THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
Andrew Cavendish was born in 1920-2004, son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire and Lady Mary Cecil. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, and was then commissioned in the Coldstream Guards. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on the Italian front in 1944, and the same year became heir to the dukedom when his brother was killed in action. He married Deborah Mitford in 1941 and they have one son and two daughters. After his father’s sudden death in 1950 he devoted himself to securing the future of Chatsworth, the family estate in Derbyshire. From 1962-4 he was Minister of State at the Commonwealth Relations Office and from 1965-86 he was chancellor at Manchester University. He has been vice president of the London Library since 1993.
Your family can be traced back to feudal times, to the famous Bess of Hardwick…has the sense of your own history affected your outlook on life very much?
Yes. I’m proud of my forebears. Bess was a very remarkable woman who married four men of property; fortunately she only had children by her Cavendish husband, so we inherited that lot. She was the first lady who put us on the way to fortune.
Have you felt an immense responsibility as a member of one of the important aristocratic families of England?
My years as head of my family have coincided with the decline of the influence of the aristocracy. Nowadays they have no power and virtually no influence.
Do you regret that decline?
No, it’s right. Mr Major is a man for his times, but I sometimes wonder whether it is just coincidence that the decline of Britain as a world power has also coincided with the decline of the power and influence of the aristocracy.
You were born just after the First World War. During your childhood were you aware of the huge legacy of grief and horror which resulted from that war, or were you completely sheltered from it?
Two things brought it home to me as a child: one was the vast crowds that used to walk on the pavements on either side of military bands, no doubt largely composed of ex-servicemen; and the other was that we lived in Belgravia and used to walk to Hyde Park to see the construction of those great memorials, particularly the Royal Artillery one at Hyde Park Corner. And I remember my mother saying that all her dancing partners had been killed.
How do you look back on your schooldays at Eton?
I enjoyed being there, but I was a horrible boy, and I’m not being falsely modest about this. I was dirty, I was lazy, and I have lived long enough to regret deeply my wasted opportunities. I could have had a marvellous education and yet I did so little.
Did you ever question your privileged status in those days, or did you regard education at Eton as part of your birthright?
I wouldn’t have used the word birthright, but I did accept it. And of course although my mother and father took great care in our schooldays not to differentiate in any way between my elder brother and myself, I was becoming aware of the principle of primogeniture. My father would talk to me about it, making clear that it would ensure the survival of the estate. He knew it was unfair but he said, ‘I accept the unfairness, and you must also accept the unfairness.’
Those who were sent away as children to boarding school often say that it distanced them in every way from their parents and family. Did you experience anything of that?
Yes. I didn’t like it when I went back to school, but it’s right, and it’s got to be done sooner or later. When I had the honour and privilege of being chancellor of Manchester University, I saw undergraduates in their late teens or early twenties away from home for the first time, and many of them found it very difficult to cope. It’s a brutal system but you’ve got be thrown in at the deep end, and it works.
Did you send your children to public school?
I did indeed. One of the worst things I’ve ever experienced was the first time I deposited my son at his private school; it was dreadful. I felt pain, and so did he.
How did you meet Deborah Mitford…was it love at first sight?
I first saw her at Eton, when she was fifteen or sixteen and strikingly beautiful. Then we met at a dinner party in 1938, and if it wasn’t love at first sight it was certainly attraction at first sight.
The Mitford girls were a legend in their own time. How did you feel about becoming a part of that legend?
I was mildly jealous at being an addendum to the Mitford sisters.
Debo was involved in helping Unity travel back from Germany after she had shot herself…do you remember that time and the emotion it aroused?
I remember it vividly. My wife was very courageous during what was a dreadful and searing experience for her, and I had great admiration for Unity also in what she did. Rightly or wrongly she had a deep feeling for Nazi Germany, and when it came to war, she couldn’t face the clash of loyalties between the two countries. One shouldn’t condone suicide or attempted suicide, but, it was, I thought, a heroic gesture.
You were married in London in 1941 as the bombs fell. Did the fact of war lend a heightened sense of emotion to the occasion?
Yes, I suppose it did. The Blitz was very exciting- I loved it. I was in the army, stationed in London, and there was a terrible raid the night before we got married, but we went to the wedding as if nothing was happening.
You were commissioned in the Coldstream Guards and your first child was born in 1943. Did you ever think that normal family life would be impossible because of the war, or did you always manage to keep the faith?
I think we managed to keep the faith…you see, it never crossed our minds that we were going to lose the war; it just never occurred to people of my generation. The war was just something that had to be got through.
Your brother was killed in action shortly after D-Day. You must have been shattered by his death…
Yes, I was. I felt terribly inadequate because I wasn’t there – I was in Italy. Of course it was awful for my father and mother. And my brother had only just married Kathleen Kennedy who might well have been expecting his child, and it was perhaps only human to be curious to know.
Your father was a minister in Churchill’s government. Was Churchill supportive, compassionate at that time?
My father was only a junior minister, and he and my mother were friends of Sir Winston’s, but not very close friends. I’m sure Sir Winston would have been supportive, but he wouldn’t have played a role in my family’s grief.
Did you ever meet Churchill?
Not as a child, but when I was in the army in this country we did guard duty at Chequers and Sir Winston used to ask me up to dinner sometimes. He was very kind; he thought we never had enough to eat in the army, and pressed me with food. I was at Chequers the night the Bismarck was sunk. Churchill was getting all the radio messages, and it was one of the most thrilling nights of my life.
Your brother only had a few weeks of marriage before his death. That must surely have made you and Debo very aware of the fragility of family life…
It was worse, much worse for Debo. I actually enjoyed the war in Italy. I liked my fellow men, the camaraderie, and we were doing something: but for the wives here it must have been terrible.
Later in the same year you were decorated for gallantry on the Italian front. Did your brother’s death make you all the more determined to defeat the enemy?
Yes, it did. I hated the Germans- I think I still do. Yes, it brought a sense of personal resentment.
You brother’s wife, Kathleen Kennedy, died in an air crash in 1948, one of a succession of tragedies in the Kennedy family. Were you closely involved with the Kennedys?
Yes, we kept up the connection, and still do, and when they come to England, they nearly always visit Chatsworth. My sister-in-law was one of the most delightful ladies I’ve ever met. She wasn’t exactly beautiful but she had great vitality. We all loved her. And Jack Kennedy was the most marvellous man. My wife and I went to his inauguration which was very exciting and thrilling. I went to his funeral also, which was terrible.
Both your families were touched by the terrible effects of war. Debo’s brother Tom and also Unity were casualties of the war. Did you feel at the time that you had been signed out for a particularly harsh treatment, or was there a kind of universal loss and grief?
It was very sad that Tom was killed so late in the War. He could have had a distinguished career in politics if he’d wanted to. But we all lost a lot of our close friends and family, and though it wasn’t anything like the First World War, it wasn’t a scythe right through society, it was universal. But Tom’s death in Burma when the war was really over was particularly hard.
Your brother’s death altered the course of your life in that you became successor to your father, the Duke. Were you a reluctant heir?
My brother had been killed in action so it wasn’t right, was it? It wasn’t my fault, but it certainly made me uneasy.
Apropos your father’s sudden death in 1950, your wife has written, ‘Not only did Andrew lose his father; he also lost his friend and wise counsellor.’ Does that describe how you felt?
Exactly. He was marvellous. My father wasn’t a mean man, but he spent very little money on himself, whereas I’ve always been extravagant, and my father vicariously enjoyed these extravagances. He didn’t like horse-racing at all, but he was only too delighted to find the funds for me to buy horses, nearly always bad ones.
In addition to the title, you inherited enormous problems in the form of death duties which it took over twenty years to clear. How did you face up to this colossal task?
There again I was singularly lucky. First of all at thirty I was young and resilient. Secondly and more importantly, I had the most brilliant financial and legal adviser, a man called W. D. Macpherson, now dead. If we’d panicked, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. We had to pay eighty per cent of everything but thanks to the way it was handled, a great deal survived on the art side which was perhaps what mattered most to me. We had to lose the ten best things we had, and they went – perhaps rightly – to our national institutions, the V&A, the National Gallery and so on. I had to take the decision whether to lose the very best and keep the bulk of the contents of Chatsworth, or to sell a tremendous lot and keep the very best. Rightly or wrongly I settled for the very best to go, but we’ve got a very nice collection.
But do you feel any bitterness about it?
No. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. I’m one of the luckiest men in the world, and most people would give the eyes in their head for what’s in Chatsworth. I’m philosophical about it, though I do sometimes think that but for that German sniper’s bullet none of Chatsworth would have been lost.
You must surely at times have felt defeated by the enormity of the problem. What was it that kept you going?
My wife, my relative youth and my advisers.
It must have given you great satisfaction to secure the future of Chatsworth and moreover to make it completely self-financing.
I’ve achieved virtually nothing in life, but that is certainly what I am most proud of. It was due to my advisors more than to me, and my wife has been a pillar, but to keep Chatsworth going is my overwhelming ambition, as it was my father’s; and I would guess it will be my son’s.
Do you get on well with your son?
I get on very well with my son. I’m proud of him, and I put him very high on my list of good fortune. He also gets on well with his mother and stands up to her too, more than I do.
She is a strong character?
That would be an understatement.
During the 1960’s you held various political posts which you say yourself you would never have held but for Harold Macmillan’s nepotism. Is that false modesty or something you genuinely believe?
Oh, it’s true. It was gross nepotism. I had made a few speeches about the reorganization of betting in this country, but I hadn’t been very active in the House of Lords, so there was no justification. But Harold obviously thought I could do it. I imagine he thought, ‘I can risk him, he won’t make too much of an ass of himself.’
Harold Macmillan is a very controversial figure; the historians disagree about him. What was your view?
To begin with, unlike many politicians, he was a clever man. He was also an extremely astute politician – ‘wily’ is an apt description. My judgement of him is biased because he was so good to me that I can never repay the debt I owe him. Not only did he give me a job which I enjoyed very much but it led to other things. For example, I became chancellor of Manchester University which was one of the great experiences of my life. He also had the best manners of any man I ever met.
But was he trustworthy?
I was too junior in government to have political dealings with him so I never had any reason not to trust him. It would be presumptuous of me to sit in judgement on him.
You say that you left the Conservative Party and joined the Social Democrats ‘largely for sentimental reasons.’ What exactly did you mean by that?
We were Whigs and then we were Liberals, and we left the Liberal Party over Home Rule for Ireland. We were wrong about Home Rule for Ireland, wrong for good reasons. We thought that the Irish would suffer materially from independence, and indeed they have, but I’m a fervent believer in political nostrum: ‘It is better to govern yourself badly than to be well governed by others.’ I like to think I am still a good Whig.
You have an impressive record of public service. Is that area of your life as important as sitting on the cross benches in the Lords?
Sitting on the cross benches in the Lords is not important. You’ve been kind about my record of public service which is very modest, and what I’m going to say now sounds extremely priggish. I’m aware of how lucky I am, and if I can help people or do anything in the way of charitable work, well, God knows, that’s the least I can do. Also I really like people, and if I come away from meeting someone and I’ve been bored, I regard that as my failure.
Some time ago you hosted at Chatsworth a gathering to promote peace in the Middle East. Is that a special area of interest for you?
Yes, it is one of my great interests. Through my father I’ve always had a great affinity with the Jewish community. My father was a friend of Weizmann and I can remember the excitement in our house in London when he was coming to lunch. My father much regretted that he himself had no Jewish blood, and occasionally after dinner he could be seen looking through the Peerage and when asked what he was doing, he would say, ‘Surely somewhere there must be some Jewish blood…’ There is a large Jewish community in Manchester and when I became chancellor to Manchester University, that’s where I strengthened my links. I’ve been to Israel six times now.
You were formerly president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, but now you support the neutral Next Century Foundation. Why did you change?
I ceased to be a Tory so I couldn’t go on being president of the Friends of Israel, and the Next Century Foundation is trying to build bridges between Palestinian and Jewish communities.
Are you optimistic that eventually a solution will be found?
I cannot say I am, and I regret that very much. I used to endorse the Jewish cause without question, but last April I went to the West Bank, and I was horrified by what I saw; the army was everywhere. Israel’s got a lot to answer for, but of course there a great many people in that part of the world who want to see Israel in the sea, so I think it is not quite fair to judge them by ordinary standards. Nevertheless, however simplistic it may sound, if the Jewish people are justified in having their own state, are not the Palestinians? Forgive me for talking vulgarly, but what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
I sense in you a certain discomfort with your aristocratic status. Would you have preferred to live your life in comparative obscurity perhaps?
No, I can’t say that. It has great advantages, but there are also disadvantages. I dislike being called Your Grace, for example, and ninety-nine per cent of the population of this country think dukes are freaks, and they may well be right. People will not accept that you can have perfectly ordinary interests – for example, I really care about professional football, it interests me a great deal, but when I talk about it most people think I’m putting it on.
You once said that the trouble with being a duke was that people thought you were a blithering idiot. Do you care very much about what other people think?
Too much. It is an attractive quality not to give a damn what people think of you, but I haven’t got it.
Debo once said of the late Duke of Beaufort that he was the most pointless man she had ever met.
I’m very sorry to hear that.
Do you think that in the late twentieth century pointlessness is a sad feature of much of the aristocracy?
I suppose we’ve only got ourselves to blame, but our power’s been taken away. The caravan moves on, the days of the aristocracy are over. I wouldn’t exactly use the word pointless, but we’ve had our day. We have had a good long run.
Would you be upset if a future government were to disband the House of Lords?
I should be very sorry if there weren’t a second chamber, although I wouldn’t in the least mind losing my title and being called Andrew Cavendish, but all the newspapers would add to it ‘formerly the Duke of Devonshire’, so it wouldn’t make much difference. I’d mind very much if my wealth and possessions were taking away, but my title, no.
Do you think the House of Lords makes a valuable contribution to the political system?
Yes, I do. The standard of debate is extremely high and I think the House of Commons has got a great deal to learn from it. One of the problems in this country is our over-adversarial attitude in the Commons, as exemplified by Prime Minister’s Question Time; I can only describe it as extreme disagreeableness which sets a bad example to the rest of the country.
Your image was rather tarnished a few years ago when in the Old Bailey witness box you revealed what many people would consider the rather disreputable side of your private life at the time. Was that a difficult period for you?
Very. It was very disagreeable. Being in the witness box and speaking on oath is a salutary experience, and it was very painful for my family. The only consolation was that I didn’t attempt to lie. My private life isn’t all it might be, but it would only make it worse to lie about it.
Do you resent the way that dukes and duchesses are public property in the sense that they are thought to be accountable to the nation – in much the same way as the royal family are under constant scrutiny?
I don’t know that we are; we don’t count any more. As I say, we’re regarded as freaks, and we’re totally marginalized now.
Infidelity has been the breaking point of a great many marriages and yet yours seem so very stable and solid. To what do you owe its success, do you think?
I’m not sure that’s a fair question. You’re going too deeply into my private life. The essential ingredient of marriage is tolerance, but I really can’t go any further than that.
Do you believe that men are not naturally monogamous and that perhaps too much significance is given to one or other partner straying from the path?
Those marriages where neither partner has been unfaithful are relatively few and astonishingly lucky.
I think it would be fair to say that the Cavendish line has had something of a reputation of philandering, right back to the first duke in the seventeenth century. Is this something you would prefer not to be the case, or is it more a badge of honour?
It is certainly not a badge of honour. Philandering is nothing to be proud of; it’s a weakness.
Have you yourself repented?
I find repentance very difficult, particularly if you are aware that you may do the same thing again…one has to be very careful of repentance.
Do you think the Establishment is under serious threat and if so, are you dismayed by that?
I don’t know what the Establishment is, but I’m certainly not part of it. I don’t think it exists any more. In this country the civil service has much more power than the politicians. I was never more than a middle- ranking minister but it was enough to know just how powerful the civil servants are. I long for someone to define to me what the Establishment is. Is there a group of people in this country who can fix things? I don’t know.
Do you think that politicians today are less powerful than they once were?
The economic conditions prevailing in the country limit the power of the politicians. If the Labour Party had got in at the last election, and it is a great pity they didn’t, Black Wednesday would have happened just the same. I have my own views on political matter but the downside of privilege is that there are great constraints on what you may speak about. If I were to express my views on the Welfare State, for example, people would say, ‘How dare he?’ and they’d be quite right to say that. When I was on the opposition front bench I was number two to Peter Carrington and foreign affairs, and after about eighteen months I was moved to transport which was rather absurd because I must have been the only member of the House of Lords who couldn’t drive. But transport was the only thing which a duke could speak about. Privilege prohibits you from commenting on a vast swathe of national issues.
Are you a religious man?
I can’t make up my mind. I can’t believe in another world, although I shall certainly go to hell if there is one. The Sermon on the Mount is absolutely right, as are Christian values; I have no doubt about that; but I envy those with real faith.
Would you consider yourself to have been a good man?
No, I’m afraid not. Even with money I’m not really a generous man. I only give to charity what I can afford, and not enough to affect my standard of living. The truly generous man gives a sacrifice of himself. I’ve never done that.
Does death worry you?
No. I don’t look forward to it. Wonderful things have happened to me in my life; I’ve had too much good fortune. It’s time my son had his turn. When I was young I used to like casinos, fast women and God knows what; now my idea of heaven, apart from being at Chatsworth, is to sit in the half of Brooke’s having China tea. I can’t think of a greater pleasure than that…that’s what comes of being old.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED WINTER 1993