Jeremy Lewis, David Astor, London, Vintage, 2016; William Waldegrave, A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir, London, Constable, 2015.
Books sometimes achieve canonical status. One such is George Dangerfield’s, The Strange Death of Liberal England, which argued that the Liberal Party was destroyed before 1914 by the Conservative party’s resistance to the Parliament Act of 1911; the threat of war in Ireland by Ulster Unionists, hostile to the government’s Home Rule policy; the suffragette movement, under the Pankhursts, and the militancy of trade unions.
The fact that the House of Lords backed down; that Ireland sent two divisions to fight in the war against Germany; that the suffragettes were marginalised and that industrial unrest was settled before the outbreak of war, has not dimmed the lustre of Dangerfield’s thesis. A long list of similar titles, recording strange deaths continue to hit the book stores. In the case of Liberal England, though, there has been no death. The Liberal party comes and goes, but liberal ideas continue to pervade British politics.
The two books under review bear token to the fact that liberal ideas do not need a liberal party to prosper. One strand leans to what progressives like to call the progressive left, and the other merges into a conservative light blue. Their protagonists are two prominent Old Etonians, a highly informative biography by Jeremy Lewis about David Astor, and an erudite and entertaining memoir by the current Provost of Eton, William Waldegrave.
David Astor was born into astonishing wealth, lived through the 1930s, took over as editor and owner of The Observer in 1948, and came to exert a considerable influence on Fleet Street and British public opinion. William Waldegrave went to Eton as Astor’s star was on the decline, became one of the youngest ever fellows of All Souls, Oxford, joined Edward Heath’s think tank in 10 Downing Street, went to Harvard, became an MP and eventually held a series of ministerial posts in the Thatcher and Major governments. Together, their lives span over a century of British history.
David Astor was born in March 1923, the third child of American born English parents, Waldorf Astor and Nancy Laghorne. Waldorf Astor’s father derived his immense riches from his Manhattan properties, making him richer even than the Vanderbildts, Morgans and Rockefellers. Their wealth outshone those of the great Whig landowners of England, as the United Kingdom was called, and whose opulence in turn had dazzled much of the aristocracy of Europe. But in the 1880s, returns on farm land in the UK fell away as meat and cereals flowed onto the country’s open markets, prompting a boom in the marriage market between penurious British landowners and munificently endowed American heiresses, whose parents valued the prestige of a title in the family.
William Waldorf Astor, Waldorf’s father, managed matters differently. He moved with his family to the UK in 1891, became a British subject in 1899, acquired Hever castle in Kent in 1903-the huge estate where Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn lived as a child-and in 1906, he bought the Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire from the Duke of Westminster as a wedding present for his eldest son Waldorf Astor, and his new daughter in law Nancy. In 1911, he acquired The Observer from Lord Northcliffe, and later made a present of it to Waldorf. In 1916, as a reward for his significant donations to war charities, he was elevated to the peerage, and became Viscount Astor a year later. The elevation was controversial. It was felt that a rich American had bought his way into the British aristocracy. The novelty lay in his origin, not in the money he brought with him to the task.
Cliveden and the interwar years.
Between the two World Wars, David’s parents used the Cliveden estate for entertainment on a lavish scale. Their regular weekend parties included such high profile guests as Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Ghandi, F.D.Roosevelt, H.H. Asquith, Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill. David remained close to his father until his death in in 1952, but his relations with his strong willed mother, Nancy, were more distant. Her reputation followed her. She is reported to have said to Winston Churchill, “Winston, if I was married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee”. Churchill replied, “Nancy, if I was married to you, I’d drink it”.
David’s rebellion against his mother, and his opulent family lifestyle, was slow to burn. The young David went to Eton, on to Balliol, Oxford, then joined The Yorkshire Post as a journalist before working with The Observer. At Eton, he won the English Literature Prize, and was much influenced by Robert Birley, who joined the school in 1926. Birley became headmaster of Charterhouse, educational advisor to the Control Commission in the British Zone in Germany after the war, and then headmaster of Eton from 1949 to 1963. Birley’s liberal bent in politics is one of the threads linking our two protagonists.
After leaving Eton, David spent three months at Heidelberg to learn German. He never mastered the language. He wrote home that the place reeked of nationalism, the Nazis were popular, and war was in the air. He then joined his parents and George Bernard Shaw on a trip to the Soviet Union. Unlike Shaw and the Webbs (Sydney and Beatrice), David was not taken in, and developed, as did his parents, a healthy disdain for the dictatorships. “David’s visits to Germany and Russia as a young man, writes his biographer, left him with an unillusioned hatred of totalitarianism of the right and of the left- a view that would be reinforced in due course by his friend and mentor, George Orwell”.
David went up to Balliol, on the advice of Birley. He was not happy there, and left in 1933 without graduating. While at Oxford, he met a young Rhodes scholar, Adam von Trott zu Stolz, who inspired him for the rest of his life. Jeremy Lewis records that when in the Junior Common Room in January 1933, von Trott heard the news of Hitler’s accession to power, he realised immediately that a terrible disaster had befallen his country. David advised him not to return to Berlin. But Trott joined the German Foreign Ministry. The potent mixture of his Hegelian ideals for a united Europe, structured along the lines of the Holy Roman Empire, alongside his official affiliation, placed him under a cloud of suspicion in the United Kingdom. Isaiah Berlin, another thread linking the lives of our two protagonists, acknowledged von Trott’s charm, but held life long doubts about him. As Waldegrave records, Berlin challenged the existence of any such thing as a process of history.
In his 1961 book, the historian A.L.Rowse, in his All Souls and Appeasement, argued his case that All Soul’s was the intellectual HQ of appeasement, the academic equivalent of the Cliveden set. The theory has been demolished by historians , and Jeremy Lewis does the same for the idea that there was something called “the Cliveden Set”. True, the Astors and The Observer favoured coexistence with Hitler to war, but guests included anti-appeasers such as Anthony Eden, the banker Bob Brand, and Charlie Chaplin, who records in his autobiography that the Foreign Office tried to halt production of The Dictators, lest it give offense in Berlin. As Lewis rightly points out, most Britons of the time subscribed to the idea that peace was preferable to war. The terrible losses of 1914-18 were all too present to contemplate anything else than avoidance of a repeat of the slaughter. The Versailles Treaty, the argument ran, had humiliated Germany. Hitler would evolve from a firebrand into a statesman. Mitteleuropa was not British business. The Soviet Union was the bigger threat.
David Astor sympathised with this view, but he was not naïve. In 1939, he went to Berlin in a vain attempt to convince his interlocutors that Chamberlain was no weakling. But as he reported back to Lord Halifax, then Foreign Secretary, Hitler was too easily swayed by Joachim von Ribbentrop, whose anti British venom-derived in part from the British press dubbing him “Brickendrop” during his failure as German ambassador to the Court of St James-prompted him to advise Hitler that the British Empire would not go to war over Poland. Hitler was surprised when Chamberlain lived up to his word. As Astor wrote to Halifax, “the destruction of Nazism by force must lead to a European calamity”.
With Churchill’s ascent to the Premiership, the days of the appeasers were numbered. Lord Lothian died in office as Ambassador to the United States, to be succeeded by Halifax; Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times-which was also owned by an Astor-retired in 1941,and E.H.Carr became assistant editor, peddling a strongly pro-Soviet tone in his editorials. Robert Vansittart, an arch anti-appeaser, was sworn into the Privy Council, and in 1941 published Black Record: Germans Past and Present, in which he argued that Nazism was just the latest strain of Germany’s continuous record of aggression since the time of the Roman Empire. It was an illusion, he argued, to differentiate between Germans. The only hope for a peaceful Europe, he later wrote in 1943, was military defeat followed by a couple of generations of re-education controlled by the United Nations.
The appeasers were not entirely sidelined. Astor involved himself in the study groups at Chatham House, where various personalities, such as Jean Monnet’s colleague, Sir Arthur Salter, William Beveridge or Lionel Robbins promoted the vision of a federal Europe, as a counter to Hitler’s Festung Europa. There would be no peace in Europe, their theme ran-in congruence with Monnet’s expressed view-if the states were to be reconstituted on the basis of national sovereignty.
With the fall of France, Churchill’s sinking of the French fleet at Mers el Kebir, and the first British bombings of Berlin, Vansittart’s views prevailed, the US entered the war, and the allies signed up to unconditional surrender. Astor joined the Royal Marines, went on mission in 1944 behind enemy lines, was wounded, and later received a Croix de Guerre. In hospital, he learnt that von Trott had been executed for his role in the July 1944 plot on Hitler’s life. As his biographer records, he later cooperated with Marion Dönhoff in setting up a fund to support the widows of plotters executed by the Gestapo. Dönhoff had been associated with the German resistance, and became the doyenne of liberal journalism in Germany as the editor of the weekly Die Zeit. She died in 2002.
In 1945, in view of his father’s advancing years, and the punitive inheritance taxes introduced by the Labour government, Astor and his brother transferred ownership of The Observer to a board of trustees. The trust stipulated that the paper could not be subject to hostile takeover, that the profits would be ploughed back into the paper, and that a portion would go to charitable causes. The same year, he purchased the Manor House at Sutton Courtenay, and joined The Observer staff. He also married Melanie Hauser, with whom he had one child, Frances Astor. The marriage did not last, and in 1952, he married Bridget Wreford, with whom he had five children. He became editor of The Observer in 1948, and remained in that position until 1975. Two years later, the paper was sold to Robert O. Anderson, the owner of the Atlantic Richfield Oil Company.
Over these three decades, The Observer stood as a beacon of centre left journalism. Ethics, Astor considered, are more important than politics, and his rule of thumb to judge between right and wrong was to consider doing the opposite of what Hitler would have done. The same went for Stalin. While most newspapers followed the lead of The Times, and its deputy editor, E.H. Carr, in hero worshipping “Uncle Joe”, Astor was a great believer in the Atlantic alliance, in its policy of containment, and in the CIA’s support of non-Communist allies of the left. On western Europe, the paper supported the federal vision, prompting George Weidenfeld-master networker, publisher, Zionist, philanthropist-to regard The Observer as “the flagship of the new European spirit”. De Gaulle, Astor considered, was iniquitous, and his vision of France incompatible with a federated and democratic post-war Europe. Astor felt much greater affinity, with the great political philosopher, Raymond Aron, author of the classic study on the cold war, Paix et guerre entre les nations, published in Paris: by Calmann-Lévy in 1962, and in London as Peace and War, by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, in 1966.
Astor, his biographer records, was an enthusiast for a united Europe, and opposed to anti-Americanism of both right and left. In the domestic arena, he shared the “Butskellite” consensus that sustained the UK from 1945 until the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979. The dream of a New Jerusalem for the UK, he considered as a rejection of 1930s Britain-selfish, class-ridden, complacent and short-sighted. His biographer quotes him as writing, “our established institutions-the political parties, the City, the trade unions, the churches, the press and the radio are discredited in the public mind” and regarded with “cynicism and distrust”.
The stable of writers he hired to write for the newspaper were firmly of his persuasion. In politics, the liberal Labour revisonists, Roy Jenkins and Antony Crosland, were natural allies; on the mixed economy, and membership in the EEC, he deferred to Andrew Shonfield,-economics editor of the Financial Times, then of The Observer, and director of studies at Chatham House; Anthony Sampson, author of the best selling Anatomy of Britain, lampooned the “Establishment”, by which he meant the movers and shakers of church and state, civil service, business unions and media; Nora Beloff, author of a Penguin Special, The General Said No, reported from Paris, Washington and Moscow; Colin Legum joined the paper in 1949 and was very influential in influencing The Observer in advancing decolonisation in Africa.
Astor needed no convincing. His ideas had already been shaped by his friend George Orwell, who urged him to back decolonisation “ regardless of the mistakes the Africans might make”. Astor provided seed money for the African Bureau, which helped to keep African leaders in touch with British politicians, academics and journalists. He later became one of the trustees of the Lincoln Trust, set up to facilitate African National Congress(ANC) access to western politicians. He met Mandela when the ANC leader came to London in 1960, and later supplied him with books in prison, including the law books to enable the prisoner of Robben island to complete his London University law degree.
The Suez crisis is often cited as the high point of his editorship. A famous editorial, “Sir Antony Eden must go”, brought both praise from opponents of the expedition, and fierce criticism from Tory party circles. The incident harmed the paper’s circulation, and advertising revenue began to decline. Soon after, competition for the Sunday special market hotted up, dealing a further blow to the paper.
MacMillan succeeded Eden, won the 1959 elections by a wide margin, went to South Africa to deliver his famous “winds of change speech”, and applied for UK entry to the EEC. But in 1962, the government’s fortunes began to run out. Kennedy was assassinated; in January 1963, the General said Non to UK entry; Kim Philby, an occasional contributor to The Observer, was outed in the House of Commons as a Soviet spy; and in June 1963, the Secretary for War, John Profumo, had to resign following involvement in a sex scandal involving a Russian naval attaché, a model Christine Keeler, and parties in Astor’s Cliveden estate.
Neal Ascherson, another liberal Old Etonian and journalist, wrote that by the late 1960s, Astor had run out of steam. “Most of it (The Observer’s) aims had been achieved: decolonisation, East-West détente, Roy Jenkins reforms of morals legislation”. Peregrine Worsthorne later observed “that his paper was wrong on most of the major issues-absurdly unrealistic about the prospects for democracy in black Africa, about the blessings of permissiveness, about Suez and so on. But it was wrong with such intelligence and such an abundance of seriousness and knowledge, that even those who disagreed preferred its freshly minted arguments on the wrong side tp a routine repetition of truisms on their own”.
In the last decade of his editorship, Astor backed the US on Vietnam, opposed trade union militancy, disliked the 1968 student movements, and in 1969, favoured Nixon for the Presidency. Influenced by his friend and mentor George Orwell-who had died in 1950-he warned of the dangers of big government, big business and over-powerful union barons.
Over his life, Astor was consistent. He campaigned for the end of capital punishment; opposed all censorship; supported reform of the laws on homosexuality; promoted human rights; was in at the birth of Amnesty International; and later in life campaigned alongside Lord Longford to gain parole for the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley. In old age, he continued to support charities and to finance pressure groups for causes in which he strongly believed. In 1994, he was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour.
He died in December 2001, at the age of 89, and is buried in All Saints’ Churchyard, Sutton Courtenay. In the grave next to Astor’s is buried his friend and mentor, Eric Arthur Blair. Astor had bought both burial plots when he learned that Orwell had asked to be buried in an English country churchyard. The simple headstone bears only his name.
The Hon. William Waldegrave was born in August 1946, as the son of the 12th Earl, William Waldegrave, and of Mary Grenfell. He was the youngest of a family of seven children. Waldegrave records that the ancient line came down to his father in attenuated form. His great-uncle, William Frederick, the 9th Earl, served as the Conservative chief whip in the Lords during the constitutional crisis of 1910-11. His son, an invalid, was succeeded by his clergyman uncle, William’s grandfather. His parents married in 1930.
Family and community.
Waldegrave describes his parents as “progressive in the management of their four-thousand acre estate” in Somerset. His parents were “deeply imbued with a sense of the duties that accompanied their relative wealth”. “My mother established a free mother and baby clinic in the estate office long before the National Health Service was founded; my father signed the Peace Pledge”, he writes, and “believed in a sort of hierarchical Christian socialism”
As with Astor, Waldegrave’s father saw before its outbreak that war was coming and joined the forces, in his case the Territorials. Waldegrave recalls an old lady of Austrian origin, Valerie Falge-Wahl, who sent him her memoirs, A Stranger in Gloucestershire. His father had helped her escape Austria with her husband before the Anschluss. His parents found jobs for both of them, fixed all the necessary permissions, and provided them with a furnished cottage. “God bless them!” she writes, “These people were unique”.
Waldegrave writes of being surrounded, by love, stability and security in a house full of books, and siblings-mainly female-with the epic myth of the Second World War all around him. The great celebration of the year was Christmas. “In the evening carol singers, or sometimes handbell ringers, with my father complicating matters by taking over the piano in the drawing room. The Christmas tree candles would be lit and the village…summoned for presents, distributed by my brother and me…It was a celebration of family, community, of hierarchy, of the social contract. Good manners, he adds, made the village go along with it; as well as loyalty to my parents”.
Waldegrave’s is a memoir, taking “the private weather”, in Frank Kermode’s suggestion, of his life. What did it feel like, he invites his readers to consider, to have been brought up in the strange old way of a classical English education, just as it was disappearing. “I loved the old culture, he writes, “on the other hand, I celebrated the radicalism of those who set out to destroy it”. Equally, he celebrates the “quiet continuity represented by the unchanging rituals of the Chewton estate,” but thrills to the life lived “for the applause won by buccaneering heroes”from the classical world that peopled his imagination and intellect, and from Great Britain’s own epic of the world war.
“I seem to have inherited the knack, he writes, (that) my family has exhibited for eight centuries or so-we always seem to stand quite close to great events in English history without ever achieving greatness ourselves.” The family came over with William the Conqueror. “We were Sheriffs of London in King John’s time; we were at Agincourt and Towton Moor and the Field of the Cloth of Gold; one of us was third (not first) Speaker of the House and another was chancellor of the Duchy(not Lord Chancellor) under Queen Mary…We descend from James II and Robert Walpole and connect to Gladstone’s wife. I have continued the family tradition by serving Heath, Thatcher and Major; never, truth be told, a member of that journalistic genus, the “big beasts of the jungle”, although around for quite a time”.
Education began at home. One of the many delights of this book is that it may be read by those of us of a certain age, keen to suggest a reading list for our grandchildren. Here is a selection of authors: G.A. Henty, Rider Haggard, Arthur Ransome, H.G.Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Macaulay, C.S.Lewis ( minus the Narnia stories because his mother “thought you should get your Christianity straight”), Henry de la Pasture, The Song of Roland, Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, W.Stanley Moss’ Ill Met by Moonlight, the Finnish epic Kalevala, the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man, Richard Robinson’s An Atheist Values, Robert Eisler’s Man into Wolf, and I have only reached page 54 out of a short book of 283 pages.
Waldegrave went to Eton. His housemaster was A.J. Marsden, formidable oarsman, commando and intelligence officer in the war. He tells the story of how, not being able to sleep, he went, as advised, to see Marsden at eleven-thirty at night. “Right, boy, we are going to run to Bray”. “It was winter, and Bray is several miles from Eton. We ran there and back. I slept better”.
He loved Eton. The great men of the past-Chatham, Fox, Gladstone, Salisbury-were present in busts, portraits or signatures engraved on walls and staircases. The great men of the day came to talk: Frank Cousins, formidable trade unionist and then Wilson’s minister of Technology; Edward Heath, straight from de Gaulle’s Non; Sir Alec Douglas Home. Isaiah Berlin’s talk on Romanticism “’cemented for ever my discipleship”. Robert Birley became an inspiration and mentor, infecting him with his bibliomania. In 1965, he won the Newcastle Prize, Eton’s most prestigious prize, then still in its old form, involving the study of the whole bible in its Authorised Version, and including exams on Greek and Latin language and literature.
The tone in 1960s Oxford was set by grammar school boys. His friends and competitors came from the great Midlands grammar schools, “and were at least as widely cultured as we were”. Waldegrave chose Corpus Christi, because it was Berlin’s undergraduate collage, and was not full of Etonians. There he won the prizes: President of the Oxford University Conservative Association, President of the Union, and worked furiously in his last year to earn a First in Greats, the most demanding of examinations.
On he swept as Kennedy Scholar to attend Harvard University, where he studied with Samuel H. Beer, who taught-he writes- more incisively about modern Britain than “any British don”. In his British Politics in the Collectivist Age, Beer analyses the compact between patriotic trade unions and the ruling class to create the welfare state-the Butskellite consensus that moved Astor, too.
In a later book, after the sea change that overcame British politics in the late 1970s, Beer published an addendum, in the form of Britain Against Itself, that analyses how the social contract fell apart. It fell apart, Beer argues, because of party political competition on benefits, pay policy, and subsidies, compounded by class decomposition, the decline of civic culture, and the rise of the new populism. The contest for the future, Beer foresees (I simplify a little) is between neosocialists and neoliberals. Their task, he writes, “ is not simply to win an election based on such promises. It is rather to mobilize a lasting consent in the major sectors of society”.
Waldegrave was ambitious. Indeed the memoir is the story of his ambition. Aged 15, he wrote an essay on his life’s ambition: Foreign Secretary; swept to power as Prime Minister, a hero for reversing the plan to demolish Trafalgar Square, and a graceful retirement from politics to produce the definitive translation of Thucydides. As he records, “throughout this book I have attempted to provide an account, as true as I can make it, of what drove me into politics, how I scrambled some way up the greasy pole, found I could climb no further, and slipped back down again”.
Waldegrave returned to England in 1970, when the springtime of Edward Heath’s young administration was in full bloom. The social contract was still in tact, but some of the strains later recorded by Beer were eating away at the edifice: ideas circulated of meritocracy, efficiency for efficiency sake, the end of ideology, and “scientific management”, with its corollary of “modernisation”. Heath lived the contradictions: he wanted to preserve the post-1945 Tory one nation party, but his flagship policy-entry to the EEC-was anything but conservative: the 1972 European Communities Act Section 2 introduced EEC law as supreme in the UK. Its full implications have resulted in a constitutional crisis, and the vote of June 23,2016.
The old ways, though, were still alive and well. Heath wanted to shake-up Whitehall, and in 1971 appointed Victor, 3rd Lord Rothschild, to head what came to be called the Central Policy Review Staff. Waldegrave was having a drink with his father in the House of Lords, when George Jellicoe wandered over: “Victor’s looking for chaps”. After an interview, Waldegrave was recruited, serving-as recorded by Tessa Blackstone and William Plowden in their book Inside the Think Tank: Advising the Cabinet,1971-1983– as liaison between the Conservative party and the world beyond Whitehall. He left in December 1973, lived through the crisis that brought Heath down, and became Heath’s private secretary. Heath realised that his defeat for the leadership of the party by Margaret Thatcher represented a “resurgent version of the pre-war right”. “That understanding was the basis of his unrelenting subsequent bitterness”.
Waldegrave became an intimate of the Rothschild family, and asked Victor-“representative of …powerful strands in twentieth-century Britain: the Cambridge of the Apostles, and the spies; jazz, biological science, the Jewish aristocracy; serious money; secrets- for permission to marry Victoria, his daughter. “Without looking up from his desk, Victor asked, “And when are you going to buy a racehorse?”. Though the Holocaust was always present, the glamour of the Rothschild’s household in Cambridge was irresistible. It was while at Herschel Road, Cambridge, that he was informed that he had won his Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. In the end, they did not marry, and in 1977, Waldegrave married Caroline Burrows, with whom he has had four children.
Waldegrave writes of the decline of Great Britain’s political power and economic weight in his lifetime, but he is also conscious that with Churchill, and 1940, it did so with its honour in tact. Writing on those who chose to betray their country, on the grounds that it was excusable to work for Stalin against the fascists of the 1930s, he rightly says “you had to be wilfully blind not to understand that there was little to choose between the KGB or the Gestapo; or between Stalin and Hitler.” “The liberal core of Britain, he goes on, whose intellectual leaders were Keynes and Berlin, Orwell and Popper, understood it very well”. It was the power of Hitler, Mao, or Stalin that attracted the clever intellectuals in Britain (and elsewhere)to their light, “horse flies born from their dung”.
The theme of decline recurs in Waldegrave’s memoirs. There is frequent reference to the UK cutting its coat according to its cloth: praise for MacMillan’s “winds of change” in Africa, the remnants of empire, Heath’s belief in a new “near national federation” for Europe. But there is also a recognition that enormous resources were devoted after 1945 to science and engineering. I would go further. In 1945, the United Kingdom was the world’s second industrial power: its weakness was financial, due to the debts incurred by war. Waldegrave tells of his working in the mid-1970s for Arnold Weinstock’s GEC, the largest private sector company in the country and its demise-alongside other bastions of British heavy industry- at the hand of politicians, subversive trade unions, and “pygmy successors” who saw to it that a huge swathe of British engineering disappeared. The damage to British manufacturing preceded the Thatcher years.
Waldegrave was elected to the House of Commons in 1979 as MP for Bristol West. He has been a life member of the Tory Reform Group, on the liberal and pro-EU wing of the party, and was engaged in the fierce battles in the party in the early 1980s over economic policy. As he makes clear in his book, published in 1977, The Binding of the Leviathan: Conservatism and the Future, he was attracted to the clarity of free market analysis. No doubt, this helped him progress from the backbenches in the Thatcher government to positions in the Department of Education, and then in the Department of the Environment. From 1985 to 1988, he was Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but as he recounts, became caught up in the so called “arms for Iraq” affair, was accused of deceiving the public, and impaled on the rumour–and-leak machine of “the politico-media nexus”.
This was the episode which accelerated his descent. When he read the leaked draft conclusions of the Scott Inquiry, he knew, he writes, “that my world really was over”. He rang his mother, then in her last year: “Oh darling”, he reports her as saying, “its only politics”. Amen to that.
His career did not end there. Just days before Thatcher’s resignation, he became Secretary of State for Health, and served in the Cabinet throughout John Major’s time. He lost his seat in Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, and was elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Waldegrave of North Hill. In 2002, he became chair of the Rhodes Trust, and won Mandela’s accord to have the organisation known as the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. The MRF was launched in Westminster Hall. “Later, at Buckingham Palace, we witnessed the easy affection between two natural-born monarchs: Elizabeth of Windsor and Mandela, by then, of the world”.
In 2009, Waldegrave became Provost of Eton College. Two courteous boys, he records, came to discuss dates and speakers for the Political Society; “We have discovered, sir, that you were in politics once yourself”.
An intellectual in politics.
Waldegrave writes that he took the sixties progressive ticket: he opposed immigration controls on Commonwealth immigrants; he was a passionate opponent of hanging; he applauded Jenkin’s liberalisation of the laws on homosexuality, and was for military action against Smith’s Rhodesia. He shared the ideas of the time that “the nineteenth century nation is likely to find its functions of declining importance in a world of regional economies, world wide trade and communications and problems shared across borders”, as he writes in Leviathan.
Like many others, he writes in his Memoir, “I had a phase of imagining a true United States of Europe”. Heath was the modern conservative he was looking for. As Ken Clarke writes in his autobiography, Kind of Blue, Heath believed passionately that the days of the nation state were over, and that a Europe with the UK at the top table gave Britain a better chance of advancing its interests than playing second, or third fiddle to the United States. Not sitting at Europe’s top table is what drives Lord Heseltine’s hostility to Brexit.
The Achilles heal of the Heath-Heseltine position is that governance rests on consent. As Waldegrave writes in Leviathan, “the attempt to construct a new European nation from County Clare to Mount Arafat… is a pipedream”. The greatest danger to the vision of effective European cooperation, he writes, in anticipation of Thatcher’s Bruges speech of August 1988 and Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in January 2013, is “ the over ambition of proponents of what amounts to a truly integrated European state”. They have not been deterred. From one intergovernmental conference to the next, and with the backing of an activist European Court of Justice, “Brussels” has accumulated powers, without the legitimacy or the means to implement them, while sucking powers from the member states. In the case of the United Kingdom, EU membership has blurred the accountability of parliament to the electorate. Hence the vote of June 23 2016.
The protagonists of a United States of Europe believe in the perfectability of man, conditional on the disappearance of borders, nation states and even national cultures. They are anything but sceptical. They believe in the grand narrative of European integration by “a stealthy alignment of all sorts of regulations, major and minor”, as the way to breed a new European consciousness. They believe in the historical process of European construction, the antithesis of Isaiah Berlin’s proposition to abjure grand, all encompassing theories. What did you learn? Berlin asked Waldegrave after completing his Oxford finals. Waldegrave muttered something about telling a good argument from a bad one. “That’s it, that’s it, spot the bunkum, spot the bunkum”, said Berlin.
Waldegrave dislikes isms. There is no such thing, he argues, as “Thatcherism”. At best, successive Thatcher governments managed to steady government outlays as a percentage of national income, and delivered a series of supply side reforms, including the vital reform of trade union laws, and privatisation of state assets. Observing Thatcher in action prompted Waldegrave to doubt that his own ambitions were enough to propel him to the highest office. As he recounts, Thatcher showed greatness over the Falklands. “The phenomenon was very close to me, easy to observe: this thing for which for nearly forty years I had been striving”. “And for the first time, seeing it so close, I began to have doubts that I would ever have it”.
He disapproved of Thatcher’s efforts to collude with Secretary General Gorbachev to delay the reunification of Germany. I agree, but because I thought German unity was inevitable, and that the UK would have benefitted by supporting German unification from early 1989 onwards. This would have been in line with the Bruges speech favouring a Europe of cooperating nations, and possibly would have thwarted the Franco-Italian push to monetary union, which has imposed a one-size fits all regime on a diverse continent. As it was, Chancellor Kohl pocketed Gorbachev’s decision in October 1989 not to quash demonstrations against the East German regime, rammed unification through, and thereby helped to precipitate Gorbachev’s demise, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Waldegrave considers Thatcher was completely right to oppose the drift, backed by pundits and politicians from all quarters, to align sterling on the “half-baked” exchange rate mechanism. I agree. The result was a surge in imported inflation, followed by imported recession, the fall of Thatcher, and a lifeline thrown to the Labour party. Thatcher was arguably the first Prime Minister to lose office over “Europe”. John Major was the second. Blair was the third, as the prospect of a European alliance to counter balance the war party in Washington DC over Iraq in 2002-2003, was thwarted by Chancellor Schröder’s decision to play the anti-American card in order to win votes in eastern Germany. President Chirac decided that he could not afford to allow Germany the leadership of the anti-American brigade in Europe, and joined with Berlin, and Moscow. Blair was figuratively left to hang out to dry. The fourth Prime Minister was Cameron, and Mrs May may yet be the fifth.
In conclusion, there are some significant constants binding our two protagonists over the years. The institutions of this country, which lie at its heart; the social liberalism which links Astor and Waldegrave; the great figures from the past, most notably the vast shadow of Churchill, Britain’s greatest son; Robert Birley; George Orwell, Mandela and Rhodes; Britain’s heterogeneous aristocracy, the universities, Balliol, Corpus Christi and All Souls; the great issues of the century: the wars, appeasement or anti-appeasement in the thirties, and Remain or Leave now; how to organise Great Britain’s international relations, by integration of by co-operation; and how to deal with our eternal neighbours, France, Germany, Europe, America, and the world.
What counts though is the “liberal core of Britain”, its skepticism of grand designs. And at the heart of British liberties, its institutions, the monarchy, parliament, the courts, the language. They cannot be sacrificed for the sake of European “integration”. They are the path through which “a lasting consent in the major sectors of society”, of which Beer wrote, have to be found. They are not written down, but flexible and adaptable. As Waldegrave writes of the United Kingdom: “A snake changes its skin but remains the same inside; we keep the skin, but the body changes”. A bit like Eton.