Sunday, 6 May 2012

Hung Parliament, 1974 version: what happened inside No.10

The late Gerald Moggridge
The following article is an extract from An English Family 1680 to 2009 by my father, the late Gerald Moggridge, to be published very shortly.

Gerald Moggridge, a Downing Street press officer at the time, describes the drama that was played out within No.10, from Friday 1 March 1974 (the day after polling day) until its conclusion late in the evening of Monday 4 March 1974.   

Most civil servants would think themselves fortunate to serve at No. 10 during a general election.  I was lucky enough to witness the beginning and the outcome of not one, but two general elections during my five years there. The first of them was the General Election of 28 February 1974. It brought about an unexpectedly tight result between the two major parties and produced a situation that had all the same ingredients that are now preoccupying everyone at the end of the May 2010 general election.

There is no escaping the drama and, in a real sense, the potential for tragedy that faces a Prime Minister in this position. Whoever you are in No.10, and whatever your politics and the politics of the serving Prime Minister, you feel considerable sympathy and sadness for the person who may soon be leaving by that famous front door for the last time.  I write with experience that, whatever your politics and whatever the Prime Minister’s politics, you will have developed an allegiance to and an affection for the man  (or woman) who, as the song says and the record shows - took the blows and did it their way.   Yes, there were to be tears in Downing Street on the evening of 4 March 1974.

But before that there were to be three days of high political tension and drama as Edward Heath and his party sought to reach some kind of an agreement with the Liberal Party to see if together they could form  “an administration which could  carry on the business of government.”   Throughout the weekend the press office was directly involved in both announcing and keeping an accurate record of the ebbs and flows of those negotiations . This we did through the series of ”press office bulletins”  (“pobs”) that had been part of the machinery of the Downing Street press office operation for some years. The first ”pob”  of this crisis - No. 89/4 dated Friday 1 March - confirmed that the PM had arrived at No. 10 (from Sidcup) at 0300 hours that morning and had watched the election results on television for a little while before going to bed.  He had breakfast at 0930 and then held a series of ad hoc meetings with various ministers.  A later ”pob” dealt with a story that Arthur Hawkey of the London Evening Standard had picked up to the effect that the PM’s doctor had called in at No.10 that morning. We confirmed that this was true, but that the doctor was not called in by the PM. He just looked in. (He - Dr Brian Warren - was a personal friend of Edward Heath). We later denied a BBC report that the Prime Minister was to hold a press conference at 1500 hours that day.

Then came the major announcements of the day. At 1940 hours we told the Press Association and the lobby correspondents that the PM had chaired a meeting of the cabinet and that “The Queen has granted the Prime Minister’s request to her to grant him an audience at 1945 hours so that he can report on the current political situation”.  In the feverish atmosphere that was now developing every word we uttered triggered a host of supplementary questions. The main one was ”Is the PM going to the Palace to submit his resignation?” The answer to that was a blunt ”No”. The following day - Saturday 2 March - the pace quickened when the PM had his first meeting with the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe.  Any guidance? ”No commitment was entered into on either side.  The atmosphere was friendly and easy”. Full stop. More speculation followed on Sunday 3 March when we announced that there would be a meeting of Ministers in No.10 that evening, and a  further meeting with Jeremy Thorpe. 

The last act. Sunday 3 March saw a further meeting of Ministers and, at 2300 hours, what was to be the PM’s final meeting with Mr Thorpe. Monday 4 March dawned. There was now a tangible sense of events moving inexorably, to a conclusion - as in a Greek tragedy. We arrived in the press office early that morning, to be ready to announce a meeting of the cabinet at 1000 hours. The meeting lasted two hours. Soon afterwards the lobby were reporting that a meeting of the Liberal Party was taking place in the House of Commons.  Later we confirmed that the Prime Minister had received a letter from Mr Thorpe together with a copy of a statement issued by the Liberals. There was a further meeting of the cabinet. It ended at 1720 hours.

The stage was now set for the last act in the drama.  Three people had been selected to play supporting roles. In alphabetical order they were: a private secretary, Robin Butler**, a chief press secretary, Robin Haydon, and a chief press officer, me.  The script required Robin Butler and Robin Haydon to go across the road to the House of Commons and, with the prior agreement of John Egan, the chairman of the lobby, to position themselves in or near the lobby room  there. They would have with them a press statement and copies of the correspondence between Mr Heath and Mr Thorpe. From there Robin Butler would telephone my number in the press office at 1815 hours. He and I would then keep the line open until the moment I could confirm - by my view from the open door of the press office through to the hallway - that the Prime Minister had arrived at the front hall and was, literally, “on his way out of No. 10”. On that signal, he and Robin Haydon would release the press material to the lobby correspondents, and brief them on its contents.

And so it was that, at 1820 hours on Monday 4 March 1974, it was announced that Edward Heath’s period at No.10 had ended. My last act for the Prime Minister, after I had passed that telephone message to Robin Butler, was to record Mr Heath’s departure in the press office bulletin for that day.  (For the record it was  “pob” No. 92/4). It bore my initials and gave the text of the press notice which, in nineteen words, formally brought to an end the premiership of Edward Heath.  It read: ”The Prime Minister has sought an audience of Her Majesty in order to tender the resignation of the Government”.   
The rules say there must be no interregnum. Some two hours later the new Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Harold Wilson, OBE, MP, entered No. 10 Downing Street.  That event, too, I recorded on a press office bulletin. Clearly, there must be no interregnum  The King is dead. Long live the King.

** Now Lord Butler of Brockwell.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Is it just me or are Kindles annoying?

I’ve never really seen myself as a Luddite, but of late I’ve found myself getting a little inwardly frustrated whenever I’m in a supermarket and one of the staff tries to direct me towards the automated check-outs. I feel as if I should say to the person concerned, “What are you doing? You’re standing there putting yourself out of a job! Why do you want me to use the automated check-out? You should be advising me to use a human being, not a machine, and that way you’ll still be in work. Carry on promoting the auto-check-outs and soon you’ll be receiving your P45.”
Go and buy a proper book! Most people seem to use Kindles on the move.

But I say nothing, although I have started to refuse them when they beckon me over. For a start, I find them quite difficult to use and I can’t be bothered to try and learn. Why should I? All I want is human interaction, I like to chat with the check-out assistant, put my debit card in the machine, refuse or accept cash back and then bid them a cheery farewell.

If the supermarkets get their way, there won’t be any check-out assistants, just machines with, perhaps, one member of staff overseeing the process. What is already a chore will become a nightmare and one really has to think about the aims and objectives of the supermarkets. Are they trying to make the whole process so unbelievably dull that we all shop on-line instead? Probably, although shopping on-line I can cope with: you log on, order your weekly shop and then, hey presto! It turns up in a little orange van. It’s cheaper too because there are no temptations, but then I start to think about all the people that will be put out of work by on-line shopping as it means there’s no need for a store, so they won’t need store managers, shelf stackers, you name it – they’ll all be out of work.

And even if they don’t abolish supermarkets, those who like seeing what’s on the shelves will have to cope with the automated check-outs and all the grief they bring.

That aside, though, it’s the ignorance of the staff that gets me: the way they stand around watching people grow more and more accustomed to an automated process that will, ultimately, put them on the dole queue. The supermarkets will argue that it frees up the staff to do something more productive instead, but that’s just a lie. The idea is simple: if they can get a machine to do a cashier’s job, they’ll save money and that, of course, is what it’s always about: saving money. The customer isn’t really king; that’s a lie too. And then, when the customers decide they’d rather shop on-line, we’ll see derelict supermarkets being turned into over-sized bars and restaurants and casinos by over-ambitious leisure operators – not good.

Sadly, of course, nobody cares, not even the ignorant people who stand to lose their jobs. They are so grateful they have a job in the first place, they’re happy to promote automation and risk losing the only job they have.

On a similar note, I get really angry when I see somebody on a train – or anywhere – reading a Kindle. I can’t stand Kindles! There’s nothing worse than reading anything on a screen and I always feel that owners of Kindles are part of some kind of conspiracy, a conspiracy that leads to the end of books, printed books. Kindle users exist to get rid of books and make us all have to download novels rather than buy them from bookshops or borrow them from libraries. Hell! It means the end of bookshops and libraries because, as Kindle users will tell you, a Kindle allows you to carry the whole library with you on the train! Wow! Isn’t that great! No it’s not fucking great, you morons! 

Kindles take all the pleasure out of reading in the same way that music downloads take all the pleasure out of buying an album. I want to read the sleeve notes! I like the little booklet with the lyrics! I want to see photos of the band! And I like the tactile quality of a book too. I like bookmarks! I like looking at how far my bookmark has sunk through the book, how much I have left to read and how much I have already read! With a Kindle, all that is lost! It means that libraries, like supermarkets, will become ‘venues’ full of back bar fridges crammed with ‘premium priced lagers’.

Imagine reading War & Peace or Infinite Jest on a Kindle? You’d have no idea of where you were in terms of how much you’d read. Okay, you’ll have page numbers to tell you, but there wouldn’t be that sense of achievement that you get with a book and, after reading it, you wouldn’t be able to put it proudly on your bookshelf at home – instead it would remain on your Kindle, in your briefcase or handbag, and then one day, when the system crashes or burns out, you’d lose it forever.

The worst thing about Kindles, of course, is that they’re probably good for the environment. The phrase ‘woodman, spare that tree’ would be redundant and I’m sure that Kindle users will always bring up their mission to save the planet in defense of their new gadget.

If Kindles catch on, books will disappear and so will bookmarks and the home environment will become sterile and minimalist. Rooms would be bare and characterless except for furniture and a television set – and a digital picture frame on the sideboard.

I don’t want to curl up with a Kindle. I want to read a book in front of the fire without worrying that I might melt my new reading gadget.

I often feel like asking a Kindle owner why. Why have they got one? Was it a present? Or did they go out and buy it themselves? They would probably say something like, “It’s the future. It’s the way things are heading.” And, prior to punching them, I’d feel like saying, “Only because you’re letting it happen.”

I hope I’m not alone in my anti-Kindle feelings. I don’t think I am. I just hate the way things are becoming so sterile and insular. We can stay behind closed doors and order our shopping online instead of mixing with real people at the supermarket or in the high street. We can download our books from computers at home rather than visit a bookshop where we could enjoy a cup of coffee and possibly meet with friends. Everything can be done from the safety of our own homes. We all communicate using social networking sites instead of meeting in the pub for a beer. We’re losing our sense of community.

A couple of years ago I boarded a train to Winchester with a work colleague and, once aboard the train, he said to me: “Do you mind if I sit over there and play my PSP?” Of course I didn’t mind, but what he meant was: I hope you don’t mind, but rather than engage you in conversation, I’d like to play Grand Theft Auto on my portable games device. This guy queued up overnight to be one of the first to buy the latest edition – sad or what? He was (and probably still is) such a nobhead! I told him to feel free and he went and sat at the other end of the carriage for the entire journey so that I wouldn’t disturb his gameplay.