her humble background in Grantham, a rather stiff and starchy upbringing by a very powerful father, a man who believed deeply in Methodism. It was therefore very difficult for her to break into the much more sophisticated world of politics. She lacked sophistication, and there remained with her a certain naivety right to this day in the ordinary give and take of the outside world. I don’t think she became theatrical in the sense you mean. Of course with an audience of five thousand people at Blackpool, or Brighton, or Bournemouth, where we used to go for the party conferences every year, she had to become theatrical to some extent. She wasn’t a natural speaker ever, but she could be on a good day very effective, and always at the end of the party conference she roused the faithful as no one else I have ever heard.

Mrs Thatcher was like your leading lady and you wrote and taught her how to deliver the best lines. Did you ever feel uneasy about your role in any respect? 

No. I don’t say all the speeches were good. I brought my own experience to bear on the situation, and like anybody else I was right only sometimes, but you have to be right more often than you’re wrong, otherwise you wouldn’t continue to hold down the job; neither would the person you’re waiting for.

Your phrase ‘The lady’s not for turning’ more than any other has stayed in people’s minds, perhaps because it was seen to capture the essence of Mrs Thatcher’s character. It shows that she was strong and resolute and unwavering, but on a different analysis, that she was intransigent, uncompromising, unyielding to advice of others. Which was it do you think – a strength or a weakness? 

She became associated with the phrase, and any other wavering politician suffered in consequence, but she was privately much more able to compromise than was known at the time. Historians will find that she was much more amenable to other people’s views than has ever been known. Her iron will was seen as an asset because in those days there was a clichéd view of the weak woman who wouldn’t have the strength of a man, but my God, she was like Elizabeth I, who said: ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king’. But she wasn’t that tough. I found a different side of her all the time. She was very emotional and sentimental, and when terrible things happened she was really stricken, and if anyone was in distress she was at their side in a flash. She was deeply upset over Airey Neave’s murder – who wouldn’t be – but she was tremendously moved and overcome. There’s a good deal more to Margaret Thatcher than the ‘lady’s not for turning’ woman.

I have the impression from your book that your view of prime ministers is that they are people in need of a great deal of help, that they must be properly groomed for office and taught basic skills of communication. Are the days of natural leaders over, do you think? 

No, I don’t think they’re over at all. It just so happened that I have come into contact with three of them who were not natural orators. Iain Macleod certainly was a natural, and he wrote all his own speeches and delivered them brilliantly. There are such people around. Enoch Powell is another example – the best prime minister the Tories never had. I just dealt with the material that was handed to me, and if by any fluke it had been Iain Macleod or Enoch Powell, I would have said, ‘you don’t need me, they’ve got it all’.

One also has the impression that speechwriting as you describe it can be a very haphazard business, that ideas and ways of expressing them are often hatched on the eleventh hour. Does this not suggest a certain lack of substance and direction…? 

Speeches will always change at the last minute because politics is a never ending business of change; it’s constantly on the move, hour by hour, almost minute by minute across the world. When you start to write a speech a fortnight beforehand, the central item in the news will almost certainly have changed by the time you come to deliver it. That does not imply that you’re making policy up on the hoof. Policy is worked out in depth with a lot of help from civil servants, and things don’t happen by accident, though they still go wrong.

But when things go wrong is it then expedient to change course totally? The government has changed course so many times now that whatever Mr Major says, nobody believes it. 

You exaggerate a little, if I may say so. Mr Major is under sustained bombardment from every branch of the media in a way that exceeds even what Mrs Thatcher went through. Who or what is responsible for Major’s difficulties at the moment is a very long and contentious story. It’s clear to me that the attack is as sustained and organized as I have ever known it, and although I can’t prove who is responsible, I have a rough idea. All this has produced the effect of a man who is perceived to be dithering and changing his mind, but that is wide of the mark. Recently I went to a dinner at a male club with an audience of about a hundred where what is said, it is understood, will never be repeated outside. John Major spoke to them off the cuff and it was absolutely stunningly brilliant. He amazed that audience, which was not pro-Tory or pro-Major at all, but an audience which had been brainwashed by the incessant attacks on this man and his administration. There is far more to John Major than sugar and spice and all things nice. He’s as tough as old boots, and provided he comes through the very worst of it, as indeed Margaret did – though this is worse than what Margaret went through, even in 1981 – then I think you may find that we have a very remarkable prime minister indeed. That is my unemotional objective opinion of what there is in this man.

But who is orchestrating this onslaught, and why? 

I can’t tell you who is doing it; all I can tell you is that there is no such thing any more as the Tory Press, though you must know this better than I do. The attack is spread right across the tabloids and quality papers. None of them really expected him to win, and they are keen to establish their own power. Newspapers have discovered a power which they did not have before, and in a curious way they have become united. There is no groundswell for John Smith, nor particularly for any other leader of the Tory Party that I know of. There are very able people about, like Ken Clarke and Michael Howard, and Heseltine before he was taken ill, but there is no great move for change. One comes back to the feeling that the media sense they can control things, albeit in a negative sense – in other words destroy rather than build. I don’t think Margaret is behind it in any shape or form. John Major is the outstanding man of his generation, and I don’t think there is any member of his Cabinet who would deny that.

Why do you think Margaret Thatcher is so hostile to him? After all she chose him… 

I think perhaps she wanted something on the nature of an echo, an understudy, and thought she’d got it; she wanted someone to carry out politically exactly what she would have done, and in the way she would have done it. Well, there ain’t such an animal; she was unique.

You describe Mrs Thatcher as ‘something of a stranger to the ordinary pleasures of the human experience’. That sounds as if you rather pitied her in some way. 

My goodness, I don’t think she needs pity. There was a kind of innocence, a lack of sophistication about her. She never had any hobbies in my experience; she wasn’t particularly interested in the arts, in the theatre, in paintings. She was a politician to her fingertips 24 hours a day.

You never accepted payment for speechwriting and regarded it more as a privilege. Did this sense of ‘privilege’ not wear a bit thin after 20 years? 

No, it still remains with me, funnily enough. I’m not easily impressed, nor do I easily take a subservient role in anything I do, but in this case I did. I had a kind of romantic concept of this kind of service. I had other means of income – my plays – and I continued to write them from time to time. Working unpaid gave me a certain independence of thought which those who have wives or families to think about and have no other source of income find difficult.

By not taking money, did it make you feel more powerful? 

I felt like the Health Service, that whatever I did was free at the point of delivery. And I was quite happy for it to be so.

Some may find your explanations in the book somewhat implausible in the sense that you said you did not want to be paid because you wanted to be free to go at any time if you ever fell out of sympathy with Mrs Thatcher. But as time went on it must have been clear that you were very much in tune and that you were never going to feel out of sympathy… 

The reasons I gave in the book are correct. There’s nothing secret about it, and I’m not a saint … for heaven’s sake, I like money as much as the next man. It may not sound plausible, but I can only tell you those were the reasons.

Your knighthood in 1980 was presumably in recognition of your contribution and a favour from Mrs Thatcher. Were you happy to regard it as such? 

Yes, I’d been with her since a week after she became leader in 1975, so I went through all the years in opposition and worked very hard with her then. I helped to teach her how to make speeches, I wrote some of them for her, and worked extremely hard on her television appearances which were crucial in the election. So yes, I think it was gratitude for what I had done for her, and I thought it was very nice. I was very touched and indeed honoured, and I still am.

You have always said that you have no political allegiance, but surely your loyalties must have been to the Conservatives for you to have worked so closely with the team. 

I can’t say that I was dedicated to the Conservative Party as such, but the idea of conservatism appeals rather than the idea of socialism. In a way I’m a kind of independent animal by nature, and I could never become chairman of the Conservative Party or anything of that sort. I’m not saying this is a good idea for anybody else or that politics can possibly work that way; you have to have party members, you have to have party allegiances, and in the sense that I would help in a very small way to bring about a Conservative victory yes, I am a supporter, but I’m not a passionate label man. I just was not the other thing; I was not a socialist.

You said that your political innocence vanished on November 13th 1990, the day when Geoffrey Howe committed what you call ‘that single act of brilliantly executed matricide’. Were your thoughts on that occasion chiefly with the personal impact they would have on the woman you had come to admire so much? 

I certainly thought that the impact would be immense. Geoffrey Howe went beyond what was normal in any resignation speech that I’d ever heard. He said what he had done and why he resigned but he then invited his colleagues to take the same view. In other words, he who had been deputy prime minister was inviting them to get rid of the Prime Minister. It was most brilliantly written and performed, even by the very nature of its quietness. It was stunning and it became the catalyst for everything. I sensed it at once, and I’m sure Margaret did too.

You have described Mrs Thatcher’s downfall as a Greek tragedy, and your allusions are often theatrical. Do you believe that politics has essentially the same elements as good theatre, including the ability to ennoble, to elevate, to offer catharsis…? 

Yes, I certainly believe all those things. If I express them in terms of drama, it is because the theatre has been my life. There is no greater drama than being at the centre of political power. Nothing is more fascinating than that.

You are said to be hurt by Mrs Thatcher’s recent coolness and ‘unmistakable resentment’ towards you. But surely she is bound to view your working for John Major as an act of disloyalty, however irrational that might be. 

It was totally irrational, but the coolness is over now. It lasted about three months, and then we had a very nice dinner together at her house. She thanked me for the book, which is not always favourable to her, and I gave her an inscribed copy. Don’t forget, Mr Major was the man she had chosen, so her reaction could not have been more irrational. It was a very female reaction. I understood it, and I haven’t said anything very violent about it; but I was temporarily, yes a bit miffed, no more than that.

You have said you felt keenly for Mrs Thatcher in the bereavement of her exile. Do you think she has behaved well since? 

We have to define the period. For about a year afterwards she was shattered. The effect upon her was enormous. A prime minister’s diary is filled for about a year, sometimes even longer, and suddenly overnight it was wiped clean. To many people this would not have been so shattering, because they have other interests. She had no other interests. Politics was her profession; it was also her hobby. I knew the vacuum that had been created, and I was very concerned for her. It seemed to me that she was a woman in psychic pain, with no idea of what to do with her life. If one had any imagination at all, one could not but be deeply concerned and sorry for her. Even her political enemies had some feeling for her. Obviously she has created problems for John Major since, but not as many she would have done if she had stayed in the Commons like Ted Heath. She gets attention from the media because they will do anything that will give them yet another weapon with which to beat John Major about the head.

Do you think that John Major can ever be divorced from his Spitting Image persona of Grey Man? 

He is not, believe me, a grey man in that sense at all. The man who talked for 40 minutes at the meeting I mentioned would be a revelation to anybody. His use of language was particularly astonishing, because I didn’t think that he had that command on his own; and he does. He was really roused and I will never forget it. Perhaps he should never have a speech written, perhaps he should just talk, but of course the press would hate it because they always want the text in advance. But if we said, to hell with speechwriters, let the man talk, we would discover how very difficult it would be to destroy the man I saw that night.

Of the three prime ministers you have worked for you say that John Major is by far the most naturally courteous and warmly human. Do you think that in politics this is perhaps a weakness? 

No, I don’t think it is a weakness in any man in any profession. He happens to be a nice guy. It is only a weakness if people think that’s all he is.

Your true love is the theatre, and perhaps in that light politics might be described as your mistress. Are you at all regretful that it is your mistress that has brought you more into the public eye? 

No. I’m always in favour of having any number of mistresses [laughs] and I don’t mind which one brings me into the public eye. In fact – and this may sound a strange thing to say for someone who was an actor – I’ve never particularly sought the public eye in the sense that some people do. If I had never become known at all, it would not have bothered me. And anyway, I’m not a household name, for goodness sake, I am known only to people in politics and in the theatre. I daresay farmers don’t wake up in the morning and think, well, what is Sir Ronald up to today?

You have never married, although you say you have come close several times. What do you think has held you back from the brink? 

I suppose having so much of my life divided between two different professions. Originally it was the war that prevented me from marrying. I had a girlfriend to whom I was devoted but held back because I thought it would be selfish to marry if I were going to be killed. Perhaps I was over cautious but I didn’t much like the idea of a widow and a child with no father. After the war life suddenly moved into top gear with plays and then films, and I found I was having a hell of a good time with various girlfriends without committing myself.

Freudians might say that no woman ever measured up to your mother … is there anything in that do you think? 

No … that’s too easy, that’s too simple. Absolutely not. She cut the apron strings, and they were never joined up again by me. I have several very close women friends, and I wouldn’t like to live without them. In the theatre you meet a lot of homosexual people, and I have friends amongst them too, but that is not in my own nature at all. Women are a joy and a delight. Not marrying has never been a problem for me, except that I feel sometimes I would love to have had children.

Presumably you have always been so busy that you have never had time to feel lonely … do you ever fear loneliness in old age? 

No. I have an enormous number of friends from different walks of life and many of them younger than I. I would expect them to be around to give me a decent funeral.

You called your book A View from the Wings. In your heart, have you missed being centre stage? 

No, otherwise I wouldn’t have called it A View from the Wings. I’m very happy to be around, just to be there. Shakespeare has King Henry V say in his famous Agincourt speech: ‘And gentlemen in England, now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.’ At quite a number of key moments for this country during my lifetime, I was there. That’s enough for any one man.