Days of Scarborough sun and Jamaican cigars

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS through the mists of the party conference rather than in Downing Street or the House that I remember Harold Wilson most vividly. Of the conference towns, it is Scarborough which stands out and, indeed, symbolises the stages of Wilson's career. It was at Scarborough in 1960 that Hugh Gaitskell lost to the left after his "Fight and fight again" speech. Wilson was against provoking a conflict. In fact - though this is now either forgotten or denied - he fought the 1964 election on a policy of jettisoning what he termed the so-called independent so-called British so-called deterrent. Nineteen-sixty-three saw the high tide of Wilsonism, with his speech on science and socialism. In 1967 the puzzled delegates heard that devaluation was both impossible and immoral. Shortly afterwards it duly happened.

It was at the 1960 conference that I first met him, standing outside the entrance to the Royal, the headquarters hotel owned by the family of Charles Laughton. The bottom of his tie was tucked into the top of his trousers, as it always was in those days. He could not have been friendlier to a journalist of 27 who had just asked him about a complicated modification to an already complicated defence policy which was being touted for consideration by the national executive committee.

"Don't tell me we've got to go and ask Tom Driberg," he said, referring to the churchwarden and promiscuous homosexual who was a representative of the left on the executive. "Or Alice Bacon," he added to preserve party balance, for she was an equally stalwart standard-bearer for the right.

After he became leader in 1963, his helpfulness increased. On Friday afternoons a procession of us engaged in the Sunday trade - James Margach of the Sunday Times, Anthony Shrimsley of the Sunday Mirror, Ian Waller of the Sunday Telegraph and myself of the Sunday Express - would attend the Leader of the Opposition's room in the Commons.

There was one notable absentee: Nora Beloff of the Observer. They never got on. Indeed, in the late 1960s Wilson tried unsuccessfully to have her removed from her post. He alleged that she was actively conspiring with younger Labour MPs to have him removed from his post.

Wilson was invariably interested in what I had written that morning for the coming Sunday's "Crossbencher" column. On one occasion he expressed dissatisfaction, implying it was dull stuff.

"I've got a better idea for you," he said, as if he were my then editor, John Junor, or even Lord Beaverbrook himself. "Why is Rab still on the Isle of Mull?"

RA Butler was then the minister responsible for winding up the Central African Federation. Duncan Sandys was Commonwealth and Colonial Secretary. Butler had a house on Mull. He was said to be marooned there by stormy weather. This official explanation I reproduced.

"Not at all," Wilson said. "My boatman in the Scillies would be able to get him to the mainland in half an hour. Rab is sulking because Sandys is trying to shove his oar in."

I duly wrote something along these lines which turned out to be more or less correct.

After 1964 we met less often, though he invited my wife and me to the most famous of the No 10 parties. He also invited me occasionally on my own. We met in the Cabinet room and sat at the Cabinet table. This was not affectation. He liked to work there at the table.

"Have a cigar," he said. "They're Jamaican. I always believe in supporting the Commonwealth."

After some chat, he pointed to what looked like an intercom telephone device across the table in front of him.

"When I press one of those switches," he said, "things begin to happen."

I had a vision of George Wigg, his troublesome security adviser, appearing through the floor like an old-fashioned cinema organist, but judged it more polite to adopt a suitably awed expression.

I was one of the few who were not wholly surprised by his 1976 resignation. This was because I knew that, if he had won the 1970 election, as he expected to do, he would have retired after two years. I wrote this in the New Statesman of 21 August 1970. His preoccupation was always to beat HH Asquith's pre-Thatcher record of seven years, seven months' continuous service. It may still be, however, that he foresaw premature senility coming to him, as it had to his mother.

We met for the last time in the early 1980s. I had written a column where I had said, in passing, that it was an article of popular belief that all retired Labour ministers were persons of unimaginable wealth. Wilson wrote me a letter which was not so much angry as pained. He was then living in a mansion flat near Westminster Cathedral. He was not, he explained in some detail over several pages, rich at all: quite the reverse. I replied that I had never said he was but was merely commenting on a common assumption. However, I was sorry if I had upset him and suggested lunch. He accepted with pleasure.

When I arrived at the Garrick Club he was standing at the bar, drinking whisky. I formed the impression that it was not his first glass.

"They look after you very well at this place," he said.

After we had talked of this and that, he went on:

"May I ask you a personal question?"

"By all means. Fire away."

"What I want to know is: how do you write your articles?"

I explained that I wrote with a fountain pen in ink on lined foolscap paper, A4 I thought it was called.

"That's very interesting," he said. "It's exactly the way I used to write my own speeches. You've got to do these things yourself."

"Yes, indeed."

"It's no use relying on other people," he added, to leave no misunderstanding about the point.

We went down to lunch. After ten minutes or so he asked:

"How do you write your articles?"

I judged it better not to say that I had just told him and instead went through the pen-and-A4 routine once again. He seemed satisfied. He said that he had always liked my work and professed even greater admiration, if that were possible, for the writings of Peter Jenkins, then of the Guardian, later of the Independent. It was he, so he claimed, who had first advised Jenkins to model himself on the United States columnists Walter Lippmann and James Reston.

"Tell me," Wilson asked, "how do you write your articles?"

I told him. Not long afterwards I revisited the Royal Hotel, Scarborough, for a Social Democrat conference. It was smaller and more down-at-heel than I remembered from 25 years before. The diminution in size was a familiar trick of memory. It might indeed have become shabbier. But then, had it ever been so exciting and so elegant an establishment as I remembered? I still wonder about that.