Obituary: Lord Mayhew
Thursday 09 January 1997
Coming from a conventional background, he showed from the first a taste for the unconventional and he had the means to indulge it. But the word "indulge" is misleading. Throughout his life, his actions were governed by a strict code of morality, which meant that personal advantage took second place to what he saw, sometimes controversially, as the public interest. This put a brake on his success in worldly terms.
With his exceptional abilities, a less scrupulous man could have scaled the heights of public life. As it was, although he had a distinguished career which included a short spell as a minister in the Labour government under Harold Wilson, he was for the most part confined to the foothills until his elevation to the House of Lords in 1981.
This was at the instance of (Sir) David Steel, then leader of the Liberal Party, which Mayhew had crossed the floor to join in 1974, after more than 30 years on the Labour benches in the House of Commons. At first his success as a politician had seemed assured. He took his seat as part of the Labour landslide in 1945, when Clement Attlee and his team got to grips with the social revolution which brought in the Welfare State.
As a former President of the Oxford Union, who had been adopted as a parliamentary candidate just before the war (in which he had meanwhile been singled out for service in the Special Operations Executive), Mayhew got off to a good start as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Herbert Morrison, one of Attlee's leading colleagues. And within a year, he was in office himself, as Under-Secretary (meaning junior minister) at the Foreign Office. Here his new master was Ernest Bevin, whose worth Churchill had recognised across what for two less remarkable men might have been an impossibly wide social gulf, and who now won affection as well as fame as Foreign Secretary.
Even more than the rest of the Government, with its crowded schedule of domestic business, the Foreign Office was confronted also by the need to handle as successfully as possible Britain's declining role in the world and, in particular, to negotiate her withdrawal from parts of the old empire where her supremacy no longer made sense.
One of these, although strictly speaking never a part of the empire, was Palestine, with whose future both Bevin and Mayhew now became closely concerned. Bevin's attempt to navigate even-handedly between the claims of the immigrant Jews and those of the indigenous Palestinians, was shipwrecked by the opposition of the United States, under strong Zionist pressure.
Mayhew remembered vividly for the rest of his life the virtual ultimatum presented through him to the British government by the American Ambassador, Lew Douglas, for the immediate admission of 100,000 Jews into Palestine. In his autobiography, Time to Explain (1987), Mayhew recalls that when he objected that this would provoke a war, the Ambassador
then replied, deliberately, that the President [Truman] wished it to be known that if we could help him over this it would enable our friends in Washington to get our Marshall Aid appropriation through Congress. In other words, we must do as the Zionists wished - or starve. Bevin surrendered - he had to - but he was understandably bitter and angry.
During his time at the Foreign Office, Mayhew supervised the creation of an unobtrusive bureau to fight the ideological battles which were an important part of the Cold War which was now developing. Called the Information Research Department, its usefulness in the campaign against what Mayhew called "Communist imperialism" was called into question when it emerged that among its staff was a young diplomat with apparently excellent credentials named Guy Burgess. After catching him red-handed going through his desk, Mayhew sacked him; but it was only many years later that the scale of his treachery came finally to light.
Labour's spell of glory was short-lived and there followed a long period in opposition. At first, having lost his own seat in the election of 1950, Christopher Mayhew decided to give himself a break from politics. During a spell at the United Nations while he was still with the Foreign Office, he had sketched out an idea for a play and this he now submitted to the BBC for consideration in its new television service. The play had a Cold War theme and its central character was a Soviet delegate to the UN who was considering defection in search of the freedom he could not find at home.
The BBC liked it and Mayhew envisaged a future as a television playwright. Two things prevented this; first, worn out and disappointed, Ernie Bevin died and his constituency party invited Mayhew to replace him in the safe Labour seat of Woolwich East, which he was to represent for the next quarter of a century. And after the success of his television play he was offered a contract with the BBC, but in a field much closer to his own underlying interests, that of current affairs documentaries.
Mayhew recalled this part of his professional life with pleasure. It was a time of remarkable freedom in the BBC, where he worked closely with the redoubtable Grace Wyndham-Goldie throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. He was given a very free hand in the choice of subjects, but kept firmly in line as far as matters of presentation were concerned by Wyndham-Goldie, of whom he later recalled, "I think we both enjoyed it, though we were both difficult to work with, argumentative and demanding, sure that we knew best, determined to have our own way."
His position was in one way unique: as a Labour politician he had for the time being a virtual monopoly of current affairs coverage on the BBC. There was as yet no Panorama, no Newsnight, no commercial television - against whose introduction Mayhew campaigned vigorously but without success. But in 1964 politics reclaimed his full attention when Harold Wilson led the Labour Party back into office and appointed Mayhew as Navy Minister under Denis Healey as Minister of Defence. It was a disappointment to Mayhew, who had hoped to get back into foreign affairs as Deputy Foreign Minister. He always believed that Wilson kept him out of the Foreign Office because of his growing involvement with the cause of the Palestinians, one which was to become his chief preoccupation in the last stage of his life.
This of course was not yet; but his effective political career was behind him. After only two years he resigned as Navy Minister over the technical question of what to include in the defence cuts agreed by Wilson's government. Thereafter, until he went over to the Liberals in 1974, he pursued a number of interests inside and outside the House of Commons, notably mental health (he was for some years the President of Mind, the National Association for Mental Health), and with two or three other bold spirits confronted the vociferous Zionist lobby in Parliament.
His defection to the Liberals cost him his seat at Woolwich, and when he stood at Bath in October 1974 he was defeated. He now turned much of his energy and fighting spirit to the battle being fought with growing intensity between the supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians, which in the 1970s was the most emotive battleground in the media and at British universities, together with that of apartheid in South Africa, with which it was closely linked in the public mind.
With his experience at the Foreign Office and the United Nations, as well as in current affairs broadcasting, Mayhew was a central figure in the battle. One enterprising initiative of his was the establishment of the news magazine Middle East International, which he launched in 1970 and turned into one of the best-informed journals of current Middle East affairs, and of which he remained the President until his death.
Christopher Mayhew was someone who lifted the atmosphere of any room he entered, an optimist, whose sunny good-nature survived all the conflicts and uncertainties of a life shared between politics and the media. He wrote several books, mostly about politics and one about the politics of the Middle East, and all informed by the same combination of vigorous argument and unfailing good-humour. Perhaps the surest source of his love of life was a family life of undisturbed happiness, with his wife Cicely, whom he met when she was one of the very few women in the foreign service, and to whom he was married for nearly 50 years.
Christopher Paget Mayhew, politician, broadcaster and writer: born 12 June 1915; MP (Labour) for South Norfolk 1945-50, for Woolwich East (later Greenwich, Woolwich East) 1951-74; PPS to the Lord President of the Council 1945-46; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1946- 50; Minister of Defence (RN) 1964-66; MP (Liberal) Greenwich, Woolwich East 1974; created 1981 Baron Mayhew; married 1949 Cicely Ludlam (two sons, two daughters); died London 7 January 1997.
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