Book review: Memoirs by William Rees-Mogg
MEMOIRS By William Rees-Mogg Harper Press, 328pp, £30
William Rees-Mogg has been one of the Great and the Good for more than half a century. He edited the Times for 14 years (1967-81), and in his eighties is still a working journalist, writing columns for the Times and Mail on Sunday. He has been Vice-Chairman of the BBC and Chairman of the Arts Council of England while also running a publishing company and being an enthusiastic, even greedy, book collector.
It is almost needless to add that he is a member of the House of Lords. Educated at Charterhouse and Oxford, devoted to his home county, Somerset, he seems the quintessential Englishman, and, like many, is of mixed heredity, his mother being an American from Irish Catholic stock. Though he writes that as a Catholic of Irish descent he was "not over sympathetic to Protestant Unionism", he nevertheless received death threats from the IRA, perhaps because in his BBC role he tried to prevent the broadcasting of a programme "over-sympathetic" - to use his word - of IRA chief Martin McGuinness.
He has known every British Prime Minister since Anthony Eden - for whom he worked as a speechwriter before, and in the early stages of, the Suez crisis - and most Popes and American Presidents. Like many at the time he was dazzled by JFK, though he thought Jackie "was in some way phoney". He felt sympathy for Nixon and admired Reagan, whom he "took to be very intelligent, a competent American".
His account of Harold Macmillan confirms the old actor-manager's duplicity. He "became leader by blaming Rab" (Butler] "for his own switch of policy. Suez was a useful lesson in the shifting positions of politicians in a crisis". When Macmillan resigned, Rees-Mogg favoured Butler as his successor. He says Macmillan was determined Butler should not succeed him even though he was by far the best qualified to do so. Was this because he suspected that Butler would prove a better Prime Minister than he had been?
Rees-Mogg admires Margaret Thatcher, whom he has known since Oxford days. "She was a great politician partly because she was a great simplifier" - unlike Keith Joseph, who influenced her so much. As for Enoch Powell, Rees-Mogg quotes a leading article he wrote in 1968: "Mr Enoch Powell has three gears in which he operates - the wise, the exaggerated, the intolerable" - a fair summing-up.
Among Labour politicians he speaks well of Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey and Shirley Williams (another Oxford friend). An account of an evening spent with Harold Wilson at Chequers is one of the most damaging things I have read about that shifty politician - but then, Rees-Mogg had already written that George Brown drunk was a better man than Harold Wilson sober - which Wilson wasn't by the end of that night.
Some of the narrative is stale fish: the closure of the Times newspapers in 1978-9 as a result of the intransigence of the printing unions, for instance. Yet it is of historical interest and young journalists will be amazed to read of the stranglehold which the unions then exerted. Rees-Mogg makes the often forgotten point that it was the newspaper chapels, not the national union leaders, who resisted the modernisation which, when at last achieved, would make newspapers profitable again for the next quarter-century. He pays tribute to Rupert Murdoch as the man who made this possible and considers that he has been a benign proprietor for the Times. Murdoch is "a newspaper addict … devoted to, and fascinated by, newspapers", something his many critics prefer to ignore.
Rees-Mogg's is the story of a happy life. If he sometimes seems complacent, well he had a good deal of reason for self-satisfaction. It should be said, however, that he is also ready to admit when he has got things wrong - even if there is no mention of some of his more egregious mistakes, such as threatening us in the Seventies with a new Ice Age.
There are many amusing anecdotes and observations. He championed Mick Jagger in the Sixties when he was arrested on a drugs charge, and wrote an editorial asking "who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" (a quotation from his favourite poet, Alexander Pope) … "It was not," he writes, "the soft Left Beatles but the libertarian Rolling Stones who best predicted the Anglo-American ideology of the 1980s … Mick Jagger was a Thatcherite before Thatcherism had been invented".
Lord Rees-Mogg has written an agreeable and lucid memoir. The passages about his family background, education and home life are full of charm and interest.
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