The chameleon-like John Freeman, pictured in 1946. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery/Elliott & Fry, 1946
Show Hide image

John Freeman: Face to face with an enigma

A 2013 profile of the war hero, Labour MP, New Statesman editor, diplomat and TV interviewer, who has died aged 99. 

“I wish everybody would forget I was alive,” he said. And most people did. But John Freeman, now in his 99th year, is still living a very private life at a nursing home in south London. He is one of the most extraordinary public figures of the postwar period; an achiever and thrower away of high office after high office; a celebrity who sought anonymity. “John Freeman,” said an old friend, “has spent his life moving through a series of rooms, always shutting the door firmly behind him and never looking back.”

In the 1940s he was a war hero, and then an MP who reduced Winston Churchill to tears in the Commons. In the 1950s he was tipped to become Labour leader but resigned from politics and became a TV interviewer. In 1961 he resigned from the BBC and became the editor of the New Statesman. Four years later he resigned and became a diplomat, working first as Britain’s high commissioner to India and then as the ambassador to Washington. In 1971 he resigned and became the chairman of London Weekend Television and then Independent Television News. In 1984 he moved to California to teach, until his return and retirement in 1990. In old age, he still did not look back. In 2005 he wrote: “When I retired from even the outer reaches of public responsibility, I resolved to put that life completely out of mind – to forget it all, in fact.”

The paradox of Freeman the private celebrity was symbolised by the TV series that made him famous from 1959 onwards, Face to Face. The viewer never saw his face. He sat with his back to the camera, in the shadow, smoke from a cigarette curling up between the fingers of his right hand. “John is the only man who has made himself celebrated by turning his arse on the public,” said Kingsley Martin, the then editor of the New Statesman. Freeman was the Grand Inquisitor, exposing the person behind the public figure, but never his own.

Thirty years later the BBC repeated Face to Face and sent the radio psychiatrist Anthony Clare (of In the Psychiatrist’s Chair fame) and me to California to film an introductory interview in which the roles were reversed. The programme was a failure. Freeman had an intimidating physical presence and a manner that combined an old-fashioned, somewhat insincere charm with his thoroughgoing put-downs: “I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound rude to you – but that’s the sort of portentous question I don’t think I want to answer.” As always, he gave nothing away. An old friend of his had warned me: “John has a capacity to put up the shutters that is excelled by nobody except a shopkeeper during a time of riots.”

A few years later I spotted Freeman engaged in a game of bowls by the side of the South Circular Road in London. At the age of 78, he was about to become Southern Area champion in bowls, a sport that obviously played to his strengths, as it requires a cool nerve and a killer instinct. I was by now fascinated by Freeman’s life, and particularly by this combination of public celebrity with impenetrable privacy. I wanted to write his biography. His third wife, Catherine, was discouraging: “Don’t think he has mellowed and will say, ‘Now is the time to review my life.’ He hasn’t and won’t.” Nevertheless, I went ahead and asked him with the proviso that if he objected I would go no further. He replied: “I do not feel able to take any part in the project you propose.”

I asked Nigel Lawson, the former chancellor of the exchequer and a friend of Freeman’s, to intercede on my behalf. He tried and replied: “Unsurprisingly, knowing him, he is not prepared to approve your project, even grudgingly. However, he did make clear that, equally, he does not disapprove and will not sue.” So, despite feeling a chill air of non-approval at the back of my neck, I obtained a commission from a publisher and began to do the research.

It was never easy. Freeman’s Who’s Who entry has become ever briefer over the years. He has written no autobiography and very little about himself, despite many years as a journalist. He has even destroyed private correspondence. But his story quickly became tantalising. Like with other celebrities who give nothing away about themselves, anecdotes have stuck to him that might be true, might be myth. Was it true that hearing Mahatma Gandhi speak when Freeman was a schoolboy was what made him decide to become a socialist? Was it true that, as a staff officer at Lüneburg Heath in May 1945, he conducted the German generals to surrender to Field Marshal Montgomery? The answers lay in his school and war records, which I required his permission to view. And why would he withhold it? It seemed little enough to ask. He’d had a distinguished education as a scholar and head of house at Westminster School and a heroic, decorated war with the Desert Rats, during which Monty called him “the best brigade major I have”. Or was this also a myth?

I wrote to him again. Once again his reply combined flowery charm with blunt dismissal. Why was he so pathologically private? Why was he determined to forget what other old men would be proud to remember?

John Freeman was born in a large house bordering Regent’s Park on 19 February 1915, the son of a chancery barrister from whom he inherited a hard, analytical mind. His father was nothing if not remote. He invited his son to eat with him once a week; after that, it was by appointment. The family moved to the dull suburb of Brondesbury in north-west London, from where John and his younger brother James would ride the train into town, jumping from carriage to carriage. He spent hours wandering through London on his own, once watching a play at the Royal Court Theatre and wondering if it was suitable entertainment for a boy of his age – he was seven. He seems to have spent a loveless and lonely childhood, from which he emerged self-reliant but withdrawn from relationships.

By the time John arrived at Westminster School with an exhibition he was a worldly boy with a mind of his own. Presumably if he held political views at all they were those of his parents, vaguely progressive Liberals belonging to the comfortable middle class. But then, in 1932, he came face to face with the reality of the Depression. Hunger marchers from Scotland, Wales and the north of England assembled opposite Westminster Abbey and John met their leader, the socialist politician Ellen Wilkinson. Confronted by desperate poverty and inequality, he must have reacted emotionally, however repressed his adolescent feelings were, because he joined the Labour Party and remained in it for the next 34 years. “The outstanding fact of the year,” he wrote as head of house in the house ledger, “is that the school has heard the voice of England’s forgotten people.”

Freeman wasted his time at Oxford. He drank heavily, gambled and chased women, only just emerging from his father’s college, Brasenose, with a degree. Perhaps he found success too easily as he would through all his future careers. Certainly he found womanising easy. He was handsome, with wavy red hair, blue eyes and a fit, slim body. Above all, he had a distant self-sufficiency that women considered a challenge. According to Susan Hicklin, one of his girlfriends at Oxford who later became the first wife of Woodrow Wyatt: “John did not really engage. He was a Mr Something-Else.”

Freeman edited the Cherwell magazine and co-founded the Experimental Theatre Club. Later, in one of his slightly more forthcoming Who’s Who entries, he listed theatre as his hobby. He was a role player. He found it easier to act than to be himself, perhaps because, so he once said, he disliked himself as much as he disliked the rest of the world.

After Oxford, Freeman joined the advertising firm Ashley Courtenay; he said that writing copy was like writing Latin verse. In 1938 he married Elizabeth Johnston and claimed two years later, when he enlisted in the Coldstream Guards, that he was doing so to get away from her. That December he was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade.

He fought with the brigade throughout the Second World War, seeing action in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy and north-west Europe. As brigade major in North Africa with the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, he was attached to the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats, as deputy assistant, quarter master general (DAQMG). It was a post that required organising efficiency on a large scale and steady nerves under fire. “To listen to John directing armour and artillery hour after hour on the brigade radio was a marvellous lesson in coolness under stress,” said a fellow combatant. He was awarded the MBE for conduct at Medenine during the British advance on Tunis. That much is fact, but the story that he was the only officer in Monty’s army to have a girl waiting for him in Tunis sounds more like another Freeman myth.

Now a major, Freeman was sent to the Staff College at Camberley, Surrey, in preparation for the invasion of Europe and as a result he joined General Montgomery’s headquarters staff. A year later he was in north Germany. “Did I ever tell you I was conducting officer at Lüneburg Heath?” he asked a friend rhetorically not long ago. “Yes, I led the German generals to surrender to Monty.” In my last letter, I asked him to confirm this; he ignored the question.

With Freeman at Staff College was Captain Raymond Blackburn, an ardent socialist and member of the new Common Wealth Party. He annoyed his fellow officers at dinner with voluble “bolshie” talk, so that one by one they left the mess until only one remained, an immaculately turned-out, perfectly mannered major in the Rifle Brigade, who then spoke. “I want you to know that I have been a passionate socialist ever since I was at Oxford,” he said, “and I am today an even more convinced socialist than ever.”

Blackburn persuaded Freeman and another DAQMG, Woodrow Wyatt, to stand for parliament as Labour candidates. In February 1945 he was adopted for Watford after his wife, Elizabeth, pitched in his place while he was away in Germany. He had a somewhat casual approach to crucial political occasions. A few months later, at Labour’s victory conference, Ellen Wilkinson announced proudly from the platform: “I give you a Desert Rat, who has just received the German surrender of Hamburg”; but at that moment Freeman was in the bath reading his favourite magazine, the New Yorker. Later, distancing himself as always, he said he had stood for parliament only because he was asked and he thought he would lose.

The parliamentary set piece from which he did extract the full dramatic effect took place on 15 August 1945, when George VI opened parliament and Freeman was chosen to move the Loyal Address in response to the Gracious Speech. It was an occasion that the new Labour intake of MPs would never forget. Barbara Castle wrote in her memoirs: “John was a charismatic figure who seemed to have a dazzling career in front of him. As he stood there in his major’s uniform, erect, composed and competent, everyone felt his star quality.”

The “hon. and gallant” member (Hansard) rose to the occasion:

. . . on every side is a spirit of high adventure, of gay determination, a readiness to experiment, to take reasonable risks, to stake high in this magnificent adventure of rebuilding our civilisation as we have staked high in the winning of the war [Cheers] . . .  Today we go into action. Today may rightly be regarded as D-Day in the Battle of the New Britain. [Loud and prolonged cheers]

Churchill was seen to weep, saying: “Now all the best young men are on the other side.”

Freeman shared offices with another officer back from the war, Roy Jenkins, who recalled: “He was the very model of a modern Labour major.” His progress was startling. While such contemporaries as James Callaghan and George Brown remained on the back benches he became a junior minister, first at the War Office and then at the ministry of supply. Perhaps this owed something to Hugh Dalton, the chancellor of the exchequer, a notable patron of rising young men, who found Freeman “very attractive and glamorous”. In the former post an incident occurred that establishes as probably true another Freeman conversation stopper of later years; “I bumped into an Israeli freedom fighter who once tried to kill me”. On 4 June, 1947, the Irgun posted Freeman and seven other ministers miniature bombs because of the Government’s policy over Palestine.

“We wanted him to be our leader,” Michael Foot told me. But in April 1951, with promotion into the cabinet his for the taking, Freeman sensationally resigned together with Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, who were both members of cabinet. The presenting reason was Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell’s Budget, which maintained very high expenditure on defence to the detriment of the welfare state; charges were imposed on “teeth and specs”. Clement Attlee tried hard to keep Freeman, summoning him to the hospital where he was recovering from a duodenal ulcer and offering him Wilson’s post in the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. He saw him as a mediator between Gaitskell, who thought highly of Freeman, and Bevan; quite possibly as a future leader. But once Freeman made his mind up he never changed it. He knew he was a favoured son: as he said in his resignation speech: “In laying down the responsibilities of office I am also giving up the fruits of office.”

Yet years later he said he resigned because he had given Bevan his word and did not want to renege on it as others had done. This seems nearer the truth, as Freeman’s personal principles were stronger than his political convictions. It would explain, too, why he seemed to lose the stomach for the fight. Barbara Castle travelled around the country with him, expecting him to take a lead in arguing the “Keep Left” case to Labour supporters, but she was disappointed. In one stormy meeting after another he stood against the wall, almost hiding himself behind the window curtains, but did not speak. After years of studying his complex personality [on intimate terms it should be added as they were lovers] I decided he was afraid of giving himself too fully to anything or anyone. I once told him his motto ought to be "Je me sauve" ("I protect myself").

Freeman was extraordinarily reticent, but it was more than that. Some said he stood on an icy peak, that beneath the cold charm he considered himself above the fray. Others said that his socialism was already intellectual rather than emotional, and politics without a gut feeling, without tears and wounds, must be a lost cause. “A deliberate decision seems to have been taken to root out feeling, like a cancer, and to put in its place the radium of the intellect,” wrote Anthony Howard in a memorable profile a few years later.

Freeman narrowly retained his seat for Watford in the October 1951 election but then, with Labour out of office, he idled away the “purgatorial boredom” of parliamentary evenings by playing canasta with his louche friend Tom Driberg, Wyatt and, surprisingly, Jenkins. Neither Wyatt nor Jenkins was a Bevanite but this did not seem to matter. To some on the left his socialism was insincere rather than intellectual. Tony Benn wrote in his diary about “Freeman’s respectable humbug rebelliousness”. In 1955 Freeman left parliament in disgust, despite being offered a safe seat at the eleventh hour in Durham. He wrote in the New Statesman:

I have in my mind a disenchanted vision of parliamentary man at his worst: at 45 he is pallid, bald and ulcerated: arrogant, narrow-minded and periphrastic. And worse, he is complacent about it all. Too many MPs cease to look outside. They perceive one another with the vapid intensity of a goldfish. 

He then joined Woodrow Wyatt, Aidan Crawley and Christopher Mayhew, all former Labour junior ministers, working in the burgeoning BBC TV current affairs department at Lime Grove – a bias perceived by Winston Churchill, among others, and one that would not be tolerated now. Panorama used him as an interviewer, but it was the one-to-one interview show Face to Face that made Freeman a household name. “The programmes were dominated by his matchless voice, ultrapolite, devastatingly persistent,” Paul Johnson wrote. The camera was mercilessly close to the face of the victim, “scrutinising”, in Freeman’s words, “every bead of sweat, every flicker of the eyelid”.

Not surprisingly, some wilted. The television and radio quiz panellist Gilbert Harding burst into tears when Freeman asked him if he had ever been present at a dying person’s bedside. It turned out that Harding’s mother had died recently in similar circumstances. The story got around that Freeman had found this out in advance by speaking to Harding’s psychiatrist and achieved what he had intended. This is not true. The only interview that gave Freeman satisfaction, he told Anthony Clare in 1989, was with the racing driver Stirling Moss. He had thought Moss a playboy but his interview revealed him as a driver with “cold, precise, clinical judgement... a man who could live so close to the edge of death and danger, and trust entirely to his own judgement. This appealed to me”.

Against all expectations, he became friends with two of his interviewees. This is even more inexplicable because the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and the comedian Tony Hancock came from completely different worlds. But Freeman the charmer, the roleplayer, had this chameleon quality of merging with the company he was in. “I always felt Freeman had the measure of me, but I never had the measure of him,” said another friend recently.

The Jung encounter was extraordinary. Jung was 84 and the interview took place at his home in Zurich. When Freeman asked on camera: “Do you now believe in God?” Jung replied, “I don’t need to believe. I know.” For once, Freeman’s presence of mind appeared to desert him because he changed the subject and asked Jung why he had become a doctor. Afterwards, realising the enormity of the question left unasked, he sent Jung a letter: “But how do you know?” The Face to Face interview had been watched by the publisher Wolfgang Foges. He thought there should be a book based on it for the educated reader who understood Freud’s basic theories of psychoanalysis but was unfamiliar with Jung’s. He asked Freeman to invite Jung to write it and this he did:

Jung listened to me in his garden for two hours almost without interruption – and then said no. He said in the nicest possible way, but with great firmness, that he had never in the past tried to popularise his work, and he wasn’t sure he could successfully do so. Anyway, he was old and rather tired.

That might have been the end of Man and his Symbols but Jung’s subconscious intervened. He had a dream in which “a multitude of people were listening to him in rapt attention and appearing to understand what he said” (Freeman’s italics). Crucial to Jungianism is the belief that man should be guided by his ‘unconscious’ as revealed in dreams so Jung changed his mind, on two conditions: Freeman had to be the editor and he had to include essays from disciples chosen by Jung. This latter condition tried Freeman’s patience beyond the limit. Urbane and charming he was but he was used to getting his way without fuss and neurotic European psychoanalysts were not his company of choice. He wrote in the margin of the essay by Jolande Jacobi “I puke on this” and, scarcely dissuaded from throwing it in the bin, handed over the entire manuscript to his friend Norman MacKenzie. Man And His Symbols was completed in the month of Jung’s death, June 1961, and published with an introduction from Freeman. 

After 35 editions of Face to Face, with a British Academy award and another series in the offing, Freeman had had enough of the BBC. “It was extremely tiresome to be treated as a sort of celebrity,” he said. He does not mention his experience as a TV presenter in Who’s Who. That year, 1961, he became editor of the New Statesman ten years after he had joined the paper as an assistant editor. It was the most influential left-wing weekly in the English-speaking world, with a circulation of more than 70,000. Nevertheless, Kingsley Martin, the outgoing editor, had been in the job for too long – 30 years – and the paper was drifting. Freeman had been the heir apparent since the mid-1950s and the de facto editor from week to week much of the time, despite Martin’s interference. Now he set himself the task

. . . to tidy things up, modernise the paper a bit, and then hand over to someone else who should preferably be a generation younger. I did think that what had been a marvellous operation until the middle Fifties had sadly deteriorated, and that what
was needed now was a short incumbency by a non-genius to see if a certain amount of order could be put back into it.

Freeman had a sense of service and was contemptuous of those who did not do what they had promised. He was absolutely no respecter of office. “I’ll put some backbone into that little runt,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Harold Wilson after Labour returned to power. He reminded Norman Mackenzie, who had worked at the New Statesman since 1943, of a Cromwellian officer with a radical streak. He ran the paper like a quartermaster general, efficiently and with organisational control. Unlike Kingsley Martin, Freeman found writing the Londoner’s Diary column (under the pseudonym Flavius) hard work. Readers considered it stiff and dull because he did not write about himself; as ever, the shutters were up. Once, Freeman was walking in a London park with Anthony Howard, whom he had just recruited to write for the NS, when a photographer persisted in taking photographs because “I was hoping to catch you at an unguarded moment”. “Alas,” Freeman said, “I’m afraid there are very few of those.”

Under Martin, the Statesman had regarded socialism as a political and moral certainty. Some readers found it a crusading bible, others an irresponsible journal of dissent. Freeman was neither preacher nor teacher, and times had changed. He wrote that the cold war and the welfare state required a more questioning, sceptical socialism and he moved the paper nearer the centre. According to Edward Hyams, the author of The New Statesman: the History of the First Fifty Years (1913- 63), under Martin the cry of dissent was “You are wicked”, whereas under Freeman it was “You are mistaken – and we will prove that by the force of reasoned argument”.

The big issue in these years was The Bomb. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had practically been founded in the New Statesman offices in 1957 when J B Priestley wrote the seminal article “Britain and the nuclear bombs”. Kingsley Martin chaired the meeting that gave rise to CND. Nevertheless, he was equivocal about unilateral disarmament when wearing his editor’s hat. Perhaps he did not want to commit the NS; perhaps he simply could not make up his mind. Priestley said he was “dodging in and out of this” and Freeman accused him of having “a halfbaked love affair” with CND. Freeman told a colleague:

I think there are two kinds of journalists. One that wants to expound a situation and one, like Kingsley, who wants to redress a situation. Kingsley is a preacher and he doesn’t care much about facts. When he was absolutely certain about his tenets he wrote like an angel. The decline in his writing is to do with the decline in his certainty.

Freeman had no such doubts. He thought it would be self-destructive at the height of the cold war for Britain to leave Nato, which unilateral disarmament would necessitate. When he became editor, the journal’s quasisupport for CND ceased. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 the NS backed President Kennedy throughout: more so, in fact, than even the Daily Telegraph, which stated that the United States should have acted through the United Nations.

Freeman’s mentor on the New Statesman was Aylmer Vallance, an assistant editor during the war years, then Deputy until his death in 1955. He was one of the few men that Freeman not only admired but with whom he became close friends. In fact he helped nurse him through his final illness and named his elder son after him. The character of Vallance offers clues in the quest for Freeman because they were very similar. Vallance was calmness itself in a crisis, charming but hard to know. Vallance had a louche streak. In the 1930s he had been Editor of the News Chronicle until he was sacked for a sex scandal. The Quaker owner of the paper, Lord Cadbury, had discovered Vallance in flagrante with the female motoring correspondent on his office table. Vallance had been a socialist with an attachment to communism (he named one of his own sons Tito) but by the 1950s, according to Edward Hyams, he had lost his faith in political causes. This did not stop him advocating socialism for a political weekly: nor did his personal lifestyle, giving “the appearance and manner of a Scottish laird who liked wine, women and fly fishing” (Hyams). Above all, he was a master of disguise. During the War he had worked for military intelligence, liaising between the War Office and the Political Warfare Executive. MacKenzie noted that whenever Vallance went off on trips to Eastern Europe, which was frequently, he collected his foreign currency from a Highgate travel agent that had money-laundering links with MI6. This is not to say that Freeman had lost faith in socialism nor that he was a spy; but he was attracted to someone who was both. 

Freeman’s private life was about to be beset by scandal. In 1948 Elizabeth Johnson had divorced him and he married Margaret Kerr, who died in 1957, leaving him with a stepdaughter, Lizi, whom he adopted. In 1962 he married his third wife, the Panorama producer Catherine Dove, who had been married previously to another Panorama staffer, Charles Wheeler. While he was still at the NShe also began an affair with Edna O’Brien, who later wrote a short story about it called “The Love Object” (1968). The “love object” was Freeman. He had been uncharacteristically indiscreet about the affair and O’Brien did not try hard to disguise his identity. Nor did she spare the intimate details:

“Hey,” he said jocularly, just like that. “This can’t go on, you know.” I thought he was referring to our activity at that moment. Then I raised my head from its sunken position between his legs and I looked at him through my hair, which had fallen over my face. I saw that he was serious. “It just occurred to me that possibly you love me . . .”

“Much harm is done by words,” said Freeman to Sue Hicklin at about this time. Ironic, considering he made his reputation by them. Freeman may have been referring to a 1960s play by Terence Rattigan about a TV interviewer who drank too much and was a womaniser. It was called, suggestively, Heart to Heart and not surprisingly Freeman thought it was libellous. He protested in the New Statesman office: “The allegation of alcoholism I just about accept; that of amorousness I reject absolutely,” to which Catherine retorted years later, “That should have been the other way round.” Freeman consulted a lawyer and settled with the BBC, who had commissioned the play, after “an amicable exchange of letters”, he said. 

In 1965 he became high commissioner to India. Bored with the New Statesman after just four years as editor, he had angled for a diplomatic posting. Richard Crossman said that, having “seen through” politics and journalism, Freeman said to himself: “Let me find a career so chilly and austere that I can never see through it or be bored by success.” How wrong he was. The Freemans arrived in Delhi with their sons, Matthew and Tom, and soon Lucy was born. It was nearly 20 years after Indian independence and British influence was more of a memory than a reality.

Indian diplomats in Delhi at the time remember that the Freemans responded by acknowledging that the old British paternalism and nostalgia for the Raj were quite out of place. Now the high commission was open to new faces: opposition MPs, dissenting writers, young journalists. However, it is Catherine who is remembered for her social skills and enthusiasm for all things Indian. John hated protocol and small talk and, once again, there was that formidable barrier. The writer Khushwant Singh recalls: “I found Freeman cold and distant. Despite his socialist pretensions he behaved like a pukka sahib.”

Freeman said afterwards that he found diplomacy difficult, particularly dealing with economic and financial matters. Where he came into his own was in the writing of despatches. “I don’t think I would have been too ashamed,” he said later, “to send a newspaper some of my despatches from India.” A case in point was the customary valedictory despatch he wrote before returning home in 1968. He excelled himself, ending in a style reminiscent of an 18th-century tombstone:

Perhaps a regenerate sinner, plucked  by a somewhat whimsical government from the stews of Fleet Street and the limelight of Shepherd’s Bush, may be allowed to pay a disinterested and most affectionate tribute to the kindness, the devotion to duty, the professional skill and sheer quality of mind and imagination which he has encountered during his three and a half years as the guest of HMG.

When Freeman returned to London he met Crossman by chance at 10 Downing Street. Crossman wrote in his diary:

. . . John used to be a rather willowy, elegant young man with wonderful wavy hair but he’s thickened out and his complexion has roughened so that he looks like an extremely tough colonel of a polo-playing regiment just back from India – big and bluff. Beside  him was little Harold [Wilson], relaxed and gay.

The prime minister had just given Freeman the plum job of ambassador to Washington. It was a rash choice because he had frequently been rude about President Nixon in the NS, calling him “a man of no principle whatsoever”. So when Nixon visited London soon after his appointment, the cabinet was nervous. It need not have been. At a formal dinner in Freeman’s presence, Nixon referred to the appointment in a forgiving and witty speech: “Some say there’s a new Nixon. And they wonder if there’s a new Freeman. I would like to think that’s all behind us. After all, he’s the new diplomat and I’m the new statesman.”

Freeman formed a fruitful relationship with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This gave rise to an extraordinary despatch marked “SECRET, PERSONAL AND GUARD ADDRESSEES EYES ONLY”. Writing to Sir Denis Greenhill at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Freeman reported an indiscreet conversation with Kissinger about Nixon’s staff. “I have never met such a gang of self-seeking bastards in my life,” Kissinger remarked. “I used to find the Kennedy group unattractively narcissistic, but they were idealists. These people are real heels.”

That evening, Freeman reported, “a very bizarre incident took place”. Nixon rang him at home, “appearing completely rational”, and said he was grateful that he (Freeman) had “had such a long and intimate talk with Kissinger earlier in the day. He hoped we would do this again whenever the opportunity offered.” Freeman concluded: “I am completely unable to interpret this incident, which astonished me.”

He left Washington in February 1971, after only 16 months. He was the first ambassador in 55 years who went and returned without a knighthood or a peerage. He rejected both, saying “when it can be proved that I can do my job better by changing my name, then I might consider it”. Freeman claimed to dislike power and status: “Those who have power have disagreeable elements in their personality and I include myself.” By now he considered Nixon as a leader with “courage and guts, the qualities I most admire in public life”

It was common knowledge that Freeman was bored with diplomacy. Among the frequent guests at his Washington soirées was the young economist Robert Cassen. The ambassador gave him the sort of career advice that sticks in the mind: “I believe you should change your life as much as possible every decade.” Freeman was as good as his word, because he was having another affair, with his social secretary, Judith Mitchell. (She became his fourth wife in 1976 after his hurtful, protracted divorce from Catherine.) He and Judith would have two daughters, Jessica and Victoria, the second when he was 71.

Freeman found a house in London and it was here, a few weeks later in 1971, that he was visited by a desperate David Frost, the joint founder of London Weekend Television. Frost’s company was in a mess and the Independent Television Authority (ITA) was threat ening to remove its licence. The managing director, Michael Peacock, had been fired and the heads of several programme departments had resigned. Viewers were switching off; shareholders wanted out. The company, in fact, was being run by Rupert Murdoch, who had saved it by buying £500,000 worth of shares, then taking his coat off and directing the day-to-day management although he had no right to do so as a non-executive director. The ITA disapproved of Murdoch. He was breaking the rules; he was not a UK resident and he was a major newspaper proprietor. Murdoch was “dangerously angry”. LWT had been given six weeks to find a new managing director.

Enter Freeman, deus ex machina. LWT’s chairman, Aidan Crawley, was pushed upstairs to become the nominal president and Freeman became the new chairman and managing director, with a free hand to control Murdoch and impress the ITA. He wrote: “I had very strong views about how the company should be run, but frankly I didn’t give a bugger whether I stayed or not – I merely had to do the best I could.”

He moved into bleak, 17th-floor offices on the North Circular Road. A month later he led a delegation of ten for an all-day crunch meeting at the ITA. According to Jeremy Potter’s Independent Television in Britain: Politics and Control (1968-80): “He fielded most questions himself and was authoritative and convincing. No one doubted he was in control.”

The company was saved. A thousand employees kept their jobs. Freeman, it is worth recalling, had been out of the country for the previous six years and had no experience of running a big company. “He was,” the official history continued, “one of those rare men of parts who seem to be able to do anything better than anybody else.” No wonder he became bored quickly. Even the most demanding job was just too easy.

LWT became a hotbed of talent and ideas. One recruit was John Birt who held Freeman ‘in awe’. In the 1990s, when Birt was trying to modernise the BBC, Freeman supported him from the wings. Yet, while colleagues and journalists testified to his charisma, his ‘austere authority’ (John Birt), his ‘bearing like a great ship’s captain’ (Ivan Rowan in the Sunday Times), no- one claimed to know him. Rowan said he arrived for an interview determined to find out who Freeman really was, but he got nowhere:

It was like being greeted by a tall, sandy-haired man with flat blue eyes and a smile and voice as delicate and precise as a vicar’s: ‘I’m afraid the real Mr Freeman was called away five minutes ago. I know he would have been delighted to see you. Is there any message?’

Ever since he was a brigade major, John Freeman had excelled at taking charge of organisations, and now additional top jobs were his without even asking – chairman of Independent Television News and the publisher Hutchinson, governor of the British Film Institute, vice-president of the Royal Television Society. He was the archetypal establishment chairman.

In 1984, aged 69, he decided to move on again. Giving up everything, he moved abroad with his third family to the unfashionable university campus at Davis, California. He was now in his seventh major job, as a visiting professor of international relations.

Teaching was a profession he liked. Paul Johnson stayed with the Freemans in California while giving his own lectures and found him “universally revered as everything an English gentleman and scholar should be”. He came home in 1990 only because of his daughters’ education.

At last, in retirement in Barnes, south London, he could live in obscurity, reading and writing little but watching American football and racing on TV. No longer a Labour voter (he said his left-wing politics had “done a lot of harm”), he found Tony Blair “ineffably insufferable” – a typical Freeman phrase. He discouraged outsiders’ interest with the disclaimer, surely insincere, “I can’t see why my life can be of any possible interest to anybody.”

In 2012 Freeman removed himself to a military care home in south London so as not to be a burden to his family. He lives from day to day, with stoicism.

What might Anthony Clare have revealed if his interview in 1989 had penetrated the charm? He thought that Freeman was something of a social psychopath, defined by the Psychiatric Dictionary as “. . . a poorly developed sense of empathy leading to unfeeling and insensitive behaviour but disguised with a superficial charm and absence of ‘nervousness’; an egocentricity and incapacity for love. Aetiology: emotional deprivation early in life.” Whatever the truth of this, it is surely a pity that John Freeman airbrushed himself out of his own history, his own “magnificent adventure”.

Hugh Purcell's most recent book is "The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham" (Sussex Academic Press, £19.95)

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

MILES COLE
Show Hide image

The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

***

In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt