Category Archives: Harold Wilson

Good golly, Miss Molly!

Little Richard, and this must be when music videos went OTT:

This short (I hope) post is about recognition. And, I’d guess, while three generations would instantly recognise “Little Richard”, the recognition factor for Richard Wayne Penniman would be closer to zilch.

The mouth of first resort

On a number of occasions over the years I’ve wondered how “famous” sayings are invariably — and erroneously — attached to a very small number of individuals. WS Churchill being too often a prime suspect.

Sure enough, post #167 of a thread, we were given:

A famous man once said that wogs begin at Calais.

The “famous man” would be — but, of course — Churchill. I keep coming across assertions that Churchill made the remark, or — more credibly

The phrase originated when a Member of Parliament in 1945 stood up and accused Winston Churchill of believing that “Wogs start in Calais” i.e. of being europhobic and isolationist.

So far, the nearest precise citation I can find is George Wigg (later Harold Wilson’s wingman, and one of the prime movers in getting the Profumo scandal on the record) in a Commons Debate, 29th July 1949.

Here he is putting the unreconstructed David Gammans, the unreconstructed Tory MP for Hornsey, back into his box:

I recently had the opportunity of talking to some Burmese gentlemen, and one of the things they said was that they never realised until they came here and met ordinary people, what the British people were like. They thought they were all haughty and arrogant. The hon. Gentleman and his Friends think they are all “wogs.” Indeed, the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) thinks that the “wogs” start at Calais. If one views people like the hon. Gentleman from the angle of a private soldier, one realises that to them there are black “wogs” and white “wogs.” The attitude of hon. Members opposite to the black chap is not much different from the attitude of some of them towards the private soldier, and that is why the Forces have a great sympathy with the native peoples.

Further proof, should one need it, never to take a book by its cover.

Now to decode:

Tutti frutti, aw rutti
Awop bop a loo mop atop bom bom.


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Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

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Harry Chapman Pincher

There are going to be an ample sufficiency of obituaries for the guy over the next few days: all the “heavies” have been anticipating his demise this long while — typically he kept them waiting for the copy.

I would remember him, probably unfairly, in one particular context.

My parents took the Beaverbrook Daily Express, and in North Norfolk I grew up with a morning ration of Rupert the Bear and Giles cartoons.


As the Bobster has it:

Ah, but I was so much older then,
I’m younger than that now.

Alas: I only learned that much older and later.

Howeversover …

I can now reconstruct precisely where I was and what I was doing around 10 a.m. on 15 March 1963

Mum and Dad had gone to work. I was the bone-idle university student struggling out of my pit. Around 10 a.m. I was yawning over my parent’s Express, and puzzling over the curious proximity of what ought to be two very different stories, presented side-by-side in parallel columns.

I wasn’t in the loop, like 50-odd million other Brits. Yet, clearly, I was being told something: what was the link between a Jamaican drug-dealer with a gun, and the  Secretary of State for War — oh, and why was this Miss Keeler involved? At this distance I do not recall if she got the customary bosom shot.

Nor do I not recall Chapman Pincher’s name on either story. I do know that I suddenly realised the Express, as edited by Robert Edwards and his acolytes, had the entrée to another, hidden world.  Thus I became addicted.

Pincher did get by-lined on many, many other stories. They were clearly inconsistent, but obviously had “connections”. Only later did we learn he was being fed by the likes of Peter “Skycatcher” Wright.

Even then it took a leap of intellect to recognise a very right-wing cadre was at work here. The chain was:

Ambitious MI5 second-tier operatives
➪  let’s do for the boss, Roger Hollis
➪ let’s get Harold Wilson
➪ channels though Tory MPs, such as Jonathan Aitken
➪ Pincher
➪ let’s screw the Labour Party, using what we know about (e.g.) Tom Driberg
➪ Airey Neave
➪ Margaret Thatcher.

Whatever Nixon’s plumbers did at the Watergate, it was prototyped by the likes of Wright who:

bugged and burgled our way across London at the State’s behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.

Some of what the buggers and burglars uncovered dropped into the lap of Chapman Pincher.

Perhaps posthumously other ordure may be dropped.

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Do no evil

It remains one of the mysteries of our time. Why have the Tories, who don’t seem over-endowed with clear-thinking, clear-speaking parliamentary ability, not already given Rory Stewart a desk in the Foreign Office or the MoD? Why waste talent? Is there something magical about the wind and water of the Menschs and worse of this world?

Something more than populist clap-trap

Stewart did a decent job for BBC2 with his two-parter on the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan.  Now Malcolm finds him in the New York Review of Books reviewing Diana Preston on  Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842. As it happens, Malcolm doubts la belle dame Preston will earn any lasting space on Malcolm’s shelf-space, and he suspects Stewart — in these three pages — knows more and writes a lot better. He skewers her catchpenny pot-boiling through her:

remark that “the political and moral aspects [are] both more subjective and difficult to analyse


This reluctance to investigate the contradictory detail of policy decisions, and to assess the moral and intellectual foundations of the occupation, is also characteristic of almost every book on the Afghan invasion beginning in 2001. It may also be symptomatic of our culture… Our inability to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes of occupation, to recognise an impossible mission, to expose the flimsiest of national security arguments, or to accept the limitations of government institutions abroad (the prerequisites for any withdrawal), seems a weakness not just of our historians but also of our policymakers.

Stewart concludes with:

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s favourite line: “Rule number one in politics is: never invade Afghanistan.”

The difference between then and now is not, as Stewart shrewdly notes, there is any valid comparison between Afghanistan in 1838 and 2008, but that attitudes in the West remain unchanged and unchanging.

Another difference is that, unlike Western leaders today, Captain Macmillan of the Grenadiers had been at the Somme. Macmillan never forgot that, of the Balliol intake of 1912, he and one other were the only survivors out of twenty-eight.

Doing as little evil as possible

Similarly, Malcolm reflects on the political chasm, which came oh-so-close to splitting the British Labour Movement in the maelstrom that was the later 1960s.

One of the worthier achievement of Harold Wilson’s premiership may be that he kept Britain out of the Vietnam embroilment. Peter Davies did a fine essay on just this in 2008 — which Malcolm has sadly discarded. To preserve and protect the relationship with the Johnson Administration (particularly when the position of sterling was a paramount consideration), Wilson was prepared to expend diplomatic credit; but that was it.

Malcolm recalls, and shudders, recalling the pressures that the Atlanticists, on Labour’s right wing, were attempting to apply. In due course it became clear just how many of those shrill voices had been bought, albeit indirectly, by CIA money.

It was all, to coin (ahem!) a phrase, a Strange Encounter.

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A famous face

Paul Waugh, at PoliticsHome, has a scoop of national proportions:

… from today, the PM’s address is finally on Google StreetView for everyone to see.

The public haven’t been able to go right upto the famous black door since the mid 1990s and the days of John Major.

But perhaps the best thing is that Larry the Cat is in the pic – you have to zoom in quite close but he’s there to the left of the No.10 door. Never camera-shy is Larry.

Waugh cheekily suggests an ulterior motive:

FOOTNOTE: Google’s own co-founder Larry Page, may be more than happy to see his namesake.

About the only personality around Downing Street whose reputation does not get savaged by the media, on a routine basis, is the official Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office.

A Malcolmian aside:

When the world was much younger, Malcolm and the Lady who soon thereafter entered his Life full-time wandered across Green Park.

In those gentler days of the summer of 1967, all-and-sundry were still able to treat Downing Street as just another public thoroughfare.

It was chucking-out time after some official jolly, and an assembly of the Great and the Good were on Harold Wilson’s doorstep. The Earl Attlee (who died that autumn) was wheeled out to be loaded into a limousine.

A voice in the crowd on the opposite pavement called, “Good on you, Clem”, to widespread approval and cheers.

Clem and V’s cat at Number Ten was Peter (and succeeded in office by Peter II).

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Our black sentence and proscription

This isn’t Rome, 23rd November, 43BC. That’s when Octavius, Antony and Crassus stitched up an unstable political alliance. As soon as Crassus was off on an errand, the other two were marking his card:

Antony: This is a slight unmeritable man,
Meet to be sent on errands: is it fit,
The three-fold world divided, he should stand
One of the three to share it?
Octavius: So you thought him;
And took his voice who should be prick’d to die,
In our black sentence and proscription.

Our ConDem government is — allegedly — “run” (if only!), and all our fates decreed  by a “quad“, not a triumvirate. John Rentoul is no Shakespeare, but, today in the Sindy, he is as trenchant and readable as ever.

He starts with the obvious:

Jeremy Hunt probably will resign …

before adding:

but if he does it will be for his secondary crime of misleading the House of Commons, rather than for his original misjudgement.

The end and the means

Well, they nailed Al Capone on tax evasion. In the last resort, all that matters is the cat gets skinned. And, in English politics, lying to Parliament ranks more worse than treason or regicide: remember John Profumo.

Rentoul goes on to a forensic dissection of Hunt’s “misjudgement”, but not before his typically-shrewd comment, a chilling reminder of the realities of political life:

As All the President’s Men taught us, it is the cover-up that brings down the powerful, rather than the original offence.

He is correct, too, in skewering Hunt as a slight, unmeritable man:

In any case, sacking your special adviser by telling him “Everyone here thinks you need to go” ought itself to be a sacking offence. A politician who cannot bring himself to say “I have decided, and I am really sorry about it, that you need to go” is not worth a place in the Cabinet.

What remains unexplained there is exactly what happened on 24th-25th April, when Adam Smith was disgraced. The Guardian‘s running blog on the Inquiry has it like this:

12.36pm: Jay turns to 24 April 2012, when James Murdoch gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry.

Smith was warned that evidence from Murdoch might be relevant to his position at the DCMS.

He watched Murdoch’s evidence on TV, he says. His initial reaction was that it wasn’t the “whole picture”.

12.37pm: Jay says there was a “vast” amount of text messages and phone calls between Smith and Michel that preceded the emails. Smith says that is fair.

Smith spoke to Hunt after Murdoch’s evidence and he was able to read the emails online.

He told Hunt that he would resign if the pressure became too great.

Hunt replied “It won’t come to that,” according to Smith.

Smith says he told Hunt that the emails were one-sided and in many cases exaggerated.

12.39pm: Hunt accepted Smith’s explanation at that point, he says. Smith had a drink with Hunt and the other special advisers in the office that evening.

“Was the mood upbeat?” asks Jay.

“It wasn’t in a relaxed manner,” says Smith.

It was very pressured and one of the most stressful days that certainly I’d had to deal with.

12.40pm: The next morning Hunt had various meetings at which Smith wasn’t present.

Then Hunt told Smith in a meeting: “Everyone here thinks you need to go.”

Read it again: Hunt had various meetings at which Smith wasn’t present. That’s as telling, in its own way, as any rat behind the arras.

Someone, somewhere, during that morning (was it Number 10, where Smith’s resignation letter was being composed?) put a bit of fibre into Hunt’s backbone: “a shiver ran through the government front bench, looking for a spine up which to run”.

A Malcolmian aside:

That’s not Miranda Lambert. It’s not Paul Keating. It’s not Winnie Ewing. It’s probably not even Harold Wilson (though that was Malcolm’s first encounter). Malcolm has a faint recollection (which he will endeavour to pursue) that it comes from Disraeli, or that era.

A scape-goat and an ass in the Commons

It’s Leviticus XVI, verse 8 that tells of what Aaron got up to on the Day of Atonement:

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other for the scapegoat.

So Adam Smith got the wrong side of the spinning coin. Even so, Hunt’s usefulness is limited, and his days are still numbered. Atonement is nigh.

It’s all somehow curiously reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Rome (and we’re still in the same scene):

… though we lay these honours on this man,
To ease ourselves of divers slanderous loads,
He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold,
To groan and sweat under the business,
Either led or driven, as we point the way;
And having brought our treasure where we will,
Then take we down his load, and turn him off,
Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears,
And graze in commons.

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Talking Bagehot

Malcolm takes some stick because he hides behind a pseudonym. Admittedly, in his/my own small way, it induces schizophrenia— particularly so when “Malcolm” concocts a juicy bon mot that needs retailing.

Moving swiftly on, there was a nice Bagehot item which popped up in the Economist blog:

TAKING a break from pondering the crisis in Libya, your blogger was asked to join a BBC radio debate this morning about politicians on holiday, and whether it is reasonable to expect prime ministers, presidents and their underlings to rush back from Tuscany, Martha’s Vineyard or wherever when a crisis breaks out.

I was up against a media historian, Jean Seaton …

By a venerable tradition, Economist pieces are anonymous. So, those of us attuned to BBC Radio 4’s Today on Tuesday heard:

Is it good for politics that we are in the habit of calling our leaders back from holiday when a crisis breaks?

“Although we all know that at some level this is nonsense, it kind of reflects the lives of voters too,” according to David Rennie, of the Economist magazine.

In practice, the Bagehot identity is a very thin disguise: it has been penetrated by the The Guardian and by wikipedia.

Anyone who feels that the London media represents a very tight circle should note:

  • David Rennie is son of Sir John Rennie.

Rennie père was a spook — and a very big cheese in Spookland at that — Harold Wilson’s nomination (1968) as Head of MI6, no less. That caused ructions in Spookland — Rennie was outside the magic circle; and thus earning the strong distrust of an even bigger spook, Sir Maurice Oldfield, who believed it was his turn. There were two further complications of Rennie’s tenure as ÜberSpookMeister:

  • On Ted Heath’s suggestion (1971), he sent an MI6 officer, Frank Steele, to Northern Ireland. This breached the rule that Ulster was an MI5 fiefdom (and the full inter-departmental ramifications of that may not be fully unravelled this side of the next millennium); but it also opened a back-stairs channel to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (which is why the ultras will never fully accept either).
  • The other Rennie son, Charles, got done for a heroin bust, and was gaoled. Der Stern, doubtless without too much provocation, in a fit of Germanic rectitude promptly named Rennie as Head of MI6, thus allowing — in due succession — Oldfield to re-assume the pallium, and peace to be restored between Spookdom and their political helots.

and —

  • Jean Seaton is the widow of Ben Pimlott.

Pimlott was one of the formative spirits of decent “Labourism” in the Thatcher years, exposing the Party’s lack of a credible economic alternative. He was a political biographer of major stature — his work on Wilson (see above) was far more exhaustive, and favourable, than others would like. Above all, he maintained that the post-War Butskellite consensus of British politics was a false conception. To nobody’s great surprise, his intellectual honesty and leftism were out of fashion when the Blairites took over.

  • Pimlott earned the unfailing suspicion of one of Fleet Street’s finest — Chapman Pincher. Pincher was, in E.P.Thompson‘s neat descriptiona kind of official urinal in which ministers and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking, fully conscious it would be retreaded in the Daily Express next morning. Pincher (dribbled on, doubtless, by the likes of Peter “Spycatcher” Wright) was convinced Harold Wilson and other prominent Labour politicians were Russian agents.

What would be really, really interesting is to learn — not in fifty years or so, when Malcolm in all identities will be lost and gone before — is which present government ministers are sidelining on behalf of foreign powers — as Michael Stewart was for the CIA in Wilson’s Cabinet.

In passing, MI6 issued its first recruiting advertisement (April 2006) — in The Economist. Philby, of course, was one of several journalists who double-jobbed for The Economist and MI6.

Once upon a time, before computer analyses became available, Malcolm experimented with dendrograms of connections. It was truly illuminating to pair up individuals and their activities through comparisons of published sources.

A tree of the links between the BBC, the intelligence services, The Economist, the London School of Economics and … oh, say for examples … Policy Exchange and/or the Heritage Foundation.

See! It’s not just schizophrenia, it’s rampant paranoia!

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