When I was about 16, my father said to me "What do you want to be"? "I don't know," I said. "Well, you'd better go in the army", he said. I told my housemaster of this decision; he nodded and said, "There are only three careers in which a really stupid boy can make good; the Army, farming and stockbroking." I have never been a stockbroker. In any event, the Second World War made the Army inevitable.
Two issues stand out in my mind about the latter half of the war. Both have been important in my political life. Living so closely with one's tank crew and sleeping underneath the tank with them, I got to understand the sufferings and the privations which those guardsmen had undergone in the pre-war years. Through no fault of their own, most of them had been unemployed and had suffered real hardship. Those of you, who, like me, remember the Jarrow marches, will have some idea of what they went through. My brother officers would agree with me that you could not have got a finer or better lot than they were. They deserved something better in the aftermath of war. We wanted to make sure that those dreadful circumstances did not recur.
In Ted Heath's government in the Seventies, many of his cabinet, as well as he himself, were of that generation. When unemployment started to rise dramatically, we decided to react. There was a policy U-turn and much criticism. I have no doubt that, just as the Germans thought inflation was the greatest evil, we thought unemployment was worse. We remembered the Thirties. In retrospect, we were wrong, because the Welfare State had mitigated the material privations of those days. I do not think our motive was ignoble.
Secondly, nobody who saw the devastation in Germany in 1945 can ever forget it. In Cologne, for example, there were only seven undamaged houses; there were the horrors of Hamburg; and, perhaps even more powerfully, the plight of displaced persons, with nowhere to go and no food, helpless and hopeless amid the shambles of war. We felt that this catastrophe, this misery, this destruction should never be allowed to happen again.
The war over, and there did not seem to be much point in staying in the army, so I applied to resign my commission in order to take my seat in the House of Lords.
In 1964, I was unemployed. True, I was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, but that was hardly a full-time job. I was walking down the corridor a little time after the election when a senior peer, well known in the City, approached me confidentially and said, "Would you like to be vice-chairman of the ANZ Bank?" "But I don't know anything about banking," I said. "You'll soon pick it up," he said, reassuringly.
I don't know that I did, but of one thing I am sure: it is a very good thing for politicians to have some idea of what goes on in the real world. There are too many professional politicians who have never done anything else, from political assistants to political advisors to Members of Parliament to ministers. A broader experience is a much better passport to being a good politician.
How does the balance sheet look? How in the post-war world have my generation done? Rather like the curate's egg, good in parts. We have not had a third world war, and have been much more realistic than our pre-war predecessors. But all is not quiet, as we have recently been reminded.
Yes, in domestic affairs, we have largely eliminated the destitution of the 1930s, but there is still much to do. Those of us who are farming are not too optimistic. As for the House of Lords, it is a mess. Jonathan Swift summed it up in 1711: "Reflect on things past as wars, negotiations, factions and the like. We enter so little into those interests that we wonder how men could possibly be so busy and concerned for things so transitory. Look on the present, we find the same humour, yet wonder not at all."
In other words, don't fuss.Reuse content