Peter Rawlinson’s memoirs (2): Mr Macmillan, my father and Stephen Ward

In my first blog in this series I wrote about a couple of features of Peter Rawlinson’s memoirs[1] that caught my eye for their relevance to the state of English justice today. In this follow-up blog I refer to two other passages in his book that I found interesting for a different reason.

In the first he described an incident in 1970 when Ted Heath, the new Prime Minister, gave a dinner party at Chequers for Harold Macmillan and the handful of ministers in his government who had also served in senior positions under Macmillan.  He said that what he called the “Stockton-Macmillan speech” (which I once heard the old man give in Balliol Hall) had not yet been conceived.  He described that speech like this:

“It was a work of art. It began in a stately manner with the funeral procession of Queen Victoria, led by Captain Ames, the tallest man in the British Army. This solemn introduction was followed by a somewhat quizzical reverie upon the number of domestic servants then in service in Edwardian England. That done, the orator … led his audience through the mud of Flanders in one war and the sands of the Western Desert in another. … The speech trotted along, gathering pace as it reflected on the role of the British as Greeks and the Americans as Romans and concluding in fine scorn over the sale of the family silver.”

Instead Harold Macmillan spoke on this occasion in 1970 of the men from Stockton and the Yorkshire coalfields who had fought and died with him at Ypres and Passchendaele and whose sons he had seen march past their Sovereign in triumph in the great parade after the victory in North Africa. He went on to reflect that we had at last become as a nation truly one people:

“’No one and indeed no organisation of our people must be crushed. Caution’, he counselled, staring into the fire, ‘caution and, above all, restraint’.”

I do not think it is now sufficiently well recognised how many leading members of the post-war Conservative Government thought like this. My father certainly did – and it was to Rab Butler and my father that Harold Macmillan said that he had largely left the conduct of affairs at home while he was involved in high level diplomacy on the world stage.

My father went into politics in 1929 seared by his experience of a year’s involvement in conducting adult education courses for unemployed miners at a Quaker settlement in the Rhondda Valley.[2]  He returned in 1934 to write articles for The Times called “Places without a Future” in which he described a visit to the coalfields in South Wales and Durham – articles which partly inspired the so-called ‘special areas’ legislation of the pre-war national coalition government.  The sheer waste of humanity he knew to be the inevitable consequence of large scale unemployment were also reflected in his maiden speech in the House of Commons in February 1939:

“Although I know the stagnation of many homes in the South Wales valleys, although I know those windswept villages of west Durham which the honourable member for Chester-le-Street must be proud to represent, although I have stood beside the silent harbour of Maryport, thinking to myself it would be good if the House of Commons were sometimes to meet in such places as that, yet I never feel the personal catastrophe of unemployment so keenly as when I see it driving down a man who has given his heart and work to trying to establish his wife and family in a position of some independence in the world – when such a man sees all his hopes dismissed because the firm in whose service he has made good has suffered some reverse, and because other employers have more jobs to offer to young bachelors than to uninsured married men watching their savings dwindle away till they vanish.”

He began that speech by saying that although the wording of the Opposition motion deplored a situation in which 289,000 people had been out of work for more than 12 months, he found that fact not deplorable, but intolerable.

In 1970 Harold Macmillan’s voice was a voice whistling in the wind, just as much as were the voices of the so-called “wets” in Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet who railed against her insouciance when unemployment topped 3 million and showed no sign of coming down under her monetarist policies.  But I can’t help thinking that different policies and different leaders, both within Government and industry and also within the trade unions, might have steered us to a happier future from 1970 onwards than one in which the Conservatives, who still sometimes describe themselves as a “One Nation” party, are today so unpopular that they can boast not a single MP in any of the great cities of the north.[3]

The other extract from Peter Rawlinson’s book forms the reason why I wanted to study it again. Of my father’s unhappy time as Home Secretary in 1962-4 (a job he had never wanted) his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography[4] records:

“He had to take a number of decisions in the field of immigration and deportation which infuriated libertarians. He seemed to display a certain insensitivity in these cases – an impression enhanced by his somewhat pedantic way of speech.”

His obituary in The Times[5] tells much the same story:

“He was a politician of many sterling qualities, able, conscientious and hard-working, but was visibly not at ease in turbulent times in the House of Commons, and this, together with a certain lack of sensitivity, led to much criticism during his time as Home Secretary.”

Iain Macleod’s biographer accurately portrayed the prevailing atmosphere at the end of Mr Macmillan’s time in office when he wrote:

“The time was ripe for satirists. The notion that a modern society should be ruled by its elders and betters was increasingly rejected, yet Macmillan’s Government had about it the aura of rule by elders and betters.  Inevitably, ministers (especially the hapless Home Secretary Henry Brooke) became the butt of some harsh satirical comment.”

I was living at home when the Profumo scandal blew up.  On Thursday 21 March 1963 Private Eye published an article containing some not particularly well-veiled references to the story that later unfolded: there had earlier been pieces in The Daily Express to much the same effect.  Later the same day my father was on the front bench in the House of Commons for over nine and a half hours, speaking in not one but two major debates in matters for which he had ministerial responsibility.[6]  Towards the end of the second debate three Labour MPs asked him to deny the rumours swirling around a Government minister.  Peter Rawlinson, who was then Solicitor General, describes how he and two other ministers then “drafted a few noncommittal words” for my father to use when he wound up the debate.  I am pretty sure that my father told me very soon afterwards that he did not know what the three MPs were talking about.

He was not involved in the questioning of John Profumo by five ministers that night nor with the statement Profumo made the following day in which he denied any impropriety.

Five days later, on Wednesday 27th March, he was joined by his Permanent Under-Secretary (Sir Charles Cunningham) when he had a meeting with the Head of the Security Service (Sir Roger Hollis) and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner (Sir Joseph Simpson): as Lord Denning described in his Report, he had ministerial responsibility for both their organisations and he wanted to know what was known about Stephen Ward.

During the course of his inquiry Lord Denning would have interviewed all of them and inspected the contemporary records. He describes how:

“The Home Secretary then asked the Commissioner of Police whether there was a police interest. The Commissioner said that there probably would be grounds for the prosecution of Stephen Ward if the police were able to get the full story, but he very much doubted whether they would succeed in this.”

Lord Denning describes how following this meeting the Commissioner gave further consideration to the question of prosecuting Stephen Ward, and on [Monday] 1st April set on foot the investigation which eventually led to his prosecution.

Plenty of very rude things were said about my father in his lifetime, particularly about his time as Home Secretary.  He never believed in leaking his own version of events to the Press or in publishing self-exculpatory memoirs.  If you were asked to do a difficult job in the public eye, he believed that you should take responsibility for your actions and depend on the public record and the opinions of those who knew you well.  His first junior minister, Reg Bevins (whose son was in due course a distinguished political journalist), said of him[7]:

“He was as straight as a die, the most honest politician I have ever known. Confronted by any problem, most ministers ask themselves, first: what is the right course to take and, in the light of this, what is politically expedient. I know of some who only ask the second question. Henry Brooke only asked himself the first and stopped at that.”

Perhaps this was his undoing as Home Secretary.  A little later Bevins wrote:

“His detractors are very bad judges of character, for he was as I have already said, the most honest man in British politics and a man who as Home Secretary, was most unfairly judged.”

But however many rude things were said about him, I don’t believe it was ever suggested during his lifetime that he had directed the police to “get” Ward, as Geoffrey Robertson suggested recently in his otherwise very interesting account of the Stephen Ward prosecution and trial.[8]

This is where Peter Rawlinson comes in.  He had first become involved in the affair nearly two months earlier when Billy Rees-Davies MP told him of rumours about Profumo’s relationship with Christine Keeler, and he had heard John Profumo deny there was any truth in them at a meeting with the Attorney-General (Sir John Hobson) a few days later. He was also on the front bench in the Commons on 21st March when the three Labour MPs raised the matter on the floor of the House, and he was involved in the interview and in the drafting of the statement Profumo made to the House the following day.

In his book he describes the course of events at the end of March 1963 and writes:

“Later commentators[9] have alleged that Henry Brooke had instigated that investigation and the subsequent prosecution. That is untrue, and is a libel upon him and upon Sir Charles Cunningham … and upon the Commissioner for Metropolitan Police; and upon John Hobson, who as Attorney-General bore the sole constitutional responsibility for all prosecutions.  Neither Henry Brooke nor John was involved, nor were they consulted.  Their accusers claim that this investigation and prosecution of Ward was an act of political malice and revenge.  That is absurd.”

He goes on to point out that, regarded solely from the point of view of party political interests, the very last thing the government wanted after John Profumo’s personal statement, which had apparently lanced the boil, was for there to be staged a sensational trial with massive publicity.   He also suggested that it was impossible for the police to ignore all the allegations and accusations and gossip about the behaviour of prominent people and their conduct with women if they wished to avoid a charge that they were failing in their duty out of favour to the interests of people in high places – how familiar all this sounds today.

Anyhow, however that may be, it was comforting to re-read Peter Rawlinson’s final comments on this episode:

“Henry Brooke and John Hobson did not seek to call off the police. Neither did they set the police on to Ward. They are both dead and unable to refute these intrinsically silly but nevertheless cruel libels.  In fact, I well recollect the concern when the Attorney-General realized that a criminal trial lay ahead”.

Like everyone else who has read Geoffrey Robertson’s book[10], I will be very interested to learn whether anything comes of his scholarly attack on the fairness of the trial process in the Stephen Ward case. But his attack on my dead father was an add-on, and in the light of Peter Rawlinson’s very robust denials and my own knowledge of at least one of the people involved I was sorry he made it.[11]



Since writing this blog I have re-read Bernard Levin’s book The Pendulum Years (Sceptre, 1970).  Although he was no admirer of any of the Tory Ministers (least of all, my father), he observes that Stephen Ward showed political naivety when he complained that the police investigation was politically inspired:

“The picture Ward was by now painting … was on the face of it absurd; if his betters wanted their behaviour concealed, the prosecution of a man like Ward was hardly the way to go about it.”

[1] Peter Rawlinson, A Price Too High, (Butler & Tanner 1989).

[2] In her book William Noble and his wife Emma (Friends Home Service Committee 1961), which describes the Maes-yr-haf Settlement in Trealaw, Kathleen Butterworth wrote how my father, then aged 24, was in at the beginning of what was to become a remarkably successful experiment in communal living:

“They had nine classes in the first year: ‘Problems of Philosophy’; “A Survey of Political Thought’, ‘Rights and Obligations’ were some of the subjects seriously studied by groups of unemployed miners, hungry, cold, with no prospect of easier days to come. But how hungry they had been for just this kind of occupation for their minds, for this balance against the bitterness of their thoughts…”

[3] In my father’s day, one of his Parliamentary Secretaries at the Ministry of Housing was the locally born MP for the Toxteth division of Liverpool; his successor was the MP for Leeds North-East.

[4] This entry was written by Lord Blake and appeared in the Dictionary of National Biography, Missing Persons (OUP, 1993), pp 91-92.

[5] The Times, 30th March 1984. A subsequent tribute, by Lord Molson, describes how he was the main driving force in making London a smokeless zone:

“When he set himself the task, the prospect of penetrating – let alone of disposing – the smog seemed dim. There were many who told him that to change so completely the London atmosphere was impossible, practically and financially. His persistence and his deep knowledge of government, central and local, achieved a change in the London environment which only the rapidly diminishing number of us who can remember the old ‘pea soup’ fogs can appreciate.” (The Times, 3rd April 1984).

I can still remember driving a car from Gower Street to Hampstead in dense black fog in the autumn of 1962. It took a very long time.

[6] The first concerned Chief Enahoro, whose return pursuant to the Fugitive Offenders Act was sought by the new Federal Government of Nigeria.  The other related to the two journalists who had recently been jailed by the Radcliffe Tribunal for refusing to reveal their sources.

[7] In his book the Greasy Pole, published in 1965.

[8] Stephen Ward was Innocent, OK (Biteback Publishing, 2013).

[9] He may have been referring to Philip Knightley and Caroline Kennedy, in An Affair of State, a book published in 1987, three years after my father’s death.

[10] See note 8 above.

[11] In case it should be said that they were bound by ties of friendship, I should add that my father had very little in common with Peter Rawlinson, apart from being a fellow member of the same government and of the same political party.

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