A Martini or Two Could Be Just What This Country Needs

By Alan Watkins Political Commentary | The Independent (London, England), February 4, 1996 | Go to article overview
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A Martini or Two Could Be Just What This Country Needs


Alan Watkins Political Commentary, The Independent (London, England)


WITH the television series Annie's Bar, there have been many articles about the bars in the Palace of Westminster. Though these have been entertaining enough in their way, what politicians drink in them, and in other places too, strikes me as more interesting. Politicians and drink is a strangely neglected subject.

It is still not generally realised that the Labour governments of the 1960s were largely fuelled by alcohol, inasmuch as they were propelled by anything at all. The leading exception apart from Mr Tony Benn was Lord Callaghan. When he was Home Secretary, his idea of generous hospitality was a small glass of sherry. As Foreign Secretary in 1974-76 he renounced the stuff completely and said he felt much better as a result. At a party during a recent Labour conference I noticed a glass of brownish fluid in his hand. I asked what it was.

"That," said Jim (I quote from memory), "is whisky. My doctor advised me that an occasional glass wouldn't do any harm and, do you know, I feel much better as a result."

His colleagues were not so abstemious. The earlier Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart was, contrary to the ascetic front he presented to the world, a great devotee of gin-and-French. After the day's endeavours, he was often to be found in Annie's Bar somewhat the worse for wear. The Minister of Labour Ray Gunter was rarely to be seen without a glass in his hand, usually of whisky and ginger ale.

He was once being entertained to lunch by Donald McLachlan, the then editor of the Sunday Telegraph, in his club. McLachlan, a former Winchester schoolmaster, was very mean or had little idea of the drinking habits of politicians and journalists.

"I feel I ought to warn you now," he would say gloomily beforehand, "that there will be wine with luncheon."

Gunter was aware of McLachlan's proclivities and, as his host was disappearing to place the pre-lunch drinks order, shouted:

"Make them large ones."

This is reminiscent of an exchange I once had with Reginald Maudling in Annie's Bar.

"What kind of whisky do you like, Reggie?" I asked, more for the sake of something to say than because I was seriously interested in his reply, for in my experience malt whisky bores (of whom Sir Edward Heath is one) are the greatest of drink bores.

There was no risk of any such detailed response from Maudling. He replied succinctly:

"Large ones."

Nor was there any risk of his buying one in return. With Maudling you were safe from the perils of drink. He was notoriously reluctant to stand his round. It may be that this characteristic derived less from meanness than from the erroneous conviction, shared by many politicians, that journalists were people of unlimited means, putting everything on expenses.

His successor today is Mr Nicholas Budgen, who likes to talk and is always worth listening to but is not very agile with his wallet. I could mention others. I single out Mr Budgen because he will not mind. He certainly makes a joke of his parsimony.

Gunter, besides being a regular at Annie's, was also an habitue of the House of Lords staff bar. This provides hospitality to anyone who turns up. I call it the Adulterers' Bar, for it tends to be patronised by middle- aged couples looking sadly into each other's eyes. In reality, I suspect, it is the non-adulterers' bar, and that after they have stopped holding hands they go their separate ways, one to Hendon on the Northern Line, the other to Worcester Park or Epsom via Waterloo.

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