Bill Deedes is justly celebrated as a nice man and an English archetype, the sort of character Ian Carmichael used to play in Ealing comedies: Woosterish, emollient, never standing on his rank, always accepting Tory family values – usually expressed more forcefully by a fearsome, chauffeur-driven auntie figure, as played by Margaret Rutherford, or, in Deedes’s own life, by Margaret Thatcher. Journalists love him – always have loved him – because he is so much one of them. When editor of the Daily Telegraph he horrified the paper’s hierarchy by drinking regularly in the pub next door with fellow hacks. He tried, he says, to turn down his peerage, but was told by Thatcher’s office that this was bad behaviour. So he accepted it but goes to the Lords as little as possible and refuses to take the daily allowance.
Although he is the only man ever to have been both a cabinet minister and the editor of a major national daily, he plays down his role as a de facto minister of information in the Macmillan government by saying that in a democracy no such job should exist and that he was happy to give it up. He also makes it clear that for him journalism is about writing – ‘you are as good as, and no better than, the last piece you wrote’ – and he prides himself on his ability to turn out a thousand good words in no time and under pressure: the reason Max Hastings, who followed him as editor of the Telegraph, and his successors always wanted to keep him on as a writer. He can be cutting about journalists whose main ambition is to rise to an executive level where they only boss around those who write – and particularly about Andrew Knight, the former Economist editor brought in as chief executive of the Telegraph by Conrad Black. Part of the deal was that Hastings should replace Deedes as editor, a changing of the guard that led Thatcher to throw a party for him at Number Ten. Knight phoned to let him know and to say he should choose who he wanted to invite:
It was very early in the morning. I had not entirely thrown off my jet-lag. I was in pyjamas, which creates an inferiority complex when you know the man on the other end of the telephone is fully dressed. This plan, I told myself unworthily, had more to do with the social aspirations of Andrew Knight than anything else. I became unreasonable and obstructive. There was an argument on the telephone, which I lost. At that stage, Andrew Knight was riding high. Most people lost their arguments with him.
The key weapon here is self-deprecation. Deedes’s account of Conrad Black is somewhat similar, although written before he knew that the FBI had seized all Black’s hard disks: Deedes, indeed, is a bit like Robert Graves’s Claudius, surviving every situation while more powerful figures are pole-axed all around him because he plays the buffoon so successfully that no one can see in him a future emperor.
Born in 1913, Deedes grew up in a castle that was sold off for £12,000 in 1929, as the Depression took hold. Forced to leave Harrow in a hurry that year, he treasures the memory of the headmaster telling a school assembly that it had been ‘the worst term’ he had ever known: ‘I have today had to dismiss six boys. They were found behind the tombstones with women of the serving class.’ The young Deedes found a job on the Morning Post. He felt sorry for the unemployed but lived in a Waughish world well removed from such miseries. He and his friends, finding a Mrs Trampleasure in the London phone directory, took turns ringing her to enquire about the health of ‘all your little trolleybuses’, the game being to see who could keep her on the line the longest. ‘There was,’ Deedes admits, ‘no excuse for it.’ Leaving a night club just before dawn one summer morning he and a friend found a Surrey golf course, where they played all 18 holes in white tie, tails and patent leather shoes. They were never able afterwards to identify which course it had been.
Detailed to cover Edward VIII’s exit from the country after the Abdication, he attended a dance in Folkestone in white tie and tails, slipping off every now and again in a chauffeur-driven car provided by the Post to check whether the ex-king was leaving via the nearby Lympne airport. (He had sailed off in a destroyer.) It was appropriate that Deedes should end up with Waugh in Abyssinia, providing the model for William Boot. Anyone who remembers how, on Lord Copper’s orders, Boot is outfitted with all manner of absurd and elaborate equipment before setting out for the war, will be delighted to read of the Post’s determination to fit Deedes out with cedarwood trunks (lined with zinc to repel ants), solar topees, medicine chest, mosquito boots, iron rations and a camp bed – in all, a quarter ton of luggage.
Deedes insists that all his successes have been entirely down to luck, though his knack of getting on well with just about everyone and his masterful self-deprecation were clearly key. He describes his decision to stand as the Tory candidate for Ashford in 1950 as ‘barmy’, and explains that the only reason the previous member had vacated such a safe seat was his desire to abandon his wife for a much younger woman, which would go down badly with his constituents. Invited by Churchill to become a junior minister, he quickly learned that his ‘intellectual equipment for high office was inadequate’ and was relieved to rejoin the back benches after three years.
From there he made his one truly memorable speech. Asked to wind up a debate on a report from the Committee of Privileges occasioned by a Labour ex-minister’s attempt to use parliamentary privilege to get himself out of a libel suit, Deedes started with what was, for him, the century’s political turning point, the first day on the Somme. All relations between leaders and led, all notions of hierarchy and deference were, he believed, undermined by the colossal losses of that day. After that, trust would have to be earned the hard way: it could not be rebuilt by demanding special privileges for leaders. The ex-minister would have to take his chance with the courts: ‘Public duty cannot be made altogether safe for anybody.’ It was a perfect example of the One Nation Toryism which made Deedes so popular with Telegraph readers and Tory audiences in general. They liked, too, his evocations of Merrie England – often the purest corn – and the fact that he could point to a letter of Jane Austen’s favouring William Deedes (his great-great-grandfather) in the 1813 election – he didn’t, of course, remind them that she couldn’t vote. Almost every quango and pressure group in sight was keen to appoint him to its committee: if you had to have a statutory Tory on board, who better than the always agreeable Deedes?
In 1962, Macmillan, in typically distrait fashion (‘Will you return to the sinking ship?’), invited Deedes to join the Cabinet. ‘A sinking ship is my spiritual home,’ Deedes thought as he accepted. The Daily Express called him ‘the most unknown minister of all time’. Although a journalist, Deedes was not ‘a slick or pushful chappie’, the paper said. ‘His column chronicling the daily doings of clubmen and canons was about as slick as a Victorian railway carriage . . . Mr Deedes is remarkably popular among Tory MPs . . . the real reason his colleagues love him is that he is incredibly unambitious.’
Surprisingly perhaps, Deedes was at the centre of the Macmillan government’s tumultuous last years, selling the idea of EEC entry until De Gaulle put his foot down, desperately dealing with the Profumo affair and then with the succession crisis after Macmillan’s resignation. And it is here that questions arise. He says De Gaulle’s ‘no’ made for ‘one of the worst days I remember, in or out of politics’ – the event which above all others sank the government. Given recent Tory thinking on Europe, I wonder whether he still thinks De Gaulle altogether wrong in his view that Britain did not belong with the original Six. He says, predictably, only that the event ‘brought sharply home to me my own limitations. It would have taken someone abler than myself . . .’ About Profumo he is warm and forgiving (they had been together at prep school and Harrow). He gives more or less the account of the affair that the Tories offered at the time and has nothing but praise for Lord Denning’s report (‘a model of clarity’), dismissing Labour suggestions that it was a whitewash. This is far from good enough: no doubt he hasn’t read Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril’s account in Honeytrap, which showed that Stephen Ward’s sex parties were being run by MI5. The intelligence services were actively seeking to entrap people like Ivanov, the Soviet military attaché who was sharing Christine Keeler’s favours with Profumo. Summers and Dorril show just how biased and disreputable Denning’s report was. Their book came out in 1987 and no amount of amiable self-deprecation can let Deedes get away with pretending that it doesn’t exist.
Deedes is critical of the Macmillan government’s late burst of modernising: the Beeching Report, which argued that only Intercity rail services had much of a future; the Buchanan Report, which first faced the need to restrict car use in cities; and the abolition of Retail Price Maintenance. ‘The programme of modernisation began to look like a course of pills, which the public found increasingly hard to swallow.’ He also thinks that the policy of unrestricted immigration in the 1950s laid up trouble for the future and was a major ‘failure of statecraft’. Yet he repeatedly tells us that Churchill was wonderfully far-sighted. Why not face the fact that the Churchill and Eden administrations were hopelessly slothful and chaotic – quite the opposite of far-sighted – and that this was why reform, when it finally came, was late and not thought through?
Deedes was relieved to leave government in 1964 and the Commons in 1974, and was far happier editing the Telegraph, though he admits that the paper’s decline gathered pace under him. It’s hard not to sympathise with his problems with the printers’ unions. At one point, he tells us, the union claimed that no fewer than 16,000 casual workers were employed on the paper on Saturday nights. The Inland Revenue whittled the number down to 7000 but the real figure was 2000. At one point the unions demanded that fire drills be held in working hours: when it was pointed out that this would involve a roll-call, the demand was dropped like a hot brick. When Hastings replaced him as editor Deedes was delighted to give up his responsibilities and enjoyed an Indian summer of reporting and writing from around the world, accompanied by a succession of young women for whom he has nothing but praise. These were the years of the ‘Dear Bill’ letters in Private Eye, but he has much less to say about the Thatcher years than one might have hoped. Shrewdly, he believes the letters were a boon to Denis Thatcher because they portrayed him as a pantomime buffoon, making it all but impossible for the press to see him as the steady and powerfully right-wing influence on his wife that he was.
At 92 Deedes has become an almost iconic figure. His modesty, good humour and courteousness all add up for his many admirers to a picture of old-fashioned English decency, a view only strengthened by the fact that he has spent much of his later years traipsing the Third World to campaign against anti-personnel mines. He is, indeed, in some danger of being remembered as a saintly figure. Yet he is quite right that his gifts were modest. So how did he do it? The clue lies in his letters home from Normandy in 1944, where he was a company commander:
The whole thing is slightly unreal. A few, very few, soldiers derive great pleasure from shooting Germans, most of them feel it is a job to be done and so try to do it methodically . . . Perhaps this war has been too light on us to generate enough hate . . . I dare say we are winning but it seems slow where I am and rather expensive, and tiring into the bargain . . . I find the endless destruction and slaughter wearing . . . I am too disillusioned to be very hopeful . . . but at least we are no longer going field by field, and Paris is nearer . . . We are going to finish this war, if and when we do, so exhausted as to be like a man turned into the street in mid-November after three weeks in bed with flu. Some chaps don’t even know what month of the year it is; and many can’t give the date or day within two or three! . . . The destruction is horrible. I find endless villages and hamlets smashed and destroyed, scores of dying and rotting cattle, almost the worst feature of all.
There’s nothing heroic or even faintly glorious here: not even much hint that Deedes is actually in command. All very William Bootish: it’s a ghastly mess and one blunders along doing one’s pathetic best amid a complete shambles. It is not the picture Lord Copper would have wanted of our gallant troops storming through, and the Beast’s readers would have been very disappointed in soldiers who didn’t even know which day it was, let alone which month.
Contrast that with the feelings Deedes expresses more than fifty years later when he revisits the battlefield with a young woman called Abby:
I sat with Abby by a pond in the village of Livry, where there had also been hard fighting, watched two swans and some ducks paddling serenely in the sunshine and thought back to long ago. For all of us who took part, it had been the big test of our lives. Nothing to come would match it. What an honour it had been to lead men of a rifle company along that line of advance to Germany. Then, thinking of the riflemen who fell and lay in their flower-decked graves nearby and beyond, I felt sad to think that I had not led them better. ‘No more cemeteries today, Abby,’ I said as we went back to the car.