I was an obstreperous teenager in the 1960s. This was the time of The Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan. My contemporaries and I thought we were as smart as they were. The satirical magazine Private Eye was there to blow a raspberry at any deference to authority. David Frost and his team on BBC ridiculed politicians. Peter Cook did a devastating imitation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan: “Britain’s role in the world is that of honest broker. Never was a nation more honest. Never was a nation broker”. Macmillan told us we had “never had it so good”. True, there was relative comfort after the austerity of the post-war years but we were not in a mood to be grateful to Macmillan. He was an easy figure to mock, with his damp-looking moustache and the drooping bags under his eyes.
In retrospect, he seems a giant compared to Cameron, Osborne Mandelson and the Milibands. Today’s politicians have zero experience of real life, going straight from think tank to government without doing a proper job or having any experience of ordinary life. Macmillan came from a privileged background. He worked in the family publishing house, whose authors included Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hardy, WB Yeats and Sean O’Casey. He was educated at Eton and Balliol, Oxford. However, he began his real education in the First World War and found fulfilment and self-confidence in the army. He was wounded five times. He lay in no-man’s land for a whole day with a shattered pelvis surrounded by the dead. It was not until 1920 that the wound healed and it gave him pain and a shuffling walk for the rest of his life. He saw 70,000 men killed in one day on the Somme. He loathed Herbert Morrison, (Peter Mandelson’s grandfather), for having been a conscientious objector in the First World War, calling him “a dirty little cockney guttersnipe”.
He acquired a political concern for the lives of ordinary people. He went into politics at the age of 30 as the Conservative MP for Stockton-on-Tees, where most of the workers voted Tory and Macmillan was the workers’ candidate. At the worst point of the slump, almost half the male population of Stockton was unemployed. He viewed his constituents with the same paternal eyes as he viewed his troops during the war.
In parliament, he became associated with a group of youngish Conservatives known as the YMCA. This group, which included Robert Boothby, campaigned for government intervention to revive industry and bring work to the unemployed. Boothby and Macmillan were also together in a group of Conservatives who supported Churchill in his fight against appeasement of Hitler. In his 1967 biography of Macmillan, Anthony Sampson comments archly: “Macmillan was much less brilliant than the fascinating Boothby, his rival in many fields; but he was more consistent”. Boothby had also been at Eton and Oxford (Magdalen).
Macmillan married Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, on 21 April 1920. She spent her childhood at Chatsworth House and Lismore Castle. Her nephew William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington married Kathleen, a sister of John F Kennedy.
In 1929, Lady Dorothy began a lifelong affair with Boothby, an arrangement that remained unknown to the public but was no secret in the circles Macmillan moved in. Dorothy said to Boothby: “Why did you ever wake me? I never want to see any of my family again”’. She had four young children at the time: Maurice Macmillan, Viscount Macmillan of Ovenden (1921–1984), Lady Caroline Faber (born 1923), Lady Catherine Amery (1926–1991), Sarah Heath (1930–1970). Dorothy was virtually living with Boothby for five years while she taunted Macmillan that Sarah was Boothby’s child. The stress caused by this may have contributed to Macmillan’s nervous breakdown in 1931. There were rumours that he had attempted suicide. Macmillan’s solicitor Philip Frere pointed out that divorce would be fatal for his political career. Until she died in 1966 – suddenly, of a heart attack as she was putting on her boots to go out to a point-to-point meeting– if they were both at Birch Grove, Macmillan’s house in Sussex, they would meet for dinner and then go their separate ways. Years later, Boothby described her as “on the whole, the most selfish and possessive woman I have ever known”. He also said: ‘She had thighs like hams and hands like a stevedore. She reminded me of a caddy I once seduced on the golf course at St Andrews”.
One hopes that Macmillan got some solace from his relationship with Eileen O’Casey, the wife of playwright Sean O’Casey. In front of me, I have her memoir Cheerio Titan! The pictures show that she was a beautiful woman. She does not mention Macmillan in the book but there has long been speculation that they were in love with each other. She was born in the same year, 1900, as Dorothy but did not die until 1995.
In 1975, Macmillan went to see Boothby and asked to know the truth one way or another about Sarah. Boothby assured him that Sarah was not a Boothby because he was always scrupulously careful in his affairs. The writer and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy (Boothby was a cousin of his mother) has asserted that Boothby fathered at least three children by the wives of other men.
Boothby was not, in reality, a careful man. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was impossible to escape his booming voice. He seemed to be on Any Questions? on the radio every week. Lady Violet Bonham Carter recalled appearing on the programme in 1953. Boothby gave her a lift to Minehead in his Jaguar. She noticed a “stowaway” in the back – Tom Driberg MP. Boothby also took to television as a self-confident and flamboyant performer.
Despite his relationship with Dorothy, Boothby was a promiscuous bisexual at a time when male homosexual activity was a criminal offence. He did not start to have physical relationships with women until the age of 25. From 1954, he campaigned publicly for homosexual law reform.
John Pearson, biographer of the gangsters, the Kray twins, wrote:”Behind the famous bow-tied public figure with his unmistakeable deep voice and a fund of good stories was a drunk, a liar, a reckless gambler and a bisexual.”In 1963, Boothby began an illicit affair with East End cat burglar Leslie Holt, a younger man he met at a gambling club. Holt introduced him to Ronald Kray, who supplied Boothby with young men and arranged orgies in Cedra Court, receiving personal favours from Boothby in return.
The Conservative Party was unwilling to press the police to end the Krays’ power for fear the Boothby connection would be publicised. The Labour Party MP Tom Driberg was also rumoured to have had a relationship with Ronnie Kray. When the underworld connections of Boothby and Driberg were about to be revealed in the Daily Mirror, Labour PM Harold Wilson’s lawyer Lord Goodman got to work. At Goodman’s personal dictation, Boothby wrote: “I have never been to all-male parties in Mayfair. I have met the man alleged to be King of the Underworld (Ron Kray) only three times, on business matters. I am not, and never have been, homosexual.”
Both Kray twins were bisexual and they knew all the secrets of Boothby’s sordid double-life. Neither Ronnie nor Boothby wanted sex with grown men. Their preference was young men aged between 16 and 18, and Ron had his very own supply to share. John Pearson coyly writes that Boothby’s particular perversions were “too shocking to describe in a newspaper even now” but hints at sado-masochism. In 2009, a British television documentary, The Gangster and the Pervert Peer, showed that Ronnie Kray was a man-on-man rapist. The Krays used their information about Boothby to win favours from him.
The Mirror backed down, sacked its editor, apologised, and paid Boothby £40,000 (a million in today’s money) in an out-of-court settlement. Journalists who investigated Boothby were subjected to legal threats and break-ins. The press became less willing to cover the Krays’ criminal activities, which continued unchecked.
It was a puzzle why Goodman, with his close Labour Party connections, came to represent the arch-Conservative Boothby. When, in 1968, Pearson asked Boothby to explain this conundrum, he told Pearson it was on the instructions of “the little man” – Harold Wilson. Cabinet papers later revealed that Wilson was seriously worried that Driberg – one of his oldest and most trusted friends in politics, a man he would eventually ennoble and make chairman of the Labour Party – would be drawn into the affair.
John Pearson wrote: “What nobody appeared to notice, however, was that Goodman’s actions had not only given the law’s protection to an elderly ennobled catamite, but also to a psychotic and potentially homicidal gangster.”Over the next four years, their megalomaniac violence would be rampant. They killed George Cornell, Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie, the ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell and Teddy Smith, a one-time boyfriend of Driberg.
The Krays were eventually arrested on 9 May 1968. They were convicted in 1969 thanks to the efforts of Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read. Once the Krays were in custody, many witnesses came forward. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ronnie was probably a paranoid schizophrenic and remained in Broadmoor Hospital until his death on 17 March 1995. In 1988, Jimmy Savile was appointed by Edwina Currie as head of a task force to sort out the union at the hospital. Reggie was released from prison on compassionate grounds in August 2000, eight weeks before his death from cancer.
According to The Gangster and the Pervert Peer, over 40 years later, recently discovered documents from the public records office suggest that other public figures were influenced by the Kray twins, but have never been brought to justice.
The Boothby (and Driberg) story shows that connections between politicians and criminals is nothing new. We should also not be surprised when the elites, of whatever party, use connections, cover-ups and intimidation to suppress the truth. I can recommend Francis Wheen’s excellent biography of Driberg.