21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 10

Two views on Marcia Williams

Crawfie in Wonderland

1. Terry Pitt

I am normally unsure whether writing autobiography or reviewing it is the more narcissistic. Here I am certain; for Marcia Williams has such a formidable political talent and experience that her book"' should be absorbing. She has been Harold Wilson's Personal and Political Secretary for sixteen years, both in Government and Opposition as near to him as anyone, yet only on the rarest of occasions does she do justice either to herself or to the events" she lived through.

The book has, of course, been serialised in a Sunday paper, the Political Editor of which is indeed credited with having ' edited ' the volume. I am therefore tempted to say that this is a book written for the People, by the People, and move on to more important things. Yet the issue of how Labour governed, and the attitudes of those close to a Labour prime minister, are of vast importance and deserve comment — if only to put the record straight.

First the trivia. 60 per cent of Mrs W. (or Mr Lancaster) is devoted to endless nauseating references to "the Garden Girls" of Number Ten — most of whose work could be done by leaving an automatic typewriter running over a Bank Holiday weekend. Everyone mentioned by name is endowed with "cheerfulness "; problems are always "awful," and pictures chosen for Downing Street "modern." We are treated to such gems as the fact that civil servants when in Washington tend to steal the toiletry.

I suppose the People always get what they deserve, but nobody with any sense could care a toss where Thomas Balogh's furniture went when he became a life peer. That was not Tommy's triumph, nor Gerald's gain of a sofa, but Sir Burke Trend's final achievement in isolating Harold Wilson from any radical advice.

Time and again anyone who knows the author and who lived, and suffered, as the last Labour government destroyed itself will be struck by the chasm between the superficiality of her memoirs and the strength of her personality. On the many occasions when Party officers and officials met Ministers to discuss policy differences, she threw her considerable political weight on our side, She was, amongst the few close advisers to the Prime Minister, the most consistent radical and the most shrewd analyst. I recall her constant advice, frequently expressed in the most irreverent terms, urging the Prime Minister to ignore Whitehall and come closer to his own supporters. On issues such as devaluation, Vietnam, Rhodesia and wealth taxes, hers was the vioce which' best articulated Labour's frustrations. None of this, alas, appears here. One can only conclude either that Harold forgot to return the files after his own memoirs, or that Mrs W. is saving up everything for a further volume.

If all of this sounds a little petulant, I can only plead that there are crucial issues arising from our last period of Government which must be settled before we take office again, and before the cosy conventional wisdom of memoirs cloud our recollection. First, how should a Labour prime minister organise his office — and here I am not talking about the furniture. Second, what to do about the civil service. Third, is there a role for the party in the country — and for official party advice — or should we all pack Up and go home?

, The contrast between protocol in 1964 and 1970 is striking, almost as striking as the grip Whitehall bas over ministers compared to their opposite numbers in, say, Washington or Bonn. Heath's contempt for the higher echelons of the Foreign Office is now legendary, and his skill in placing Party advisers into official civil service positions the subject of at least one academic study. The result has been — and here I ignore any evaluation of the policies themselves — that the civil service for two years has been run by ministers instead of the other way round.

Recent somersaults in policy are not the point, though doubtless they have brought a good deal of back-slapping in the Travellers and the Reform. The point is whether a party coming to office, and particularly one with a radical programme, can equip itself with the manpower and the willpower to put its policies into practice. Labour's land policy in 1964 never had a chance because the issue was not large enough to engross anyone in Downing Street; it was therefore killed off by the wolves working for Dame Evelyn Sharp. It is of immense significance that Nixon's foreign policy is conducted by Kissinger, whilst Labour's cutting edge abroad (with the single exception of Lord Caradon) was conducted by Sir Patrick ' Suez' Dean, Sir Morrice James, and others who think that a Conference decision is something that arises out of a meeting of Commouwealth Prime Ministers. My point is that the next generation of Marcia Williamses and Thomas Baloghs (or the present one if we can get the ballot boxes out soon) must be greatly supplemented, better organised, and given equal status to a Private Office.

The civil service in general continues to display its awesome resilience; about which I can say little without totally losing self-control. Four years after Fulton we are in the ludicrous position where the Service itself is supposedly implementing the radical reforms of the report. As for Parliament and the press, where acres were devoted to the subject in 1968, there is now no pressure whatsoever to bring the mandarins to heel. Someone who has been as close to the pinnacle of power as was Mrs W. must soon expose the political significance of such so-called administrative errors as the under-recording of exports by £333 million through a period of financial crisis. If heads do not roll on occasions like that then no government is safe.

Now the party. Marcia Williams is kindness itself to all of us at Transport House — a statutory reference to each and every one; well, almost. National Executive Committee meetings and Annual Conferences come and go, and all is wine and roses. Hardly a mention, except in the most fleeting of passing, to the central fact that whilst the party in the country opposed the Attlee administration in one vote only (tied cottages!) in six years, the Executive and the Conference between 1964 and 1970 passed resolutions on Vietnam, Prices and Incomes, Prescription Charges, Immigration, Trade Union legislation and the Common Market — all of which were critical and some flatly opposed to Government policy. • The decline in formal political activity has been steadily worsening for fifty years. I have no figures on the Tory side, but for Labour it is shattering to record that in the 1929 election campaign we disposed of forty-three million leaflets, nine million copies of our manifesto, and over 8,000 copies of a Speaker's Handbook. The respective figures for the 1964 campaign were seven million; 130,000; and 2,000. Do not tell me that elections are now fought on TV instead of street-corners; that is precisely my point. Far and away the best chapter in Marcia's book is one on the media, but the problems inherent in projecting people rather than policies are not discussed. I make no personal point here, because all of us have •been just as guilty in thinking that publicity for Labour's 'top ten' is as good as solid policy proposals.

Yet two or three facts about politics will both tell a story and leadme to my conclusions. The private polling being carried out by the Tories was consistently showing that, if one ignored voting intention (something which propaganda can change), the genera/ allegiance of the country was solidly Labour — a fact confirmed in the recent "new centreparty" poll published in the Times. In spite of this, many Labour ministers continued to search for some mythical " middle-ground " in politics instead of going for a maximum turn-out of the natural Labour voter.

Second, there •is arising a very tricky problem for both big parities in coordinating the professional advice of its own head office with the private advice (not necessarily unprofessional, of course) given to their leader by his close circle of associates. Transport House during the 1970 campaign certainly found it difficult to counter the advice of Will Camp, Joe Haines and others, even when formal meetings were held. Yet the party advice in retrospect was the more accurate (you can here, as Sam Goldwyn put it, include me out — for I was away in Lichfield fighting Major General James D'AvignorGoldsmid "to mention," as Bernard Levin once said, "but a few "). Ron Hayward had accurately assessed our organisation as not completely recovered from the shell shock of 1966-68. Only the negative part of our publicity campaign (' Yesterday's Men' etc) had reached the public, and the election was called before the planned positive side had begun to appear.

To top it all off, the final private poll commissioned by Transport House, delivered very early in June and certainly before the ORC figures in the eve-of-poll Evening Standard, showed precisely our problems. Bob Worcester, in his usual quiet and efficient way, polled a one per cent Tory lead over Labour — greatest in the Midlands, and worst among women in the thirty-five to fifty-four age group. Moreover, Labour workers were not getting through to the eighteen to thirtyfour ages in anything like the way in which our opponents were.

I do not believe that Marcia Williams was unaware of these facts, even though her book fails totally to take them into account. She is now back in full-time politics, and I for one applaud that fact. But she must never again fall into the trap which Women's Lib is warning against. When you know your subject, show your subject. Do not belittle yourself and your sex by writing for the coffee-table set.

2. Peregrine Worsthorne

It is difficult to write about Marcia Williams's book without being snobbish Her view of what went on in the Wilson rn6nage is so blinkered with lower-middleclass prejudice as to be totally devoid of all style, colour or fun, except for occasional jokes shared with Gerald ICaufman which only add to the prevailing gloom. The late John Wyndham, Lord Egremont, who was the nearest equivalent to Marcia Williams in the Macmillan setup, made public life seem a gay adventure, full of wit and sparkle. For Mrs Williams it seems to have been one long ordeal, With our heroine weighed down by the enormity of the chip on her shoulder. Yet I suppose this is understandable and One should really sympathise rather than flock. It is obviously so much easier for the likes of John Wyndham, born in the Purple, to write about the corridors of Power with relaxed informality, since this Is the world into which they were born. nut Mrs Williams is like a fish out of Water. One longs for the moment when she eau return to her natural element in Hampstead Garden Suburb or wherever—a release which the electorate is good enough to arrange in the final chapter, without receiving many thanks.

Not that the book is unreadable. In some ways it is so awful as to be compulsive reading, a ghastly gem on almost every page. Here she is, for example, on the Downing Street secretarial pool:

The Garden Girls were predominantly middle class and often came from wealthy homes. They all had the same background, we were told, and certainly this is how it appeared. When the Prime Minister asked how they were selected he was told that they were recruited from a very select and expensive secretarial college in London. I knew the particular college well. Indeed, a girl from my own school had gone to it when she left school. She would often regale us all with stories about it, and when we asked about her shorthand and typing, she would laugh ironically and say: "Oh, all right, but I fence divinely."

But it was not only the Downing Street secretaries who raised Mrs Williams's hackles. She saw Civil Service plots under every red carpet:

Some considerable time before the 1964 election, I had been taken to dinner and lunch several times by Sir Timothy Bligh, who was Principal Private Secretary to Sir Alec Douglas-Home, as he had been previously 4to

Harold Macmillan . . . These meetings were arranged ostensibly so that I should learn something about the Downing Street set-up in case Labour won. I think, however, that they also had another object; to learn something about me . . .

One singularly odd invitation was extended to me during those pre-election months. Tim Bligh asked me if I would like to see over No. 10 on a Friday. when Sir Alec was likely to be away with his family in Scotland . . .

I left after about an hour and a half, knowing a good deal more about them and their set-up, but wondering to myself whether they really knew and understood as much about me.

One suspects that Mrs Williams was probably wrong there, and that they learned rather more about •her than she realised, as a Whole host of other civil servants were to do in other meetings described later in the book, one of which I can vouch for, since I was party to it. Mrs Williams was accompanying Harold Wilson on a visit to LBJ's Washington to discuss the Vietnam war:

But as with so many overseas visits, Harold was once more in the Civil Service's Intensive Care Unit. They threw up a screen around him to keep him ' clean ' and only civil servants were allowed to brief him. . . .

Of course, from time to time they had a word with me. No doubt some of the conversations filtered back to Harold in their own words, but ° they were such a solid phalanx that it was very difficult to break through them all. One had to whisper very quickly in Harold's ear as he passed by. This was appalling because the situation in Vietnam had been so awful and the feeling in progressive circles at home was so acute.

There were other, things about that hot, sticky visit that were also unpleasant. I didn't like the Churchillian references President Johnson made in his speech welcoming Harold. Perhaps President Johnson did really feel warmly towards him; but somehow it just didn't add up to me, not against that awful background of Vietnam. I had, too, to sit down in Blair House for private meals with a various

assortment of people from the UK, who were strangers to me. Some were officials from the Foreign Office who had come across with us, and their views on Vietnam were so ghastly that it became almost impossible to sit in the same room . . •

Doubtless it was partly Vietnam that angered Mrs Williams so deeply, although at the time it seemed as if she was more worried about not being included among the guests for an all-male Presidential luncheon party, to which, for some reason or other, I had been invited. The British Embassy contingent arrived rather late, in a terrible state of nerves flushed dishevelled, distraught. "What's the matter" I asked, fearing some international disaster. "It's Marcia" t'hey replied. "The whole morning's been spent trying to persuade the White House to issue her an invitation. The ambassador has had to ring the Secretary of State — all hell's been let loose."

No harm in that. Why should not Mrs Williams throw a tantrum, a la Margot Asquith. But how much more fun if she had the courage and honesty to admit to being a woman whose vanity had been slighted instead of all that earnest stuff about her Vietnam principles being flouted.

What about the political content of the book? I found little that was new or interesting althoug'h the descriptions of the Rhodesia talks on HMS Tiger make fascinating reading, if only because Ian Smith so obviously won her heart: And all this time another plane was flying towards Gibraltar with Ian Smith, a man who in constitutional terms was a traitor, a renegade, but also, as I was to discover, an attractive one. That made things more complicated and, therefore, more interesting. . . . He made a deliberate point of saying ' hello ' to each one of us, and smiling and asking how we were. He is in fact a politician who knows his art better than most United Kingdom politicians I have met.

Others who also won her heart perhaps only slightly less surprisingly were Lord and Lady Hartwell.

Vivacious, attractive, socially charming, Lady Hartwell manages to fascinate leading Labour figures as much as Conservative. When Harold became Labour's leader, she took on a wager that she would one day lure him alone to one of her functions, since he said he did not go in for that sort of thing. She never succeeded, but a compromise was reached and Lord Hartwell and she dined at Chequers. Harold, like so many others, enjoys her company enormously. Indeed, we have often been amused at functions when rough-cut characters have deserted other company as soon as Lady Pamela arrived.

But even here one can't help quibbling. No sooner does Mrs Williams cease being tetchy and whining than she lapses into the style of Crawfie or Jennifer.

Yet the book does have one merit. It is touchingly loyal to the memory of Harold Wilson. Her admiration and affection for the man shines through the dreary prose. But it is courtier stuff without the redeeming grace of gilt or glamour. According to Mrs Williams's account, the Court of King Harold had neither. This may arguably produce better Government but it most certainly produces very much worse memoirs.