William Rees-Mogg was born in Somerset in 1928.
He was educated at Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford, where he was president of the union and the university Conservative Association. After graduation he did two years’ National Service in the RAF before joining the Financial Times and eight years later the Sunday Times where he became deputy editor.
In 1967, aged only thirty-nine, he became editor of The Times, which he remained until 1981. Between 1981 and 1986 he was vice-chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC. He was chairman of the Arts Council from 1982-89 and ran the Broadcasting Standards Council.
He married in 1962 and had two sons and three daughters. He was made a life peer in 1988 and died in December 2012.
I met him initially through my very good friend, the journalist George Hutchinson,* in the early 1980s and interviewed him in 1989. My discourse with Lord Rees-Mogg was perhaps the longest I can remember. The chemistry between us worked amiably well and the reader can see that he was a man to reckon with who has left his mark in whatever job he undertook. He was honest, well informed and genuinely a good man.
Here is the full text of that lengthy dissertation.
What sort of a childhood did you have?
An extremely happy childhood, though rather a lonely one. We lived in a fairly large house in the Somerset country, about ten miles from Bristol, and there I lived what was, I think a very old-fashioned childhood. It probably hadn’t changed much in broad style since the nineteenth century. Until I went away to school when I was nine, I didn’t have many friends. My two sisters were older, and I was very close to the nearer sister, who was still at home, my elder sister having gone away to school. I was educated very much by my father. He taught me Latin, Greek and French. I also had an excellent relationship with my mother. She had been a Shakespearian actress in the United States and acted with Sarah Bernhardt on Broadway. She had strong literary interests and we read Macbeth when I was in the nursery. She would read out the lines of Lady Macbeth and I would repeat them after her, because that was before I could read. She was the strongest influence on me. She herself had had a very interesting and happy childhood, living in West Chester County in the 1890s, and she made that vivid to us. She brought me up with the American set of ideas: not quite that every son can become president, but that everybody has a duty to make the most of themselves in life. She did this with a strong literary and imaginative feeling.
Was it at Oxford that your conservative beliefs and ideas were principally forged?
No. I think I arrived at Oxford with a set of ideas and beliefs already somewhat modified by my generation and the mood of the times. I was very interested in political history as a schoolboy. I had read with great fascination, as I think a lot of schoolboys do, about Disraeli. He had enormous appeal for me when I was fifteen and sixteen, and I thought his kind of imaginative conservatism was extremely attractive. So I suppose I went up to Oxford with a set of political ideas pretty fully formed. I had a very interesting time at Oxford because it was a period when a lot of extremely interesting people were there. We were a mix of people who had just left school, with others coming back to finish off a course they’d started before the war. My contemporaries included, among the politicians, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams, Edward Boyle, Tony Crosland, Tony Benn and Jeremy Thorpe; and then there was Robin Day of the people who’ve become famous in related fields. It was a very strong mix.
You have described yourself as fearfully pompous in those days. Would you try to be different, given another chance?
I don’t know. One would probably go about things in exactly the same way, because it emerges out of temperament. I invented the idea of being a young fogey even before the young fogeys existed. I had a strange feeling, when I was a little child, that life belonged to maturity, and I remember lying under the nursery table and thinking, it’s going to be extremely nice when you’re in your forties, when you’ve got something of a stomach and a gold watch chain spread across it. I thought that the point in life which would be really enjoyable. I was pompous. I had the idea at school that one should form oneself, and that one’s personality should be what one believed in. I read about Aristotle’s magnificent man and thought that must be the right kind of person to be. One of the characteristics of Aristotle’s magnificent man was that he never ran, never betrayed haste. I remember walking from my classroom to my house, being caught in a shower and deciding, well, I’m going to be Aristotle’s magnificent man; then walking slowly through the shower to demonstrate that I could adopt this character. That, in a teenager, does lean towards pomposity.
You stood twice as a Conservative candidate but failed to be elected. Were you set upon a political career?
I expected to have a political career when I went to Oxford, and I spent most of my time there in politics. I became a journalist unexpectedly. I was offered a job on the Financial Times and took it because I thought it would be interesting, then found that journalism suited me. For my fist eight years as a journalist, on the Financial Times, I thought I was going to have journalism as a sort of occupation which would make it possible for me to be a politician. Then, in 1960, I went to the Sunday Times when it was at its period of maximum expansion. It was moving ahead extremely fast, and the opportunities in a professional sense were good. I came immediately into contact with Roy Thomson, whom I greatly admired and enjoyed working with, and I thought, well, if you’ve got a first-class newspaper proprietor whom you get on with extremely well, and you’re in your early thirties, you’d be absolutely crazy to give that up for something you’re not certain would work out. Then came 1963 when the Conservative party seemed to me to be turning its back on the twentieth century when they chose Alec Douglas-Home as leader. I felt alienated by that, so at that point decided finally that journalism was going to be something I would enjoy and which would probably be more useful as well.
But I never felt completely sure that politics wouldn’t come back to me in some form or another. I always was basically a political journalist, forming political judgements, and then in 1967 I became editor of The Times and that required a detachment from politics. I gave up belonging to the Carlton Club and so on in order to create that detachment.
On the question of whether I’d have been a successful politician, I’ve seen people who made successful politicians who seemed to me to have roughly the sort of mix of qualities I had. But they didn’t make the most successful politicians. I would say that I had a mix of qualities not dissimilar from those of Keith Joseph: more interested in other ideas than anything else, able to argue most cases plausibly once convinced of them. In the early days, I sat on a Conservative committee with Keith Joseph, and we were, I suppose, two young intellectuals that the Conservative party thought well of. He’d just got into the House. I was trying to get a seat. Perhaps I’d have had a career not dissimilar from his.
But in the end many considered him rather mad.
Oh, I think if I had been a politician a lot of people would have ended up thinking me rather mad. I might not have made some of the mistakes that Keith has made, but equally I wouldn’t have done some of the good things he has done.
Your career in journalism is a success story culminating in becoming editor of The Times at the age of thirty-nine. What did you hope would be distinctive about The Times under your editorship?
What we trying to do was combine a very strong sense of the quality and the traditional values of The Times with modernization. We hoped to get circulation up above the half-million point, which we didn’t succeed in. That now has been tried three times this century. Northcliffe tried it; we tried it under Roy Thomson and with his support; Rupert Murdoch has tried it. It’s failed each time, and there must be very good reasons why it doesn’t succeed. Eventually we said, all right, we haven’t managed to get it above 500,000, so we ought to concentrate simply on quality and excellence and see who want to buy it, try and make it break even, be willing to charge a relatively high price for it and accept the circulation that results from that policy. I found that more congenial, and I’m probably better at the aspect of journalism which concentrates on the audience.
Something we found with the Sunday Times was that it was quite difficult to straddle two audiences, that there was an audience perhaps 750,000 that wanted a quite serious quality Sunday paper with a lot of information in it, and beyond that you had to find an audience which, if it wasn’t going to read you, was going to read the Sunday Express. You had to find ways, as Denis Hamilton was extremely skilful in doing, of keeping both audiences happy. With The Times the equation is different. The basic audience in my time was somewhere between 300,000 to 350,000, and to get beyond that you had to make the paper more exciting to an audience which was, in some ways, less demanding, or less willing to absorb difficult and complicated material. You can only produce a paper of real quality if you don’t need to be afraid of boring people, because a lot of important information isn’t desperately exciting, and, if presented in a very exciting way, is being misrepresented.
Not everyone was happy with the sweeping changes you introduced to try to boost circulation.
I’m sure we didn’t do it perfectly, but The Times as an institution, like every other institution, needs fairly radical change every generation, and you can’t make the necessary minimum of change without upsetting quite a few people. It wasn’t me who actually put news on the front page, but only six months before I arrived, The Times still had classified ads on the front. So the changes had to be fairly rapid, because we were dealing with a paper more appropriate to the 1930s, perhaps more appropriate to 1910, but in the conditions of the late 1960s. The changes had taken place much too slowly in the previous history of The Times.
You once described the readership of The Times as ‘limited but important’. That seems a rather exclusive idea, as if readers of other newspapers are of lesser importance.
The Times had a very high proportion of readers who were prepared to inform themselves thoroughly because they needed to for their work. These are naturally people who occupy the most important positions. There will always be a place for newspapers which primarily serve that purpose, but they must always expect to have a fairly moderate circulation. If you don’t need to know what the real composition of the American Senate is and are only going to enjoy jokes about Vice President Quayle, then you want a completely different kind of coverage of American political affairs from the one The Times ought to be offering.
When The Times was in difficulties, you wrote that you would not seek investment unless you could promise a sound return. I see the commercial honesty of that position, but why shouldn’t subsidy play a part in a worthwhile enterprise?
Newspapers are very subject to pressure from people who have invested in them. You can’t expect people to believe in the integrity of a subsidized newspaper unless it is being subsidized with the ultimate commercial view of restoring it to commercial balance. They will think that people are putting money in because they want to get some benefit in terms of the coverage given to their own interests or their own views, and they will usually be right. Even if it’s not true, there will still be an element of distrust.
But isn’t that so with a proprietor as well? What about Lonrho and the Observer?
Yes, but readers are shrewd. They know what Tiny Rowland is interested in and they have a shrewd suspicion of what he is not interested in, and they see that large parts of the Observer bear no trace of his hand while other parts seem to seem to show considerable trace. The proprietor has to satisfy the readership that he’s not using the paper for his own ends.
You also spoke about no longer believing in a proprietorship which did not include employees in its shareholding.
I think that the system which the Independent has got – I’m not a shareholder of the Independent though I write for it – is the right one. There are widespread shareholdings among the staff, and there are also fairly widespread, purely commercial shareholdings outside the staff. Hence nobody has anything remotely approaching a controlling interest and there is therefore no proprietor as such. That’s the model I was hoping to establish for The Times, had the Thomsons been willing to break up the papers, but we were only bidding for The Times and they wanted to sell The Times and Sunday Times together. That’s what we would have tried to establish, and it was a model that could have worked. The Independent has shown it does.
How independent in reality from the proprietors are editors of national newspapers?
It depends entirely on the editor and the proprietor. I only really had experience of the proprietors of the Financial Times, who gave us complete freedom, and the Thomson family, proprietors of the Sunday Times and The Times. The Thomson family were so good from that point of view. Roy Thomson was once asked on television why he didn’t have a general political line running through his newspapers, like Beaverbrook, and his reply was, ‘I’m a very rich man and, like most very rich men, I hold very right-wing political views. I own two hundred newspapers, and it would be absolutely ridiculous if all my newspapers held my views.’ That was how he worked. He didn’t actually hold terribly right-wing views; he held the views natural to a man who had a strong sense of the small communities of Canada in which he had spent his early working life, and who believed in what I would call community politics. The only thing he ever said to me was that he expected the editors of his newspapers to represent the interests of the communities they were serving. That seemed to me to be a very sound, broad principle. I certainly wouldn’t call that very right wing.
I never fell out with a proprietor. I had great luck with them. My first proprietor was Brendan Bracken, who was something of a genius. He was a remarkable man who had played a most important role in the success on the domestic front of the Churchill coalition government during the war. He was warm and supportive in his old age to the people who worked for him. I couldn’t have had a better proprietor. During the Suez Crisis, at a point when I genuinely didn’t know what to do, I rang him up, not because I wished to consult my proprietor but because I wished to consult somebody who might have some idea about what on earth was going on. He quite correctly refused to give me advice of any kind. ‘You’ve got to work it out for yourself,’ he said, and that was the only occasion on which I ever consulted him upon a policy issue.
With Roy Thomson I had a relationship in which he too was totally supportive. He had a very congenial personality and no desire at all to impose his views on the editorial side of the operation. The same was true of his son Ken. In the end, Ken got fed up with the British print trade unions, but that was a different matter.
But since you left the industry, we’ve a new set of proprietors, and a lot of them are very powerful in the sense that they do interfere editorially.
Naturally, as a journalist and an editor, I don’t like it. I would only be prepared to edit a paper on the basis of the editor being the person who made the decisions. However, a proprietor obviously always has considerable influence through whom he chooses to be an editor anyway. It’s probably reasonable to say that proprietors don’t have to be as non-interventionist as the Thomsons were. It is perfectly legitimate for a proprietor to engage in the debate, and I don’t see why he should be expected to be totally reserved. On the other hand, he ought to leave the last word in the editor’s hands, because the editor is the only person who has real access to the staff, and it’s the staff of a newspaper who are employed to find out what’s going on, who know what’s going on and put the editor in a position to form his judgement on the basis of full information.
When Rupert Murdoch moved from Fleet Street to Wapping, was it primarily to relocate the newspaper or principally to destroy the union dominance?
I think it was to destroy the dominance of the unions. The unions had become entirely impossible from the point of view of running a newspaper in any reasonable way. They were charging an enormous amount for delivering an extremely poor service, and I regard the success of the Wapping move as a real character of liberation for the British press. In fact, I think there was no alternative. The Thomson Organization was extremely patient, extremely reasonable, highly professional in talking to unions and so on, yet had totally failed to get the unions to agree to the introduction of new technology on any reasonable terms. There had been a little progress made, but far too little. This was similarly the experience of the other responsible Fleet Street managements, and even of very good managements whom the unions had every reason to trust. Rupert Murdoch had to win, and he wasn’t going to find it easy. He was facing unscrupulous and, in many cases, quite ruthless opposition. I admire what he did.
Do newspapers have an obligation to tell the truth under all circumstances, or can there be a counter-obligation to suppress items in the national or, indeed, in a sectional interest?
It gets more difficult the bigger the issue. I was relatively willing as an editor to suppress stories which seemed to me to be of no importance, but which were going to be very distressing to individuals: the sort of case in which somebody’s child has committed suicide and the family are deeply distressed and don’t wish it to be known. I would always listen to arguments about that because, if the person was not concerned with a significant figure, I didn’t see any reason to cause pain and suffering where no real news value existed. So, on the small scale, I obviously had a prejudice of a strong kind in favour of publication, but was prepared to overrule that principle in cases where there seemed to be great hardship likely to flow from it. If you take the other end of the scale, the great event, I think that almost always more harm comes from not telling what one knows. On the other hand, you run into a difficulty. Suppose, for instance, that a newspaper knows there is going to be or may be a devaluation. If they report it, they make the devaluation quite unavoidable and in a sense take over the prerogative of government.
What principle can be invoked to limit press freedom without destroying the very concept of freedom?
There are two views about press freedom. One is the American view – the First Amendment view – which makes it absolute. The other is the British view, which makes it one of several principles that contend with each other. The obvious example is the contempt-of-court questions that arise over the reporting of trials, and particularly the reporting of evidence before a trial takes place. I believe, though this is not the view of most journalists, that the British principle is the right one. Is it more important that people have a fair trial or that newspapers be free to publish anything they feel like publishing? My own view is that it is more important that people have a fair trial, that civilization depends on that rather than on the other. So I think one should see press freedom as something that has to fight its own corner against other principles, the security of the state clearly being one, the right to fair trial another, the right for the citizen not to be injured in his reputation (the old libel question) a third. The libel laws are plainly very unsatisfactory at present, but that there ought to be libel laws I have no doubt. And I think that the American situation, in which press freedom is absolute and all other principles subordinate to it, is less satisfactory than ours.
Was Mrs Thatcher right to try to suppress Spycatcher?
No, that was just silly. It was going to be totally ineffective. It’s part of the cult of the secret service, which is all a lot of nonsense. In my experience, people who go into these secret organizations have lost touch with reality. Spycatcher rather showed that up. The truths that it told – and there were some – and the confusions in Peter Wright’s own mind, were examples of the deformation of the intellect that secret Intelligence work causes.
What are your views on the Salman Rushdie affair?
Complex. There are a lot of principles involved. One is the principle of the freedom of speech, and I believe that we must maintain in our society the right to publish any novel which is inside the law. The law requires that a novel should not incite to racial hatred, and I think that’s a wise law. It requires that it should not incite to specific crimes, and that’s an obvious thing. And so one ought to start off by upholding Salman Rushdie’s right to publish, but then comes the question of the sensitivities of the Islamic community.
It seems very understandable that a minority community in a country which predominantly does not share their religious views should be highly sensitive to anything they regard as a mockery of those views, and that the anger in the Islamic community is a natural response to a book they found offensive. I don’t know whether they should have found it offensive or not, because I didn’t find that section of the novel very easy to follow and don’t know enough about Islam to judge how offensive it was. Clearly it was offensive, and so we have the question of what form their reaction should take. Obviously it’s totally unacceptable that there should be any threat to Salman Rushdie’s life, and I regret the fact that those who did seem clearly to threaten his life have not been prosecuted in the ordinary course of the law, because upholding the law is another important principle.
Salman Rushdie has to take responsibility for what he has published, and I think he should have known that this was going to be very offensive, that it would be deeply disturbing and provocative to a rather vulnerable community in this country. He says that the novel was written out of the great spiritual torment he had gone through, and was an expression of quite profound experiences that he believed could be helpful in the dialogue which ought to be taking place inside Islam about the contrast between the old beliefs and the modern world. That seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable answer to those criticisms, but at the same time the criticisms themselves are legitimate. There’s a perfectly reasonable dialogue which could take place along those lines, and in the end Rushdie has to take responsibility for what he’s written. There’s a certain naivety in the Rushdie position. People have got to recognize that they’re dealing with different audiences, and something which might be perfectly acceptable to one audience can be entirely unacceptable to another.
As a Roman Catholic, do you find the Roman Catholic religion gives you a kind of discipline that other Christian religions might not?
Well, the Church of England is plainly going through a difficult period in which both English culture and the Church of England’s culture have lost a measure of confidence. The two things probably go together. The important thing about the Roman Catholic Church is that it is obviously still alive, that it’s unquestionably able to give Roman Catholics a feeling of a living religion on which they can base their faith. Unfortunately, many members of the Church of England feel that the life has gone out of it.
In the course of your lifetime there have been some very radical changes in the organization and the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. Did you approve of the changes introduced by Vatican II?
Basically. I approve of everything except the changes in the liturgy. The general movement towards a more liberal doctrine of the Church was, in my view, entirely right. Having in my childhood felt stifled by the rigidity of the structure, I found the personality of Pope John XXIII an inspiration. The greatest religious inspiration I’ve had in my life came from his personality. The only aspect that went seriously wrong – the rest had to happen – was that we lost the Tridentine Mass, which was a thing of enormous religious power and beauty. We should have retained much more frequent use of the Latin prayers, even though a vernacular Mass was in itself desirable, since it was better that children should be brought up to understand what it was that the Mass was saying. So I thought there was great loss in the liturgy, and I hope this will eventually be reversed and that the Tridentine Mass will be reintroduced as perfectly normal, though not invariable, form.
As for the future of Church unity, I think that ecumenism is something which will happen in God’s time rather than ours. People have a very great attachment to the forms of their Church practice, and the present division and problems in the Church of England and the difficulty over women priests mean that unity between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England is not going to happen at all rapidly.
I take the view that the one certain reality is the reality of God; that all religions, let alone all Churches, are aspects of an understanding of that reality; that human culture means that different nations and different people can get the best understanding for them through different formulations. I wouldn’t be a Roman Catholic if I didn’t believe that that was the highest available formulation, but there clearly is something in human nature which has created this variety in the formulations and in the worship and understanding of God.
The question of the ordination of women is meanwhile a cultural question. The difficulty for the Catholic Church, as I see it, is that it is a world Church whereas the Church of England, in real terms, is not; it’s a European Church. In North America and Western Europe, a major cultural change has taken place in the relations between women and men and in the role of women. It has therefore become perfectly natural in these areas for women to be ordained. I don’t any longer think that, even if I were a member of the Church of England, I would necessarily be opposed to it. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is a Church which has its largest membership in Latin America and a very large membership in Africa and other parts of the world where this cultural change simply has not taken place and where the attitude towards the role of women is still what it was in Europe in, say, 1910. The Catholic Church has no option but to respect the totality of the cultures of its members. I suppose it’s likely, as Europe has given the lead to so many other cultural changes, that if one takes a long-term view – a period measured at least in generations – then this change will become more or less universalized. If it does, then I can see no absolute theological bar to the ordination of women. I think it will happen, but it probably won’t happen so long as it could mean a great division between the Catholic Church as it is in Europe and the Catholic Church as it is everywhere else in the world.
Oddly enough, I’m less sympathetic to the idea of Catholic priests marrying than I am to the ordination of women. I’m worried by the idea that you can’t have celibacy among the clergy, because it seems to me that we live in an age where we have made sex an idol. The view that there is no value in a man or a woman deciding to give up their sexual activity in order to devote their life to some greater cause, or to God, seems to me also wrong. Therefore I feel that, to give up the celibacy of the clergy at this particular moment, would be to be making a sacrifice to the idolization of sex which is one of the characteristic defects of our age.
So do you consider sex negative?
Not at all. Sex is a good thing, just as food is a good thing, though gluttony isn’t. Sex is a matter of enormous importance because it perpetuates the species. It’s the deepest emotional experience that many, perhaps most, people ever feel. It’s God-given and it’s also natural animal passion which, like other natural animal passions, gives enormous happiness and satisfaction. All these things are true, but what I think it isn’t is the Holy Grail. If people say life is nothing except sexual fulfilment, that being the be-all and end-all and more important than any other aspect of the development of the human mind or spirit, then it’s taking something very good in itself and making it the only good, so downgrading all the other goods which people might want to follow. It becomes a falsehood.
Christianity, of course, has always been bothered with puritanism in St Paul, though I really don’t see any evidence of it in the life of Christ himself. It seems to me that Christ did not have the fundamentally puritanical attitudes that St Paul had, and although I regard St Paul as a very great man, I have, with some reluctance, to criticize him in this respect. Because of this flaw in his make-up, people are inclined to reject the extraordinarily rich variety of understandings that St Paul gives us. It was he who started Christianity off, and so you have in the Early Church unbalanced views about the nature of sex, which is a pity and has done harm.
Throughout the history of the Church, these unbalanced puritan views have fought with a more naturalist, broad and wholesome view, and I’m on the side of the naturalist, broad and wholesome view. Even so, I think the Church has got a certain number of things right which the twentieth century gets wrong. The Church has been right to distrust the separation of sex from procreation as something that leads to a misunderstanding of the nature of sex. Sex is serious in that sense. Again, I share deep fears about turning man from being a free animal to an engineered animal. There is all too great a likelihood that we shall have an engineered race of human beings within a few decades. The Church’s consistent opposition to mechanizing sex, though it may have looked obscurantist in the light of the science of the mid-twentieth century, will, I believe, look remarkably far-sighted in the light of the science of the twenty-first century.
But isn’t it also somehow true that the Church would wish us to derive our essential pleasure from things spiritual? Is this realistic?
A lot of the Church’s teaching and the teaching of the Gospel is an urge to perfection. This is what human beings at their highest would be, and I’m much more conscious of the gap between the ordinary daily life of business and perfection than I am of that between the problem of sex and perfection. Yet the problem is essentially the same. To become in the highest degree the spiritual man is capable of being, and which I believe all men are capable of being (I have never thought there to be only a few people capable of becoming saints), we would have to sacrifice everything. We would have to give up attaching superior value to any of God’s gifts and would certainly not be bothering ourselves about the profit-and-loss accounts of our business. We would certainly not be bothering ourselves about the pleasures of sexual activity or the pleasures of the table. In so far as we were acting in the world, we would be devoting ourselves to care and concern for other people, and we would expend, I suppose, a good part of our time in contemplation of the divine.
This would be a completely different life from the life which all but a very few people actually lead. The life of the contemplative monk has been designed to allow a few people in cloistered circumstances to lead such a life, which I think Christianity believes is the highest. I’ve no doubt that Christianity in this sense is right: that it is the highest form of life. At the same time, it has to be reconciled with the ordinary existence of ordinary people, and so Christianity will always be preaching things which are simultaneously true but not going to be followed by the great majority of people.
The present government is often perceived as radically different from previous Conservative administrations. Is the public perception of its radicalism misplaced?
Mrs Thatcher has an extremely powerful and determined personality, and after ten years as prime minister she has a great deal of confidence in her own judgement. So I think one is, indeed, dealing with somebody who has an exceptionally strong will and who is proceeding by way of trying to push it through rather than by the more cautious route of consensus. This is bound to achieve objectives which couldn’t be achieved in any other way besides being upsetting to people. Sometimes it can lead to error. It’s a different way of doing things.
I don’t see this government as radically different from previous Conservative governments. The situation in 1979 was that the post-war settlement, which had been a socialist settlement imposed by the Attlee government and had certain characteristics, had reached the end of its useful life. The characteristics were a very strong predominance of the trade unions in economic and industrial affairs; extremely high marginal tax rates, going up to 98 per cent on unearned income and to 88 per cent or whatever it was on earned income; tight financial regulation, exchange controls and all the consequences; and a very substantial state-owned sector of the industry. What the Thatcher government did was to say what all Conservatives thought – and anybody who didn’t think this wasn’t a Conservative – that these four aspects of the Attlee settlement were damaging the national interest and it was right to demolish all of them. And Mrs Thatcher has demolished all of them. The trade union dominance has been destroyed by successive Acts and the defeat of the miner’s strike.
These measures have been absolutely a precondition for any substantial and continued recovery of the British economy. Taxes have been brought down to a level comparable with the rest of the world. We’ve moved away from the Swedish model and gone towards a model which is comparable to that of, say, the United States. I’ve no doubt at all that, in terms of the health of the economy, it is immensely to the advantage of the rich, as is shown by the fact that the tax actually paid by the highest tax payers has risen rather than fallen. It’s therefore led to a real increase in the revenue of the state as well as, obviously, to a substantial increase in the revenue of the people concerned. I don’t say that every privatization has been ideally carried out. I would rather have seen some splitting up. But I’ve no doubt at all that privatization has led to a great improvement in the efficiency of the industries concerned. One can take an example such as British Airways: a thoroughly overmanned, undermanaged affair in its state form and now one of the most efficient airlines in the world.
Again, the ending of the strict financial regulations has, I believe, contributed substantially to the efficiency of the economy and has certainly allowed an enormous overseas investment that makes us the second largest overseas capital owners in the world after Japan. Therefore the decision to cut down the four pillars of the Attlee legacy has been absolutely right. It required a great deal of courage and determination, but it was entirely in line with Conservative philosophy, with what previous Conservative governments would have liked to have done, even if, given the historic circumstances they were in, they didn’t feel they could.
But hasn’t Mrs Thatcher changed the very fabric of British society in the sense that there’s now so much emphasis on money as to make us comparable with the United States?
Being half American, perhaps I’m not the best judge. I have always been unsympathetic with the British distaste for thinking about money. In my childhood people still talked about trade as though it was something not quite socially respectable. I certainly thought in that way when I was at university, and I’m disappointed to say that I found the same with my children at university. The universities’ view, perhaps understandably, is that being a don is the highest thing can aspire to in this life, the next best thing being to be a civil servant, a bureaucrat of some kind, and the lowest thing of all to make society’s living for it. That seemed to me a distortion of any reasonable values, so I feel that if there has been a change – and I’m not sure there’s actually been as much change as is said – it’s a change for the better.
My own view is that the health of our society depends upon entrepreneurs, not primarily on civil servants or even on business managers. It depends on people who actually change things by taking decisions which involve a risk to either their capital or their careers, or to both. These are the agents of change in an economy, and these are the people who deserve to be given a reasonable status in society. I don’t mean an exclusive status. I don’t admire people for being multi-millionaires any more than I admire people for being Nobel Prize winners. Obviously not. I admire both.
I certainly wouldn’t feel that government concerns with prudential financial management crowd out all other human values. The greatest evil I’ve seen in my lifetime in economic terms is inflation. This has done far more damage to human values than any degree of prudence on the part of the government. Loose government finance leads inevitably and necessarily to an increase in inflation, and prudence is absolutely a necessary safeguard against inflation, which causes far more social suffering than prudence.
How do you assess Mrs Thatcher’s strengths and weaknesses?
Her fist strength is, as I say, an indomitable will. She is a person formidably determined to get her own way. Secondly, she has a deep root into English attitudes – though not, I think, into Scottish or Welsh attitudes – which she has developed among what one could call the Conservative working and lower middle classes. It’s a strength of support that no previous Conservative leader has been able to command. She has developed it because she understands those people, indeed comes from them. It’s been a very great strength, and she has a powerful if rather legalistic mind. She enjoys the kind of debating that’s concerned with winning the argument rather than with establishing fine shades of distinction. She has, however, the weakness of the rifle against the shotgun, in that she has pinned down her targets one by one, has hit those targets but hasn’t got breadth and scatter. She is not good at keeping the whole situation in mind at once. She was the right person for the situation in 1979, which needed a series of substantial radical changes, but now her qualities limit her ability to deal with a complex world in which the tasks are less obvious.
So can she be seen as the right person for the next decade?
It doesn’t look at the moment as though she’s going to be the person for the next decade. The relationship between her and the public has obviously soured. I’m perfectly sure, though, that her place in history is assured. She’s a great prime minister, and probably her permanent achievements – because I don’t think there’s any intention in the Labour party, even if they do get into power, to reverse the major achievements – are comparable to the permanent achievements of the Liberal government in 1906 and the Attlee government of 1945. That is to say, Thatcherism will be the dominant structure of the country for half a century. No doubt other major changes will happen, but I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that she will fight through this very difficult period when mistakes have certainly been made. It may be that the country will come to see her again in a more favourable light.
How easy do intellectuals find it to deal with her? She seems on a different wavelength.
Intellectuals in this country are so ignorant. The trouble with this country is that it has a very strong intellectual group which is extremely parochial, and in this respect, at least, Mrs Thatcher is rather less parochial than they are. She is after all dealing in fundamental matters of social organization and philosophy with an intellectual community which has consistently rejected Popper and failed to take in the major economic theories of the Austrian school. I’m not saying that Popper should have been regarded as correct on every issue, though he is a genius and an extremely important figure. But the whole of the argument for the open society and the consumer-led market economy, as made consistently by Keith Joseph in the second half of his political career, is one with which the intellectuals have failed to engage at all.
Are you sympathetic to those labelled the Wets?
I find them personally more sympathetic than the Drys, but intellectually less sympathetic. Most of the people who had the sort of education that I did, the sort of opportunities I enjoyed and have had the sort of life I led, are Wets. I would say, on the whole, that the Wets have failed to think things through and that the intellectual positions they have come to occupy are not sustainable. But my sympathies are with their set of values and moral attitudes.
Is the Conservative party today in any real sense the same party that you supported all those years ago in Oxford?
It’s a much more democratic party than it was. The old Conservative party had a balance of power that favoured what could be called the upper class. By that I mean an upper class consisting basically of three groups: the landowning class, including the aristocracy but also including the landowners in general; the upper professional class; and the upper business class. When I was young, those three dominated the Conservative party. Their attitude towards social problems was essentially that they wanted to feel comfortable in their consciences, which was a perfectly genuine altruistic feeling, and that they wanted peace in their time and were prepared to use public funds to buy off trouble. The modern Conservative party is not dominated by those classes. It’s got a centre of gravity which is somewhere in the middle of the middle class, with characteristically lower middle class conservative attitudes becoming much more important.
Can ‘Thatcherite economics’ be applied to the arts? Can you ever define whether a sculpture or a poem is cost-effective?
You can’t. The public subsidy of the arts ought, in my view, to concentrate to a very large extent on public subsidy of the audience. I’m not quite sure what the central principle of Thatcherite economics would be thought to be. I only know that the central principle of my economic views is that of the consumer sovereignty. Consumer sovereignty leads you, in economic terms, to the market economy, because the consumer is sovereign through the choice of his own personal expenditures. This means that you get a society which is determined by the sum of the wills of the people in it and the sum of the choices those people make. If you apply a principle of consumer sovereignty to the arts, you can say that it is reasonable to subsidize the consumer, but you should avoid as far as possible giving the subsidy straight to the producer.
Obviously this is a difficult principle to apply, and I don’t even think that it should be applied rigorously. There are cases when producer subsidy is justified, but when I was at the Arts Council I found myself having much greater intellectual conviction about the desirability of improving access to the performing arts – making it possible for people to get to concerts, opera or theatre at prices they could afford – than trying to identify individual artists and saying, ‘You ought to have a grant but you can’t have one.’ I could never see that we had any way of determining which of the applicants was an artist who ought to be supported, whereas if you leave it to the consumer but help the consumer to buy the product, then the consumer makes that choice. By and large, he or she is the person who ought to make it.
It is said that, as a nation, we spend very little on the arts as compared, for instance, with France.
As chairman of the Arts Council, I discussed this at considerable length with the French, and their high expenditure is largely because the French have allowed their arts to become bureaucratized. Much of it doesn’t benefit the arts. For instance, the French have an inspectorate of music like our inspectorate of schools, whose job is to go round seeing that subsidized orchestras are playing in tune. This inspectorate alone employs more bureaucrats than the whole Arts Council of Great Britain. Plainly they are on the arts budget in France, but equally plainly there is a zero benefit to the arts.
There are certain things which France does better than Britain. I’m sure, for instance, that what you could call the quality of French intellectual life is higher than that of Britain. More books of a genuine intellectual quality are published. There is more intellectual debate. Reading Le Monde is an intellectual experience of a different kind from reading any British newspaper. Oddly enough, that is something which emerges entirely from the unsubsidized private sector. If you look at French music, opera, theatre and the principal performing arts, theatre is unquestionably better and better provided for in Britain than in France, and British music is at least as good. Compared to the quality of orchestras in Germany and Austria, France and Britain are second-class nations, but it is not at all clear that France is a better second-class nation than Britain. So it seems to me that there is really no evidence that the French are getting value out of their arts expenditure.
As Arts Council chairman, you must have to deal with Mrs Thatcher from time to time. Did you find her sympathetic to the arts?
I only went to her in the last resort, so I didn’t see her at all often. When I had real difficulty, as over the question of the replacement of the funding which the metropolitan countries had been doing, I found her consistently helpful. Her view on the arts is, again, rather characteristic. She believes the arts are a part of being a civilized nation. The phrase that she rather likes, about putting the Great back into Britain, she sees, in artistic terms, as meaning that Britain ought to be a great artistic power. She is particularly interested in high-profile arts companies.
On the other hand, I was able to pursue a strong regional policy, and I suppose that the support we were able to give Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was the symbol of what I was trying to achieve in my period at the Arts Council. I explained to her why I was doing it and how I thought that we ought not to accept that excellence in the arts was purely metropolitan in character. She supported that view, and I found no difficulty with her in pursuing a policy which wasn’t exactly in line with the national concept she had.
Is it true to say that independence in the arts only exists to the extent that the government wishes it to be preserved?
Anything that the government funds depends ultimately on the government for its continued independence. The government can pursue the arms-length principle, which, in my time at the Arts Council, they consistently did. But if they wish to destroy it, then the government can destroy it. In my own case, the policy we pursued was basically a regional policy which caused the government some discomfort because the London companies obviously would have preferred a higher proportion of the money to be spent on them. They resented the regional policy and lobbied against it. The regional policy meanwhile had the support of the Labour controlled local authorities in the regions and, broadly speaking, the sympathy of the Labour party itself. Thus we were pursuing a policy that was, at the very least, bi-partisan in political terms, and actually wasn’t particularly characteristic of the rather centralizing aspects of Conservative government during the 1980s.
Do you think that further sponsorship from the private sector is really the best way forward?
I think that mixed funding is the way forward. Arts companies cannot rely on any single source of funds. They can’t even rely on the box office. Perhaps the Americans don’t turn up, or they have a bad run. They can’t rely on central or local government because either of these may become short of funds or there may be a political change. And they can’t rely solely on industry and sponsorship. Therefore my own view is that they should, in that situation, try and maximize the support they can get from each source and maintain as good relations as they can with both.
Do you find any conflict of interests between your religious beliefs and your present chairmanship of the Broadcasting Standards Council? It must surely be very difficult for you to make disinterested decisions.
If I were the only member of the council, that might be true, but the council is a mix of people. We’ve a bishop on the council, for example, and obviously I know what his religious views are; and we have a Scottish clergyman. I don’t know what the other members’ religious views are, and I wouldn’t inquire. In practice, the combined view of the council, which is what matters, comes out fairly liberal and broad minded – certainly not significantly different from the view I would expect, say, the governors of the BBC who take, who would have a different religious mix. I don’t find that I am consistently on one wing or the other of the council. I suppose the most one could say about the influence of Catholicism is that it’s given me a very strong interest in the sort of questions we address, sufficient, at any rate, to make me willing to take any sort of issue on, even if it can only make one unpopular.
You are in a position to monitor, even censor, what is to be shown on television. Why do you think there is a need for censorship? People have switches on their TV sets, after all.
Well, not really to censor. Censor implies the right to preview something and stop it being published, which we don’t have and don’t seek. We’re an after-the-event body. The reason why television is different from the print media, which can simply be to set standards on pornography by statute, is that it’s both intrusive and impermanent. Because it’s impermanent, you don’t automatically generate evidence which can be checked against legal standards in the way you do with print. And because it’s intrusive, people feel far more strongly about it than they do about newspapers, which, if they don’t like, they buy and therefore don’t see.
The main aim, to my mind – and this corresponds with the aim of the European legislation of the Council of Europe Convention and the European Community directive – is the protection of children. This is the chief point which needs to be kept in mind. People ask, ‘Well, but shouldn’t parents decide what their children view?’ in fact, parents aren’t very able to decide what their children are watching. A majority of families nowadays have a second television, very often in the children’s bedroom, so that children in practice view what is generally shown. If you expose children, particularly at a formative stage, to a great deal of very violent or pornographic material, there is ample evidence that it’s likely to do them harm. There’s also widespread agreement among the public and television people that one needs to have codes of conduct to avoid that.
But isn’t it true that there is as yet no reliable evidence that the type of programmes people see on TV affects the way they behave?
It’s extremely difficult to prove any psychological connection, whatever subject one is talking about, because of the multiple causation of most human conduct. While it is perfectly true to say that all studies of psychological motivation have great difficulty in determining the relative weight to be given to different factors, the common-sense, generally held view, and the view which I think would need to be disproved rather than proved, is that if beer advertising sells beer, then violence advertising sells violence; that there is a connection between repeated exposures in any form of communication and a tendency for people to be influenced by those exposures. There are real difficulties in getting scientific standards of proof, but that is common to all psychological experimentation.
Every country actually finds that there has to be censorship of television in some form or another. The Dutch, for instance, who have, like the Americans, a constitutional provision that they shall have no censorship of any kind, turn out, when you press them, to have a number of rules which are either observed by the broadcasters, because the broadcasters accept that they have to be observed, or else would be enforced at law because Dutch law also has provisions. For instance, the Dutch have a very broad-minded view of pornography, but if you introduce either a child or an animal into a pornographic scene, it becomes illegal in the Netherlands. The question is therefore not whether there should be censoring but at what point they censor. The Dutch also have a great concern over the right to privacy, and therefore, during the course of a trial, Dutch television will not name the defendant, which goes well beyond any provisions of a similar kind that we have in Britain.
Every culture reaches a point at which it says no. The point is different in each country and different in each generation, so you need to be sensitive to interpretation and public opinion. But broadcasters do need to have regard to the culture in which they live, and the cultures are, to my mind, entitled to make these sort of distinctions, and will in practice make them in somewhat different places, though there are large areas which are identical in virtually every culture.
Broadcasting has always been subject to regulation. We’re moving from a highly regulated system to one that is much less regulated. We’re moving from a four-channel situation to a twenty-channel situation, and the Broadcasting Standards Council is a body which is therefore exercising a far lesser degree of control. It exercises perhaps an important advisory role in place of bodies that formally exercised a very tight degree of control. The consideration of the welfare of children justifies at least this amount of control over television, as does the fact that there are matters which the public is not prepared to accept on television because of the medium’s domestic nature.
Nevertheless doesn’t any attempt to introduce or reintroduce moral values by way of censorship or legislation unavoidably involve a paternalism that seems inappropriate to the late twentieth century?
It’s a very common view, as I recognize, and if I were particularly worried about it I should obviously find myself disturbed by it. In fact it’s a view based on a lack of understanding of the problems. When one sees the sort of material which, say, the British Board of Film Classification won’t allow to be shown, one is aware that there is a considerable amount of material which, I’m sure, has no place on television nor in the cinema; material which appeals to very dangerous perversions, is principally sadistic and anti-women and, in some cases, destructive of children. This material, at any rate, you have to find a way to eliminate. People say, but isn’t pornography fairly harmless? Isn’t it a choice that people ought to be free to make for themselves? Real pornography is anything but harmless and is invariably concerned with destruction. It’s not a matter of a simple celebration of the erotic or anything of that kind. It’s usually profoundly hostile to women, sado-masochistic in character and often paedophile.
You get combinations of paedophile and sado-masochistic elements which are, to my mind, by their nature very dangerous. They’re appealing, fortunately, to rather rare perversions, but to very horrible ones. This material, at any rate, we have to find a way of dealing with it in a satisfactory way, it seems to me. I don’t think one can say, don’t do anything and this won’t happen. There is evidence that it does happen, and there is also evidence that, if you allow pornography, the shock effect soon wears off and the pornographers have to seek ever more extreme forms to achieve the effects they were achieving earlier. So where you have both sex and violence coming together, we have to find a way of keeping it off the screens.
An Observer profile described you somewhat unkindly as ‘a classic Victorian bourgeois who rails against private immorality while condoning public amorality’. How would you defend yourself against such a criticism?
That’s false in every respect, as far as I know. I don’t spend any time railing against private immorality. I hold a different view about what constitutes public morality from the Observer’s: I think mine is better based, they think theirs is better based, and that’s all there is in it. The fundamental cultural influences in the development of my thinking belong much more to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than to the nineteenth. I don’t feel any particular sympathy with the Victorian bourgeoisie, whom I see as stifling, limited, aesthetically weak, over-paternalistic, over-authoritarian and not genuinely liberal. I don’t feel sympathy with either them or their period. The Victorians I sympathize with most were not those who are most identified with the period.
The people I feel most at home with are the late seventeenth-century group, including Boyle, of which Locke and Newton are the greatest; that group who changed the whole world of thought at the end of the seventeenth century and in the early eighteenth century: the Scottish Enlightenment on the one hand and the English literary tradition on the other. I don’t recognize myself as being a nineteenth-century bourgeois figure.
But have your views on morality changed over the years?
Everybody’s views on morality must change to a certain extent over the years. I’ve become less censorious because I’ve seen more of human nature. One probably starts out with a fairly rigid moral grind that one then finds doesn’t relate to the extraordinary inconsistency of all human beings. In human life there is a series of pulses of energy rather than something which can be formalized into a completely rigid structure, and you have to allow for the fact that people will combine in themselves the highest moral standards with patterns of conduct which seem inconsistent with them. That’s something one learns from experience. One is educated by one’s children to a very large extent. They educate you because they are other personalities in whom you have complete confidence, and hence their experiences, thoughts and so on enter in in a way that other external thoughts and experiences do not.
Do the Mary Whitehouses of this world have a useful role in our society?
Yes. It was very desirable that the case Mary Whitehouse wanted to put should have been put. I don’t think it did any harm that broadcasters, who have a position of quite extraordinary social power, should be faced with criticism of their actions and a need to consider whether they can justify their editorial decisions. She was right in saying that children should be protected, that there should be a great deal of concern about the welfare of children in terms of what television is put out, particularly during the period when the younger children are watching. The importance that the watershed now plays in British television programming is significantly the result of her work. I would therefore say that she has done a lot of good work without saying I agree with everything she has said, which I don’t. Some of the emphasis that Mary Whitehouse had from the beginning did represent, I think, a failure of imagination.
The Observer profile also suggested that you came to distrust Keynesianism through a dislike of Keynes’s homosexuality. Is there any truth in that? Are you intolerant of homosexuality?
Not at all. It’s one of the subjects which, in my experience, you can’t use a perfectly rational argument about without immediately being substantially misinterpreted. What I did once write, and I think it is probably true, was that Keynes came to adopt a philosophy of life that said in effect that there were no rules of morality, but that there were certain aspects of good consciousness which were the highest goal people could seek. I think he came to adopt this because he was homosexual and was therefore unable to reconcile his own personal life to any morality or set or rules in the sexual area. The attraction of this set of ideas was quite largely that they gave him a consistent philosophy of life that allowed him to be a homosexual without any limit on his sexual activity. You get much the same thing in E. M. Forster, who holds much the same views.
I went on to argue that Keynes’s fundamental philosophy of life had a very important influence on his approach to economics, that Keynesian economics attacked the rules of classical economics and that, in the end, Keynesian economics become an almost rule-free pragmatism. Now this still seems to me to be perfectly true, and a rather similar view was later taken by Skidelsky in his biography of Keynes. It was a matter I discussed before Skidelsky, but I was interested to find that Skidelsky, reviewing the whole of the evidence and going into it in great depth, came to much the same conclusion about the development of Keynes’s underlying thought. Simplifying it, you get a direct relationship between Keynes as an adolescence, deciding that the taboo on homosexuality must be rejected, and Keynes as a mature economist, deciding that the taboo on convertibility into gold must be rejected. This seems to me a completely prejudice-free argument. It isn’t based on any dislike or feeling of hostility to homosexuality. It’s simply a tracking of a rather important element in Keynes’s development. But I found the moment I said it that people misinterpreted it as anti-homosexual, and the Observer repeated the charge.
You once described your ‘impotent guilt’ on a walk from the Royal Opera House to the Savoy Hotel for supper. That seems to suggest an awareness of the majority who lead more ordinary lives, and a consciousness that there is an unbridgeable gulf between you and them.
My impotent guilt was about people who were sleeping in cardboard boxes, not about the majority. I don’t feel any impotent guilt about my relationship with the majority. We are now in a society very different from the society of my youth, where the majority lead lives, which, in economic terms at any rate, are reasonably satisfying. We have changes from being a society where 20 per cent were comfortably off and 80 per cent were poor to one in which 60 per cent are comfortably off and 40 per cent are poor and 20 percent, or half of the poor, are very poor. My feeling of impotent guilt applied to the people who were sleeping in corners, homeless, leading lives which were obviously extremely difficult and miserable; and the fact that I could think of nothing useful I could do about it, other than support charities and occasionally give them money if they ask me.
It is obviously a great social evil. I do give support to charities which try to deal with it, and I think that’s the right thing to do, but I can’t pretend that I think it effective or sufficient, and I don’t know what to do about it otherwise. It’s a long-standing problem, and it was the start of much of the work of General Booth and the foundation of the Salvation Army. Perhaps that’s the best approach yet developed towards it.
The novelist Simon Raven has created a character widely regarded as a caricature of yourself. Do you find that disturbing?
I don’t find it at all disturbing. It appeals to my vanity to have characters based on myself. In the case of Simon Raven, the character is an extremely unpleasant one, and it’s a kind of extrapolation of what I think is a rather accurately observed potential of the dark side of my character. If I had gone on from what I was like as a schoolboy, and developed in the nastiest possible direction, I could have been not unlike that. We all have a dark side. It never completely disappears. Indeed, we wouldn’t be balanced personalities if it did. I would say it’s a rather interesting portrait, if a very unpleasant one.
It is going to seem to many that you have led a model and puritanical kind of life. Has that in fact been the case or were you, like most people, subject to the waywardness of youth?
I was very romantic in my youth and led a rather model and puritanical life because I tended, in a rather Victorian way, to be in love with unattainable young women. I didn’t sow many wild oats, but more because I was going round like one of Tennyson’s Knights of the Round Table than for any other reason. Everybody’s tempted, of course, but what I had was a tremendously strong sense of the incredible attraction of the feminine principle. I think, when I was in my early twenties, that I felt that very much more strongly than natural earthy lust. The companionship of attractive and beautiful girls gave me an enormous delight, and I was very much in love with them, but in those days – and we’re talking about the early 1950s – we lived in a more puritanical age under more puritanical presuppositions. I suspect I was always rather mooning around the place.
I continue to enjoy women’s company very much. I wouldn’t say that I feel more comfortable in the presence of men than of women since I enjoy each about equally. I certainly like male occasions and believe there is a role for all-male clubs just as there is a role for all-female occasions. There are certain aspects of what might be called the natural psychology of each sex when they want to be with their own sex. But I wouldn’t want to be in a men’s club all my life, or to lead that sort of life.
The English culture is one of restraint. I don’t know why it should have become so. It wasn’t always. When Erasmus came to Britain he was amazed at the way the English spent their time kissing each other. From a continental perspective, it all seemed very odd. The English have now become a non-touch culture, and neither Englishmen or, in my experience, Englishwomen actually like being embraced by a stranger. There are, of course, people who throw their arms round everybody, but on the whole Englishmen and Englishwomen find that equally embarrassing. I don’t think Englishwomen are more physical, in this sense, than Englishmen. Kissing at parties has become much more normal nowadays, but I don’t notice women walking the streets with their arms round each other in the way it might happen in a really physical culture.
Women have been important in my life. My marriage has been extremely important and one of the strongest influences. My mother a very strong influence, as were the women I was in love with in my twenties. My daughters, and the way they see the world, have been strong influences too. So, in all my closet personal relationships, women have played an absolutely vital part. My marriage is beyond friendship. It seems to me that the difference between marriage and other relationships is it’s total quality; that it comes to be a part of the whole of one’s life in a way that, in the end, no other relationship is, except that between the mother and the small child perhaps.
What was your attitude towards your own children and what advice have you given them as young adults?
I always believed that they would pay no attention to anything I said, that they would only pay attention to how life seemed to be lived, and therefore that preaching to them would be useless. I tried to teach but not preach, and I encouraged them to read things that had interested me, talked about things that had interested me and so forth. I don’t believe that direct preaching works. The only way parents can influence their children is by conduct. Preaching without conduct is hopeless.
Do you relish the cut and thrust of controversy?
Oh, enormously. I’m a professional controversialist. I know how to do it, and I enjoy doing it. I try not to be too savage about it, but my favourite poet, saving Shakespeare, is Alexander Pope. If anybody is silly enough to write an article contradicting me or saying I’m a fool, a scoundrel or a rogue, then that is enormous fun, because it provides a splendid opportunity for counter-attack. I’m a professional duellist, fighting with paper bullets.
Which post has given you the most satisfaction so far?
Undoubtedly editing The Times. It’s the most important and difficult job I’ve done, and therefore the most satisfying. It was also the one for which I had to make the greatest sacrifices. Otherwise I’ve always tended to do jobs which left me with spare energy for thinking and doing things outside that one single channel, and I’m not really temperamentally well suited to the single-job life. I feel I’m much more relaxed, much happier in my present position, where I’m doing half a dozen different jobs, turning from one to the other and having sufficient energy to enjoy my leisure, than I was in doing the wholly absorbing single job. So I wouldn’t be sure that The Times was the job I enjoyed most, but it was the one which gave me the greatest satisfaction.
Do you feel, with Malcolm Muggeridge, that as one grows older one becomes more religious?
At some periods in my life I’ve felt more strongly religious than at others. The intensity comes and goes in a strange way that I can’t account for. It doesn’t have a progression. If you start off with the faith of a child, you then discover that you’ve got to think it through and emerge with an adult faith. But I don’t think anybody can or should go without experiencing doubts and trying to think them through. I can’t say I have any doubts and trying to think them through. I can’t say I have any doubts now, but on the other hand I have a total sense of mystery. I remember, when I had doubts, that the phrase in the Athanasian Creed about the Trinity – not one Incomprehensible but three Incomprehensibles – seemed to me absolute rubbish, because how could one possibly believe in a doctrine which required one to believe not in one incomprehensible thing but in three incomprehensible things at once? It now seems to me to be the simplest, plainest statement of the truth that could possibly be made, and therefore my present frame of mind is that I combine a feeling of total confidence of the existence of a reality, and therefore in that sense an unquestioning faith, with a complete intellectual conviction of the inability of human beings to comprehend that reality in any defined way. I don’t think I’m likely to change.
Do you have any one deep regret in life?
I suppose I shall always regret not having had a time in the House of Commons. It was a very important part of what I thought my ambition was when I was a young man, and I would like to have seen whether I would have been able to make out in that environment. That’s a regret, but it’s not a regret in the sense that I would have preferred it to what actually happened. I prefer what actually happened, but if one could have two lives, it’s the alternative I would chose.
I’ve been immensely lucky. I’ve had an extraordinarily happy life. I had only two periods which I would regard as times of trouble. Adolescence is a bit difficult for everybody, but I was also rather ill at the time and found it quite a difficult period. Again, there was the time when The Times shut down for a year, which immediately followed a period in which my mother had died, and life went through one of those phases, as it does for everybody, of difficulties coming together at the same moment. Otherwise I’ve had an extraordinarily fortunate life, and anyone who has seen five children growing up, all of them reasonably happy and well, must feel profoundly thankful for it; and for a marriage that has worked for twenty-eight years, and to have had a varied and interesting career. It seems to me that I’ve had an extremely happy life, and I have on the whole a relatively happy temperament. I tend to feel mildly happy rather than mildly depressed more than fifty per cent of the time, which is all one can ask for.
*Dedicated to my friend, the veteran British political journalist Mr George Hutchinson, who died of cancer in March 1980. He was fifty-nine. I truly miss him.