Bob Boothby; & David Astor And The Observer

Peter Hennessy | Published in History Today
  • Bob Boothby: A Portrait
    Robert Rhodes James - Hodder and Stoughton, 1991 - 476 pp. - £20
  • David Astor And The Observer
    Richard Cockett - Andre Deutsch, 1991 - 315 pp. - £17.99

The tough-minded would say that at something approaching 70,000 new titles a year, the British publish too many books and that cameo biographies of relatively minor figures like Robert Boothby and David Astor should be among the first wave of economies. The tough-minded would be wrong.

It is true that, unlike the United States, we have a highly developed tradition of biography and memoir which stretches quite far down the political scale. Just occasionally even a bureaucrat like Maurice Hankey or Warren Fisher gets one too (how we need such volumes on post-war figures like Norman Brook and William Armstrong).

We are the richer for it for two reasons. Lives of men like Boothby and Astor illuminate a period as only beams shone from an unexpected angle can. Secondly, they are much more interesting human beings than many dessicated, calculating machines who strive their drab, careerist way to a seat in the Cabinet Room. And when authors wield their pens as well as Robert Rhodes James and Richard Cockett, the results are self-justifying.

Both Boothby and Astor in their different ways were (as in Astor's case) definite life-enhancers, rather than life-diminishers, to borrow Noel Annan's categorisation of British types (as useful in its way as was Michael Frayn's distinction between herbivores and carnivores a generation ago). But life-enhancement took a very different form in each case. In conversation David Astor is charming but diffident almost to the point of agonising shyness.

Boothby talked like a public address system with its own power plant deep into booming old age. I only spoke to him once as a young journalist on The Times when something I had written caught his eye. I came back from supper one evening to be told 'some nutter's been on for you claiming to be Lord Boothby'. Being a curious youth I rang the number the 'nutter' had left. It was Boothby. But he was the kind of public figure fruitcakes would imitate.

How to explain the enduring celebrity of a politician who never rose higher than parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Food at the beginning of the war despite brains, verve and word-power to match? Doubts about friendships and financial dealings over frozen Czech assets after the Nazis took Prague led to a select committee inquiry and very premature retirement from governmental office. Careless he may have been, but a word from Churchill (whose PPS he had been at the Treasury in the 1920s) would have saved him from what was at worst a minor indiscretion on behalf of worthwhile Czech emigres. None came, and Boothby found himself in trouble in later life for referring to the cruel side of the great man's nature.

Television made Boothby a household name. He was one of the earliest and most accomplished performers, his girth and gaiety as effective in political discussion as on what would today be called a 'chat show'. In The News, on which he would perform with spellbinders of the calibre of A.J.P. Taylor and Michael Foot, after a generously lubricated lunch, established a standard in the 1950s which the 1990s would be hard to emulate.

Even without television Boothby would have his place in the constitutional pantheon of the twentieth century as one of the first life peers to be created in 1958. He also has his place in the history of the political bedroom, having cuckolded the man (who generously sent him to the Lords) for nearly forty years until Lady Macmillan died in 1966.

Boothby was ahead of his party, bravely and unequivocally, on Europe in the 1940s and 1950s and on Suez in 1956. Though for reasons I still cannot entirely understand, he voted against the life-saving American Loan in December 1945. He was too, formidably courageous as the 'non-playing captain' of 'the buggers' as he liked to call them, in pressing for the lifting of legal curbs on relations between consenting adults, though like many other aspects of that uproarious life, a question-mark lingers over this too.

Such progressivism and Suez are also stapled to the name David Astor. 'Fleet Street', as I suppose it can be called for a little longer, will, I fear, never again see that combination of proprietor/editor willing to pour tranche after douche of the family fortune into a newspaper calculated to cause offence in just about every citadel of what was then called 'the Establishment'.

Nor will Fleet Street see again a talent spotter to match him. He was prepared to put up with temperament for the sake of brilliance. Thinkers and writers were what he was after, not human word-processors.

And what a galaxy The Observer constellation represented – George Orwell, Patrick O'Donovan, Samuel Brittan, Andrew Shonfield, Anthony Sampson, William Clark, Michael Davie, Colin Legum, and the barely begins the litany of the stars. In the mid-1950s, The Observer was much more than the herbivores' trade paper. What it said mattered week in, week out on colonial affairs, penal reform and alternatives to the 'stop go' economic policies of successive Tory Chancellors.

The print unions, inflation and a coarsening of the political debate in Britain ended the Astor connection in the mid-1970s when The Observer would have folded but for American oil money drafted in at the last moment by Kenneth Harris. Even black gold had its limits and the paper passed to Lonrho, clearly a matter of intense personal grief for Astor. Yet, he is not soured. He continues to press for good causes. He has not given up. He can still glow when he tells you about the effect upon him of Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn when it was first published in 1941.

See what I mean about life-enhancements? Gaze for a moment across the benches of Parliament and the editorial chairs of national newspapers. Lives of the likes of Boothby and Astor tell us it has not always been thus – nor, perhaps, does it have to be forever.

Peter Hennessy is the author of Never Gain: Britain 1945-51 (Cape, 1992).


Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week