Woodrow Wyatt was born in 1918 and educated at Eastbourne College and Worcester College, Oxford.
He rose to the rank of major during the war and was Mentioned in Dispatches from Normandy.
He became a Labour MP in 1945 and was made a life peer in 1987. From 1965-73 he was a weekly columnist on the Daily Mirror and for the next ten years he wrote for the Sunday Mirror. From 1983 he was a columnist on The Times and the News of the World.
He is the author of several books including The Peril in our Midst (1956), What’s Left of the Labour Party? (1977) and his autobiography Confessions of an Optimist (1985).
Wyatt’s caustic, candid and mischievously indiscreet diaries were published posthumously in three volumes. I interviewed him in 1993 just four years before he died.
Your autobiography reveals that your father was a much more important figure in your life than your mother, and yet it was a relationship characterized by fear and misunderstanding. Were you accepting of him at the time? Did the disappointment and agonizing come later?
There were times when I liked my father; he could be very kind in many ways. For example, he used sometimes to take me to Horsham to watch my cousin playing cricket with Warwickshire against Sussex, and I used rather to enjoy that. He died when I was thirteen, and I remember him as a rather alarming figure, perhaps because he was headmaster of the private school he owned, and he always made it quite clear that I would get no favours. He liked my brother a great deal more than he liked me, perhaps because my brother was a much nicer person, but in any case he made it quite clear that he thought I wasn’t much good. I remember when we used to swim in Cornwall and the enormous breakers came rolling in from the Atlantic, he would think I was too frightened to go in. Possibly I was, but I was more frightened of the ghastly cold. I found him a very forbidding person in that way, but I suppose looking back on it now I would take a different view, and perhaps it was my lack of character that made me resent him. If I met him now I don’t know what I should say.
When after the war Osbert Sitwell asked you if you’d killed you father yet, a reference to your tortured relations with him, the implication was that you definitely had not. Half a century later, is your father finally dead?
I think he is, yes. Osbert Sitwell had the same kind of dislike of his father as I had of mine, and that was how the conversation arose. He told me that it was very important to kill one’s father, and I thought I had, partly because I’d turned out differently and I’d read a lot of books and my father hadn’t. He read mainly detective stories, like Agatha Christie, and he didn’t really have what you would call a liberal mind. At that age I would have preferred somebody who had wider ideas, and he was rather narrow, although the family always used to pretend how clever he was. But after four years at Oxford he only succeeded in getting a pass degree, about the same as Kinnock at Cardiff University.
Can you recall your feelings at the time of his actual death?
I was quite pleased actually. I remember going to the cinema that afternoon, the day of his funeral, and I didn’t feel any great sorrow. I kept thinking I ought to be very upset, but I didn’t really feel that. We were all so frightened of him in a way.
You were never able to form a deep bond with your mother, something which I imagine may have given you a terrible sense of loss all your life. Am I right?
I don’t have a sense of loss about it, because if you haven’t had something you haven’t lost it. She was a very good woman, my mother, but we never really understood each other at all, and she never once praised me for anything I’d ever done. But maybe there was nothing I did worth praising.
Criticism of your father led to your mother disinheriting you. What were your immediate feelings when this happened?
She was rather gaga at the time, and it arose, curiously enough, because she was very pro-Conservative, as my father was. I had written something about my father in the Evening Standard in which I said he reminded me very much of Mr Attlee, he had the same good qualities of uprightness and honesty; and she was horrified to have her late husband compared with this dreadful Socialist, although I had intended it as a compliment.
You said your parents’ marriage was made in heaven and that your mother worshipped your father. Is that a necessary constituent for a successful marriage in your view?
It was reciprocal. For him she could do no wrong, and vice versa. Their temperaments clearly suited each other and she admired him for qualities he perhaps didn’t have – for example, she thought he was a very learned and clever man. He admired her because she had a strong character, and when there were ups and downs at the school, she always supported him and saw him through.
Was she a very intelligent woman?
No. I think she only once read a book, and had no interest in abstract matters, or literature or art.
Your initial dislike for your school, Eastbourne, seems to have been prompted by a certain snobbishness, the fact that Eastbourne was a poor imitation of the grander public schools. Wasn’t it unusual to have been so aware of the nuances of class division at that age?
Yes. I’ve always been a snob, and no doubt still am, because on the whole I prefer the best if one can get it, or at least to be associated with the best. I didn’t feel Eastbourne was a very good school, in fact it was bloody awful, but I do give a prize every year for an essay on the subject: ‘The conditions which you think it would be most likely to give you a happy life.’ I do this in honour of a very nice man, about the only civilized teacher in my time, called Bell, who died very young. When I went into his Classical Sixth he told us that we could either work or we could just sit and dream. I chose to do the latter. Mr Bell was a very agreeable man, and had all the values of the Greek scholars presenting the notions of happiness. I find it very interesting reading the entries from Eastbourne each year. I usually give the winners tea in the Lords, and we have a talk. They say that in many ways the school is just as bad as it was when I was there, only it’s probably a bit livelier.
In your autobiography you describe how a Tory MP, Tony Bullock, left Eastbourne out of his Who’s Who entry, and you commented that you had never gone as far as that. I couldn’t help noticing that you omitted two marriages from your own Who’s Who entry…
Ah…well, but they’re all recorded in Debrett, several pages as a matter of fact. I left them out of Who’s Who because they’re excess baggage.
You were very pleased to leave Eastbourne and Esher behind and were much more comfortable with your social status at Oxford. Wasn’t this a shaky foundation for a declared Socialist?
First of all I wasn’t a declared Socialist. I joined the Labour Club which was semi-Communist, I joined the Liberals, and I joined the Conservative Club, so I was just sampling, wondering what politics was made of. I was helped to get Philip Toynbee, who was then a Communist, elected as President of the Union.
You wanted to rise above Esher when you grew up, you were disdainful of ‘the appalling people’, as you describe them, and were desperate not to have to return and live among them. Did it not occur to you that by choosing Socialism, you would be represented these same appalling people – or did you think you could make them less appalling?
I’d better explain that I joined the Labour Party because I went into the army when I was very young before the war began. When I was eighteen in the winter of 1936, I went to Munich and was pretty horrified about what was already being done to the Jews, and this made a strong impression on me. I will never believe that the Germans did not know what was happening, because if I could find out when I was eighteen, and then they must have known. When I was just twenty-one I joined up, and I became an officer fairly quickly, the most unlikely officer you could imagine. One of the great things about the British army is the attention junior officers must pay to the people they have in their command, and I had a platoon or about thirty people much the same age as myself, and I talked to them a great deal. I heard a great many stories of boys who were obviously much cleverer than I who had had to leave school when they were fourteen because their parents simply had to send them out to work; of mothers who’d died because they couldn’t afford medical attention, and other really distressing tales. I had also spent a few weeks with Mass Observation and enjoyed talking to the people who in a sense no longer exist, the working class. So my main motivation in wanting to represent these people was a dislike of injustice. It all seemed to be desperately unfair, and the Tories had done nothing whatsoever about it.
Was part of the attraction of Socialism the fact that your father had detested it?
Admittedly that made me feel there must be something in it, but it wasn’t the moving force. I joined the Labour Party because I thought the world should be a better place and the Tories had failed to make it so. Social justice, I thought, was long overdue.
As the possibility of war approached, you married for the first time; you say it was a marriage based on love and passion, but was there perhaps also an element of fatalism about it, a feeling that you might not survive the war to marry afterwards?
I think that was so. I felt that I was born just before the end of the last war, and was now due to be killed in this one. But deep down I never really thought I would be killed; even the people who didn’t survive never thought they were going to be killed. It was just a question of luck.
Your account of those early days in the army gives some idea of how ill-prepared we were to face up to Hitler’s advance. Did you sometimes doubt that we would win the war?
Never. I was always certain we would win.
Because for various reasons Britain can never be beaten in a war. It is an ingenious country when it has its back to the wall; we’d always rustle up allies from somewhere or other, and the British don’t contemplate defeat. I was in the war from the very beginning, and I never met one soldier of any rank who thought we were going to lose the war. Even when France had surrendered, when Hitler was trying to get across the Channel, and the Battle of Britain was raging over our heads, I never met anyone who thought we were going to lose it; and that was when we were alone with nobody helping us, not the Americans, not the Russians, nobody.
In 1948 you married again, this time thinking you were more circumspect in not allowing your heart to rule your head. When that marriage failed, were you beginning to think that perhaps you did not have, as it were, an aptitude for marriage?
No, I thought I was beginning to learn, I was gaining experience in it. And so, as I liked being married, I persevered with the institution. I knew that if it failed one could run a line over it, forget it. There are so many things to think about, there is no point in dwelling on things which are not particularly pleasant.
You claim to have followed Robert Kee’s maxim: ‘Any reasonably intelligent man not repellent to a woman can persuade almost any girl to go to bed with him if he is persistent.’ Does that not imply a kind of contempt for women, the idea that women are invariably beddable no matter what?
No. I don’t think it implies any contempt at all. I think it means that you can succeed if you are really interested in somebody – you can’t do it if you’re not seriously interested. As I’m sure you know very well, men fall in love through their eyes, the women through their ears, for obvious biological reasons.
What are the biological reasons?
At your age, you must surely know. First of all, it takes a man about ten seconds to impregnate a woman, not a very agreeable way of doing it, but that is the way it is. It takes the woman nine months to have the child, months in which she is somewhat incapacitated, and therefore over the ages she has evolved into someone who has certain ideas about the type of man she is going to allow to impregnate her. In the Stone Age no doubt the toughest guy around would just drag the woman off by the hair and batter everybody else with his club, but as time went on and we grew a little more civilized, ideas changed. Women may not always be conscious of this, but at the back of their minds they know that, despite all the contraception in the world, the sex act is designed to produce a child who has to have the protection of a father. That is fairly sensible. But a man does not have the same constraint: he can get an erection immediately he sees a pretty girl naked, even if he’s hardly ever met her. It’s not his biological job to rear children.
Did you always find it easy to seduce women?
Not at all. I’m not a great seducer, though I like women very much and I’d much rather be in women’s company than men’s.
You also say that it would be biologically impossible for husbands and wives never to feel attracted outside their marriage after their mutual sexual excitement has calmed, and sometimes even before. Do you believe that marriages should rise above the odd infidelity?
Oh yes. The importance of the sexual act can be exaggerated, and it’s not much good anyway if it isn’t associated with love, but on the other hand people develop at different rates and it’s obvious that the first fine careless rapture doesn’t last indefinitely, and so people can be unfaithful without wanting to disturb their marriages.
Do you think the Establishment is very hypocritical about sex?
Of course, but then everybody is hypocritical about sex. The British are the greatest hypocrites in the world, but hypocrisy is necessary. If we went around telling the truth all the time, the place would be unbearable.
At the time of the Profumo scandal, you wrote an editorial in the Banbury Guardian supporting him and dismissing the suggestion that ‘one peccadillo’ could make him a bad man. You were scathing about what you described as ‘grave nonsense about morality’. Do you have that view generally about political scandals?
Yes, absolutely. That’s another part of the great British hypocrisy: you may tell a lie in the House of Commons about public matters – Eden and Selwyn Lloyd in attacking Egypt lied their heads off about collusion with Israel and the French – and that’s all right, but poor old Profumo told a lie about a personal matter, mainly because he was terrified that if his wife found him carrying on with anybody else she would leave him. But the great British hypocrisy says that you must not tell lies about your personal life; you may only tell lies about things that matter.
How do you react to the suggestion that those who cannot conduct their own private lives properly shouldn’t be in charge of decisions which affect a great many other people’s lives?
That would be ridiculous. We know very well that the people most prominent in leading nations have also had the greatest libido. That’s been true throughout the ages. Lloyd George wasn’t to be trusted in a room with any passable woman under 55; he couldn’t help himself. Wellington and Napoleon were the same. What people do in their private lives has absolutely no relevance to what they do publicly. What to do about interest rates or how to deal with Yugoslavia are problems which you either have an aptitude for dealing with or you don’t, but it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with making love to the housemaid. The two are totally different activities.
You said of Harold Wilson: ‘He should never have been Prime Minister, and I liked him better when he gave up and started to be a more wholesome man.’ What did you mean by that remark?
Wilson carried hypocrisy too far. He was always pretending. He would say quite different things outside the Shadow Cabinet from what he said inside, and he was always sucking up to the lefties in his constituency, because there were the people he needed to get him elected one day as leader, although he never would have become leader if Hugh Gaitskell had not died so young. Like Macmillan, he didn’t really care what happened, so long as he was Prime Minister; neither of them had any real feelings about what happened to the country, whereas somebody like Gaitskell or Mrs Thatcher cared very deeply, wrongheaded or not. Wilson let the extreme left into the Labour Party again; before Wilson came in you could not be a member of the Labour Party and a member of a Communist-front organization, but you could afterwards. He allowed the whole drift to go on with the trade unions which were being taken over by the Communists, and I thought he behaved terribly, very much against the interests of the country, and his whole government was a disaster. When he stepped down he became a much more wholesome person. His own personal morals were very good, but his morals when it came to politics were terrible.
You blame Wilson for the fact that – as you put it – ‘the Labour Party turned rotten and the Marxist element became dominant’. Why did you later have such distain for Neil Kinnock who stood up to the Marxist element and tried to tackle them?
Because he was also doing a Wilson in his own way. He got elected because he collected all the same people Wilson did, the extremists and the Communists and so on, and he attacked everything the Labour leaders were doing – they were all traitors to the working classes and God knows what else. When he became leader, he knew he would never get himself elected as Prime Minister carrying that baggage, so he then had to take a different tack. He was a similar character to Wilson. I don’t think he really believed in anything very much.
The single reference in your book to Neil Kinnock describes him as ‘a lightweight trendy – proof of the Labour Party’s deterioration…’
That’s exactly what he is. The Labour Party is never going to do any good until it’s like the Democratic Party in America, where it’s absolutely part and parcel of the Capitalist system, and not trying to turn everything upside down.
On the same page of your autobiography in which you say Wilson was totally cynical, you describe how you broke the rules of secrecy governing Party meetings by writing them up in the Daily Mirror. Couldn’t that also be interpreted as an act of cynicism?
Of course it was. The leadership was leaking their version of events, so I thought I would say what really did happen. It was a counter leak, if you like; all reasonable fun.
You also dismiss Callaghan as ‘an inept Chancellor of the Exchequer, an indifferent Home Secretary, a poor Foreign Secretary and an unsuccessful Prime Minister.’ What lies behind such a ferocious, and some would say unfair, assessment?
Observation. I’m quite fond of him in a curious way, and I don’t want to upset him again, but I’ve got nothing whatsoever to add to what I said in my book.
By contrast, you obviously have considerable admiration for Ted Heath, of whom you say, ‘I cannot blame him if he now seems ungracious – there is a noble soul there which has been grievously wounded.’ Is this a sentiment which you would extend to others who have been similarly wounded…Mrs Thatcher, for example?
Certainly. She was abominably treated. That’s one reason why – there are many others – I could never join the Conservative Party. They are a terrible lot of people, the MPs particularly. They treat their leader appallingly. They’re all cowards too; at the first sign of difficulties they all run for cover.
You were a great champion of Mrs Thatcher and her policies during the 1980s which went against the opinion of a great many objective commentators. What was the real basis of this admiration?
Because she reminded me very much of Hugh Gaitskell. I knew her on and off, and when she became leader of the Tory Party she asked me to go and see her. We talked for about two hours or so in her house and I told her how much her determination and honesty reminded me of Hugh Gaitskell I said to her, ‘If you’re really going to stick to what you say, I’ll back you’; which I did, always. I thought her party were total idiots to have got rid of her. I know she could be tiresome and difficult in some ways, but she would have won them the last election just the same, with a bigger majority than Major. She was the best peacetime Prime Minister since the 1832 Reform Bill. Winston was very good in many ways in a war, but not much good in peacetime. She really put Britain on the map again.
When you wrote about the Falklands War you said that she was in acute distress whenever anyone was killed, and that ‘she was stricken far more than a man would have been’. Many people would consider that remark deeply insulting to men.
All these things about her not being compassionate are absolute balls. She felt it all very deeply, but you mustn’t start breaking down and having tears about it. You have to be tough to win a war, and toughness is not necessarily a female attribute, and women are not usually placed in war situations. But that doesn’t alter the fact that she always was a deeply compassionate and considerate person. The reason she didn’t seem like that was that she had to grow a carapace in order to get things done’ she couldn’t show what might be called her feminine side. To control and master a cabinet of people, most of whom were at first hostile to her, was quite a difficult trick, and in order to do it she had to steel herself. But inside her nature wasn’t like that at all.
Do you think that she has conducted herself well since her fall from power?
On the whole yes, but you have to remember that she’s only in her sixties, still full of energy. She was a hands-on Prime Minister, and naturally she feels that things would be done better if she were there, and occasionally she can’t resist saying so. I think that’s extremely human and understandable. In fact in many ways she’s been very supportive of Major and the government. After all, he was her anointed.
In your account of the proposed nationalization of steel under Wilson you paint a very convincing and disturbing picture of the pressure which chief whips can apply to MPs. Has that altered at all over the years, or would whips have resorted to similar tactics over the recent Maastricht vote for example?
All whips do that, and that is their reason for existing. It is their duty to make sure that the government wins a vote, and they must do it by every means available, and if people aren’t tough enough to stand up to it, then they shouldn’t be in politics. I’ve no sympathy whatsoever for people who say they were bullied, and their arms were twisted, and terrible threats were made. If you believe in something you must do what you think is right; by the same token the whips believe that the best thing for the country and their party is for the government to win. I don’t know what they tell them in the Tory Party; perhaps they say you won’t get a knighthood. In my case they were trying to get me out of my constituency.
Did you listen to them?
Of course not. I did exactly what I felt was right. This was at a time in the Labour Party when I was seeing more and more that the damned thing doesn’t work. This kind of marvellous utopia where everybody would be working for everybody’s good without any carte of profit, and be motivated entirely like a lot of clergymen, was, I discovered, not going to happen. I should have realized it earlier, but I was very young. I told my constituency party in that election that I was going to oppose the nationalization of steel, that it would be a disaster, which it certainly was, and so it came as no surprise to Wilson when I refused to vote for the bill. Every kind of trick was used to get my vote, and harrowing stories were told; but that is the function of whips. The function of an MP is to be strong enough to take no notice.
In your book you describe politics as a sordid and often corrupt business. Were you ever dismayed by what Orwell called ‘the ordinary dirtiness’ of politics?
I didn’t mean corrupt in the sense of money changing hands and that kind of business; only that people are a bit corrupted by wanting jobs, which is understandable. Part of the whole purpose of going into politics is to try and get somewhere and do something. A lot of intrigue goes on, as it does in everything, and perhaps I’ve been a bit too unkind to politicians; they’re just human like everybody else, no worse than the rest.
As far back as 1947 you voted for a reduction in the proposed civil list allowance for Princess Elizabeth. Do you still take the same view now?
No, absolutely not. I really hadn’t studied the problem enough. Now I take a totally different view. It’s a great mistake for the Queen to pay income tax. Republicanism is being whipped up mainly by telling lies. You tell the lies first by saying, for example, that the Queen ought to pay for the restoration of Windsor Castle because she lives there, and you conveniently forget that the only parts that burned down were state apartments which have been open to the public ever since George III. The country is in a discontented mood at the moment because after having had a very good ten years, people are now losing jobs and finding their houses are not going up in price, so they have to take it out on somebody, and why not on the Queen.
Many people would think it demeaning to write for the News of the World. Do you have no qualms about that at all?
None whatever. Christ went among the publicans and sinners after all [laughs]. I like writing for the News of the World, because it has the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world. In a way I’m a kind of preacher who feels very strongly about many issues. I long for people to do what I think is right for them and for the country, and so I’ve got a marvellous pulpit from which to do it. When I write for The Times, which has a very small circulation, my article is lost in the mass of that paper, but in the News of the World, I have far more influence than ever I had in the House of Commons.
Your admiration for Rupert Murdoch borders on the reverential. You say: ‘if I were not myself, I should most like to be Rupert…’ You present him as an urbane, refined, educated man, knowledgeable of what you call ‘the values of Western civilization’. Many people would regard him as a corrupter of these values.
Well, I don’t. I think his activities have been beneficial in the main, although I haven’t always agreed with the line the Sun and Sunday Times have taken on the government or Norman Lamont or the Queen. Murdoch is a bit like Beaverbrook in some respects; they’re both children of the manse with a puritan hellfire streak. I’ve always liked him, there’s far more good in him than you think. He’s not remotely like Robert Maxwell who was an obvious crook from start to finish. Rupert’s not a crook.
Don’t you think that as someone who writes for the News of the World you are complicit in a general moral decline?
They very often have archbishops writing for them, and when I’m away they go to John Smith or somebody like that. Any Labour leader who is asked to write for the News of the World is delighted, so why should it be so awful of me to write a weekly column?
Are you at all uneasy about the relationship between the tabloids and the political parties; the knighting of tabloid editors, for example, in return for services rendered?
I don’t think it’s a very important subject; it doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s been going on for a hundred years or so. And it doesn’t seem to make editors particularly loyal – look at the way all the newspapers have been turning on Major and Lamont and the government.
But the principle is that if you support the government you’re rewarded.
Is it so strange that governments show some gratitude to people who have helped them? It is normal, and it’s been going on ever since human history began. On the whole you don’t offer honours to your enemies.
The title of your column ‘The Voice of Reason’ is seen by many as adding insult to injury. Is it intended as a deliberate provocation to reasonable people?
Actually, I didn’t invent it. The first time I saw it, I was quite amused, but on the whole what I write is logical and reasonable. Do you read my column?
Well, you obviously don’t read it enough, so you don’t know what you’re talking about. I think very much as ordinary people do.
While doing the research for this interview I borrowed your autobiography from the London Library. Near the end of the book you write, ‘I shall be immodest…’ and someone has written in the margin, ‘You’ve never stopped.’ Would you consider immodesty to be one of your failings?
No. I think what you tell me is very funny…
You are a man who takes his horoscope seriously. Has astrology been a substitute for a more orthodox religion?
I don’t think it’s got much to do with religion. My opinion of religions is that none of them could possibly have got it all right. The Christian religion, for example, and the Muslim religion too, have this marvellous way of thinking that God has created man in his own image, and that isn’t true at all. It was man who tried to create God in his own image, and all kinds of thoughts and feelings are attributed to this mysterious being which it couldn’t possibly have. It all began with superstition and fear of the unknown. The ides of an afterlife seems to me inherently absurd; it’s just the sheer vanity on the part of man. And nobody today suggests that the sufferings of the wretched people in Yugoslavia, or the Kurds in Iraq, are because God is punishing them – it just has to be crazy. He is supposed to be omnipotent, but if so, he is really making a bad job of it. Astrology is also on the face of it absurd, but there may just be something in it. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’; and there are, but the idea that the imam of somewhere or the archbishop of somewhere else, or the Pope, has any clue as to what they are, seems to me to be inherently ridiculous. I’m not in the least afraid of dying, though I’m annoyed that life is so damned short. I’ve wasted an awful lot of time by not working hard enough and now I feel ‘Time’s a winged chariot hurrying near…’