LATE one evening in July 1983, West End theatre-goers leaving a performance of that relentlessly cheerful musical Mr Cinders were greeted by a strange sight. One of their number, an immaculately dressed, overweight MP, was performing a soft-shoe shuffle for the benefit of Julia Somerville and the other members of a television news team. 'Even when the darkest clouds are in the sky / You mustn't cry and you mustn't sigh . . .' he crooned.
The singing toff was that professional Yorkshireman Roy Hattersley, so cruelly lampooned by Spitting Image as a blustering, blubbery, pompous, humourless creature, given to mouthing platitudes about his roots and This Great Movement Of Ours while stuffing himself with the good things in life.
This week Hattersley, until 18 months ago deputy leader of the Labour Party, announced that he was retiring from politics at the next election to concentrate on his burgeoning career as a columnist, light essayist and author. You might be forgiven for thinking he had done so years ago.
After all, Hattersley is always popping up on television chat shows, and has found time to write two blockbusting family sagas, The Maker's Mark and In That Quiet Earth. They deal, respectively, with his father's and mother's families. He has also written middle- market best-sellers such as A Yorkshire Boyhood and Goodbye To Yorkshire.
Some might have expected Hattersley to have left politics for show business 11 years ago, shortly after performing that soft-shoe shuffle. For he was responding with determined cheerfulness to the most devastating news of his political career. He had, Somerville told him, effectively been defeated for the Labour leadership, as a result of machinations by a group of trade union barons who controlled the block vote of the Transport and General Workers' Union. This was the point at which Hattersley realised he would never lead the party he loved. He would never be Prime Minister. He was about to be shoved aside by Neil Kinnock, a younger man, whose posturing Bevanite backbench past was anathema to the former Cabinet minister.
At that moment Hattersley must surely have wondered whether he had done the right thing when he decided not to join his fellow Gaitskellites and former friends Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, in the breakaway Social Democratic Party formed two years earlier. If so, he kept quiet about his doubts. He would soldier on, singing as he went.
This was typical. As the darkest clouds had gathered over the Labour Party in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Hattersley - 'the acceptable face of opportunism' according to Owen - remained doggedly loyal to the party that had spawned him. He was vitriolic about those of broadly similar persuasion to his own who had chosen to split the party.
'I had been a personal friend of Hattersley for years and we shared similar political positions,' recalls one former Labour activist who was among the 100 founder-members of the SDP. 'Yet it was Kinnock who approached me some time after my defection and said that I was a bloody fool and would regret my decision. He wanted me - and the rest of us - back. In contrast, Hattersley insulted me to my face and behind my back, and systematically wrecked our friendship.'
To understand why Roy Sydney George Hattersley clung to Labour when his natural allies were jumping ship, it is necessary to look beyond his public persona. He was born into the ranks of the respectable, working-class Labour aristocracy in that monument to municipal socialism, Sheffield. His mother, Enid, was a formidable personality in the city Labour Party, who rose to be Lord Mayor in 1981/82. She made sure that he joined the Labour League of Youth the moment he became eligible. His father was a Labour-voting local government officer and a former Roman Catholic priest who left the Church to marry Enid.
The family was earnest, aspirant, public-service orientated and provincial in the most admirable sense. His parents scraped and saved and were able to buy a modest semi when he was five. After attending Wisewood Primary School, he went on to the prestigious Sheffield City Grammar, where he learnt to play tennis and cricket and generally to better himself.
He read economics at Hull University and becoming chairman of the National Association of Labour Student Organisations. He seems to have thrown his weight around, earning the enmity of the librarian Philip Larkin. In letters to Kingsley Amis and others 25 years later Larkin was still referring to Hattersley as 'a great menacing slob'.
After graduating, Hattersley moved back to Sheffield and married Molly, then a teacher who became a headmistress and educational policy-maker. They have no children. He was for eight years a health service executive, joining his mother on the city council as the youngest member (aged 25). He still records in Who's Who his chairmanship of the public works committee.
'It all came so naturally to him. I suppose you can say he was a member of the old right-wing Labour aristocracy,' says a friend. 'But remember that a sense of noblesse oblige is central to the aristocratic tradition.'
The truth is that Hattersley has no difficulty reconciling his comfortable lifestyle with an earnest espousal of egalitarian socialism. He moved to London when he entered Parliament in 1964, at the general election that brought Wilson to power. Almost at once he bought a house in Gayfere Street, Westminster, one of the most fashionable places within the division- bell area. He joined the Reform club, developed a taste for fine clarets, frequented grand restaurants and bought rather loud shirts from smart establishments in Jermyn Street.
Politically, he was a moderniser who gained rapid promotion. As an employment minister under Barbara Castle, he worked on In Place of Strife, Wilson's doomed union reform package, and was a strong advocate of wage and price controls. Nevertheless he warned Wilson privately that he was in danger of splitting the party if he pressed the unions too hard.
But it was in opposition in the early Seventies that Hattersley earned the contemptuous nicknames 'Rattersley' and 'The Nearly Man'. His pro-European friends Jenkins and Owen resigned as ministers over Labour's growing hostility to the Common Market in 1972. Hattersley nearly followed, but not quite. In their view, he ratted. He wrote a cheeky letter to Wilson warning him of the danger of splitting the party. But instead of joining the rebels he accepted promotion.
When Wilson unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in 1976, it seemed natural that Hattersley would back Jenkins or Tony Crosland, his close friend and mentor, for the leadership. But he was told by Callaghan that neither of the two rightwingers could hold the party together. Moreover, Callaghan added, they were both going to lose. And those who wanted preferment under a Callaghan administration would have to vote for him (Callaghan).
Hattersley telephoned his friend Crosland to explain his predicament. He pledged eternal loyalty - and then broke the news that he would be supporting Callaghan. He offered to explain why. Crosland, unsurprisingly, told him to 'fuck off'. When Callaghan won, he rewarded Hattersley with his first Cabinet post, as Secretary for Prices and Consumer Protection.
By now Hattersley was isolated from the right as well as the left within the party. So when the Callaghan government collapsed and Labour prepared to tear itself apart in the early Eighties, Hattersley devoted himself increasingly to well-paid light journalism, at which he excels. Urbane pieces filled the columns of Punch, the Listener, the Observer and the Guardian. And although the butt of snide comments in the gossip columns, he loved to play the man-about-town attending launches and first nights.
Perhaps as a result, he was without a natural constituency in the Commons. That he was subsequently able to run for the Labour leadership in 1983 with the blessing of what remained of the right was an indication of how depleted were the 'moderate' ranks after the establishment of the SDP.
In the end Hattersley became deputy to Kinnock on the 'dream ticket'. From 1983-92 Hattersley was loyal and hard-working during Labour's long march back to sense. He did much to encourage his young leader's gradual conversion to union reform and support for the EC - and to nuclear weaponry. But he was getting bored, and in 1988 he signed a pounds 150,000 contract for an autobiography and two novels. This was a disturbingly serious undertaking by the deputy leader and signalled that Hattersley was uncertain about the future.
Increasingly it was Hattersley rather than Kinnock who harked back to the past, romanticising the old Labour Movement, and denouncing any talk of electoral reform, or a working relationship with the Liberal Democrats, as akin to treason. He started using the word 'socialism', which had largely vanished from Kinnock's vocabulary.
Hattersley was visibly ill at ease during that triumphalist rally - ironically held in Sheffield - shortly before the end of the 1992 election campaign. He did not like the strobe lights, the glitzy style and Kinnock's air-punching, pop- star entrance. But Hattersley contributed to the triumphalistic tone of the evening. He genuinely believed Labour would win because it deserved to win. It was 1945 all over again. For him it was decency, civic virtue and old-fashioned values that had triumphed.
'We have won,' Hattersley told the audience, 'because we have caught the spirit of the time . . . it is the election for which I have waited since I joined the Labour Party in this city on my 16th birthday. It is the election in which principle and power came together.'
It wasn't, and Hattersley felt the shock of defeat even more keenly than Kinnock. He simply could not see what more could be done to make his Labour Party electable without destroying its very soul. And that is why the last of the old Labour aristocrats is abandoning politics for a career in writing.
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