My story begins in Bolton in the Second World War. “Another one by the same author!” I left our small flat, crossed the square and climbed the steps into Bolton’s magnificent 1930s library, museum, art gallery and aquarium. It was 1941, I handed the book over to the librarian and had no difficulty in being allowed to take another one home.
Like many others, my mother was a regular listener to JB Priestley’s Postscript on Sunday evening’s BBC. Britain needed the Yorkshire author. France had fallen, the Luftwaffe had started its nightly raids on Manchester and Liverpool, morale needed to be boosted. The sirens sounded every night but Bolton was not hit. The Germans did not seem to be aware of De Havilland, opened in 1938, which manufactured the vital Spitfires and Hurricanes.
People started to get complacent. Yet on 9 January 1941, a shock awaited us. My older sister, Margaret, and I, were in bed with our mother when the sirens sounded yet again. Dad, as usual, was out on police duties. We were terrified by sudden lights, a violent shaking of the Victorian building, and a horrid thud.
‘We’ve been hit!
We had not. Bombs had fallen either side of the Odeon cinema, built 1938, which was full. The warehouse behind the ‘pictures’ was set on fire. One man was killed. In a later raid, 25 were killed. Decades later, my wife and I visited JB Priestley towards the end of his life. He was touched to hear this story, it brought tears to his eyes. By then he was best known for his play An Inspector Calls.
Marlene or Greta?
Stefan Lorant was another great influence on my family, and millions of others, at the start of the war. Born in Budapest, Lorant was Jewish. As a young man, he became well-known in the emerging Austro-German film industry and in journalism.
He was jailed after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. On his release, he managed to leave Germany to reach the safety of Britain where he lost no time in going into business. He persuaded Edward Hulton, son of a wealthy publisher, to join forces with him and, in 1938, they founded the weekly Picture Post. It was a mixture of popular photo stories and serious politics.
The magazine was an immediate success and within a few months was selling 1,350,000 copies every week. My parents were enthusiastic readers. I simply turned the pages again and again, enticed by pictures of teenage girls with their skirts blowing in the wind as they enjoyed the big dipper at the seaside, and later ones of the ‘desert rats’ and Belsen concentration camp.
On a trip to Berlin many years later, I ventured into a Jewish centre and seeing the events board, I noticed that Lorant had recently given a talk there. I had thought he had died. In fact, he left Britain in 1940 for the USA. He was successful again in publishing and the ’movies’, friendly with the Kennedys and other celebrities. The Berlin manager helped me to get in touch with Lorant. Not many months later, my wife and I got a very warm welcome from him at his home in Rochester, Minnesota, He was keen to talk and drink. At bedtime, he showed us to our room where the choice was either Marlene Dietrich‘s bed or Greta Garbo’s. I chose Marlene’s.
A small man with a slight stoop
Few people expected Labour to win the July 1945 election. They had been virtually wiped out in 1931 and it seemed unlikely that Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee, would beat Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Churchill was the ‘hero’ of 1940, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches…’ He had star quality, conferred with the King, with Roosevelt, Stalin and De Gaulle. Moreover, the war was not over, Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally on 8th May 1945, but Japan’s Prime Minister, Admiral Kantaro Suzuki, warned the world in July, that Japan would fight on to victory!
Attlee was not so famous. Who knew Major Attlee? He had fought at Gallipoli and in Iraq and had been wounded on the Western front. A barrister by profession, Attlee was seen as a small man with a slight stoop. He lacked the oratorial skills of Churchill.
On 10 July 1945, The Times reported that the Conservatives felt there was no evidence of a swing either way. Labour expected to gain ground but without an overall majority. But when the results were known, Violet Attlee drove her husband to Buckingham Palace, to be asked by George VI, to form a government. The Labour Party had won a landslide victory and gained a majority of 145 seats. It was the first election in which Labour gained a majority of seats and the first in which it won a plurality of votes.
I met the Attlees at a Labour dinner in Rugby in 1963. I was placed between them and I admit, I was not sure how to converse with them. My main questions to the former PM were what he regarded as his main achievements. There was little hesitation, getting out of India, and setting up the NHS. I was completely at ease with that answer. I did not ask about his decision to build Britain’s nuclear deterrent or about the troubles in other colonial territories. Then I turned to Violet Attlee, a polite, middle class, mother of four and WWI nurse. I commented that it must have been interesting, exciting, fascinating, to have accompanied her husband from 1922 onwards. Her mood changed immediately! She assured me that she had hated it, she had never wanted to have been involved in politics. No doubt flustered, I do not recall how I ended the conversation.
What would the Labour prime minister have said about his grandson, 3rd Earl Attlee, joining the Conservative benches in the House of Lords?
The 10p book
In November 2005, as one of my interviews for my book, Britain Since 1945, I went to meet Baron Roy Jenkins of Hillhead, at the House of Lords. With me I took a book, Mr Attlee, published in 1948, and written by Roy Jenkins, MP. It had been added to their collection by Carlton Urban District Library in 1955. By the time I bought it, in 2004, for 10p, it was rather worn and battered. When he saw the book Jenkins became rather emotional.
Lord Jenkins was certainly one of the most hospitable politicians I have ever met. I was hardly through the door, when he asked what I would like to drink. He seemed pleased when I opted for a glass of white wine and more followed as we went on.
Jenkins was born in Abersychan, Wales, in 1920. His father, Arthur, was a coal miner and trade unionist who was sent to prison for nine months for his part in the 1926 general strike. He was later MP for Pontypool and eventually served as parliamentary private secretary to Clement Attlee himself.
Roy attended Abersychan Grammar School, a school with several notable alumni. From there, Balliol College Oxford beckoned and then, as a captain of artillery in 1944, he worked at Bletchley Park as a codebreaker.
We discussed his rise in the Labour Party, and parliament. As Home Secretary, Jenkins had sought to build what he described as ‘a civilised society’, overseeing measures such as the effective abolition in Britain of capital punishment and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Divorce law and abortion laws were liberalised.
In opposition to many in the Labour Party, he campaigned for Britain to remain in the then, EEC. Britain outside the EEC would enter ‘an old people’s home for fading nations. … I do not even think it would be a comfortable or agreeable old people’s home.’ (The Times, 28 May 1975)
From 1977 to 1981, Jenkins served as President of the European Commission during which time he oversaw the Development of the Economic and Monetary Union, a forerunner of the Euro. He became known as ‘the godfather of the euro.’
Gang of Four
The Labour Party conference in 1980 adopted a unilateralist defence policy, withdrawal from the EEC and further nationalisation. In November, the party elected the left-winger Michael Foot over the right-wing Denis Healey. Jenkins, together with prominent Labour politicians, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams (‘the Gang of Four’), issued the Limehouse Declaration and the Social Democratic Party was born. He fought a by-election, at Warrington in 1981 but Labour retained the seat.
But in March 1982, he contested the Glasgow Hillhead by-election and, to much surprise, won the previously Conservative seat. The prospects looked good for the SDP. However, seven days after his by-election victory, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands.
The subsequent war transformed British politics, increasing public support for the Conservatives. In the 1987 general election, Jenkins was defeated by Labour candidate, George Galloway (later expelled from the party). Jenkins gave up Commons politics but entered the House of Lords where he led the Liberal Democrats.
That day, I left the Lords, slightly sozzled, struggling with the pile of his books he gave me – Asquith, Baldwin, Churchill, all signed. Plus Mr Attlee, ‘Inscribed for David Childs, 471/2 years after its publication(!), with best wishes of Roy Jenkins.’