Letters

A selection of Lord Lexden's letters this year to The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The New StatesmanThe Spectator and others. You can read letters from previous years in the menu to the left.

21/05/20 - A most peculiar parson - Rev David Johnson
The Times

This bizarre clergyman spent some time in bondage. Kidnapped while vice-president of the Cambridge Union by daredevils from Oxford, he was paraded around their union chamber tightly bound up in a shopping trolley. He took his revenge by hiring burly guardsmen to bundle Churchill’s grandson, Rupert Soames, the Oxford Union president, into a van that was unloaded at the shop of Cambridge’s leading academic outfitters. Displayed tied to a chair in the shop window, he was rescued by the passing master of Jesus, Cambridge, who just happened to due to speak at the Oxford Union that very evening. “Rupert still talks to me,” Johnson said with some amazement afterwards.

21/05/20 - Intolerable rudeness about Dizzy
The Spectator

Disraeli would have smiled indulgently at Simon Heffer’s attack on him (April issue). He was bombarded with similar insults throughout his career. Most had an element that Heffer could not get away with. One of his senior backbenchers, Sir Rainald Knightley, never ceased railing against “that hellish Jew”.  He was amazingly forgiving. When he died, a young gay Liberal admirer, Reggie Brett, wrote in his diary: “he was the most magnanimous statesman of our time” who in the end prevailed over “all but his most bigoted opponents”.

A bigoted opponent like Heffer will never find it difficult to be rude about him. There is material to spare. In 1841 he asked Peel for office, but flatly denied doing so in the Commons during the Corn Laws crisis, a classic Victorian high political drama with no holds barred. Peel showed himself the lesser figure in the merciless world of party politics by letting Disraeli get away with it.

Gladstone praised Dizzy as the master of the Tory party “which he understood perfectly and governed completely”.  It has profited hugely from his richly varied legacy, emphasising imperialism in one era and social reform in another while turning time and again to his great theme of national unity. All are documented in a slim volume of his wit and wisdom published in 1992 by his brilliant biographer, Robert Blake, and recently reissued (to be extolled by Andrew Gimson as the best book on politics he has read recently).

Though deplorable in its mean-spiritedness, Heffer’s diatribe is in a perverse way a testament to his enduring importance. Who today would bother to launch an onslaught on Gladstone?

Lord Lexden
London SW1

16/05/20 - Churchill and the welfare state
The Times

Sir, Andrew Roberts (letter, May 14) quotes Churchill’s ringing declaration of support for a national health service (a concept backed by the Tory leadership since the 1930s) in answer to the charge that his hero opposed the Beveridge Report. Beveridge dealt with social insurance and employment rather than health. The report stirred unease on the Tory benches. Nevertheless, Churchill declared in February 1943 that it “constitutes an essential part of any post-war scheme of national betterment.” The 1945 Conservative manifesto pledged: “one of our most important tasks will be to pass into law and bring into action as soon as we can a nation-wide and compulsory scheme of national insurance based on the plan announced by the government of all parties in 1944.” It is a myth that Churchill and the Tories opposed the welfare state. 

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

16/05/20 - Disraeli's great biographer
The Spectator

Sir: There is a glaring omission from the political biographies recommended for lockdown reading by Simon Heffer (‘The great and not so good’, 9 May): Robert Blake’s Disraeli (1966), described by Colin Matthew, editor of the Gladstone diaries, as ‘the best single- volume biography of any British prime minister.’ It laid to rest the charge that that Dizzy (as he liked to be known) was no more than a lucky charlatan. Blake showed that the man who invented the political novel invested his writing with inspiring Tory ideals. He was the greatest parliamentary debater of his time, frequently running rings round the ponderous Gladstone. He is the only British statesman to have inspired a political cult; the Primrose League attracted some two million members by 1914. In beautiful prose Blake explains why Dizzy exerts a perennial fascination.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords

04/05/20 - Tory babies at No 10
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - The baby at No 10 is the third newborn Tory (and the first Tory boy) to arrive there (the Liberal and Labour parties having three between them).

Florence Cameron took up residence in 2010. Just over 130 years earlier, when Disraeli’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Northcote, was the occupant (Disraeli himself having declined to move in), a medical team was summoned to deliver the child of his daughter and her husband, Reginald MacLeod, later the Conservative Party’s Principal Agent, who were living with him.

Flora MacLeod, later Dame Flora, born at No 10 on February 3 1878, would grow up to become the 28th Chief of the Clan MacLeod and a famous chatelaine of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. She lived to be 98.

Perhaps her two recent Tory successors will be blessed with similar longevity.

Lord Lexden (Con)
London SW1

25/04/20 - Queen Victoria's "Greatest gift to her people"
The Times

Sir, Queen Victoria found the chloroform administered to her in 1853 by Dr John Snow “soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure.” The famous anaesthetist’s first patient in 1847 was so carried away with enthusiasm that she christened her baby girl Anaesthesia.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

16/04/20 - Opening up independent schools
The Times

Sir, Sir Anthony Seldon claims that the postwar Labour government “ducked” the opening up of independent schools to “a much wider social base” (Thunderer, Apr 13). In fact it entrusted the task to local authorities, which were given powers and funding to provide bursaries. Some responded well: nearly 600 bursaries were being awarded in Middlesex by the early 1950s. Others were less enthusiastic.

Labour’s experience shows that a national scheme is needed. The basis of it should be that places would be opened up at a cost to the state no greater than it pays for them in the maintained sector. Many independent schools have made clear their readiness to embrace such a scheme.

Lord Lexden
President, Independent Schools Association

03/04/20 - Whig and Tory Lotharios - Charles James Fox and Boris Johnson
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - Charles James Fox, who revelled in his reputation as “a notorious Lothario” (report, March 23), would not have wanted  kisses to stop being planted on his bust at the National Portrait Gallery once the current crisis is over.

In 1782 he virtually abandoned politics for Perdita Robinson, one of the leading actresses of the day, when his friend the Prince of Wales discarded her with a £20,000 pay-off. “He is all day figuring away with her”, a prominent Whig lady complained.

His most widely admired mistress, the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, whom her husband happily shared with him, gained political immortality by bestowing kisses on undecided electors in Fox’s Westminster constituency in 1784 (“she supplicates a vote, but steals a heart”).

When blamed for a riot during which his great rival, Pitt, had to be rescued from a shattered carriage, he replied disarmingly: “I was in bed with Mrs Armistead, who is ready to substantiate the fact on oath.”

When his Whig friends commissioned a monument for Westminster Abbey, they could not resist asking for allusion  to his lasciviousness.  He was placed on a mattress, falling into the arms of Liberty with Peace reclining on his knee. Perhaps Boris Johnson, an 18th century figure in many ways, should be commemorated in a similar manner when the time comes.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

02/04/20 - Finding a new Prime Minister in an emergency
The Times

Sir, Daniel Finkelstein regrets the absence of “a clear plan for replacing the prime minister in an emergency” (“Party members aren’t fit to pick their leader”, Apr 1). No incumbent of No 10 would favour such a plan.

If Lord Liverpool had had George Canning in the wings before his sudden stroke in 1827, he would have split the Tory party, much of which wanted the Duke of Wellington. Even after his 1953 stroke Churchill was determined to hang on, convincing himself that Anthony Eden was not up to the job. Harold Macmillan felt in 1963 that a much younger man, Reginald Maudling or Quintin Hogg, should succeed him, but both failed to fulfil their initial promise.

The lack of an emergency plan may bring grave difficulties, but so too would an attempt to devise one. 

Lord Lexden
Conservative Party historian

17/03/20 - Exonerate Heath
The Spectator

Sir: An independent report by the former high-court judge Sir Richard Henriques into the Metropolitan Police documents in horrifying detail the malpractices which meant that ‘the names of Leon Brittan, Lord Bramall and others were dragged through the mud’ (‘Trial and error’, 29 February). Though Sir Edward Heath was also cruelly traduced, the government has rejected the calls I have made in the Lords, in association with Lord Armstrong of Ilminster and Lord Butler of Brockwell, former cabinet secretaries who were his close confidants, with unanimous support across the House for an independent review of Operation Conifer, the widely criticised investigation by the Wiltshire police into the allegations against him.

The biased chief constable, Mike Veale, who was ‘120 per cent’ certain of Heath’s guilt, was only mildly censured by an internal review before moving to Cleveland police, from which he was forced to resign a few months later. The Home Office, which paid most of the £1.5 million cost of Operation Conifer, has the power to establish an inquiry.

It is needed to scrutinise the seven allegations left open at the end of the investigation, almost certainly to save the face of the police. The taint has been removed from the reputations of other leading figures. Sir Edward Heath KG should not be left under any lingering suspicion.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

09/03/20 - A lion's docile cubs
The Times

Sir, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, voted the greatest leader (report, Mar 5, and letter, Mar 6), conspicuously failed to instil martial prowess within his family. His son, Duleep Singh, became a Norfolk landowner and a member of the Carlton Club but was thwarted in his ambition to stand as a Tory candidate against one of Gladstone’s sons. His granddaughter was a leading suffragette. The Lion of the Punjab would have been astounded.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

02/03/20 - How King George VI helped fool the Nazis before D-Day
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - MI5 rightly drew attention during the Queen’s visit to its headquarters (report, February 26) to George VI’s “central role” in misleading the Nazis over plans for D-Day.

His involvement began when two MI5 officers called on the King’s private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, on 3 March 1944. In his diary he wrote that they “explained how the King’s visits in the next few months could assist the elaborate cover scheme to bamboozle the German intelligence over the time and place for Overlord”.

Much press publicity was given to visits to troops in the South East to help strengthen the Nazi suspicion that Calais, not Normandy, would be the scene of Allied invasion, and earlier than the actual date in June.

What seemed to be a huge oil-storage complex near Dover also received a royal visit, as M15 has now revealed. It was in fact a complete fake, designed by Basil Spence and built by Shepperton Studios.

An element of the elaborate deception plans to which MI5 did not refer took the KIng to Scapa Flow. There he inspected the fleet at length during a three-day visit in May. Prominent press reports indicated that he had “taken leave” of his fleet in “cold and lonely northern waters” as it prepared for battle. The prospect of a Scandinavian attack was created to deter Nazi troop movement to reinforce northern France.

It is right that this  contribution to D-Day’s success made by the Queen’s father, who meant so much to her, should at last be fully acknowledged.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

27/02/20 - Wrangling over the Elgin Marbles
Evening Standard

Discussion of the Elgin Marbles needs the kind of historical perspective that Nico Makris provides (The Reader,  February 24). It is important to remember that over the years even senior Conservative politicians have questioned have their British custodianship. 

Visiting Athens in 1869, Sir Stafford Northcote, a classical scholar and future Tory leader, referred angrily in his diary to Elgin’s “robbery of the Parthenon”. Another Tory diarist, Lord Crawford, who was a trustee of the British Museum, recorded in 1938 that the marbles “have been dangerously overcleaned by using unauthorised methods and instruments”.

Now is the time to give full and open consideration to arrangements that will best secure the future of the marbles.

Alistair Lexden

10/02/20 - Airey Neave's murder
The Times

Sir, Your obituary of Sir Michael Cummins (Feb 6) asserts that the bomb that killed Airey Neave in 1979 was planted in the Palace of Westminster’s car park by the so-called Irish National Liberation Army. That was the claim made by the terrorists. The Metropolitan Police had no doubt that the bomb was put in place while Neave’s car stood outside his nearby flat during the night with a tilting device that caused the explosion as he drove up the ramp from the car park the following day.

Lord Lexden
Political adviser to Airey Neave,1977-79

10/02/20 - Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale Queen Victoria
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - The exhibition on Florence Nightingale’s later life (report, February 3) should give prominence to Queen Victoria’s deep and lasting admiration of her.

“I envy her being able to do so much good,” Victoria wrote during the Crimean War. The pair met in 1856. Expecting to encounter a battleaxe, the Queen was enchanted to find the now famous nurse was modest and demure, “refusing all public acclaim”. The sorrowing monarch roused herself from her widow’s seclusion in 1868 to open St Thomas’s Hospital in London “ for Miss Nightingale”.

The bond between them was further strengthened when, a few days later, news arrived that two nurses trained by Nightingale and sent to Sydney Infirmary had ensured the recovery of the Queen’s favourite son, Prince Alfred, after an assassination attempt in Australia. 

Recalling her indebtedness to the Lady with the Lamp, the Queen insisted that money sent to her by the public for her Golden Jubilee in 1887 should be used to establish the Queen’s Jubilee Nursing Institute, the world’s first professional nursing organisation. 

She would have been appalled by the refusal of her successor, Edward VII, to include the legendary figure in the new Order of Merit which he created in 1902. “ Women are not eligible,” he insisted. He eventually gave way in 1907 after the prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, had lectured him about “ the revolution which her services and example effected.” It was as Florence Nightingale 0M that she died in 1910.

Lord Lexden
London SW1

16/01/20 - Another Duke of Sussex who went his own way
The Times

Sir, Prince Harry’s Hanoverian predecessor as Duke of Sussex, Prince Augustus, loved breaking the rules. He is the only royal to marry twice without the monarch’s consent required under the Royal Marriages Act. After the death of Lady Augusta Murray (“History repeats itself as the Sussexes fall out of favour”, Jan 13), he married Lady Cecilia Buggin, widow of a London Alderman, in 1831. The match won widespread public support, enhanced by the duke’s endorsement of parliamentary reform and the enfranchisement of Jews to the horror of his right-wing family. Though Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, thought “it would be very ridiculous” to grant the illegal wife any public recognition, in 1840 Queen Victoria created her Duchess of Inverness “as long as she did not go out or take place before any other duchess”. A rebel to the last, her husband rejected in his will a burial at Windsor in favour of Kensal Green cemetery, proving his piety by accumulating some 1,000 editions of the Bible.

Lord Lexden
House of Lords

08/01/20 - George III - a most conscientious king
The Daily Telegraph

SIR - It is very good that George III is to be the subject of an exhibition that will “seek to redefine what is known about the monarch” (report, January 3).

That should include his remarkable stamina and devotion to state affairs. It was his habit to rise at six in the morning to deal with ministerial papers that had arrived overnight. After a morning ride, breakfast and divine service, he worked until eight-thirty in the evening, with a break in the afternoon for public occasions such as receptions for ministers and courtiers. He wrote all his own letters and policy papers until 1805 when failing eyesight compelled him to use a secretary. He was the only Hanoverian monarch to keep up such a strict daily routine, playing the flute, harpsichord or piano in the evenings for recreation.

A leading authority on the period, Professor Peter Jupp, concluded that “ by the end of the 1770s he was probably the best-informed statesman of his time on the full range pf policy issues.” Sadly, mastery of detail was not always rewarded by political success.

Lord Lexden
London SW1