Magazine article The Spectator

A Nest of Vipers

Magazine article The Spectator

A Nest of Vipers

Article excerpt


by Bernard Donoughue

Politico's, L25, pp. 392,

ISBN 1842750518


by Joe Haines

Politico's, L20, pp. 216,

ISBN 1842750712

Donoughue and Haines were the David and Jonathan of Harold Wilson's kitchen cabinet, swifter than eagles, stronger than lions. It may be doubted whether they can properly be described as lovely or pleasant, but in their books they are not divided. The Heat of the Kitchen and Glimmers of Twilight have been elegantly twinned by their publisher, with the same photograph of Harold Wilson on the jackets, flanked by the appropriate author. Donoughue has written a full-dress biography, Haines only an account of his seven years or so at No. 10, but the heart of both books is the same.

The two authors have a lot in common. Both came from poor homes and bettered themselves by talent, hard work and fierce ambition. Both were committed socialists from childhood. Both were pragmatic moderates, deploring the greed and arrogance of the trades unions which undermined Wilson and destroyed the government of Jim Callaghan. They differed on Europe, but neither felt passionately about the issue. Both distrusted ideology and loathed the doctrinaires of the Left. Both hated Marcia Falkender.

Because his book covers the whole of his life, this last preoccupation plays a smaller part in Donoughue's book than in Haines'. It is, his publisher hopefully assures us, 'beautifully written and searingly honest'. 'Beautifully written' is nonsense; Donoughue's prose rarely rises above the workmanlike. If honesty implies some effort to achieve objectivity, then that word is equally misapplied. Objectivity and autobiography are perhaps incompatible, but the author's endless recitals of how he was the only person to get things right while everybody else was too stupid to listen are wearisome and, in the last resort, unconvincing.

His book contains some good things. His account of his childhood is vividly done: the Daily Herald, he tells us, was both the household's staple reading and then served as lavatory paper - thus neatly illustrating both his family's poverty and its politics. The years with Robert Maxwell are treated with circumspection - he barely knew the man, one is led to believe; disliked what he saw of him; and made frequent efforts to resign - but Donoughue's version of events confirms the impression that he was no more involved with or aware of his employer's criminality than several other respectable members of the establishment. His picture of life at the Ministry of Farming and Food provides a gloomy vision of Whitehall at its most complacent and intransigent. But the period which he shared with Haines in Downing Street takes up almost half the book and provides the most dramatic and disturbing reading.

This is a cherry at which Haines has already taken a pretty malignant bite in The Politics of Power, but though the earlier book was vituperative enough in its account of life at No. 10 it hardly prepared one for the diatribe to be found in Glimmers of Twilight. The title, taken from Browning's 'The Lost Leader', makes it clear that Wilson is unlikely to be the hero of the story; but nor is he the villain. The authors have a different target. As much as David and Jonathan, Donoughue and Haines remind one of the brothers in The Duchess of Malfi plotting the destruction of their sister; but Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal never pursued the hapless Duchess with half the vengeful fury that their modern counterparts lavish on Marcia Falkender. …

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