Behind every great man there is a great woman, they used to say back in the mists of time before feminism and Margaret Thatcher. And behind Harold Wilson, the two-time Labour Prime Minister, was his secretary Marcia Williams, or as she later became, Lady Falkender.
Quite probably the most powerful woman in British politics before Thatcher, Williams was Wilson’s closest confidante and according to some suggestions his lover –though that was denied.
Such speculation may well have been promoted by jealous men who refused to accept that her position of influence was attained simply because Wilson trusted her and valued her counsel – despite her widely reported tantrums and putdowns. Most secretaries do not get away with calling their boss a “silly little man”, certainly not when he is Prime Minister.
They were an odd couple – the little pipe-smoking national leader in his Gannex raincoat and the tall, slim secretary, towering over him. When The Move’s manager decided to promote their record Flowers in the Rain with a cartoon of the pair in bed together, Harold Wilson sued and won.
The judge ordered that all royalties from the hit single –the first ever played on Radio 1 – should go to charities of Wilson’s choosing, a ruling that has reportedly cost songwriter Roy Wood millions. Beneficiaries include the Jewish National Fund for Israel, the British Film Institute and Bolton Lads Club.
Williams was successively Wilson’s private secretary, political secretary and head of his political office – in modern parlance an aide. She was feared, loathed and respected by politicians, civil servants and newspaper editors.
Cabinet minister Tony Benn wrote in his diaries that Wilson was being “run” by Williams, but he did not think that was necessarily a bad thing.
Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary, once said Williams had the best judgment of anyone in his inner circle… until the resignation honours that is – the notorious “Lavender List”, high honours for personal friends not only of Wilson but of Williams.
It was widely suggested that it was Williams’s list rather than Wilson’s and had been written by her on lavender notepaper. Beneficiaries included Lord Kagan, the boss of the Gannex raincoat company, who helped Williams buy a house in Marylebone and was later jailed for fraud, and James Goldsmith, a Conservative backer who helped pay for the education of the two sons Williams had with a former political editor of the Daily Mail.
In an interview last year Williams said: “It was Harold’s list, of course it was. Most of them had long histories with Harold… He had all these names written on bits of paper which he pulled out of his pockets and gave to me.” Wilson wanted to add other names, which Williams jotted down as they walked along a corridor, on a piece of notepaper, which, for the record, was “pink not lavender”.
However, Wilson had supposedly admitted in private that he did not know some of those on the list and that they were “mainly Marcia’s friends”. Whatever the detail of authorship and the colour of the paper, Wilson’s resignation honours caused lasting damage to his reputation.
Williams was born Marcia Matilda Field in Northamptonshire in 1932. Her father managed a brickworks. He was a Tory, who latterly had his own building company. Her mother was reputedly an unacknowledged illegitimate offspring of Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.
She studied history at Queen Mary College London and was chairman of the college Labour Club. She married Eddie Williams, who was chairman of the Conservative Club. They divorced after he went off to the US to work as an aeronautical engineer.
If she had entered the political arena today she might more readily have pursued elected office, but instead Williams took a secretarial job at Labour Party headquarters in London and was soon working in Wilson’s office.
This was the mid-1950s. Wilson had already held Cabinet office, but it would be several years before he became leader of the party, helped by Williams, who kept him informed of all the plotting and manoeuvring taking place. She was already his right-hand woman when he became party leader in 1963 and PM the following year.
In 1974 she became Lady Falkender, which was her mother’s maiden name, after Wilson became PM for the second time, outraging the Tory press. Private Eye called her Lady Forkbender, a rather random reference to the self- proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, to whom she had no connection.
Williams managed to combine her considerable political career with being a single mother – she had two children in the 1960s with political journalist Walter Terry, who worked for a succession of right-wing papers. He was separated and Williams hoped they would marry. In the end he went back to his wife.
This was a time when a public figure having children out of wedlock could still cause a storm of publicity, but nothing appeared in the press until 1974 when Williams was elevated to the peerage. The Times decided it was valid to refer to her illegitimate children because she was now a public figure.
Wilson resigned in 1976, despite Williams’s attempts to dissuade him. It effectively signalled the end of Williams’s influence on government, though she continued working with him. She also continued to sit in the House of Lords. She voted, but never made a speech.
Both she and Harold Wilson’s wife Mary were at Wilson’s bedside when he died in 1995. In 2007 Williams won damages from the BBC after it broadcast a docudrama called The Lavender List and suggested she had an affair with Wilson. She is survived by her two sons.