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A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir – WILLIAM WALDEGRAVE

May 29, 2017

This man was my MP for several years and, even though my politics were radically opposed to his, I always found him to be gracious. His hand-written replies to my many letters always got to the point and answered the questions I had actually asked. He was not afraid to go against the party line, e.g. he opposed the death penalty.

Whilst lamenting the death of one-nation Toryism, he soon bought into the myth that trade union leaders were ‘thugs’ in the pay of the USSR.

He makes a valiant attempt to explain why the poll tax was fairer than the rates.

The youngest of seven children, and the son of an earl, Waldegrave’s quintessentially English upbringing would go on to shape the course of his life, instilling in him a sense of independence and self-discipline needed to steel one for a successful career in government. Formative years spent at Eton, Oxford and Harvard fortified his resolve to enter the political establishment, and by the early seventies he finally achieved his greatest ambition.

(Waldegrave recounts how, at the age of fifteen, a schoolmaster at Eton told his class to write out their life’s ambitions.  His included being foreign secretary in Macleod’s government, becoming Prime Minister, revising the then propoal to demolish Trafalgar Square and in retirement to produce a definitive translation of Thucydides.)

As an fearless young Conservative politician in the seventies and eighties, one who witnessed the fall of Heath and the triumph and eventual decline of Thatcher, Waldegrave was firmly at the heart of one of the most exciting and tumultuous periods of modern British history. However just as his star was in the ascent, Waldegrave became embroiled in a scandal which tarnished his reputation, but could not dampen his voracious enthusiasm for the political game.

He feels a bit sorry for himself.


“how peripheral I was … never again to be on an upswing”

‘Why did you go into politics in the first place?’

 I want to have a go at answering the question you sometimes hear the journalist ask, advancing microphone in hand on the disaster victim: ‘What did it feel like?’

There is authority for this kind of enterprise from a former fellow of my college, G. M. Young. He wrote that historians like himself needed to know not only what happened, but ‘what people felt about it when it was happening’. Or, as the great literary critic Frank Kermode wrote, the autobiographer must try to describe ‘the weather … the private weather’.

Everything seems the same; but in reality, everything is completely dif­ferent. It is perhaps the particular skill of the British to do the opposite to a snake. A snake changes its skin but remains the same inside; we keep the skin, but the body changes.

Conversation flowed over my head and left me always pretending that I too got the joke. In a taxi — I can locate it — passing by Buckingham Palace, my late-teenage sisters were discussing some suitor or other: `What an idiot he was! He said it was one of Beethoven’s best violin concertos!’ I had no idea what was wrong with the poor sap’s remark, but then and there I silently vowed never to allow myself to be in a situation where I could be humiliated like the poor young suitor. Head down over the years ahead, at three in the morning ploughing through Greek texts, or trying to understand the theory of relativity, or reading Nabokov or Sartre or Aristotle, I tried to equip myself to avoid humiliation.

Always straining to keep up makes you compete for attention, and it makes you work hard. I wrote a regular newspaper on my Imperial `Good Companion’ portable typewriter when I was four or five; it was full of energy, politics and stories (mostly science fiction). I strained at books with vocabulary far beyond my understanding. I thought there was nothing that could not be known…. You had to be equipped not to be squashed by a sister in all sorts of unex­pected fields. I knew in my heart of hearts that I could keep up; but I also knew that keeping up was hard work.

I was often alone, because all of my elder siblings were either away at school or grown up. Once morning lessons with Val and Martin were over, I would play by myself, perhaps bowling a cricket ball at a stump, collecting it, then bowling it again. I would hear waves of applause: Waldegrave has taken the tenth wicket! The crowd is on its feet.’ I would say to myself, ‘If I don’t hit the centre stump in the next three balls, I will not be prime minister . . . Oh, all right, four balls.’ Cheering crowds again: Prime Minister Waldegrave, cheers; General Waldegrave, cheers; the whole world cheering me. I see now that it was all a bit lonely; but I did not think so then.

Some things were absent. My mother banned Enid Blyton on stylistic grounds. More interestingly, she disliked C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories: she thought you should get Christianity straight, not dressed up with talking animals. She approved of The Screwtape Letters, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength (another book which gave me nightmares), though. Later, I kicked up a storm about censorship. Someone had taken my copy of Lolita and I demanded my human rights. `Have you looked behind your bedside table where your books usually fall?’ my mother wondered. It was, annoyingly, there. Her advice on love and sex was delivered through books with themes more pertinent than Nabokov’s. She did not preach, but asked me to consider the avoidance of hurt, the danger of the misuse of power in unequal relationships, the reality of love.

I would think of my father; and I still do. He had a genius for seeing too many sides to any question, and an eloquence with which he drove himself to distraction over the simplest decisions. At the time of the Coronation, which my father and mother attended in their robes, my thirteen-year-old brother — who also par­ticipated, as a page — kept a rather brilliant short diary. It provides an account of the discussion at Chewton House about whether, on the drive to London, it would be wise to stop for a picnic. What if there was no suitable stopping point? What if it rained? Why not stop at a pub instead? And so on, back and forth. The many changes of plan imparted to Mrs Emmett led her to remark, ‘His lordship will never hang himself,’ which became a family saying. The outcome was that a picnic was taken, but Mrs Emmett, by then completely bemused, packed an uncooked chicken.

When I was lying not very well in that bedroom, where the tremendous peal of Chewton Church’s nine bells, very loud on that side of the house, filled me with inexplicable sadness, I found an odd thing. No one could know what my thoughts were. No one could know, if I chose to worship Poseidon, Zeus, or Athene, rather than another god. The sense of the discovery of freedom stays with me still.

but I remain certain that chil­dren who want to learn should be given books that they have to struggle to understand. If they cannot puzzle out everything, they imagine their own version. At least, I suspect I did that.

Something else was laid down as a useful deposit in my mind by this absorption, then and later, in the classical world. I am heterosexual, but if  ( your myths are primarily the myths of classical Greece, you become used to the idea that Zeus, King of the Gods, falls for Ganymede as much as    for Leda or Europa. This must help-to inoculate you against homophobia better than an education grounded solely in all those comminatory books beloved by Christians, Jews and Muslims. It inoculated me, at any rate. It is odd to think of the passionate contradictions those Victorian         churchmen must have felt, knowing every word of Plato’s Symposiumin the Greek, but going along with laws derived from the savagery of Leviticus, whose Aramaic they-could read just as fluently.

Noblesse oblige is ridiculed now; but in the society we have created, which is even less equal than that of my childhood in terms of the distribution of wealth, no slogan exists to shame the rich into any semblance of solidarity with the poor (page 43)

So much for the “Big Society” of posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk. (Lord Waldegrave surely does know; his farms sell it).

Sentimentality about how the ultimate instruments of state power – soldiers, police – act in reality is a dangerous thing

It is wrong to commit the state to the support of the arms trade. It is wrong that the Ministry of Defence is a promotional arm of British Aerospace and other arms manufacturers, and that the Department of Trade backs up MoD in a perpetual joint campaign to promote the export of weapons

There was luck, too, at, of all places, my prep school, Pinewood. The great Bishop Trevor Huddleston – author of Naught for Your Comfort and the white man who did more for South Africa than any other, accord­ing to Nelson Mandela – was a friend of one of the boys’ parents, and he was invited to talk to us. So, the first time I ever heard the true story of modern South Africa, it came from the lips of one of the most powerful white voices raised against apartheid. Fifty years later, I was able to tell this to Mr Mandela himself.

You did Greats because it carried most prestige, not because you wanted to be the next Wilamowitz. F. E.’s repartee was the best, and Lord Randolph’s invective; it was not for their views on Ireland or fiscal reform that you loved them. It was a culture of competition, pure and simple — of winning, of life as sport, with a podium finish the only thing that mattered and the top spot all that could be admitted as a possibility.

I now think it is a poor model for life. The pious biographies by their sons did not tell us of F. E.’s alcoholism or Lord Randolph’s syphi­lis. It was a poorer ethic, I now think, (though I did not then, nor for many years) than that provided by the gentle social conservatism of the Chewton Estate and my father’s rectory upbringing. The tension between the two has remained with me all my life, and it was there from the very beginning: quiet continuity represented by the unchanging ritu­als of Chewton, and public service as duty, not for fame; or a life lived for the applause won by buccaneering heroes who bestride shattered worlds? Hence, perhaps, my recurrent later political schizophrenia: Heath or Thatcher? Enoch Powell or Quintin Hogg? Conservative or radical?

If the ‘yes’ campaigners had said, ‘This is what we want! A single great new nation of Europe, to stand as equal with America and Russia,’ a majority of the British people might even have signed up to the European integration project. But they did not say that. Instead, they said, ‘Nothing will really change. Britain will still be Britain. Just trust us.’ Because that was palpably false, Britain never committed itself to an honest and fun­damental change.

Constituency work is hard, and in a real sense thankless. At general elections, swings are almost always uniform, however conscientious an MP has been over the previous four or five years. You can probably con­tribute to the loss of a seat; but the conventional wisdom is that a good MP is only ever worth a few hundred votes. A few spectacular counter­examples can be found, but normally it is the party label after your name for which people vote, or refuse to vote. The effect of MPs’ surgeries on one’s view of humanity must be a little like the effect of prolonged exposure to the insane on a psychiatrist: madness becomes the norm. If every Friday evening or Saturday morning you sit listening to people with extremely intricate and mostly insoluble problems, you may well make the mistake of believing that everyone is complaining, all of the time, about everything. You tend to forget the 99 per cent of your con­stituents who have better things to do than visit their MP.

There are, of course, consolations: sometimes you manage to help someone who really needs it; you get to know one small patch of the nation in minute detail (a decisive argument, to my mind, in favour of smallish, single-member constituencies); and occasionally you hear, usually from modest, elderly people, the most astounding life stories.

sometimes, I would touch every third lamp-post, or not tread on the gaps between paving stones — through fear not of the bears, but of failure.

Not long before, the Conservatives had sent a can­didate by the name of Dicks to fight Cocks, which delighted Michael. Walking in procession up Park Street in Bristol’s grand Remembrance Day parade one year, I was alongside Michael. Tony was just in front, well within earshot. ‘Do you want to know when I realised Tony was potty?’ asked Michael, addressing Tony’s back as much as me. ‘It was on this occasion a few years back. As we came past the Boy Scouts — you see them drawn up there? — Tony said to me, “Doesn’t the power of the state terrify you?” Potty! Quite potty!’ I kept out of it, and both remained 1 friendly acquaintances. Labour chief whip though he was, Michael used to give me sensible advice in the House: ‘Throw away that young fogey waistcoat’ was one wise tip. On another occasion he said I had been mumbling at the despatch box, with my head down. ‘I will go and sit three rows up, and you keep your head up and look at me!’ he said. So he abandoned the formidable seat of the chief whip, at the end of the front row, behind the table, and sat instead among his alarmed junior col­leagues, to help a wicked young Tory, but a wicked young West Country Tory.

Perhaps people go into applause-seeking careers, like politics or journal­ism or acting, because they want to prove — to themselves and others — that they can overcome the very neuroses that make them ill-suited for such roles in the first place. Perhaps we would do better to select our politicians by lot, as the Athenians did.

I still believed if you did things right, you would somehow be rewarded by the great examiners in the sky, as if you had done a good finals paper. Some hope, as I later dis­covered:

Finally, there is the simplest lesson of all: if you wake up one day and think, ‘There is no significant life beyond politics,’ then that is the time to quit. You are an addict, in the grip of an addiction that threatens both yourself and others. The electorate rescued me from this danger; and, in the end, I was grudgingly grateful.

on Ted Heath: “I think I understand it. Coming from right outside the centre of the British Establishment, he made himself indispensable to it; believed that he was family with it, and found that when he didn’t deliver victory they didn’t feel that he was family at all and was then left feeling embittered in a deeply more personal sense than just because he had been beaten.”

Enoch Powell said that a politician complaining about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea. But perhaps it is allowable even for sailors to get seasick from time to time.

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