Tuesday 19 May 2015

A lack of Prime Ministers


My favourite Harold Macmillan story is of when the Queen, Mrs. Thatcher and the five living former Prime Ministers had dinner at No. 10 in around 1986 to celebrate its 300th anniversary. As the photograph was being taken James Callaghan said: I wonder what is the collective noun for Prime Ministers. To which Lord Stockton who was 91 instantly replied: a lack of principals.

I suppose Ed Miliband would have been no worse, on the whole, than Harold Wilson, but a long way below James Callaghan.

I met them all as well now I think of it except the Queen and Mr Callaghan, whom I often passed in the House. I heard him speak often, of course. All are dead now except H.M. Long may she reign over us.

Was Harold Macmillan being self-revealing when he made this joke? Yes, probably. I think the others were principled except Wilson and Callaghan whom Marcia Falkender brilliantly summed up as 'a bent copper'. Home was, Heath was, dreadful leader though he was, and Mrs. Thatcher was.

Harold Macmillan said his son Maurice, who was my first boss, didn't go to the top in politics 'because he isn't a s-t, like us'. Though Maurice reached the cabinet. Evelyn Waugh thought Macmillan committed the sin against the Holy Ghost by seeing the truth of Catholicism and not converting from worldly motives (i.e. wanting to be P.M.). Waugh was being malign of course. Someone tried to blame Macmillan for his daughter's having an abortion, but this is unfair too.

Mr. Heath liked me on sight when we had lunch and was very charming. I was 19 and realise now, though I didn't then, that I was rather pretty. Even at the time, though I was very innocent indeed, I wondered whether there was a hidden reason why he was so charming. How I wish I had made friends with Enoch Powell whom I also met - much more impressive, slightly mad, very intelligent indeed. However Heath was a good man, who cared about the country and about the poor. I have been told that he secretly paid up the private school bills of two boys whose father was killed in the war, leaving their mother grateful to but baffled by her mysterious benefactor.

Harold Wilson said when Mr Heath went home he had no-one to abuse but himself.  

Macmillan and Wilson were the cleverest, Home the nicest of the bunch and a wise as well as good man. 

Though they didn't talk of it, Macmillan, Home, Heath, Callaghan and Mrs. Thatcher were all very religious, unlike Churchill or Attlee. Whether Harold Wilson, who was raised a Nonconformist, believed in God I don't know.

I took a very precocious interest in politics which I swear goes back to the time when I was still going into my parents' bed in the mornings and I remember very much about Harold Wilson and Edward Heath even though I was fourteen when Wilson retired. 

I remember that Mr. Heath, though a disastrous Prime Minister, was a true leader who dominated his cabinet - he didn't have an internal opposition in his government unlike Mrs. Thatcher. He took the weekends off to go sailing and no-one objected nor speculated on why he wasn't married. I remember Harold Wilson smoked a pipe on TV (how times change) but always a cigar off air. He prided himself on his conservatism with a small c, his dislike of going abroad, his Nonconformist Northern liberalism. He claimed to prefer tinned salmon to salmon (a luxury item then), loved Gilbert and Sullivan and the paintings of Lowry who detested Wilson in return. Even aged five I could see Wilson had no principles, was a consummate trimmer.
Harold Wilson left little legacy except the baleful one of anti discrimination laws and the first law against what we now call 'hate speech'. The country sank under him.

Nevertheless, though I remember them I am a child not of Wilson and Heath nor of Mrs Thatcher but of the brief and un-memorable Callaghan era. This article from years ago in the Spectator explains what that means for me and my generation.

Callaghan before he became Prime Minister  seemed to me as a young but perceptive boy as much an unprincipled trimmer as Harold Wilson, but what St John Stevas called the grace of office made him a better Prime Minister than Wilson. Callaghan told someone that before making a decision he asked himself 
what Harold would have done and then did the opposite.
He said at a party conference in the early 1980s of Tony Blair: 
I don't know what that young man is but he isn't Labour.


  1. I recently watched a documentary on Heath on youtube (yes, I know, there must be other ways to pass the time) but it did strike me that at his 80th birthday party he was absolutely surrounded with well-wishers from all parties.

  2. As Macmillan said when asked what was the hardest thing he had to deal with: "Events, dear boy, events."

  3. So are you really a "political refugee" per se? I did not realize you have met many PMs. If you have spoken of this in older blog posts, just say so, I do not mean to make you repeat y'self. Curious if govt. is part of your background. And if "p.r." means something more acute than I thought.