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16 January 2006

Secrets and lies

By Francis Beckett

If you were a member of the Garrick Club, or the Athenaeum or Reform, you would expect staff and members to keep your secrets, and so it is with the Palace of Westminster – the best club in London, some of its members call it. It guarded Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism well, even though his colleagues knew and lobby journalists guessed. It took smart footwork and threats of libel actions to keep them at bay. There was a time when the press considered such things none of the readers’ business, and lobby hacks thought it unprofessional even to mention them. Kennedy and David Blunkett could both wish they lived in such a time.

Kennedy might sigh for the days when Arthur Greenwood was Labour’s deputy leader. At Westminster, Greenwood’s alcoholism was so well known that when he stood for Labour leader in 1935 against Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, Morrison’s supporters said privately that the choice was between “a nonentity, a drunk, and Morrison”. The nonentity won and went on to become Labour’s greatest ever prime minister. But Greenwood’s drinking did not stop him becoming a member of Churchill’s war cabinet in 1940 and of Attlee’s cabinet in 1945.

Blunkett’s envy might be directed at Harold Macmillan. Everyone at Westminster knew of Lady Dorothy Macmillan’s affair with her husband’s parliamentary colleague Robert Boothby, and that Sarah, the fourth child born to Lady Dorothy, was biologically Boothby’s daughter. But no one broke rank and told the voters. In fact, it never even got to Sarah herself, who was rather casually and cruelly informed when she was 21. Boothby had a voracious appetite that extended to men as well as women, and it would have finished his career if it had been known. His hero was Lloyd George, whom he admired for getting away with (as Boothby put it) “two wives, two homes and two families”.

Cherie Blair writes of the affair in her book about prime ministers’ partners, The Goldfish Bowl: “The liaison was widely discussed within society . . . but not a word got out to the wider public. The newspaper proprietor Lord Rothermere, a close friend of Boothby’s, must have known but newspapers then were discreet about private affairs.” How much better things were then, she seems to be saying, perhaps remembering

her meetings with the then Press Complaints Commission chairman, Guy Black, which David Hencke and I reveal in our book The Survivor. She demanded that the PCC give the Blair children the same sort of immunity from publicity as Prince Charles’s two sons had at that time, and Black refused.

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Morrison could probably not have become one of the big five in Attlee’s government, nor Ellen Wilkinson the minister of education, if the long affair between the two of them had got out. Wilkinson might have been spared the political disappointment and stress which, it is thought, contributed to the overdose of barbiturates from which she died in February 1947. Morrison was so anxious to keep the affair quiet that

he did not go to her funeral, according to Wilkinson’s biographer Betty Vernon.

History repeated itself half a century later when two top Tories, John Major and Edwina Currie, took a shine to each other. By then the veil of secrecy worked less well. If they wanted to keep it out of the papers, they had to keep it from colleagues, too, which is why some people got some details wrong – not a subject dwelt on at the NS.

It’s understandable that our leaders like to keep their weaknesses and peccadilloes from us. But should we let them? We now know that during Suez, Anthony Eden’s calm exterior concealed bouts of rage and binge drinking. Perhaps, if it had been known at the time, Eden might have been prevented from taking Britain into what was, until Iraq, the most ill-judged war. We will probably have to wait another 50 years before finding out what state Blair was in when he led us into Iraq.

Eden might have become PM earlier if Winston Churchill’s stroke had not been hushed up in June 1953. Edward VIII’s 1936 affair with Wallis Simpson might not have come as such a shock if British newspapers had followed the example of their US counterparts and printed the story as soon as they knew. Cecil Parkinson might not have made his crucial contribution to Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 election victory if his affair with his Commons secretary, who was pregnant with his child, had become known a few months earlier.

We are accused of voyeurism for our interest in politicians’ peccadilloes. But the record suggests that the more we know about the lives of our leaders, the better the chance we have of stopping them doing something dreadful.

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