Letter from Parris
I have a younger brother called Septimus to whom I am devoted, my Pride and my Hope. About ten years ago he was staying with us in France and on the point of leaving when he confided an anxiety that he would be unable to communicate with the natives. He asked my wife (who is good at such things) to draw up a list of useful phrases for the journey. When asked what, in particular, he would like to say, he pondered before replying: 'Only the most obvious and necessary questions: Who am I? Where am I going?'
These questions were particularly well chosen, it seemed to me, in light of the fact that he would not be able to understand the answers. Nobody really wishes to be told who he is or where he is going, but they are questions we should often ask. Two events occurred last week which gave the Conservative Party rather different answers: the first was the murder of Airey Neave in New Palace Yard; the second was the publication of the Parris letter, apparently from Mrs Thatcher's office to a council tenant in Kent — something which will end up in a museum of historic political documents, I hope, when the Daily Mirror has finished with it.
No doubt we would have found something nice to say about Eldon Griffiths or even John Cordle if either had been blown up in this cruel and beastly way, but Airey Neave (whom I know only slightly) always struck me as a good egg. He was one of the 50-odd Conservative MPs who voted against Labour's policy of supplying arms in the Nigerian civil war, and one of the few who listened sympathetically to my suggestion that there should be some recognition of P.G. Wodehouse's 90th birthday which fell during theConservative Party Conference of 1971. A member of the shrinking band of MPs who fought with distinction in the last war, he was also one of the few surviving specimens — always rare in this century, now almost non-existent — of the Gentleman MP.
The strange name 'Airey', he once told me, derived from his maternal grandmother, an Airey of Frognal Hall, Hampstead, niece of the General Lord Airey (1803 — 1876) who was quartermaster-general at Balaclava (perhaps he invented the helmet) and later Governor of Gibraltar. He himself was in remainder to the baronetcy Neave (once of Dagenham Park, Essex) created in 1795.
When he was murdered on Friday, there was an understandable tendency among Conservatives to point to his heroism and magnanimity, saying — 'Oh dear, look what they are doing to us' — the weight of the observation being on its last words, as if Neave were somehow representative of the Conservative Party as it is today.
In case anybody might have been taken in, the same day marked the publication of the Parris letter. This, written from Mrs Thatcher's office in the House of Commons, apparently dictated by Matthew Parris and signed by Helen Senior, is addressed to Mrs Evelyn Collingwood, a council tenant who claims she had written a chatty note `to let Mrs Thatcher know what ordinary people are thinking.' The letter was reproduced by the Daily Mirror in full — I do not know who owns the copyright, and no doubt Chancery barristers could argue for six months apportioning it between the lovely Helen Senior who signed it, Mr Parris who apparently dictated it and Mrs Thatcher who employs them both to send letters on her behalf. In this case, the public interest must take precedence. Here it is:
Dear Mrs Collingwood, At Mrs Thatcher's request I am replying on her behalfto your recent letter.
I hope you will not thing me too blunt if I say that it may well be that your Council accommodation is unsatisfactory, but considering the fact that you have been unable to buy your own accommodation you are lucky to have been given something which the rest of us are paying for out of taxes.
With good wishes, Yours sincerely, Helen Senior pp Matthew Parris Private Office of the Leader of the Opposition
If the Daily Mirror sincerely wants Labour to win the election, of course it was quite right to print this letter as the main story on its front page, alongside a photograph of the outraged Mrs Collingwood. The letter was written on 6 March but was not published until the election was announced, 24 days later. Seldom can an election campaign have come so close to being lost on its first day.
My own first reaction to the letter was not of indignation so much as helpless laughter, followed by sympathy for Mr Parris and/or the beautiful Helen Senior as the case might be. In my time I, too, have been persecuted by council tenants, chiefly old age pensioners. There is a whole segment of the population which has nothing better to do than write rude, self-pitying letters of great length and stupendous boredom to people it has seen on television. Generally I throw them away unread, having no particular desire to know what ordinary people are thinking; but once or twice, having nothing better to do, I have taken one from the pile and composed what seemed a suitable reply. I remember one OAP in somewhere like Staffs who tried to do a Mrs Collingwood on me. I had told her she was extremely lucky to be alive when one considered all the dreadful uncertainties attendant on any other state, especially at her age when so many younger, nicer, happier people than she were already dead. She started bombarding me with letters from her neighbours and finally mass petitions by recorded delivery, all saying how disgraceful it was to write to an old age pensioner like that. But then I started brooding about the Parris letter and decided that it simply wouldn't do. I know nothing of Parris's social background — the name does not appear in Burke's indispensable FamtlY Index, but neither do many sturdy patronyms like Wheatcroft or Thribb. There are no Parrises in Who's Who, although the DNB gives us a nineteenth-century portrait painter and a sixteenth-century heretic, burned by Cranmer. I suspect it may be a Fleming name. Be that as it may, and whatever his social origins, the general style of his letter with its illiterate, petulant, selfrighteous tone, is the voice of the New 'classless' Conservatism — 'classless', in this context being a euphemism for the undereducated, over-rewarded `managerials' who are jumping up everywhere nowadays, usually from the lower middle class. Frequently they have very unattractive moustaches, but that is not my point. No doubt the Conservative Party wants their votes but it must never let them into its Private Offices.
This s because their voice is the voice of adversary politics, and poor flabby old English Conservatives simply can't take it. The truth of the matter is that something rather nasty is going to happen to the Collingwoods of this world until they can learn to work a little better. As they hurry up to vote Conservative, all eager for the treat, there is nothing whatever to be gained from insulting their garrulous, idiotic wives. The least we should do is imitate the walrus:
'I weep for you', the Walrus said, 'I deeply sympathise'.
With sobs and tears he sorted out Those of the largest size.
The best idea might be genuinely to feel sorry for the things that have got to be done. The Parris letter did not of course come from Mrs Thatcher but it came from her office. The more I study it the more I begin to feel that its tone — strident, intolerant, self-righteous, bullying — is the voice of the Female in politics. We heard it from Heath, we heard it at times from Wilson, now we hear it shrill and clear.
It is all a dreadful mistake, of course. When the last jokes about 'women's liberation' have been made — their new level of self-awareness, their sexuality, their right to murder their babies and all the rest of it — the fact remains that it is a bestially unat tractive thing for a woman to propose herself as Prime Minister. Denis Thatcher, if that is his name, richly deserves to be held up as the laughing stock of the British Isles. Others will take a different view, but the closer the election comes the less likely it seems to me that I shall vote.