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.