Marcia's battle for official respect
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Monday 01 January 1996
The release of the 1965 papers sheds new light on Harold Wilson's unconventional political relationship with Marcia Williams, his personal political secretary, and her bitter battle with Downing Street officials, who resented her influence.
Wilson caused a classic civil servants' flurry in June when he scribbled "I should like Marcia to see all these in future" on the cover of a folder of confidential Cabinet papers. Derek Mitchell, Wilson's principal private secretary, wrote a minute on 28 June pointing out that the particular folder included two intelligence reports, "one Secret and one Top Secret".
Having consulted Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, and George Wigg, a minister who advised Wilson on security, he suggested: "Marcia should see Secret and Confidential papers dealing with domestic subjects." But he noted in brackets: "Sir Burke Trend is slightly uneasy as regards Cabinet Conclusions [minutes of Cabinet decisions] on the ground that these are not available to quite a number of ministers, but he would not press the point."
Mitchell went on: "There is then the problem of physical security, arising from the fact that Marcia works in a room which is often left unattended and where she often receives visitors." He suggested "an in-tray in the strongroom near the duty clerk", adding condescendingly: "She will of course appreciate that these classified papers should not be left lying about when she is not in the room; nor of course should she make copies of them, take extracts from them, or refer to them in correspondence."
Mitchell added a handwritten postscript: "Marcia is content, so off we go."
The issue returned to haunt Wilson and Marcia, by then Lady Falkender, in 1977, in the recriminations which followed Wilson's resignation and the "Lavender List" of resignation honours submitted on her writing paper. Defending herself from charges of overweening influence, Lady Falkender wrote in the Observer: "I was not concerned with government policy, but with relations with the party . . . I did not see any classified or secret documents."
She was backed by Wilson himself in a television interview: "She did not see any secret documents, or other classified documents." The documents released today show this to be untrue.
They also tell the quaintly ridiculous story of Lady Falkender's attempts to soundproof the partition between her office and Wilson's in the Commons. This involved the Security Service in a review of the arrangements for keeping the Prime Minister's suite of rooms locked at all times. Lady Falkender was patronised again, this time by Peter Le Cheminant, the Serjeant at Arms, who asked her to "remind your girls" of the need for security. "We mustn't risk a Russian microphone!"
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