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FUNNY OLD GAME, POLITICS (Part Three)

22-04-2007

More recollections about Edwina Currie from Birmingham Labour veteran Hugh McCallion in this exclusive extract from his forthcoming memoirs. Today - did Edwina flatten a fellow a fellow councillor with a sharp right hook? And what colour were her knickers?

When the Labour Party regained control of the Council in 1980, Edwina joined the housing committee of which I was once again chair. She was very impatient and incredibly rude, even towards her own colleagues.

One of my members, a chap in his late fifties who hated Edwina, was very experienced and very knowledgeable about housing matters. He was, however, inclined to be a bit pedantic and long-winded. I used to indulge him deliberately which drove Edwina up the wall.

It would have done the same to some of my own members as well but they knew the game and they were enjoying her discomfort. She became so exasperated that she sent me a friendly little hand-written note asking me to meet with her on a one-to-one basis from time to time.

Although Edwina’s request seemed eminently reasonable, I was not well-disposed towards it initially. I knew that her motivation was to get as much information as possible as quickly as possible and at the same time try to get me to drop my guard and inadvertently reveal some of our plans. I knew only too well that she was an all-rounder and that she would use every weapon in her armoury, including fluttering her eyelids, to get what she wanted.

We spent most of the first meeting shadow boxing and weighing each other up but I certainly found it useful. Our second meeting was totally different. Edwina was less intense than usual, friendly and incredibly open. I wasn’t sure if this was yet another aspect of her calculating nature or if it was genuine.

She talked about her background, her ambitions, and her desire to do a good job for the city of Birmingham to which she had grown quite attached. I told her I had little doubt she would get into Parliament at some point and I jokingly said, “Who knows, maybe one day Prime Minister Edwina Currie.” Even then she was very obviously not ruling out that possibility but she said she would dearly love to be Secretary of State for Health.

Edwina and I had another couple of meetings and I have to say I found our discussions useful. Our get-togethers however ended abruptly when she and I had a spat in the Council chamber and she conveniently let slip that she and I had been meeting regularly. This wasn’t lost on the housing group and they had a good old collective moan next time the group met. “You’ve never got time to meet with us but you’re at Edwina Currie’s beck and call.” It was powerful stuff and calculated to put me at a disadvantage.

Another example of Edwina’s psychological cunning was demonstrated some time later. A few of us had come out of the chamber and were chatting in the adjacent writing room when she came to join us.

After a little bit of the usual banter one of my colleagues said, “Be careful with her. She could be the Health Minister one day and have us all circumcised.” Everyone laughed including Edwina, then she pointed to me and said, “He’ll be all right, he’s already done.”

After a chorus of “How do you knows?” we broke up but I had reason to believe that the remark had a residual effect when the joke was passed on. About a week afterwards, a few of us were lined up in the gents pointing at the porcelain when I noticed the chap next to me, who was one of my regular detractors, very obviously trying to inspect a certain part of my anatomy. In case you’re curious…. well, never mind.

Edwina and I both served on the governing body of the King Edwards Grammar Schools Foundation. The meetings were held monthly and always started on the dot of 12 noon.

The meeting room was impressive with its antique tables and generally old-worldy ambience. The Governors were usually people of standing from within the community and predominantly past the first flush of youth. The Bailiff wore an impressive, historic chain of office. For full effect, Edwina usually made her entrance about thirty seconds before the off.

One particular day we were all poised as usual watching the seconds tick away towards high noon, when Edwina strode in. As the great lady passed the Bailiff’s chair there was an almighty clatter. Her feet had gone from under her and she ended up in an undignified heap exposing ample thighs and blue knickers at the feet of two elderly gentlemen.

She quickly scrambled to her knees then her feet and assured everyone that it was only her dignity that was hurt (no mean feat in itself) but she did tell me a few days later that she had an almighty bruise. I never knew when to believe Edwina but I took her word for it on this occasion.

One of the senior members of the Foundation was a former leader of Birmingham Council called Harry Watton. In fact Harry had bestrode the council like a Colossus for quite a few years. He turned to another city stalwart, Reverend Eric Mole, and said: “Far be it from me as an agnostic to quote the bible but doesn’t it say that the just man falls seven times a day?” “Indeed it does,” said Eric as he added with a chuckle: “I’ll bet Edwina’s hoping the next six are not as painful as that one.”

The following month I was early for our meeting and the serious but friendly old Bailiff and I had a brief discussion. He said that the incident with Edwina had fazed him somewhat because she went down with such a thud that his immediate thoughts were she could well be hurt and no one seemed quite sure what to do.

He said, “I know you and Edwina are sparring partners but what would you have done if she had fallen by your chair?” I said, “In situations like that you should restrain the person and discourage them from getting up as they may well have an injury without realising it. I would have kept my heel on her Adam’s apple until someone came to assist.”

He was a man of genteel sensitivities and didn’t seem to find that amusing.

Tales about Edwina’s exploits and jokes at her expense were common currency at the time. When I regaled a mixed group of councillors a few days later with the story of Edwina’s gymnastics, their immediate concern was not for her welfare.

“Maybe she planned the whole thing just to make an impression,” said Clive Wilkinson. “She made an impression all right,” said George Canning, “I’ll bet she cracked about six floor boards!” “She wanted her membership of the Foundation to be recorded for posterior -erity,” said Bryan Bird. “Why do we always make poor Edwina the butt of our jokes?” asked someone else. “Bloody hell,” said George Canning, “this could go on all night - just like Edwina.”

I don’t know if these sort of frivolous exchanges go on at Westminster but they certainly do at local level. They help to improve the boredom threshold at council meetings - and we only meet once per month.

Digressing slightly, another example of this was an occasion when Dr Lynne Jones got to her feet following a fairly provocative speech from a Conservative member.

“Lord Mayor,” she began, “I have never heard such a farrago of nonsense in all my life.” Bryan Bird turned to Ken Barton and said, “What’s a farrago?” “You thick so and so,” said Barton. “We used to watch it on the telly, Wells Farrago.” For those of you not old enough to remember, Wells Fargo was an excellent Western series.

I have already said that Edwina could be incredibly open at times although you could never be sure what her motivation was. On one occasion a mixed group of councillors was gathered outside the chamber when she swept out, took my arm and ushered me into the adjacent writing room, seemingly ignoring the chorus of comments at my expense hurled after us.

She told me she was surprised to learn that one of our senior committee chairmen and a senior officer regularly visited each others’ homes socially.

She had reason to believe they had also spent the occasional weekend together. I told her I shared her concern but it was a hugely sensitive area telling people who their friends should be. She was absolutely adamant that there was a clear dividing line and related an interesting story about when the Tories were in control the previous year.

Apparently, Edwina as a member of her group’s executive, was invited to Bernard Zissman’s home (now Sir Bernard) on a Sunday morning to discuss how best to introduce some of their policies.

When she arrived there, most of her colleagues were already ensconced, as was the Chief Executive, Tom Caulcott. She regarded Caulcott as a non-partisan civil servant and strongly objected to his presence. As far as she was concerned any discussion about the introduction of Tory policies was a matter entirely for politicians. Someone who should have known better said, “It’s all right Edwina, Tom’s one of us.” “Well he’s not employed as one of us,” she retorted. She was finally persuaded to stay under duress.

Personally, I was in total sympathy with Edwina’s view on this. I have no objection to senior officers being present and participating in discussions about the implementation of policy but not at a caucus meeting in someone’s house on a Sunday morning discussing new policies.

This chap who was “one of us” was now responsible for the implementation of policy under the Labour Party. I have no idea whether or not his views were in accord with theirs at the time but he was elected later in Ludlow as an Independent Conservative. As a former Whitehall mandarin one would have thought he would have exercised better professional judgement.

Most people regarded Edwina politically as a hard-faced harridan who didn’t embarrass easily if at all. There was an occasion when she was in full flow regaling the chamber about something or other which I knew was about 10% fact and 90% embellishment. I rose on a point of order and asked if she would agree that she never let truth get in the way of a good story. She looked across at me feigning surprise as she said, “But isn’t that the raison d’etre of a politician?”

On another occasion she was lecturing us on one of her favourite topics, economics, when she used the emotive phrase, “It’s no use having a bleeding heart if you haven’t got the money to pay for it.” Quick as a flash one of our members was on his feet. “Lord Mayor, on a point of order, she hasn’t got a bleeding heart!”

The Labour Party was in control of the Council and, with an unpopular government and Mrs Thatcher’s poll ratings at a low ebb, we looked to be heading for an increased majority in 1982. Suddenly, out of the blue, came the Falklands war and we found ourselves back in opposition. Edwina was prancing around like a dog with two dicks.

We thought she was going to chair social services, but she had other ideas. She had a CV to compile. When it was announced that she was to chair the housing committee I knew, as the opposition spokesperson, that I was in for an interesting time.

Edwina hit the ground running and set about causing havoc and upsetting people from day one. She had her tail up and there was no stopping her. She had by now taken over as chair of Central Birmingham Health Authority with an office close to the headquarters of housing. This gave her an opportunity to castigate members who felt they needed a palatial office as a status symbol, which of course didn’t win her many friends even within her own party.

She made a grand gesture of surrendering the Chairman’s office and ran things from her other office just down the street. The daft thing was that everyone, including the press, saw through this hypocrisy but, as she said, she was good copy so she got away with lots of things.

Not content with causing offence by her headline-gathering comments about offices and pretentious titles, Edwina told the leader, Sir Neville Bosworth, that she wanted some Tories replaced on the committee. She said she intended to shake things up a bit and she didn’t want to be surrounded by “old fogeys.”

This was a direct reference to Freda Cocks who had been around in housing circles for many years and was the respected deputy leader of the Tory group. Sir Neville initially refused to accede to her request but Freda advised him to let it go as she wasn’t relishing the prospect of serving under her anyway.

Edwina’s next big push was to amalgamate housing and urban renewal. Although they were both housing they dealt with very different aspects and were generally regarded as being more effective when functioning as separate units. Everything had to be subjugated to the project of getting Edwina to Westminster and her agenda was to get as much experience as possible as quickly as possible.

She saw social services, housing, urban renewal and health as excellent buildings blocks for a CV, which of course they were. Thus far most of the aggro had been within her own party and we were just interested bystanders.

Housing is always a great vehicle for generating publicity for any chairman who is that way inclined. Edwina certainly was and she told her officers that she intended to hit the road and meet the people in all those areas where there were alleged to be problems.

The first two didn’t go very well. Instead of listening and making sympathetic noises as any sensible chairman should, she set about lecturing people on lifestyles. For an intelligent woman Edwina didn’t seem to learn from these experiences. If anything she grew even more strident and hectoring in her attitude but it did get lots of publicity. Maybe she wasn’t so daft and it was all calculated.

A public meeting was arranged to be held in a hall on the East Birmingham Hospital site to address some problems in the general Sheldon area. One of our councillors for the area was a fractious Welshman called Alec Taylor. The meeting was messy and unruly with a lot of the difficulties emanating from Alec. Every time Edwina tried her lecturing tactic she was howled down.

The meeting was closed earlier than expected and she and her entourage made their way outside. As they turned a corner by a large flower bed, there was Alec Taylor still shouting abuse. Edwina veered towards him and, without faltering in her stride, she appeared to punch him squarely on the chin sending him headlong into the flower bed.

As you can imagine, the incident was hot news for a few days with accusation and counter accusation but, although Alec and a witness accused her of punching him, she vigorously denied it. One of my colleagues was in close proximity at the time and claimed he saw the punch clearly. He said it was one of the best-directed punches he’d seen in a long time.

He also said that he was actually standing with a journalist at the time. When I asked him why he hadn’t come forward as a witness he just chuckled and said, “Many a time I’ve come near to doing that to Alec Taylor myself.” When I asked the journalist why he hadn’t reported the incident accurately he just shrugged and said, “It was better copy with an element of doubt.”

I couldn’t help reflecting on what might have happened if the boot had been on the other foot. Almost certainly, poor old Alec would have been carted off and charged with GBH, possibly followed by a spell giving Her Majesty pleasure.

To see what Hugh wrote about Edwina yesterday, click here. And feel free to add any memories you might have of Edwina in Birmingham to the The Stirrer Forum.

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