A snotty youth

I was trying to remember the circumstances in which Auberon Waugh caused a mob to burn down the British consulate in Rawalpindi — it was one of his favourite stories — and so pulled from the shelves The Spectator anthology of the Eighties, which had a lot more of me in it than I remember writing. It didn’t have the Bron Waugh story, though, which turned out to have been told in Slate by Hitchens.

One of my jobs was to write the Portrait of the Week, which meant a couple of hours with the newspapers every Tuesday morning in the little room at the back of the building where Shiva Naipaul once greeted me with half a tumbler of whisky at eleven in the morning. The fun was to arrange the facts so that they spoke for themselves, saying something entirely different to the story they had been constrained to tell in their original newspapers. Here are two that I wrote about the Westland Affair, a scandal almost exactly twenty years old:

bq.. Mr Heseltine was informed at a Cabinet meeting that all his future statements on the Westland affair would have to be approved by the Cabinet Office. He swept together his papers (history ignores his hair) and left the room, and his job. Within an hour, Mr George Younger had been appointed to his place; within four hours, Mr Heseltine had produced a spontaneous, yet enviably polished 3,500 words to justify his resignation and accuse the Prime Minister of a ‘constitutional outrage’. After that, both sides in the dispute returned to their previous less flamboyant tactics of showing to selected journalists as many Cabinet papers and secret documents as seemed necessary to prove the other side guilty of bad faith and breach of confidence. Mr Brittan rose in the House to defend himself, and was immediately surprised by questions about a private and confidential letter to Mrs Thatcher. They were, however, inaccurately framed. He was enabled with perfect truth to deny that he knew of the supposed letter’s existence, which gave the unfortunate impression that he knew nothing of the real letter. Being a man distinguished even among lawyers for his scrupulous honesty, Mr Brittan returned to the House that evening and apologised. Mr Kinnock rose to the house and spoke for the nation when he announced: ‘Someone has been telling the truth and someone else has not been telling the truth.’ The text of the letter, which contradicted Mr Brittan’s account of a meeting with British Aerospace, was then released.

Mrs Thatcher explained that this week’s crucial letter in the Westland scandal, one sent on 6 January from the Solicitor-General to Mr Heseltine, had in fact been leaked by the Department of Trade and Industry, on Mr Brittan’s orders, and that she fully approved of this, though she did not know it had been done. Mr Brittan, fortified by this expression of confidence, resigned, in order to satisfy the 1922 Committee, and was replaced by Mr Paul Channon. The question then arose: why had Mrs Thatcher, whose press secretary and principal private secretary had both approved Mr Brittan’s action, remained in ignorance of what had happened for 16 days during which the newspapers had hardly talked of anything else? In the subsequent parliamentary debate this question was neither clearly put by Mr Kinnock nor answered by Mrs Thatcher. It did, however, emerge that she had known in advance that the famous letter would be written, and that the Solicitor-General himself had nearly resigned when his letter was leaked.

In retrospect, this was a crucial moment in the absorption of Britain as a colony of the United States, yet no one except perhaps Heseltine understood this. What I remember being shocked by was the anti-Semitism of the Tory party, which turned out to contain MPs who thought Leon Brittan a foreigner because he was Jewish.

Could anyone then have forseen that within twenty years, the research portions of the War Ministry Ministry of Defence would have been sold off to an American venture capital fund, which will make a gigantic profit on the deal, and that a former British Prime Minister would be among the profiteers?

This entry was posted in Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.