The sofa in Antonia Fraser’s sitting room is a crowded space. A cat named Ferdinand, one half of a pair clearly named by the 84-year-old historian (the other, Isabella, is licking her paw over by the window), must be displaced before I can sit down. There are less tangible presences, too: Margaret Thatcher once sat in this very spot, Fraser informs me as I settle down into the cushions.
A decade after the Iron Lady attended a meeting of the Conservative Philosophy Group at Fraser’s house in Holland Park, London (her first husband, Hugh Fraser, was a Tory MP), a different kind of gathering was held in this room. On 20 June 1988, the first meeting of what came to be known as “the June 20 Group” took place. As many as 25 prominent novelists and thinkers, including Germaine Greer, Salman Rushdie, David Hare, John Mortimer, Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble and Peter Nichols, as well as Fraser and her second husband, Harold Pinter, were present.
“We had a sort of buffet supper. There weren’t enough chairs,” Fraser tells me when we meet. “I think some people had to sit on the floor. The room looked roughly the same. It’s rather too heavily furnished to have a meeting.”
Empty now except for Fraser, myself and the cats, it isn’t hard to imagine Greer stretched out on the hearth rug and Rushdie sprawled on one of the two sofas in front of the fireplace. Built in the 1820s, this room has the high ceilings and broad windows typical of the Georgian period, as well as the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and tastefully expensive furnishings one would expect Fraser, a daughter of the 7th Earl of Longford, to have selected.
The idea for the meeting originated with John Mortimer, the former barrister and author of Rumpole of the Bailey. At dinner a few months earlier with his wife, Penny, along with Fraser and Pinter, Mortimer had spoken angrily about the growing irrelevance of left-wing thought in British intellectual life and his frustrations with the poor quality of both journalism and political debate. “Do you realise what you’ve been saying? What are we going to do about it, then?” Pinter interjected, according to his biographer Michael Billington.
The result of Mortimer’s ire was the meeting at the Fraser-Pinter house on 20 June – a date selected because it lay between the birthdays of Salman Rushdie (on 19 June) and Ian McEwan (on 21 June). A myth subsequently repeated by some right-wing critics surrounds the group’s name. It has been suggested that it was named after the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, and that the purpose of this meeting was a plot to bring down Margaret Thatcher (whom Rushdie called “Mrs Torture” in The Satanic Verses, which was published a few months after the first meeting).
Fraser laughs at the notion of her guests as von Stauffenberg-esque plotters. “Absolutely not. I find it humbling, as a historian, that should be said, because it means I’ve made mistakes like that.”
In reality, she explains, the purpose of the first meeting was to see if the idea of the group was viable, and whether they would meet again. The political journalist and former New Statesman editor Anthony Howard read a paper that evening that Billington records as being about the “decline of the left in Britain and the inconceivability of Labour ever winning another election”. In her diaries from the time, Fraser writes that Howard spoke for 40 minutes – “a bit long”. Other topics, including whether a writer of conscience could justify working for the Murdoch press (Greer, then a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, argued yes), were debated. The date for the next meeting, in September, was agreed upon.
After the second meeting, several journalists (including Peregrine Worsthorne at the Daily Telegraph) got wind of the group and wrote derisively about it. The attendees were ridiculed as “champagne socialists”.
“The slightly hysterical reaction to it in the press was very interesting,” Fraser says. “It was as though there was something wrong with the whole idea, as though philosophy groups could only be conservative.”
This often vitriolic criticism made the members feel rather self-conscious. “It was simply a place in which we might be able to thrash out ideas about what was happening in the country,” Rushdie told Billington in 1996. “It was never meant to be a pressure group or an intellectual support system for the Labour Party.”
Fearing that their association with the group was harming its aims, Fraser and Pinter stepped back from its organisation and the two subsequent meetings were held at the River Café in Hammersmith, west London, and then the Groucho Club in Soho. At that last gathering, held just before the 1992 general election, the members of the June 20 Group were addressed by the soon-to-be Labour leader John Smith.
Looking back, it was the hostility from the press to the idea of a left-wing intellectual society that Fraser found most instructive. She wrote in her diary: “It is difficult in retrospect to see that [the group] achieved anything at all except some hot-air balloons rising.”
Brexit makes it hard to compare today’s political situation with that of the 1980s, Fraser feels, but she hopes that an equivalent group is meeting today.
“I do feel a bit like, ‘Hello, where is the noble opposition we used to have?’ This is a democratic country and there should be an opposition. Maybe I think that more than I did then. Then, it was a belief: we are free to think and explore ideas – let us do so.”
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition