Julian Critchley was born in 1930 and educated at Shrewsbury and Pembroke College, Oxford.
Until he retired in 1997, he was a Conservative MP for over thirty years, winning his first seat in 1959. From 1979-87 he chaired the Conservative Party Defence Committee, and he wrote extensively on the subject of defence and nuclear weapons. He was an acute observer of political life and enjoyed a successful career as a writer, broadcaster and journalist.
His publications include Westminster Blues, Palace of Varieties and a biography of Michael Heseltine. His autobiography, A Bag of Boiled Sweets, appeared in 1994 – described by Jeremy Paxman as ‘the most entertaining set of political memoirs to have been published in years’. He also wrote two mystery novels set in Parliament, Hung Parliament and Floating Voter, which featured an MP-turned-sleuth who was based on Critchley and a mix of real and invented MPs.
Julian was a remarkable character insofar as he was outrageously frank, fearlessly eloquent and cared very little about the Establishment. Politicians of his ilk are no longer to be found. He died in September 2000.
Is there life after the House of Commons, would you say? Or is it a slow and painful decline from the world of politics?
I’m afraid it is a slow and painful decline. I was unlucky enough to fall ill in 1991, and although I remained an MP, I missed most of the last Parliament and could not stand at the last election because of ill health. Had I been fit enough to stand, I would have held the seat and would now still be a Tory member of parliament. Of course, I love living in Ludlow, and because I come from this part of the world, I’ve always wanted to retire here. But I was obliged to retire much too early. So much is happening in politics in general and with the conservative party in particular that I feel utterly frustrated that I have no part to play any more. There is nothing as ex as an ex-MP, and as I make what living I can out of freelance journalism, mainly political, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so with the passing of time.
In your autobiography, A Bag of Boiled Sweets, you seem obsessed with your own failure or lack of achievement. There is a slight sense that you protest your failure too much. Would you agree?
That is not an unreasonable criticism. If I do protest my failure too greatly it is for two reasons. First, I was always brought up to admire the intellectual capacity of my father, and my mother always used to say that I was nothing like as clever as he was. Secondly, politics is such a transparent profession; at any given time it is possible to judge the progress of a member of parliament within his own party, and it is very tiresome to observe the soles of the feet of people climbing above you up the ladder of politics – particularly when you regard them as not particularly bright. As a consequence of my relative failure, I became an observer of politics as opposed to a participant. The more I observed, the more enemies I made, and my greatest mistake was to confuse political journalism with politics, and you can’t ride both horses. I had no money of my own, and since I was not a businessman or a lawyer or a company director, the only way I could earn money was to scribble. In the early days as a very young man in the House, I did not appreciate the extent to which the old things in the Tory party were upset by the fact that I wrote about them in my Spectator column. People didn’t do things like that then. The main person who destroyed my political career – if it can be described as such – was Francis Pym, Ted Heath’s chief whip. Pym told a friend of mine in the whips’ office that he did not consider me a Conservative, and that opinion was passed on to Ted. So Pym was – to use the politically incorrect phrase – the nigger in the woodpile. Promotion was also blocked by Margaret Thatcher, but with good reason, since I was very hostile to her. All I could do after that was be my own man. I believe I pursued that course honestly enough, though that is of course a matter of opinion.
Jeremy Paxman called your memoirs the most entertaining to have been published for years and said they were free of the mendacity, distortion and self-importance which characterize most political memoirs. Was that the highest form of praise as far as you were concerned?
Yes, I was delighted with that, because I think what he said was broadly true. And Paxman is a pretty formidable character, not given to flattery.
In your book you quote Graham Greene’s view that fear is the dominant emotion of childhood, but you relate it to your move from prep school to Shrewsbury. In the context of your early family life, would you say that you had a happy childhood?
How nice to be asked some intelligent questions for a change instead of being interrogated by some silly girl who doesn’t know her arse from her elbow. Well, my mother and father are dead so I can tell the truth. I was happy at home, but unhappy for a great deal of time at school. My father was a distant clever man who suffered from the English disease of not being able to touch. He never showed affection, never kissed me – it would have been inconceivable. My mother and he did not get on, but this didn’t dawn on me until I was an adult – it’s curious how blind children can be to the unfortunate nature of their parents’ relationship. When I said that fear was the dominant emotion, I was referring to my experience at Brockhurst when I was ten, when the very formidable and unpleasant headmaster, knowing that I was terrified of water, threw me into the deep end in public in order to ‘make a man of me’. I was also thinking of my time at Shrewsbury, which in 1945 had not really changed from Arnold’s Rugby. One was either frightened of being beaten by older boys, cold because the central heating was minimal, or hungry because it was the height of the rationing period. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression on this; fortunately I was powerfully built, and my uncle, whom I adored, taught me how to box, with the result that nobody took me on idly. In the public-school system your first two years are hell, your third year become marginally better, and in your fourth year you come into your own and begin to do what the others have done to you. However, since I was a bit of a rebel, my housemaster told me at the end of my third year that however long I stayed at Shrewsbury he would never make me a monitor. In effect he deprived me of a fourth year, cheated my father out of his money and me out of my education. The truth is I was a sensitive, difficult child, nervous and neurotic, and it did not help to be sent to the wrong sort of schools.
Where do you think the neurosis came from?
I guess it was a genetic inheritance from my father. As a small boy in Bristol, where he lived, he was so neurotic that he could tell how long it would take him to get to a public lavatory from whatever position in Bristol he happened to be in, even if he was on a bus. I have not shared the same neurosis, but there were others. I don’t know whether you read my father’s obituary notices – he died in October – but he was much cleverer than I am. Indeed, Jonathan Miller once described him as the greatest medical philosopher since Locke. I therefore always had a sense of inferiority, of not living up to his standard – an idea reinforced by my mother.
In your autobiography, you describe your mother in warm, human terms: a chain smoker, a gin drinker, an amusing companion; but your father is a remote figure, emotionally shy, and your brother scarcely emerges as a person. From the reader’s point of view, there is a definite imbalance … was it conscious on your part?
No. I’ve always got on well with my brother, but he was five years younger and the gap meant that he didn’t loom very largely in my life. We went to different schools and universities. My mother was indeed all of those things you describe until she became a sick woman towards the end of the war. She drank a great deal, and she never recovered from a series of illnesses and died a miserable death. Father had tremendous wit and elegance and verve, but only for other people; when he came home he switched off. Like an actor, he went out to perform and came home to rest.
It is often said that you inherited your wit from your mother. What qualities has your father passed on to you, would you say?
A degree of intellectual curiosity, and also a generalized interest in subjects which he knew a great deal about – for instance, nineteenth-century French history and Oscar Wilde.
You and your father had little to say to each other until his old age. Did you try to make up for all the silent years?
Yes, I did. My mother died in 1974 and father married a woman who was approximately my age. He retired to Somerset where I used to go every summer to stay in my cousin’s house, and it was then that I attempted to make up for lost ground by taking father and his wife out to lunch. There were terrible problems, however, when I sent him the draft of A Bag of Sweets. It was a great mistake, for he took intense objection to various comments I made about him. They were frivolous and marginal, but by then he was old, and since he was always vain and had a Victorian idea of privacy, he hated the idea of appearing in what might be described as a frivolous book. For example, I told the story of my mother overhearing a couple in the grocer’s saying: ‘That’s Mrs Critchley – she and her husband are the sort of people who drink wine with their meals.’ I wrote in my book that while this was certainly true, it was mainly Algerian wine. Father wrote me a very stiff letter saying that he had never drunk Algerian wine in his life, and for the next four and a half years we had no contact except to exchange increasingly irritable letters. When I got my knighthood he didn’t even write to congratulate me. Last September his wife and my brother arranged that we should meet for a sort of reconciliation, and I think father then must have known that death was near – he was ninety-seven after all. We had the meeting; there was no emotional scene – which might have been the case had we been French or Italian – we shook hands, and within four days he was dead. So that was good news, because I could go to his funeral without the awful feeling that there was unfinished business and that the unfinished business itself had been so trivial.
Your unwillingness to be confirmed at Shrewsbury, lest it led to further compulsory church attendance, was part of a nonconformity established at school and continued as a Tory MP. But you confess it was partly a pose, and that while you played poacher, you wanted to be gamekeeper, and would have welcomed promotion in both spheres. Have you consciously encouraged the pose?
Yes, I think I have. There is certainly a thread of nonconformity running through my life. I disliked intensely what was called the house spirit at school. I did not want to watch on a compulsory basis the house playing football on a wet afternoon; I would rather have read or done anything else. My nonconformity was carried on almost instinctively throughout my life, and certainly held me back within the Conservative party. I’ve often wondered whether I made the wrong choice of party. I think I would have been happier as a Liberal, but as Liberals did not get elected in those days unless they were extraordinarily fortunate, the only choice was between Labour and Conservative, and since the whole of my background was professional middle class, thanks to my father’s brains, it had to be Conservative. I remember Michael Heseltine and I – we were great mates at Oxford – talking about politics, and deciding there was only really one party we could join. But that was not an intellectual decision; it was a social decision, forced upon us by the attitudes and outlook of our families. We had almost identical backgrounds.
Could your father’s record of outstanding achievement – subconsciously perhaps – have anything to do with what looks more like a failure of will than lack of ability?
There is perhaps a failure of will. The fact that I only got a fourth at Oxford was due not to a lack of intelligence, but to two other factors, namely, that it took me a long time to learn to work on my own and also the fact that I contracted polio. The latter certainly was traumatic in its effect on me and, sadly, it has come back to haunt me after forty years. 1949-51 were the years of the great polio epidemics and, as a neurologist, my father must have seen half a dozen polio patients a day. He would come back in the evening with tales of the iron lung. As a nervous, neurotic youth, I was convinced that I was going to get it, and by God, I did.
Did it affect you psychologically as well as physically?
Indeed, it did. I became very depressed. But it’s an ill wind, as they say, and instead of going to the Rifle Brigade, which would have had me buried on some hillside in Korea, I went instead to Paris where I met and fell in love with Prue. That was the immediate consolation for polio, but when you are a young man in your prime, good looking as I was then, vigorous and athletic, it is a terrible business suddenly to become a cripple, unable to run for a bus, unable to walk at more than a steady pace, always anxious lest you find yourself in a situation in which you are walked off your feet by someone else. All this added up to a feeling of negotiation, and for a time blunted my ambition. In 1991 the paralysis spread down my leg, so that now I can barely walk at all, and I can’t stand for any length of time. Over the last five years, I suppose I’ve been without pain for only about four days. I have to suck opiates most of the time.
You describe your life at Shrewsbury as consisting of cold baths, freezing dormitories and filthy food. You speak rather disparagingly about the ‘sensitive’ and ‘misunderstood’ souls who write about the horrors of public-school life, and you refuse to be numbered among them. Why?
I don’t think I deliberately denied the connection, but it’s a simpler matter of fact that the happy schoolboy upon whose tomb is the epitaph HE WAS HEAD OF SCHOOL does not put pen to paper about his education. You could not find a more able and successful man than Michael Heseltine, worth about seventy-four million, and yet he was utterly neglected at Shrewsbury, and treated with a sort of contempt because he was not athletic. He felt exactly as I did, that it was a pretty appalling place. And so it was. Shrewsbury in the 1950s and 1960s was full of iconoclasts, but the Richard Ingrams and the Willie Rushtons were the next generation to the Heseltines and Critchleys. They were kicking an open door, but we were kicking at a bolted and barred door, and the sanctions for us were much more severe than for those who came after us.
On a visit to Shrewsbury from Oxford, Michael Heseltine proposed a motion, seconded by you, in a debate on the future of public schools, in which he castigated them as ‘breeding grounds of class privilege, intellectually narrow and conformist and a gross encouragement to homosexual practices’. Did either of you believe any of what was said, or was it all in fun?
Oh, we believed it. All the younger boys voted for us, while the older one were dragooned into voting against us, the villain of the piece being a housemaster who went on to become headmaster of Eton. He had the unpleasant habit of beating boys on their bare bottoms and then kissing them on the same bare bottoms. He was a sadist without a shadow of a doubt, and we absolutely went for him. I can see his face to this day. He was absolutely humiliated and made furious by it. I rang up the Press Association and told them that a great public school had voted to dissolve itself and was then accused by the school authorities of selling the story. In fact, I was so green, I didn’t know you could sell a story to a newspaper, but of course the headmaster was rung up at 6 o’clock in the morning and the Daily Mirror had it all over the front page. The authorities looked into whether or not they could expel us both from the Old Salopian Society, only to find that neither of us had joined in the first place. It was all very childish but extremely satisfying revenge for my three miserable years.
Did you feel any qualms about sending your own children away from home?
My two daughters from my first marriage were sent to Dartington over my dead body. I couldn’t prevent it. My first wife’s mother had a lot of money and that is why they went there. When I visited Dartington I would be greeted by my daughters and a long line of other children, all with a Woodbine at the corner of their mouths. The school was a disgrace, though it was a very fashionable before the war as a progressive place. The girls were always having affairs with the masters, there was a degree of drug-taking, the richer pupils arrived by helicopter and, in the end, the headmaster’s wife appeared in the centrefold of Playboy – and that was the end of Dartington. There is the old story about Dartington which Shaw uses in one of his plays. A mother visits the school and knocks on the door, which is opened by a small girl, stark naked. The mother is horrified and takes a step back, saying ‘My God!’ – to which the small girl replies, ‘There is no God,’ and slams the door in her face. My other two children by my second wife, Melissa and Joshua, were rather different. Melissa went to a Catholic convent at Farnborough, on the basis that this was the middle class’s best educational buy. She hated it, though I don’t think she was bitterly unhappy. Nothing would have persuaded me to send Joshua to Shrewsbury, and in fact he was a day boy at the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, and he did very well.
You went through Oxford with Michael Heseltine and became close to him. Have you been wounded by the withering of your friendship with him?
Yes, I have. We were very close indeed for a long time – we hunted together, so to speak. I was his best man and he was mine. I’m a year or two older than Michael and initially I made rather faster progress than he did in the Oxford Tories, but he overtook me pretty quickly. I’ve never known anyone with such overweening ambition and such high horsepower. He is not an intellectual, he may not even be a particularly clever man, but he makes up for that by having a twelve-cylinder engine, the looks of a Greek god and a stamina which I could never match. We fell out over my editorship of Town magazine and the fact that I couldn’t make a success of it. Incidentally the magazine lasted only a fortnight after I left and had never made money in its six years of existence.
He sacked you, didn’t he?
Yes; but what hurt me more than anything else was that we were both living in the same house and, as an old friend, he should have taken me on one side and told me that the magazine was losing money and perhaps given me three months’ notice and time to find another job. But instead he got his henchman to make life unpleasant for me, and that I disliked intensely. We were driven out of our flat as well as my job, and it took me a long time to forgive him. There is definitely a ruthless side to Michael. He chooses his friends for what they can contribute to him, and when they can no longer make a contribution, they are expendable.
But that’s not true friendship…
No, of course it isn’t, but this is how he’s developed. However, I don’t want to be bitter and twisted about this, and to give him his due he is almost certainly responsible for my knighthood. He came to visit me here when I was out of action, and as he left, he said that he was determined to get me my K. And in 1990 I supported Michael throughout that very intensive election campaign; I was never off the telly or the radio, being nice about him and backing him up, with the consequence that the local Tories wanted to de-select me. They failed, but it was a very unpleasant experience. Michael thanked me for risking my career on his behalf, and since then we’ve been good acquaintances, but never close friends in the way that we were.
Matthew Parris said that loyalty to your friends was one of the nice qualities which have been your downfall. Would you agree?
I’d like to think I’m loyal to my friends, and the other side of the picture is that I’m certainly loyal to my enemies. I think I’m a bad enemy and a good friend. Whether it’s the cause of my downfall, I don’t really know. As I indicated, the essential reason for my lack of progress was a suspicion, not altogether unjustified, that I was not really a natural Conservative at all. People detected that pretty quickly.
Would you go as far as E. M. Forster and put loyalty to a friend before loyalty to country? For example, would you have voted for Heseltine as leader even though you thought someone else would have voted for Heseltine as leader though you thought someone else would have made a better prime minister?
No, I don’t agree with falsehood. And I think one’s country is more important that one’s party, and my loyalty would always lie there, so I would never fall for what is a very seductive Forsterian idea. I voted for Michael because I thought he would make the best leader of the party and very properly the best prime minister. Don’t forget, we never knew each other properly at Shrewsbury because we were in different houses and although we were friendly at Oxford, Michael got married in 1966, and I don’t think his wife Anne liked me. Wives are always a little suspicious about close male friends of their husband’s, not because there was ever anything sexual between myself and Michael – that’s unthinkable nonsense – but because of so much shared experience in which they cannot participate. And Heather, who was my wife at that time, couldn’t bear Anne, so it didn’t make for a happy relationship.
You say in your memoir that you were never either converted or convinced by Conservatism and you entered politics with no sense of social obligation. This strikes me as the most astonishingly honest statement any politician has ever made…
It’s absolutely true. I entered politics because I thought it was an honourable trade and also immensely exciting. There was no intellectual experience which turned me into a High Tory, Low Tory or Conservative. Trollope says that the greatest honour for an Englishman in to have the initials MP after his name; I’m sure that was true in the nineteenth century, but it also appeared to me to be true in the early 1950s. The party system was a necessary evil and since no independent candidates ever got elected, one was obliged to join a party. I thought that the Tory party was a broader church than the Labour party in those days.
The problem as you described it is that you have never believed strongly enough in anything … have you regarded that as a handicap or not?
I have believed strongly in European unity – I’m an idealist in that sense. I would look forward to a United States of Europe and I hurriedly concede that the common currency is a political and not an economic matter. Another passionately held belief was collective security as a means of avoiding nuclear war. But I could never really get worked up very much about internal politics. I was also very hostile to Margaret Thatcher, on the grounds that I didn’t like her and I didn’t like her policies. I never considered her a Conservative in any meaningful sense at all. She was also a very unpleasant woman to work for, or rather to work with.
There is no attempt to set yourself up as champion of the poor, or as a solver of problems other than your own. Is this a false impression? Do you have a social conscience under the veneer of bon viveur and satirist?
Not much. Of course, I had my constituency surgeries and correspondence which I worked on assiduously, but in general I am vulnerable to your charge. I don’t have a particularly strong social conscience.
As a specialist in defence you consistently criticized the government’s nuclear policies, spoke out against apartheid, and supported ‘the wind of change’ in South Africa, and you were always pro-Europe. It seems you were a liberal in fact, but to join the Liberals would have meant political wilderness. Did you never suffer from political wilderness in your own party?
I did indeed. It wasn’t so apparent perhaps, but clearly I was not regarded as officer material. I had two heroes in politics: Macmillan and Roy Jenkins. Macmillan, because he controlled to a very great extent Britain’s decline in power and was responsible for our adjustment in straitened circumstances – something he managed despite a party of fools. My admiration for Roy Jenkins was based on the fact that as a young Labour MP he would advocate the cause of Europe in cross-party meetings, and he advocated brilliantly.
Why then did you say that joining the Labour party would have been unthinkable? Can you explain ‘unthinkable’?
In that context it might have been slightly careless writing, but what I meant was this: having, as it were, made no progress within the Conservative party, but having become none the less much better known as a public figure than most of the ministers who were not yet cabinet ministers, I had carved out a comfortable niche for myself. And writing a lot enabled me to make quite a bit of money – in my terms, that is, since I’ve never been rich. Had I gone over to Labour, I would have had to start all over again and I probably would have found myself kicking against the pricks in the Labour party just as vigorously as I’d been kicking against the pricks in the Tory party. I thought I might as well remain a minor celebrity…
The early career of Tony Blair has something in common with yours – his father also made the leap into the professional middle-class which enabled his son to have a public-school and Oxford education. Do you admire him and his social conscience?
Yes, I can’t help but admire Tony Blair. He has dragged the Labour party kicking and screaming into the last part of the twentieth century, or perhaps into the twenty-first, and that is no mean achievement. He has helped to destroy Marxist Socialism, which of course was the bane of Labour, and he appears to have helped shore up the monarchy when it was in danger. To be honest, I think Blair’s a very good thing, and if I were forced to choose between Blair and Hague, I would choose Blair. Instead of Ken Clarke, we were foolish enough to choose an entirely untried thirty-six-year-old whose frivolity is self-evident. Propriety is suffering from a collective nervous breakdown I think if I were coming down from Oxford today I would be a member of the Labour Party.
In your book Palace of Varieties you describe the worst aspects of the Tory party as jingoism, anti-Semitism, obscurantism and self-righteousness –
No wonder I wasn’t promoted…
– are these elements still alive and well in the Tory party?
They, my dear friend, are flourishing. The party shows every sign of becoming a right-wing rump, obscurantist and nationalist. They aren’t necessarily anti-Semitic, simply because it’s not a big issue, but if you scratch them you’ll find that many of them are anti-Semitic; they’re certainly anti-black. By and large, most of them are so unattractive I wonder that I stayed with them as long as I did.
In the 1975 leadership election you voted for Mrs Thatcher who, you suggest, won comfortably for no better reason than she was not Ted Heath. Was that a sufficient reason to elect her, and did you ever regret voting for her?
I did regret voting for her, very much indeed. Ian Gilmour writes in one of his books that, given the circumstances of the time, it was not surprising that many left-wing Conservatives, despairing of Ted Heath, voted for Margaret. But we had a rude awakening. I remember in 1977 lunching with Reggie Maudling, then her opposition-front-bench-foreign-affairs spokesman, and he said to me, ‘What on earth are we going to do with this dreadful woman? I cannot make her see sense and she will drag us into war unless we are very careful. She is intolerant and intolerable.’ So it didn’t take long before I realized the extent of my error, but I was not the only left winger to have decided that since Ted had lost three out of four elections, he was never going to hold the support of the bulk of the Conservative party. He was also, like so many of us, his own worst enemy; he would pass you in the corridor without so much as a nod in your direction, and he treated a lot of the Tory backbenchers with contempt. I don’t blame him, I would have done the same myself, but I wasn’t standing as leader of the party.
In 1980 you wrote an unsigned article for the Observer attacking Mrs Thatcher comprehensively and bringing yourself instant notoriety when you confessed to authorship. As I understand it, you regretted not signing it in the first place, but you did not regret the contents, is that right?
That’s true. I was foolish. I was prepared to lie to the press, but I was rung up by the most prominent Conservative supporter in Aldershot, a personal friend and a man whom I admired. He asked if it was me, and I felt I had to say yes, and then of course it became public. Curiously enough, some years later I ran into David English who said, ‘You should have kept your bloody mouth shut and gone on denying it.’ But as in the Spanish proverb, the blow that does not kill you, makes you, and I moved from being a minor player in the political field to being a kind of celebrity, a focus of anti-Thatcher Conservatism. The short answer to your question, however, is yes, it would have been more sensible to sign it.
I was interested in your comments on class, something which features a great deal in A Bag of Boiled Sweets. You have been called a snob, a term which you refute. Yet behind the emphasis on the humble origins of your family on both sides, and the jokes about ‘passing for white’ among Tories because of you public-school and Oxford education, is there not some truth in the charge?
I will confess to being an intellectual snob and if it were not the case that I find class differences in England hilariously funny, I would be guilty of being a snob. A snob is a person who finds class differences in speech usage, in what people wear, in what they eat. A snob is a person who takes these particular distinctions seriously, and I don’t. If you can talk about it in an amusing way and laugh with it and at it, I think you’re not a snob. What gave rise to the charge of snobbery was my teasing of the Thatcherites. This was fun because there were a lot of them, they were very obstreperous, and you could make fun of them on the grounds that they were the sort of people who ate peas off their knives. It was quite deliberate satire which I used against certain people – for example, Tebbit, whom I dislike intensely. In my view, he is a savage man who is full of hatred. One of the ways of pricking the bubble of Thatcherism, and by God, she had enough sycophants around her one way or another, was to pretend that they were all as common as muck. This would annoy them intensely, and that got me the reputation of being a snob.
You write about prejudice, and in particular anti-Semitism, which you deplore and which you say was quite common among your fellow Tories. It puzzles me that you felt it necessary to identify Jewishness in your writing. For example, Keith Joseph at Oxford is described as ‘a charming Jew’, while Leo Amery, born in India, is described as ‘of Levantine origin’, which struck me as a phrase straight out of the novels and prejudice of John Buchan. Is this something you’ve thought about?
I was wrong about Leo Amery. I was told by John Rogers, a mischievous old boy, that the Amerys were of Levantine extraction, and I didn’t bother to check it. But I don’t think it is a sign of anti-Semitism to mention the fact that Keith Joseph is a Jew; in fact, the reverse. It’s people who afraid of being thought anti-Semitic who don’t use what is a perfectly accurate term. My mother was bitterly anti-Semitic in a sort of Shropshire-working-class way, and what hurt me even more was that my father, whose brains I respected, had also caught from his lower-middle-class, upper-working-class background a similar anti-Semitism, and they were both so beastly about my fiancée, who was a Jew, that I felt driven into marriage with the poor girl. It turned out to be a terrible mistake.
As a young man you fell in love with Prue and you describe a romantic time in Paris, a passionate affair conducted without sex. Do you think you were unusual in exercising such restraint?
No. This was the tragedy of people of my generation and class and up-bringing. Prue and I were both well-brought-up middle-class children, passionately in love, who could do practically anything except sexual intercourse. In a sense, my mother was responsible, because whenever I left the house to meet pretty girls at the Hampstead Young Conservatives, she used to shout, so loud it could be heard down Harvard Road, ‘Don’t you get those girls in the family way!’ I would have loved to have got those girls in the family way, but I knew jolly well that they were not the sort of girls who would permit you to get them in the family way. This was 1951, not 1991. Prue and I would book into a hotel, go to bed but not undress entirely, and we would lie there doing something called necking. None of my children know what necking is, but necking was the substitute for sexual intercourse in those days.
You have been what is sometimes known as ‘a serial monogamist’ – that is, you have loved and been loved by three beautiful women in turn. You insist you have not been promiscuous. Is that a point of honour, or part of your nature?
Part of my nature really. When I fell in love with Prue and she gave me the push in 1952, that broke my heart. Both my wives discovered, tucked away in drawers, pictures of Prue which they promptly tore up. For a variety of reasons the first marriage didn’t work, and the second didn’t either, although it went on a long time. Falling in love again with Prue and coming to live with her here in 1992 has closed my emotional circle; despite my illness, I have never been happier in my life.
When your early love affair with Prue came to an end you suffered all the anguish of unrequited love and resolved never again to be the injured party in any love affair. Did you manage to keep your resolve?
That resolve was perhaps not to my credit, but I was determined not to be broken-hearted again. Once was enough.
You say you are happier than you have ever been … would you, if given the chance, have chosen the promise of domestic happiness over the hope of high office? Mill Street, Ludlow, rather than No. 10 Downing Street?
It’s not really a fair choice. I would have preferred to have been fit in the last six years, to have lived with Prue, to have remained a member of parliament, and to have participated with her in political life. She would have had my constituency eating out of our hands within twenty minutes, and we would have been a very successful duo without any doubt. But it hasn’t worked out like that.
What did you make of the so-called Tory sleaze? Was it all hysteria whipped up by the media?
First of all, you have to define sleaze. If sleaze is asking questions for financial reward, then I would disapprove very strongly of that. Fortunately, the Ian Greers of this world never approached me – because of my political reputation there was no door I could open for them. But if sleaze means sexual misconduct, that doesn’t worry me particularly. Although I am a journalist, I hate the British press, the tabloid press in particular. I think the press can be remarkably cruel. Prue and I were very lucky; we escaped the minimum of public attention and that was because I invited Lynda Lee-Potter, of blessed memory, to come and interview us and talk to us about our affair. She did it sympathetically, so sympathetically that it made us cringe, but none the less she did it. And this put a stop to all the speculation in other papers. Prue and I just behaved like thousands of other people behave; it’s sad, but also joyful.
You do not mention if any of the women in your life had an independent career. Would it have worried you to have a wife earning more than you and deemed to be more successful?
It wouldn’t have worried me had she earned more than I did, providing our relationship was good. If she had become more important than me, that would have been more difficult to deal with.
In your memoir you do not – as you put it – ‘do an Osborne’ and write unkindly about your wives. Most people cannot resist the urge to claim that they behaved well in marital breakdowns while their partners behaved badly. Have you found it hard to resist that urge?
I think I was right to write that, since that is very much what I believe, but I must be very careful here because in the case of wife no.1, there is an injunction out against me, so I can’t mention her name. What I do begrudge is that after thirty-five years of separation I’m still paying her over a thousand pounds a month. I don’t want to get into legal trouble, but she was no angel, and yet she has a meal ticket for life. That makes me bitter when I think about it. I have to work hard all the time in order to find the money, and it is becoming more difficult for me now as an ex-MP to earn the sort of money that I did two or three years ago. That is the great anxiety of my life. I wish I had had enough money to pay her off, but I never did, so she’s been an albatross for forty years. She has more money than I have, and yet the law of this country means that I have to go on paying through the nose. It’s very unfair, but then life is unfair.
How would you describe your personal code, the principles and values by which you have lived?
You flatter me to imagine that I have ever worked out a pattern of behaviour to which I’ve adhered. I think I was ‘well brought up’, and that has lasted, save for my marital difficulties. I am honest financially, and although I might be accused of marital dishonesty, I still have a sense of honour. I would like to think that I have behaved well.
Do your children blame you for the breakdown of your marriages?
No, not at all. They know what both the women were like.
Your record of criticizing your own party, although carried off with great wit and style, nevertheless deprived you of ministerial office. Has the price of freedom to speak your mind been worth it, would you say?
I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I would have liked to become a cabinet minister, or more particularly to have had a junior ministry in defence or foreign affairs, particularly in the 1970s. I would have accepted that with alacrity. But I also know my own limitations. I lack stamina and I have not got my father’s brains, and I don’t think I would have made a cabinet minister. Alan Clark, even as a junior minister in a rather inconvenient ministry, found it was absolute hell. Your first appointment was at half-past eight in the morning, your last appointment was at 9 o’clock at night, and then you had to go into the House of Commons with everyone else and stay there till 3 a.m. I couldn’t have stood that.
You say that a religious temperament – that is, faith without scrutiny – is the principal quality required for success in politics, and it was a quality you lacked. Is religious faith in the conventional sense a feature of your life?
No. I sometimes wish it were, I’m not afraid of death itself, but I am afraid of dying, and as I have prostate cancer I am anxious about how it will develop. I’m afraid of a painful death, and I think that euthanasia is a justifiable concept.
Have you been changed by illness? Has it put a different perspective on things?
Yes. My cancer was diagnosed four years ago, and every three months I have an injection which castrates me. The fact that I am impotent has not in any way upset my relationship with Prue, thank God, and we had a marvellous night four years before that. But there are times in the middle of the night when one becomes very frightened.
Are you ever tempted to acquire faith, so to speak, in order to deal with the fear?
Not really. I think we all face annihilation, and we live only for as long as people who remember us live, and after that we’re forgotten. I know that religion is a comfort for people in my position, but I would regard it as soothing like cheating to go to a priest at this stage. For the whole of my life I have looked on Christianity as useful for keeping the social order, but have certainly not believed in the mysteries of religion. If there were a God, I don’t think he would appreciate so late a conversation. No, it’s a bit late in the day to start asking for favours, and I am stuck with my agnosticism.