Snobbery unbound

The Journals of Woodrow Wyatt: Volume One

Sarah Curtis (editor) <em>Macmillan, 748pp, £25</em>

Reading Woodrow Wyatt's posthumously published diaries is like eating a Chinese meal: there are plenty of tasty titbits (the Queen Mother is supposedly a closet Thatcherite, Rupert Murdoch once considered making Nigel Lawson editor of the Times, Princess Michael likes to lick chocolate off other folks' fingers), but when you've finished you still feel hungry. Worse than that, you're left with a distinctly bad taste in the mouth.

Wyatt was an impish character who failed at business, became a B-division politician without a future and then succeeded in carving out a role for himself as popinjay to the establishment. He had enough of a sense of humour to realise he was a faintly ludicrous character, which sometimes made him fun to be with. Despite his ability to infuriate, it was hard not to have a soft spot for him. But he was a relentless, ruthless networker among the privileged.

He used his proximity to the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch to turn his rented St John's Wood house near Lord's cricket ground into a dining salon for the great and the good. There they dutifully trotted, not so much to see him as to mingle with others of their caste - or, sometimes, with the express purpose of getting him to put the right word in the right ear. It was this access that gave him a certain importance during the Thatcher years.

He once tried to get me to join his circus. Not because he cared for me in the slightest ("I never did quite like Andrew Neil," he told Mrs T after I had savaged the poll tax in an editorial) but because I was editor of the Sunday Times and therefore sufficiently influential to be courted by him. I rather blotted my copybook, however, when at the end of my first meal at his house I left the table with the ladies to retire to the drawing room, instead of staying with the men to resolve the problems of the world over port.

He also took umbrage because the Sunday Times, though Thatcherite in its support for the market economy, never failed to criticise the lady when she got it wrong and regularly ran stories that caused her embarrassment. He took to phoning me to convince me to be more "on-message" (as the Blairites would put it today). I resented his lobbying and quickly refused to take or return his calls. The dinner invitations soon dried up. At least I had escaped the company of pompous Tory bores, Labour has-beens and aristocratic nonentities.

Those who deny there is still an establishment in this country should read this book and stand corrected. The footnotes in the first couple of pages alone explaining the Christian names mentioned in the text give a representative sample of the dramatis personae who dominate Wyatt's diaries: the Countess of Derby, Lord Dacre, Baron Rothschild, Sir John Plumb, Lord Lambton, the Duke of Devonshire, Viscount Astor, Lord Jenkins, numerous titled luminaries of the Jockey Club, Tory grandees ad nauseam.

Some meritocrats also made it to dinner (a category to which Wyatt, despite the strangulated accent and exaggerated mannerisms, belonged as the son of a prep school teacher) in the shape of Murdoch, Maggie, various Tory cabinet ministers, the odd right-wing union leader and a few wealthy Americans. But you had to be rich or powerful to make it to Wyatt's table, or preferably both; and he had a particular soft spot for the toffs.

"Do you think people like Lord Weinstock and Lord King would want to be in the House of Lords," he berated one American who dared to challenge the hereditary principle, "if there weren't dukes and earls and marquesses around? You'd wreck the market in attracting good people to come into the Lords." It is, of course, an absurd proposition in a mature democracy, but it illustrates a crucial aspect of Wyatt's views.

He saw himself as a loyal Thatcherite but only as long as Thatcherism never became so radical as to upset the privileges of the establishment that he loved to feed and water. He always denied being a Conservative, in deference to his socialist past; but he ended his days as a maverick High Tory of an increasingly reactionary bent. Probably something to do with the company he kept.

Not that Wyatt's views mattered much; even Murdoch saw that. When he leaned on me to serialise Wyatt's memoirs, I kicked off with his courageous efforts to block the disastrous nationalisation of steel by Harold Wilson's 1964-66 government, which I regarded as Wyatt's greatest claim to minor fame. Murdoch called to complain. I had made the mistake of taking Woodrow seriously: "Just run the gossipy bits," he advised. "Leave out the politics; nobody's interested in what Woodrow thinks."

Thatcher seems to have shared this view. Though she talked to him weekly and listened to what he had to say, the diaries do not reveal a single issue on which his influence was decisive. He constantly reassured her, however, that the poll tax "really is the best answer", thereby unwittingly contributing to his heroine's demise.

But the great and the good knew he had her ear (and Murdoch's), so they flocked to his dinner table for favours. In the diaries, Lord Weinstock, the perpetually gloomy boss of GEC, constantly asks him to put in a good word for him at 10 Downing Street to secure even more contracts at the taxpayers' expense (and to get Murdoch to lean on me to stop the Sunday Times exposing his company's inadequacies). Roy Jenkins uses Wyatt to lobby discreetly for a peerage.

A stream of Tory cabinet ministers seek to influence Thatcher and Murdoch through him, while Wyatt bombards his contacts with candidates for various weighty posts, from editor of the Times to head of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The Queen's press secretary calls for advice and there is much deferential drooling over the Queen Mother (who spins him a line that, despite much evidence to the contrary, the royals really love Maggie; he dutifully passes on the good news to No 10). Even David Dimbleby consults Wyatt on how to become director-general of the BBC.

All this gives us a behind-closed-doors view of how the tightly-knit group that still controls much of Britain operates. It is the main value of the diaries, even if the picture painted is not a pretty sight. A grandee of London's theatreland complains about the "awful northern business parents" of his new wife and "their dreadful house at Formby in Lancashire". A female aristocrat dismisses someone as "a dirty little Jew". Weekends at Chatsworth, Badminton and Blenheim prove that the age of Jeeves and Wooster is still not over.

There are jobs for the right boys (and a few girls) on every page: a royal thickie like Prince Michael is given a seat on the board of the Tote, for example, just to keep him occupied. When Wyatt's daughter for some inexplicable reason (since she is bright) has trouble getting into Oxford, he simply calls a few influential folk from his old college to secure her a place (so much for entry on merit).

The people who populate Wyatt's pages do not matter as much as they used to; but they still matter too much. His diaries illustrate just how far the social revolution started by Thatcher still has to go, just how damaging the attitudes of the powers that be still are to this country and, most depressingly, how little the Blairite experiment is likely to change things.

Too much power, wealth and influence remains concentrated in a self-serving establishment which is myopic in its metropolitanism (nobody knows what's going on outside a few square miles of central London, unless they're in a country estate), patronising to plain folk (who merely have walk-on roles in this book and then only if they know their place), snobbish, racist, arrogant, lazy (not many seem to have real jobs) and often downright stupid.

Wyatt has done the country a service in giving us the unalloyed truth about how this country's governing and social elite still operates, even if that was not quite his intention. He has painted those who still think they are our masters with warts and everything else that disfigures them. Those who wish for a better Britain should devour this book - then put it down in disgust.

Andrew Neil is editor-in-chief of the "Scotsman" and "Sunday Business"

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition