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Being fascinated by politics for a long time


The importance of meeting politicians personally
Anthony Howard Writer
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I did actually finally, put up by John Freeman who said, ‘Why don’t you ever go and see Rab Butler? You’d find it very entertaining'. So I did, when Rab was already, I think, Foreign Secretary, ask to see Rab, and we got on rather well. And of course, many years later, I wrote Rab’s official life at his request. But that just shows that, you know, you mustn’t be shy of asking and if you ask, quite often you’ll get an affirmative reply. I don’t think I had any difficulty with contacts in the Labour Party, because they knew about the New Statesman being a left-wing magazine. I got on pretty well with George Brown, who was the Deputy Leader, and of course, then, stood against Harold Wilson in 1963 for the leadership. So did Jim Callaghan. I saw quite a lot of them. But I also saw a lot of curious backbenchers in those days. I mean, very odd, some of them rather sinister figures like Tom Driberg, Ben Parkin. And there was never any difficulty, I think, in having access to the Labour Party.

And indeed, that went before, because... great proof to me then, when I was working for the Sunday Pictorial, when I was sort of on the staff of the Manchester Guardian at the same time, I was astonished in that I hadn’t been writing the column in the Sunday Pictorial for more than a week or two when the political editor of the group, Sydney Jacobson, said to me, ‘You know, Hugh Gaitskell said the other day [he was then leader of the Labour Party] that he’d very much like to see you. Why don’t you try and fix an appointment with him?’ And I went to see Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party, and we had a chat and he was helpful. And then he said, ‘Would you like to come and see me every Friday?’ Friday was the day I wrote the column and I came up to London. And I said, ‘Well, that's very kind'.  He said, ‘Well, no, I think I can fit you in. Why don’t we try and make a standing arrangement? You’ll be here at 2:30 on Fridays'... in his room in the House of Commons. And he’d see me every week!

Now obviously, I think he exaggerated the importance but he knew that the Sunday Pictorial had a circulation of five million in those days, I think. And for him, it was a way, I suppose, of talking to Labour voters. But it didn’t work out all that well, I have to say, because he was very, sort of, in some ways, pedagogic, Hugh. And I liked him but he was very, sort of, headmasterly. And I’d go in on a Friday afternoon, he’d say, ‘My dear boy, I told you last week what was going on. You then wrote the exact opposite. I mean, what is the point of my telling you things if you won’t pay attention?’ Obviously, I thought he was just giving me a sort of whole lot of propaganda, so I paid no attention to it, but we did have our little ups and downs. But he was very nice and I think I went on seeing him on a weekly basis until I went to America, in that year 1960.

So it’s true that politicians in those days and I think probably it still is true, they bothered a great deal about what the press was writing. And of course, in Hugh’s case, the Sunday Pictorial was a mass circulation paper and had to be kept on side and he thought that I was the channel and vessel with which he could do so. In that aspiration, I fear, he was frequently disappointed but there we are. And I suppose the same went for Labour MPs.

I was quite close to Wilson, in those days, in the days he was leader of the opposition. And I became very critical of Wilson but one thing you can’t take away from Harold Wilson is that between February 1963 and October 1964, when he won the election and became Prime Minister, no one has ever been a better or more effective leader of the opposition than he was. He was brilliant. Absolutely superb. Never put a foot wrong. Ah! Never put a foot wrong... he did put one foot wrong and I was there at the time. He was addressing a meeting in the 1964 election campaign. The meeting was in the dockyard, then town of Chatham. And Wilson, who was usually much [unclear] than that, made the mistake of saying, from the platform, and he said, ‘Why do I emphasise the importance of the Royal Navy?’ And a voice shouted from the back: ‘Because you’re in Chatham, you bloody fool!’ And I’ve never seen Wilson collapsed, because there was nothing do about that. It shows the peril of asking rhetorical questions. But basically, it was an absolute triumph that he had no support from Transport House. Absolutely hopeless, in those days, the headquarters of the Labour Party. Dreadful man, Sir Len Williams, went on to be governor of some… I think governor of Madagascar or somewhere like that. No, I can’t remember but anyway, absolutely useless general secretary of the party. Not much better national agent.

And so he and one other, Marcia Williams, his faithful private secretary, really had to do everything themselves. And the way they organised, that it was… you know, they had to… they did the whole, kind of, itineraries and the times of meetings and all the rest of it. That 1964 election campaign was incredible, that there they were, these two individuals matched against the cohorts of the Conservative Central Office, and, true, Labour only won by, I think, five seats, but it was a great triumph and up to that moment, Wilson looked like a wonderworker. And my view is he went on doing quite well, with a very, very tiny House of Commons majority because he lost a by-election early on, and so the majority went down to three from five, because Patrick Gordon Walker lost the by-election in East London there, and so he… But he did pretty well, until the election of 1966, on March 31st, when after that everything went wrong. Started with Seamen's strike, and he’d got paranoia about, you know, Communists on the NUS executive committee, and went around making dark hints about this, that and the other.  And then the Sterling got into terrible trouble, and the whole thing fell apart.

His great moment of triumph was, on March 31st, 1966, when he converted what had been this majority of three in the House of Commons to a majority of 97, which in those days, was considered a very hefty in parliamentary majority. But that was the highpoint, and it was downhill all the way thereafter.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Manchester Guardian, Sunday Pictorial, Transport House, Seamen’s strike, Labour Party, Conservative Party, John Horace Freeman, Richard Austen Butler, George Alfred Brown, Leonard James Callaghan, Thomas Edward Neil Driberg, Benjamin Theaker Parkin, Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell, Sydney Jacobson, James Harold Wilson, Arthur Leonard Williams, Marcia Matilda Falkender, Marcia Williams, Patrick Chrestien Gordon Walker

Duration: 6 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 24 November 2009