Run for the hills, it's the whisky police!

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The Independent Online

Mr Charles Kennedy has given his colleagues a promise to "improve his lifestyle". On television he amplified this, explaining that he did not intend to relinquish social drinking but, rather, to go on long walks, to "take to the hills", as he put it. Can you imagine any of Mr Kennedy's predecessors - say, David Lloyd George, H H Asquith or W E Gladstone - either being asked to make, or, more unlikely still, going on to make such a promise?

Mr Charles Kennedy has given his colleagues a promise to "improve his lifestyle". On television he amplified this, explaining that he did not intend to relinquish social drinking but, rather, to go on long walks, to "take to the hills", as he put it. Can you imagine any of Mr Kennedy's predecessors - say, David Lloyd George, H H Asquith or W E Gladstone - either being asked to make, or, more unlikely still, going on to make such a promise?

With Gladstone, there would have been no need. A person of maniacal energy, he worked off the surplus by chopping down trees, scouring London in search of fallen women and chewing his food an inordinate number of times. He was not, however, averse to wine. He once rebuked the young Bertrand Russell for giving him what he admitted was "very good port" in a claret glass. The main difference between Gladstone's day and what came later was that respectable folk did not drink before meals, though some of them made up for it afterwards.

Lloyd George did not have what we should call a healthy lifestyle. He played the occasional round of golf, then the modish political recreation. He preferred Brighton or the South of France to North Wales, where, he said, it rained too much. But he was not interested in drink, though it is recorded he liked Irish whiskey rather than the Scotch variety. He did not care much for wine but was fond of song, rendering Welsh hymns round the piano at No 10 on a Sunday evening. He was even fonder of women, no one in skirts being safe from his attentions.

Asquith shared the same proclivities. The difference was that, while Lloyd George was a notable seducer of married women, Asquith attacked young ladies instead. One of them complained to her mother about his unwelcome approaches. The reply was that it was a great honour to be molested by the Prime Minister, and she would simply have to put up with it. Unlike Lloyd George, Asquith was a great drinker - a habit which, for their own purposes, the Lloyd George faction did not allow us to forget, whether after Asquith's deposition in 1916 or on subsequent occasions. George Robey celebrated his predilection in a music-hall song:

"Mr Asquith says in a manner sweet and calm:

Another little drink won't do us any harm."

Winston Churchill referred to it in a letter to his wife of 22 April 1911:

"On Thursday night the PM was vy bad: & I squirmed with embarrassment. He could hardly speak: & many people noticed his condition. He continues most friendly & benevolent, & entrusts me with everything after dinner. Up till that time he is at his best - but thereafter! It is an awful pity & only the persistent freemasonry of the House of Commons prevents a scandal."

Churchill shared Asquith's liking for brandy but was never incapable in the House or, for that matter, on other public occasions. He must have had a remarkable head for the stuff. He did not drink much red wine but was fond of Pol Roger champagne and hock, a more fashionable drink then than it is today, after the market has been spoiled by Blue Nun Liebfraumilch. But his staple diet was whisky-and-soda. Anthony Eden records that shortly before his resignation in 1955 he was shaving at 9.30 in the morning with a glass of whisky to hand. He was 80.

Some time before this, Reginald Maudling, then a young man at the Conservative Research Department, was sent down to Chartwell, Churchill's country residence in Kent, with a bundle of papers for him to look at. Churchill was surrounded by sycophants. He inspected the papers cursorily and said:

"Ah Maudling, thank you. I believe I left a glass of whisky-and-soda in the library. Would you be so kind as to fetch it for me?"

Maudling did as he was asked but could find no glass. He consulted the butler, who replied:

"Why, bless you, sir, Mr Churchill didn't mean he'd left a glass anywhere. What he meant was that he wanted a whisky-and-soda but saw no reason to offer one to the other gentlemen."

This was Maudling's own account. He was a substantial whisky consumer too. His excessive consumption of it, together with wine and brandy, contributed to his death at the early age of 61. Unlike most Tories, he rarely if ever bought a drink in return, no doubt holding, as Labour members do, that all journalists are persons with unlimited wealth at their disposal. I once asked him what kind of whisky he preferred.

"Large ones," he replied.

Douglas Hurd wrote that champagne and not whisky was the proper political drink. He may have wished it to be so. It brings about good humour and can be followed or preceded by other wines; whereas whisky notoriously causes bad temper (the doctors are unable to explain why) and cannot safely be mixed with wine. However, champagne-drinking became common only in the 1980s: the Westminster tipples were brandy or whisky in the Smoking Room and, of course, beer in the numerous bars.

Stanley Baldwin did his best to make whisky respectable. During the Abdication crisis, he poured out a glass for Edward VIII with the words: "Say when, sir." This was considered to be lacking in proper deference. The King explained in a chilly manner that (no doubt influenced by the ghastly Mrs Simpson) he never touched spirits before seven.

Enoch Powell had the reputation of being an ascetic but enjoyed a glass of dry sherry before lunch and was prepared to share a bottle of wine with the meal, though I found I had to drink most of it. Afterwards he declined a glass of brandy. When I had ordered one for myself, he inspected the glass curiously and said:

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

Recent prime ministers have varied in their habits. Mr Tony Blair likes liquid that comes out of a mug. Harold Wilson liked large slugs of brandy, which may or may not have contributed to a decline that was evident before his resignation in 1976. His Cabinet of 1966-70 was probably the most alcoholic of modern times, with George Brown and, more surprisingly, Michael Stewart well to the fore. James Callaghan was, however, a virtual teetotaller.

Few modern politicians have had any serious interest in wine. Roy Jenkins perhaps came nearest. He liked not only claret but red burgundy. However, he freely admitted to going for quantity rather than quality. We were once having lunch and noticed, halfway through the main course, that our bottle was finished. Jenkins suggested that we could together make our fortunes if we arranged to import good wine in litre bottles rather than those of 70 or 75cl. Now there is an idea for Mr Kennedy to take up. Cheers!

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