Alan Watkins: Mrs T did not have the first idea about Sir Ian

The political year should not pass without a proper tribute to Lord Gilmour, one of the most trenchant Tory critics of Thatcherism
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This year, I am going to break with tradition and to refrain from writing my predictions for the year 2008 in a pastiche of the almanac makers from the time of Queen Anne. Quite early on, I realised I could not hope to compete with what turned out to be reality.

So, shortly after Mr Rupert Murdoch arrived on these shores (which he was to leave afterwards), one of my fellow almanac writers predicted: "Murdoch buys The Times." This, of course, was precisely what happened. It brought about no great surprise at the time, and today it is accepted as part of the natural order of things.

Instead, this week, I propose to write about Ian Gilmour, who died on 21 September at the age of 82. He was an important part of my life, but his death was announced at the end of a week, the space was mortgaged to another subject and I have been unable to pay proper tribute to him until now.

We were always friends, even good friends, though never close friends. We first met in 1962, when he was the successful Conservative candidate at a by-election in Norfolk Central, and I was the representative of the Sunday Express. He had bought The Spectator in 1954, had edited it for five years and remained its proprietor during his early years in the House.

Journalistically, it was a scintillating production, both liberal and libertarian a very different weekly from what it had been before Gilmour's acquisition and what it has become at various periods since. Gilmour's paper, later edited by Brian Inglis, anticipated the changes brought in by his friend Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary in the 1960s.

There were only three Conservative members who consistently voted for the "Home Office" reforms of the Jenkins era: Gilmour, Ronald Bell and Enoch Powell. The last two might have seemed surprising to some. But so it was.

Following him around the villages of central Norfolk, and having the occasional conversation with him, I was struck by the difference between his fluency as a journalist and his lack of ease as a politician. As a journalist and, later, as the author of some outstanding books he was polished and assured, while as a speaker he could be hesitant and personally rather shy. He became more confident as his political life went on. Perhaps his best period was from 1982 to 1992 when he had returned to the back benches and went in for a gentle irony not always appreciated by the more obtuse members of the House.

Outside the House, but still proprietor of The Spectator, he would have to fortify himself with several glasses of whisky before he could face the staff Christmas party. Afterwards he would supervise a game called Are You There, Moriarty? which involved the members of the staff in lying blindfold on the floor and trying to hit one another with rolled-up newspapers. He told me that this derived from his period of service with the Grenadier Guards, though I am sure I have heard of it separately.

The other game he organised was what he called "housey-housey" and the papers of the day called bingo, then a feature of our national life in those more innocent times. Denunciations of the "bingo society" were then commonplace in Labour circles.

At around this period, an ageing member of the staff, on the accounting or managerial side, was detected in embezzlement. He was elderly and had presumably been up to it for many years. Gilmour stopped any prosecution and the old fraud was honourably retired, maybe (though I cannot be sure about this) on a pension.

The other party, the summer one for contributors, was different, though it used to be an altogether more modest affair than the overcrowded social occasion which it has since become. Gilmour once spotted a caterer pouring a guest's drink using a pub measure. He intervened, saying that he would not employ such a measure in his own family house and that The Spectator party should be no different in this respect. Instead the party was transferred to the Ferry House, Old Isleworth, in Middlesex. The weather was usually fine; the lawns sloped gently down to the Thames; no glass remained unfilled. The hostess was his wife, Caroline. One of those attending this splendid event commented that it was the last fling of Whig England.

Gilmour had left Margaret Thatcher's cabinet in 1981 as Lord Privy Seal with the first tranche of dissidents. The others were picked off later, in ones and twos, as the decade progressed. Gilmour refused to make any accommodation with Mrs Thatcher but he was always clear in his own mind that he was a Tory, not a Whig.

Still less was he a social democrat. There were a few Tory converts in the spasm that brought about the formation of the SDP in 1981. But this was a split in the Labour Party which, arguably, caused the Conservative victories of 1983, 1987 and 1992 or, at any rate, which partly accounted for them.

Gilmour remained constant to social liberalism, Keynesian economics and the cause of Palestine. But how did he come to be mixed up with Mrs Thatcher in the first place? He had served under Edward Heath throughout his government, ending up in the Cabinet as minister of defence. He had already switched seats to Chesham and Amersham in 1970 owing to redistribution. He carried on in Heath's shadow cabinet after 1974, though with no great enthusiasm on his part.

He told me he hoped Heath would not stand for the leadership in 1975 because "after all, he might win". His preferred candidate was William Whitelaw, the favourite of most of the shadow cabinet and, at the time, of the right-thinking members of political society generally. Alas! Whitelaw refrained from standing until the second ballot, by which time Mrs Thatcher had established a convincing and deserved lead.

It is often forgotten that Gilmour served Mrs Thatcher as her shadow home secretary. Until publication of his memoirs (which he was working on at the time of his death), the episode remains mysterious. My own theory is that Mrs Thatcher did not have the first idea of what Gilmour was about and Gilmour did not see any necessity to enlighten her.

The other limb of my theory is that Mrs Thatcher had a weakness for tall, slim, handsome men of aristocratic demeanour, along the lines of: "Nurse Thatcher, Dr Gilmour is ready to see you now." Unhappily it lasted only a short time.

My own debt to Gilmour is great. In 1964, the then political columnist of The Spectator told me that he would shortly be changing his job. I wrote to Gilmour (whom, as I have already explained, I knew slightly). He replied encouragingly, saying he would be glad to have me on board, but he advised me to write direct to the editor, Iain Macleod. This I did; we agreed terms and I have been doing much the same kind of work ever since.

He invariably wrote a "thank you" letter after lunch, which most politicians neglect to do.