A martini or two could be just what this country needs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WITH the television series Annie's Bar, there have been many articles about the bars in the Palace of Westminster. Though these have been entertaining enough in their way, what politicians drink in them, and in other places too, strikes me as more interesting. Politicians and drink is a strangely neglected subject.

It is still not generally realised that the Labour governments of the 1960s were largely fuelled by alcohol, inasmuch as they were propelled by anything at all. The leading exception apart from Mr Tony Benn was Lord Callaghan. When he was Home Secretary, his idea of generous hospitality was a small glass of sherry. As Foreign Secretary in 1974-76 he renounced the stuff completely and said he felt much better as a result. At a party during a recent Labour conference I noticed a glass of brownish fluid in his hand. I asked what it was.

"That," said Jim (I quote from memory), "is whisky. My doctor advised me that an occasional glass wouldn't do any harm and, do you know, I feel much better as a result."

His colleagues were not so abstemious. The earlier Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart was, contrary to the ascetic front he presented to the world, a great devotee of gin-and-French. After the day's endeavours, he was often to be found in Annie's Bar somewhat the worse for wear. The Minister of Labour Ray Gunter was rarely to be seen without a glass in his hand, usually of whisky and ginger ale.

He was once being entertained to lunch by Donald McLachlan, the then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, in his club. McLachlan, a former Winchester schoolmaster, was very mean or had little idea of the drinking habits of politicians and journalists.

"I feel I ought to warn you now," he would say gloomily beforehand, "that there will be wine with luncheon."

Gunter was aware of McLachlan's proclivities and, as his host was disappearing to place the pre-lunch drinks order, shouted:

"Make them large ones."

This is reminiscent of an exchange I once had with Reginald Maudling in Annie's Bar.

"What kind of whisky do you like, Reggie?" I asked, more for the sake of something to say than because I was seriously interested in his reply, for in my experience malt whisky bores (of whom Sir Edward Heath is one) are the greatest of drink bores.

There was no risk of any such detailed response from Maudling. He replied succinctly:

"Large ones."

Nor was there any risk of his buying one in return. With Maudling you were safe from the perils of drink. He was notoriously reluctant to stand his round. It may be that this characteristic derived less from meanness than from the erroneous conviction, shared by many politicians, that journalists were people of unlimited means, putting everything on expenses.

His successor today is Mr Nicholas Budgen, who likes to talk and is always worth listening to but is not very agile with his wallet. I could mention others. I single out Mr Budgen because he will not mind. He certainly makes a joke of his parsimony.

Gunter, besides being a regular at Annie's, was also an habitue of the House of Lords staff bar. This provides hospitality to anyone who turns up. I call it the Adulterers' Bar, for it tends to be patronised by middle- aged couples looking sadly into each other's eyes. In reality, I suspect, it is the non-adulterers' bar, and that after they have stopped holding hands they go their separate ways, one to Hendon on the Northern Line, the other to Worcester Park or Epsom via Waterloo.

But most serious political drinking is done in clubs or restaurants rather than in the bars of Westminster. Anthony Crosland would have a dry martini before lunch, two if he felt like it, and then made a point of insisting on the carafe or house wine because "I leave the vintages to Roy", meaning Jenkins rather than Hattersley, both now virtually the only survivors of a more spacious age. Sometimes, however, Crosland would want retsina, which I did not like, because he was fond of Greece and could no longer go there on account of the colonels' regime. Afterwards he would have a glass of brandy with his coffee before returning to the department.

Richard Crossman had similar habits, though he would have skipped the brandy. He claimed never to suffer from hangovers because he had an artificial stomach. Lord Healey would not have skipped the brandy and would still have been capable of making a coherent and amusing speech in the House later on.

Mr Enoch Powell I entertained only once. His talk consisted largely of questions, which, as Dr Johnson observed, is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen. He had a glass of dry sherry first and then some wine but expressed surprise when I had a glass of brandy, asking:

"Tell me, do you find that helps you in your work?"

I replied that I jolly well did, and that if he faced the prospect of having George Wigg (then the Labour Spymaster-General) bearing down on him in the Members' Lobby with some fantasy about conspiracies, he would feel the need for some preliminary fortifying too. Mr Powell, like Lord Jenkins, has an intelligent interest in wine. Lord Jenkins is mocked because of it; whereas Mr Powell's reputation is one of unremitting asceticism.

No one ever thought this of George Brown. I once asked Harold Wilson after he had concluded his first spell as Prime Minister, in the early 1970s, whether he had found Brown's drinking embarrassing.

"You know," Wilson replied, taking a puff of his Havana and a sip of old pale brandy, "I feel sorry for George. He can't hold his drink. There's something wrong with his liver."

It was always difficult to know with Wilson whether he was being serious or not. On this occasion I thought he was, and really did believe that Brown suffered some malfunction of the organ in question. Accordingly I put it to Lord Rodgers, who had been Brown's junior minister at the Foreign Office.

He said that as far as he knew there was nothing the matter with Brown's liver except that he drank too much. Brown would buzz Rodgers at 10.30 in the morning and invite him to the Foreign Secretary's room for a glass of sherry and a tour d'horizon. Rodgers would reply that he did not want anything to drink at that hour but, to be companionable, would have a small one. Afterwards he would retire to complete his morning's work. When he revisited the Foreign Secretary shortly before one the sherry bottle would be empty. Thus did Brown lay the foundations for the day.

There is no one like that now. The change occurred in the 1980s. The departure of Lady Thatcher was accompanied by streams not of drink but of tears, though she always enjoyed a glass of whisky. The politicians of today are an abstemious lot. And are we any better governed as a result? I very much doubt it.

Comments