The smearing of a much-loved Scotsman


By Kenneth Roy
Now that Lord McAlpine is pursuing with exceptional diligence the tens of thousands who tweeted or re-tweeted the baseless allegation against him, London is living up to its alternative name: Sue. All things considered, it remains safer to defame the dead. Not that one can. It is legally impossible, although that could change.

For example, I am about to defame (or not, strictly speaking) the late Lord George Brown by describing him as the drunkest skunk I ever met in politics. The deputy to Harold Wilson somehow persuaded an Edinburgh-based business to be one of its non-exec directors. Brown had left government and was developing a portfolio of external interests. He might have been the man who put the port into portfolio.

At that stage he was not the late Lord George, so far as could be discerned by the naked eye. I was the one who was late, detained by the BBC on an earlier meaningless assignment. By the time I got there a few minutes beyond our appointed hour, having alerted his office to the slight delay, he was roarin’ fu’.

It concerned me that his Lordship, a bully and not even very bright, had recently been in charge of national affairs of some importance. No, it didn’t concern me. I couldn’t have cared less. I was young and insouciant. I must have assumed that all politicians drank a lot; that it went with the territory. Not that anyone talked about going with the territory. It was so long ago that students didn’t begin every sentence with the word ‘Like’.

A few years later – defaming the dead, part II – I met another politician who was fond of the bottle. Roy Jenkins’s reputation preceded him. It was arranged that, after I had interviewed him at length for some television programme, a claret supper would be provided in the boardroom.

I admired Roy Jenkins. He was a man of deep intelligence and erudition. He was also a serious drinker. After the claret supper – not a lot of supper but claret no problem – he complimented me on my choice of wine. It was a career high for me, particularly as I hadn’t chosen it.

Did I think Roy Jenkins – Woy as he was known to the satirists on account of a slight speech affectation – would have been capable of making sound decisions after his night at the BBC? Absolutely. He seemed unimpaired by the extravagance of our hospitality. He was as coherent at the end of the long evening as he had been at the start.

It is a pity that the best parliamentary exchange about booze never took place. Bessie Braddock, a far from comely Labour MP, was said to have accused the prime minister of the day: ‘Sir, you are drunk’. To which Churchill is reputed to have replied: ‘I may be drunk, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly’. There is, however, a basic truth behind this politically incorrect myth. Churchill was often drunk – defaming the dead, part III. Somewhat the worse for wear, he somehow contrived to lead the country to victory.

Recently – defaming the dead, part IV – someone closer to home has had his reputation posthumously re-assessed on account of allegedly excessive drinking.

On the only occasion I visited the house of John Smith, a ‘functioning alcoholic’ according to his former colleague Jack Straw, the then shadow chancellor was a model of sobriety. Smith was climbing mountains after a near-fatal heart attack and to all outward appearances committed to a healthy lifestyle during his weekends in Scotland. He struck me that day, and subsequently, as one of the nicer people in public life. But an alcoholic? There was no whiff of it, and I’ve known a few.

By Mr Straw’s account, however, as soon as he returned to London he resumed his ‘gargantuan’ drinking. Presumably Mr Straw was monitoring every glass, tut-tutting at the reckless acceptance of each proffered tipple. But he goes too far with the suggestion that the pleasures of the glass made John Smith incapable of being prime minister. Incapacity of that kind depends entirely on the man – or woman. (My late acquaintance Alan Watkins assured me that Mrs T was a girl who liked her whisky. He found her quite endearing as a result).

Before condemning the drunk, it is necessary to examine what the sober do. Here is a little story by way of example.

There was a minister in Tony Blair’s government who, without the assistance of alcohol, decided within weeks of his party coming to power in 1997 that there was no need for a new inquiry into the Hillsborough scandal. To appease the grieving families he did, however, appoint a judge, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, to conduct a review, informing parliament that ‘I am determined to go as far as I can to ensure that no matter of significance is overlooked and that we do not reach a final conclusion without a full and independent examination of the evidence’.

It has lately been claimed that the minister in question had so low a opinion of the evidence that he conveyed this opinion to the judge, who went on to reject the idea of a new inquiry.

Many years later, when the Hillsborough disgrace returned to haunt the powerful, the same minister accused Lord Justice Stuart-Smith of not doing a proper job. The judge can no longer speak for himself; he is unwell after suffering a stroke. But a judicial colleague said in his defence: ‘It sounds to me like a case of someone trying to shift the blame from their own shoulders’. This is a view shared by the mother of one of the Hillsborough victims: ‘I’d had meetings with him [the minister] and he categorically promised that every aspect would be looked into. What he did was very deceitful because he didn’t tell us the truth of his own opinion and he didn’t get proper scrutiny’.

You will not be surprised to learn that the minister was none other than that friend of the temperance movement, Jack Straw.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that John Smith drunk would have done a better job for the families of Hillsborough than Jack Straw sober. Of course no one would have dared to call John Smith a functioning alcoholic while he was still alive. It is safe to do so now. But it may not be safe for much longer: a law of defamation of the dead has been seriously proposed to the Scottish Government. Some day soon I will explain why this is a thoroughly bad and dangerous idea.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review