Magazine article The Spectator

A Most Uncommon Women

Magazine article The Spectator

A Most Uncommon Women

Article excerpt

A most uncommon woman

DARING TO HOPE: THE DIARIES AND LETTERS OF VIOLET BONHAM CARTER, 1946-1969 edited by Mark Pottle Weidenfeld, L25, pp. 431

One of the curious things about our system of government is not that it has produced so few outstanding women politicians but, considering the obstacles which have regularly been placed in their path, so many: Margaret Thatcher, of course, but Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Megan Lloyd George and Shirley Williams as well. In this post-war galere, Lady Violet Bonham Carter ranks high. She differed from the others in not having succeeded in getting into the Commons. But she tried only twice, at Wells in 1945 and at Colne Valley in 1951.

In the latter contest she was given a clear run by the Conservatives on account of the intervention of Winston Churchill. This caused a division in the local association. The view of the Conservatives, locally and nationally, seemed to be that the arrangements which already existed in Huddersfield and Bolton were quite enough to be going on with. They did not want another one at Colne Valley. Churchill, by contrast, wanted not only to oblige his old friend Lady Violet but also to prepare the way for a rapprochement - even a merger - with the Liberal party. She was ambivalent about what he had in mind. Her party was opposed to closer relations, as were the Conservatives, if anything even more strongly. So nothing came of this first postwar plan for a realignment of the parties.

Lady Violet was an obvious candidate for a life peerage after their introduction in 1958. One might have expected Churchill to press her claims with Harold Macmillan. As matters turned out, she had to wait for Harold Wilson to do the decent thing in 1964, when she was already 77. But she enjoyed five years of purposeful activity in the Upper House. One year into her spell there she published her small classic of political writing, Winston Churchill As I Knew Him.

It was during this period that our paths briefly crossed. I was waiting for a taxi in New Palace Yard and she turned up behind me. These, I should, explain, were the days before the discriminatory 1982 resolution of the Services Committee under John Biffen, which decreed that `at all times' members of the Lords and Commons were to take precedence over others in the taxi queue. The policeman on duty politely asked me to allow Lady Asquith (as she had become) to take the first taxi that arrived. I replied that I had no other intention in mind. A taxi came. I ushered her towards it. `No, no,' she said, `you were the first in the queue.' `But, Lady Violet,' I said, forgetting her new title, `I insist.' `Don't you insist to me, young man,' she said, gently propelling me towards the waiting vehicle.

She was undoubtedly a great lady; was also highly conscious of being one; and, further, managed to combine radical sentiments and democratic actions (such as pushing me into the taxi) with a snobbery which would have appeared excessive even before 1914. The diaries abound with illustrations, of which my own favourite is: `All the house-parlourmaids have evaporated into thin air! without a word. Ethics and manners have vanished in this particular pursuit.'

So had they, clearly, in other pursuits as well, notably that of journalism. An innocuous, affectionate but disrespectful profile in the New Statesman in December 1954 caused the most tremendous fuss with her and her friends. I have just reread it in the collected NS profiles and would judge it to be the work of John Raymond or Maurice Edelman, with Hugh Massingham a possibility (I may of course be wrong about all three). Dr Pottle refers to it with implied disapproval as an `unsigned article'. In fact it was part of a series and was unsigned as most profiles were in those days - even if Malcolm Muggeridge and R. H. S. Crossman were sometimes allowed bylines.

According to this profile, gone were `the days when the world was worthy of the Liberal Party and there were parties every evening and good works every day'. …

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