It was really a delightfully miserable evening outside. The rain streaked down the windows of the Number Ten study in great forceful torrents, sliding down the windows at marathon speed, and all behind was a theatrical, blackened void. It was charming weather for being indoors, taking pleasure in the small things in life, exactly the sort of evening for a convivial drink and a chat. It made his heart glad and lifted his spirit. And Roy was such good company tonight, typically erudite and witty and wry. They were mulling over events, gradually airing problems, finding resolutions. Yes, he had to congratulate himself a little on how civilised it was. Marvellous evening.
Wry? Was that the word he’d meant? His mind was a little foggy. Sounded a bit like the kind of word Roy would have difficulty with, maybe that was the problem. Sounded like it should be something else, being mispronounced. Wry. Yes, it was the right word.
He felt as if he should sit up. He couldn’t quite understand why for a moment, as he didn’t need to pass water and being slouched into the warm clutches of the armchair felt a delight. Maybe it was because Roy was apparently speaking, and he should have a more obvious posture of attentiveness. Probably.
“- though the State Department is still very supportive.”
Ah yes, the State Department. Roy certainly had good contacts in Washington. George Ball, the Kennedys, Muskie, Rockefeller, goodness knows who else.
He took a chug of his glass of claret and pondered the point, or at least what he extrapolated it to be. Good stuff, this. It didn’t quite have the knack for quenching thirst of the jug of Dubonnet and gin he'd had as an aperitif earlier, or a bottle of Scotch, or whiskey, though. Anyway -
“This is the point at which you ask me if I discussed Europe with Gilligan in Georgetown, isn’t it Roy?”
“Oh, you know I wouldn’t be so presumptuous,” Roy said, a puckish look on his face.
“Ohhh, come come, you and I have nothing to hide. Nothing at all,” he said, his voice rasping for all its amusement. “Anyway, yes, the Americans still want us in. Of course they do Roy, always have, but you see, foreign governments never take stock of local political conditions, only their strategic interests…”
“I’m not saying it’ll happen soon. But it was a close result. You know the direction of travel is only in one way. Benn, Powell and the like are relics.”
Europe had stupefied him long ago; but Roy was still in pursuit of it, still searching for a political testament. The referendum on entry had been a shock to poor Roy. Oh yes, the direction of travel was always in one way, it just generally tended not to be the way anyone wanted. Did Roy really believe that this issue would be resolved so easily, even if it had gone towards entry? Every issue always funnelled into an accommodation by all sides, until the original issue, the original points, are pushed into oblivion. Change, synthesis. That was the way of things.
He quickly tossed back the remainder of his glass and poured out another. He felt protective towards Roy, quite frequently. This wasn’t the booze interfering with his judgement, he was sure. You would have to be inhuman not to feel it towards someone so strangely serene, so cultured. Roy had all the right ideas, well, almost all. By coincidence of not being a Tory, this had created a great deal of problems for him politically. And yet he sailed on, blithe and unconcerned and with a seemingly unquenchable desire to simply be in government and do right by the country. One or the other, anyhow.
“Roy, you know, sometimes I don’t always share your faith in the future.”
“Oh yes, the future is a very tricky thing. If you’d said to me ten years ago I’d be here…”
He had another good swig from his glass. “You’d have laughed, or cried, or just been plain disturbed?”
Roy was quite unembarrassed to ponder the point a little. “I suppose quite a lot of surprise.”
“It’s a world of surprises, Roy. A world of surprises.” He’d said that to the press, on the steps of Number Ten, the first time. A much simpler time.
“Well, you see,” Roy was continuing, “Labour was always historically a coalition between different groups, liberals, Social Democrats, Socialist radicals. They have all coexisted, not often amicably, but – well, it’s a touch depressing that we couldn’t keep it all together.”
“You have –“
“Nothing. Never mind.”
His eyes were turning a little glassy, though either Roy didn’t notice in the dimmed atmosphere of the study, or he was too delicate to comment. Time for another glass.
“Roy, I admire your courage. I don’t believe I’ve ever said it. Some people could have just walked away, off after – what happened. But you fought on. You are still here. And you will be, as long as I have anything to say about it.”
The look of mild panic on Roy’s face was testament to the perils of language, that imperfect little medium, and, he had to confess, perhaps a little to do with the drink.
“I don’t mean that when I go the coalition is at risk, of course. No, no. But you are – well, there a damn worse people in my party, but of course you know that.”
“I can’t ever say it’s bothered me. There has been worse said of me before.”
“No, no. Of course. But –“ It was inexpressibly difficult to apologise in any kind of coherent way, and the fear, no, the complete predictability that Roy would either not grasp it or brush it off due to the drink or a slip of the tongue or God knows what else, that was mortifying.
“Roy, what I’m trying to say is that party isn’t important. You know this more than most.” A bit rude, perhaps, but true. He thought about mentioning his youthful dalliance with the notion of joining National Labour, but supposed it may be a little indelicate and caught his tongue before it was articulated. “In twenty years things as they are now will be quite the platitude. I know that, and you know it, though we don’t want to talk about these things, because they’re embarrassing. So all this bother you’re getting at the moment, it doesn’t matter. Not in the long-term. Balls to the lot of them.”
“It’s – it’s a marvellously forward-thinking attitude, Reggie. I do very much appreciate the sentiments.”
“Not at all, Roy, not at all.”
Oh yes, they had hung and drawn and quartered the poor bugger, some of them. Quite apart from those damn juvenile jokes about Roy wanting to make us a major wanking power. It wasn’t just because of the split from Labour, though that had been bad enough. He often supposed that this was due to the demise of the Liberals at the hands of that damn fool Thorpe, people had been so hopeful with the arrival of the SDP, here was the professional, modern third party to replace the corpse of the Liberals, capture the spirit of modernity and the forward-thinking. It seemed providential. But after the election had turned out like it did, coalition had seemed so natural. More than that, more than anyone knew, actually, it had seemed, to him, irresistible. Now the usual crowd were calling Roy's lot traitors twice over, the worst kind of abuse. It had been a kind of public death. But he wanted it, oh he wanted to capture them. Synthesis, merging, folding in of these strands of pragmatism and good sense, spread across the spectrum, confined in those dismal little coalitions, as Roy had it. And it was going to work. He was determined on it. But good God, some nights he grieved for Roy, and applied the harsh medicine of rebuke to himself.
He would probably have gone shortly after ’76. It was a personal failure. They’d done so much to bring about a proper social contract, a conciliation culture. They’d looked soft to some of the militants in consequence. They’d won the strike when the miners had demanded that their mouths be stuffed with gold, of course. But a ghastly thing. To be actually hated by people, good people. Ghastly.
But when Benn deposed Roy, that had been a big moment of opportunity. No time for a novice, that. But now, now he was on his way out. Nick and Jopling told him the accusations of sloth and drift were becoming more incessant on the backbenches, not to mention other difficulties, and anyway, he had outdone Mr Asquith. More than enough, though he would miss it all. The inflation situation was not good, and the incomes policy was as difficult to maintain as ever, but things had steadied. Though the firebrands still hated them for ’76, the saner unionists were perhaps – perhaps – just a little more receptive to the arbitration and conciliation framework they’d laid down and the increasing move to bring management and workforce in synch – little Jeffrey had been pushing that even further now very strongly, ‘industrial democracy’ as the term goes. A proper re-start, a healing process. Benn was routed, the Europe issue a little calmer than before. The Vanguard was still goose-stepping around Ulster, though. Lots of bombings of Catholic targets by the terrorists. Not quite as bad as when they’d tried to get the Pope in ’75, oh dear me, what a nightmare that had been. A humiliation, and blood on the streets besides. A lot of intractable problems in that dreadful, black, dismal frontier. Pignedoli had wanted to actually go over there, to meet with them all and pray, to forgive. Unfortunately not possible, your Holiness, they had politely noted.
But on the whole, not too shabby a record. Some of it would only be appreciated with time, with the expansion of perspective it created.
Willie would probably succeed. Probably. Lowest common denominator. Ian was far too close to Roy, among other things, Ted was still stinking up the backbenches, and with his fans on the more credulous, softer right, Thatcher and suchlike, but not much of a factor anymore. Rippon might do well, he thought. Peyton and du Cann rather fun but not credible, if we’re being honest. That bastard Enoch had finally lost it and buggered off completely, with Labour bizarrely and entertainingly resuming their Wilson-era courting of him. Bit of a pity Windlesham was in the Lords. Young Geoffrey a dark horse. Jeffrey – the other one, sometimes a useful way of determining people’s attitudes, that – said by many to be ‘good’, but too junior.
He didn’t really care too much. The more you strive for a legacy, the more it recedes and all that. But the party would continue on good form, and the coalition would continue. So it is done. But there were other things, of course, things that were yet to be.
“I was told,” Roy noted politely, steering the conversation to more familiar grounds, “that Gilligan is rather concerned for the situation in Italy. This whole Red Brigades thing. Not the kind of thing you need going on when talking to Andropov.”
Sometimes it troubled him a little that Roy, such a consummate internationalist, had a source in every capital, a bludgeon of authority on every foreign matter, but it had undoubtedly proven useful for the government over these last few years. Roy seemed to know things before the people concerned did. He’d known that the French were going to veto back in ’72, had subtly telegraphed that in the House in advance. Ted had been furious, puce with rage, a bizarre scene. But then Ted had never quite got over being dumped at Bexley in ’66.
Roy didn’t have sources everywhere, though.
“He was rather agitated about it all. Foggy Bottom getting over-excited, really. I told him, 'Andreotti is a sound man. I honestly wouldn’t worry about it. Just let it play out.'” They’d established a very good relationship with the Italians, and he liked Andreotti, a lot. Such a perspicacious little man. When they’d talked at the Vienna summit, he’d said to him, in that low, level little quaver, ‘The most difficult person to love is yourself’.
He grasped for the decanter and poured himself another ample dose, before falling into a little rumination. “Roy, who said, ‘Oh God, make me good, but not yet.’?”
Roy sank back into his chair with that ever so Roy-like expression of amusement. “Enoch Powell, I should think.”
“Hah! Ha!” he coughed a little as the wine touched his throat. “Oh, that’s quite good. It’s, uh-“
“Augustine, I think.”
“Augustine. Ah. ‘The wicked tell me of things that delight them. But not such things as your law has to tell’.” He took a big swig of the glass, with the ambition, not quite adequately fulfilled, of draining it fully. “I think it’s just about time, then.”
“Yes, I’ll be off, I think,” Roy said, raising himself out of the chair. “Getting a little late.”
“We’ll all be retiring soon!” he boomed as he likewise raised himself up, perhaps a little louder than intended.
Maybe there would be consolations in retirement; certainly it would be a comfortable one in any respect, for him, Beryl and the family. She and the family wouldn’t have to worry, that was the most important thing. The only thing. The problems with the press would come soon though, over the business they’d done in the UAE, and Italy. So he’d been tipped off, anyway. Mark of the Yard was a good man, but as such he was always unpredictable on such things. It had been time to get out. There would be problems for the government, but far less with him on the outside, no Watergate or any of that sort of thing. Things would continue, Beryl would stay in the style she was accustomed, the Adeline Geneé would continue its inexorable expansion. He could do more to help out Martin and William.
Roy didn’t have sources everywhere.
Yes, there would be other opportunities still, both business and even perhaps political, stewarding future events as an elder statesman. There would be future coalitions, closer merging, further easing of the wheels of good sense.
Roy smiled. “I rather hope never to retire, if truth be told.”
He chuckled, as he made to affectionately slap Roy’s back, as they moved in concert towards the door. “Quite right, never any retirement. We’re in it together, you and I.”