This talk by John Gyford was given to the Witham History Group on 6 March 2006.
It was about the late Tom Driberg, Labour MP for the Maldon Constituency in Essex.
The original recording of this talk is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at email@example.com or 033301 32500.
Witham interviews etc. by Janet Gyford: transcripts
[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets (e.g. explaining locations etc.)
Typed by Janet Gyford.
Tape 206, Mr John Gyford of Blanfred, Chalks Road, a talk about Tom Driberg, (former MP for Maldon Constituency), to Witham History Group, 16 March 2006
John Newman, chairman: … Tom Driberg, who was MP for Maldon when Witham was in the Maldon district.
John Gyford: Right, thanks very much, John, good evening. Right, well, as the chairman said, Tom Driberg was Witham’s MP, when it was part of the old Maldon Constituency, between 1942 and 1955. He subsequently went on to become Member of Parliament for the Barking Constituency, in the south-west of Essex, and that was from 1959 until 1974. He then went to the House of Lords, and he died in August 1976. Now, I’m going to concentrate very largely on the period up to 1955, that’s to say his early years, before he became the local MP, and on the period during which he was the local MP, but I shan’t say a very great deal about the period after 1955. A little, but not a great deal. I will concentrate on the run-up to, and the period in which, he was our local Member of Parliament.
For years after he ceased to be the local Member of Parliament, there were still of course people who remembered him. Certainly, when I started electioneering in this part of the world for the Labour Party forty years ago, 1955 was only yesterday, and there were plenty of people that I met on the doorsteps who would start talking about Tom Driberg. But more recently, the recent MP, Alan Hurst, who was Driberg’s Labour successor here, in the General Elections of ’97 and 2001 and 2005, would occasionally come back from an outing on the doorsteps, saying that he’d met someone who recalled Tom Driberg from fifty or sixty years ago, and very often they would say they cast their first vote for Tom Driberg, when they turned twenty-one, and they still recalled him. And so in that sense, he was very much someone who had made an impression, and on obviously at least for those who voted for him, presumably, had made a good impression. So in that sense he was still a figure from the memory of years gone by. What I want to do is to describe in a sense where he came from, how he came to be the Member of Parliament, and how he operated when he was the Member of Parliament, and try to explain in so far as it’s possible, some of the elements that went to make up what was in fact an extremely complicated individual.
Driberg was born in 1905, in Crowborough, in Sussex. His father was 65 when he was born. His father had been born in 1840. His mother was a younger woman, but she was nearly 40. He had two much older brothers. And so in some ways he led a rather solitary childhood. His mother once told him that when she’d learnt that she was having a third child, she’d hoped it would be a daughter to keep her company in her old age. That can’t entirely have done his confidence a great deal of good. But he seems to have had a somewhat solitary childhood. His father died when I think he was about ten or eleven. He went to a local school. He had one or two local playmates, apparently, but by all accounts not a great many. And he didn’t find Crowborough a particularly exciting place in which to grow up. In fact he once described it as ‘the dullest town in the world’. And he also described it as a very ‘stuffy’ place, and ‘stuffy’ was a word that he seems to have used quite a lot, to describe people or places or institutions that he didn’t like. If something was ‘stuffy’, it was no good, in Driberg’s eyes. However, his horizons began to broaden, and there were three key developments that took place in his teenage years, which I think one can see as being important in terms of the later Driberg.
The first of these events was that he won a public school scholarship, to Lancing College, from which, however, he was eventually expelled. Two years later, at the age of fifteen, he joined the Communist Party, from which however, he was subsequently expelled. [laughter] And at the age of eighteen, he won a Classics scholarship to Oxford, from which, however, he was subsequently expelled [laughter]. Now, those three expulsions possibly tell us something. Those of you familiar with ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ may remember that Lady Bracknell says that to lose one parent is a misfortune, but to lose two suggests carelessness. [laughter] Well, what does three expulsions suggest? It suggests possibly a degree of recklessness over and above carelessness. Let me say something about those expulsions, because they do in fact, I think, reveal sides to this very complicated character.
Let me start off with Lancing. Now, in some ways I think, from Driberg’s point of view, that Lancing was a revelation, and that it was the opening of new doors. He was a contemporary of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, and he shared with Waugh an interest at that date in High Church Anglican practice. I mean Waugh went on to become a Catholic, of the Roman Catholic variety, but Driberg stayed a fervent Anglo-Catholic throughout his life. And Lancing College was a major focus of Anglo-Catholic rite and worship, and, I don’t know if any of you know the site, it has this superb great chapel, in which Anglo-Catholic ritual took place. That was something that was with Driberg thereafter for the rest of his life. He was also, while he was at Lancing, introduced to the works of George Bernard Shaw, and that was what set him on the road to left-wing politics. So those two things clearly were important. By the time he was in his final year at school, he was head sacristan in the chapel, he was head of his house, but he was deputy head of the school, and he was going to be entered for an Oxford scholarship. And then it all went wrong, he made sexual advances to other boys, this was reported to the head, and he was expelled. Now, for the sake of his mother, the details of this were kept quiet, and his parents were told officially that in order to win the scholarship, he needed to have personal tuition, from what was known in those days as a crammer. And so officially he left for his final two terms to prepare for the Oxford scholarship exam. Those three elements, Anglo-Catholic worship, left-wing politics, and homosexuality, were three of the things that defined his life, for the remaining decades of it.
Now, for the moment I’ll leave his expulsion from the Communist Party, cause that didn’t happen until much later. I’ll go on to his expulsion from Oxford. Because again, his time at Oxford and his expulsion, in a sense prefigure some of the later years of his life. When he was at Oxford, he was very much involved in the literary artistic circles. He’d known Waugh at Lancing, and of course Waugh subsequently wrote about that period at Oxford in ‘Brideshead Revisited’. And in some ways Driberg was part of that world. He knew John Betjeman, he knew W H Auden, he dabbled in poetry, he got to know Edith Sitwell, who was a key figure of his life later on, and the Sitwell family. So he was very wrapped in the literary and artistic world of Oxford at the time. He also became involved in politics at Oxford, and he was the Communist Party candidate for the Oxford Union in his first year, but was not elected. He became actively involved in the General Strike in 1926. At one point he went up to London by car to collect bundles of strike bulletins to be delivered in the Oxford area. But unfortunately they were intercepted at Paddington and he was taken off to Scotland Yard for questioning. Eventually he was let off, presumably after questioning, with possibly a caution, but with no criminal record. But he continued to do what he could for the strike in Oxford, and of course he wasn’t alone.
There were a number of Oxford undergraduates who were doing similar things. One of them was Hugh Gaitskell, for whom it was a very serious business. Another one was John Betjeman, for whom it was all a bit of a lark, but then, those of you who know John Betjeman will appreciate that lots of things were a bit of a lark. But for Driberg it had been a deadly serious business. What he doesn’t seem to have done a great deal of, is work. But he did enjoy the social life at Oxford, the social whirl, the high life, the parties. And it was that that led eventually to his expulsion, because on the night before his final examinations, he attended an all-night party. He danced through the night, he stayed for the early-morning breakfast, still clad then in his white tie and tails, he went to the examination halls, he sat down in his appointed seat, and fell fast asleep [laughter]. This was immediately reported by the invigilators to the college authorities. When he returned, he was summoned to see the Dean, and was told to leave Oxford immediately, and was expelled on the spot. So he left without taking his degree, and that was the third of his expulsions. And there again, I think, in his career at Oxford and the way it ended, are other elements of the Driberg character. The absorption again in left-wing politics, but also the enthusiasm for the literary and artistic world, and the love of the good life, the high life, the social whirl. All those things, in a sense, the younger Driberg of those years, prefigure the adult Driberg of his later decades.
I’ll say something now about his expulsion from the Communist Party, because although this comes some years later, again, I think it fits in with the picture that I’ve detected. As I say, he joined the Communist Party when he was fifteen. Crowborough, being of course the stuffy place it was, didn’t have a branch of the Communist Party. He had to join the Brighton branch of the Communist Party. And clearly he was still active in the Communist Party when he was a student at Oxford. But after that, when he moved to London and started work, he doesn’t seem to have been greatly involved with the Party, although as he became a journalist, he got increasingly to know key Communist figures in London, and also particularly in the print Unions, where there were a number of key Communist activists with whom he used to go drinking in the pubs after hours. So he was a paid-up member of the Party, he knew what was going on, but he wasn’t a sort of, a front line activist. Though his problems started with the Communist Party because he was introduced by Denis Wheatley, a novelist of the time, he was introduced by Denis Wheatley to a man called Charles Maxwell Knight. Now those of you who are familiar with James Bond will remember that 007’s boss is a man known only as ‘M’. The original ‘M’ was Charles Maxwell Knight. And Driberg and Knight saw a lot of one another, and being the convivial fellow he was, Driberg talked a great deal, and since Driberg’s journalistic stock-in-trade was gossip, Driberg gossiped a great deal. Now, of course a member of the Communist Party who met a lot of active Communists, who starts gossiping with someone who’s in charge of counter-subversion at MI5, which is what Maxwell Knight was, poses a problem. Now, it seems unlikely that Driberg knew any real serious secrets. But as one of his Parliamentary colleagues said many years later, Driberg could never keep anything secret, and therefore, he must, in the course of gossip, have just passed on to Maxwell Knight all sorts of bits and pieces that he’d picked up through his Communist Party networks. Now, it’s not clear who finally put the boot in, although it’s been suggested that it was Anthony Blunt, who later became famous in all sorts of ways. But whether it was him or not, eventually in 1941, Driberg was told rather shamefacedly by one of his drinking companions from Communist Party headquarters, that he had ceased to be a member of the Communist Party, he had been expelled. Driberg was unhappy about this, but couldn’t really get much more out of anybody, they just all clammed up. But that was it, he’d been expelled.
Now, there again, there’s an element there which I think one can see in the later Driberg, although of course by now we’re talking 1941, he was beginning to be the later Driberg. But there’s this business about the gossip, the social whirl, the interaction of the social and the political, and to a degree, the carelessness, the recklessness, leading to expulsion. It seems to me all part of this rather complicated but in a sense quite consistent pattern of his characteristics.
However, I’ve stepped ahead of the story by going as far as 1941. Let me go back to when he left Oxford, found himself looking to earn a living in London with no obvious qualifications. He took a very cheap room in Soho, and tried to make ends meet. He worked for a while as a waiter and a washer-up in a café in Soho. At one point he joined an actors’ agency, and got jobs as an extra. In this he was well-placed, because he was able to do something which made him more attractive for certain types of work, he owned of course, white tie and tails, and could therefore could provide his own costume for those films that required actors to wear that sort of stuff. And in that sense, you know, he was a ‘bring your own’ costume extra. So he tried that for a while. He had to visit the pawn shop from time to time, to tide himself over. There’s an entry in Evelyn Waugh’s diary, sometime in the twenties, in which he recalls running into Driberg at the church that they both frequented, All Saints in St Margaret Street in the West End of London, and he remarks that Driberg was down on his luck, and, quote, ‘I gave him a penny.’ Now, I know a penny in those days was worth more than it is now, but precisely what Driberg was able to buy for a penny I don’t know, I dare say he could have got a cup of tea, perhaps, but anyway, he was clearly down on his luck. However, throughout this he was keeping in touch with some of the literary people to whom he’d been introduced at Oxford, and key amongst them, as I mentioned earlier, was Edith Sitwell, who thought he was a man of great promise. And she had various connections in the journalistic trade, and she finally, after Driberg had been scratching around for about twelve months, persuaded Lord Beaverbrook to offer Driberg a job as a contributor to the Express’s gossip column, which was called ‘The Talk of London’. And he then started work, basically, dishing the dirt, as we now say, on what was going on amongst the smart set in Chelsea and Mayfair. These were groups to whom he had a ready entry, and he knew many of them, he was well-connected, and he wrote very well. And so he set out on a career as a gossip columnist. Now, this was so successful that eventually Beaverbrook decided to make him the star gossip columnist, and gave him his own column, and he then wrote under the pen name of William Hickey. [various people: Ah, oh.] And he then started in a sense to become a recognised journalist in his own right. And indeed he eventually went beyond the William Hickey stuff. He was sent as a foreign correspondent to the Spanish Civil War, to central Europe after the Munich treaty, and also on a couple of excursions to the United States. So by the time that War broke out, he was a well-established Beaverbrook journalist, and seemed to have an obvious career ahead of him as one of the country’s leading journalists.
And then in early 1942, the Member of Parliament for the Maldon constituency died suddenly, and Driberg’s life changed totally. A by-election was obviously going to take place. Now War-time by-elections were strange phenomena. At the beginning of the War, the chief whips of the three major Parties had agreed to an electoral truce, which meant that if a seat fell vacant, it would be inherited by the Party that held it previously, and it wouldn’t be contested by the other Parties. So, in the case of Maldon, the deceased MP was Sir Edward Ruggles-Brise, the Conservative, so the logic of the truce was that the seat would be inherited by a Conservative candidate, and not contested by Labour or the Liberals. Now that was clear enough as far it went, but of course it didn’t apply to any other candidates. It was entirely open to other people, if they wanted to, to contest by-elections.
Now, the Communist Party, which wanted to think of itself as a serious actor, abided by the truce. It had two Members of Parliament, and so it regarded itself as a legitimate Parliamentary Party, and it would abide by the truce. But that didn’t stop other political Parties or groups of individuals, contesting elections if they wanted to. Now, during the Second World War, there were 141 by-elections, and just over half of those were contested by small Party or individual candidates. Now initially, in the first two years, most of the candidates who fought War-time by-elections, fought them because they were against the War on principle. They were pacifists, or they were Fascists, or they were Communists during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact. And for those reasons they opposed the War, and therefore fought against the ruling coalition. After 1941 that began to change, and increasingly, by-election candidates from outside the main Parties focussed more and more on the question of how the War was being run, the problems of life on the Home Front, and on the big question of what was going to happen after the War. And the by-election in Maldon, in the summer of 1942, fell as it were in the latter period of the War, when the sort of candidates who were emerging were those who were concerned about the direction of the War, life on the Home Front, and the particular question of what were we fighting for, where were we going to be after the War had been won. And it was suggested to Driberg that he should perhaps put his name forward. Now, the person who suggested to Driberg that he should think about politics, was a man called Tom Hopkinson, who was editor of the Picture Post, a man whom Driberg knew from his journalistic work – he’d actually spoken at a public meeting with Tom Hopkinson to protest against the closing down of the Daily Worker. And Hopkinson had been so impressed by Driberg that he said that he really ought to think about a career in politics, because he was such a good speaker. But Driberg had an extremely successful well-paid job with Lord Beaverbrook, and there seemed no particular reason to think that politics was going to offer him an opening. But then the Maldon constituency became vacant. And the significance of that, of course, was that Maldon was the place in which Driberg had a house. Because in 1938 he had bought Bradwell Lodge at Bradwell on Sea. And in a sense he’d been able to buy that partly out of luck, or ill-luck, because shortly before that, he was knocked down in Jermyn Street by a lorry, and as a result of his injuries, received a substantial insurance payment. And he invested that in the deposit for Bradwell Lodge. So he now had an opportunity in a constituency in which he lived. He took soundings amongst people he knew in the world of politics and journalism and literature. He came down to the constituency to sound out one or two people. He spoke in particular to a man called Jack Boggis, who was a clergyman in Bocking, who was very active in the Labour Party, and also very active in building up support for the Soviet War effort and the Red Army. And he encouraged Driberg to think of standing as a left-wing Independent. Now of course Driberg had to clear this with Beaverbrook, who was not known for his left-wing sympathies. However, Beaverbrook had recently been sacked from the Coalition Government by Churchill, as a result of a dispute with Ernie Bevin, and, up till then, Beaverbrook had been Minister of Aircraft Production, and Bevin was Minister of Labour, and they hadn’t seen eye-to eye on the direction of some elements of the labour force. Bevin had won, and Beaverbrook had been sacked. So Beaverbrook was not too unhappy about somebody having a pop at Churchill, and so he said to Driberg ‘Yes, OK, I’ll give you leave to fight this election, and there are two things, I still want your William Hickey column to come in’.
‘And secondly, buy yourself a hat, because the voters will never vote for a man who doesn’t wear a hat’. [laughter] Now, whether that’s why Alan Hurst always wears a hat, I don’t know, but I noticed that he always did. However, that’s neither here nor there.
An election meeting with Tom Driberg in Witham in 1942. Names of people, where known, are shown below. The photo is also in the photo collection as M2090.
So Driberg committed himself to fighting the Maldon by-election of June 1942. Now this in fact posed problems for other people of similar views to him in the Maldon constituency. Cause of course the local Labour Party was bound by the Parliamentary truce. But there were many
people in the local Labour Party at that time, who admired Driberg, who agreed with his views, who weren’t much taken with the local Conservative candidate, and thought there ought to be opposition to the Conservative candidate. So there was basically a split in the Labour Party locally. Some members took the view that they were obliged to abide the truce because that’s what the Party had agreed to, and whether they personally disagreed or not, they were honour bound to support the Party’s undertakings. Others said ‘No, this is serious, we’ve got a good chance of getting an independent, young, articulate, well-known left-winger into Parliament, we ought to go for it’. There was a further complication, which was that just before the War, in 1938, the local Labour Party had adopted a prospective Parliamentary candidate, a young man from London called Maurice Janis, who’d been adopted in 1938 on the assumption there’d be a General Election in 1940. He had since joined the Army. At the end of 1941 he had sailed for Singapore, and early in 1942 he’d been reported missing in action. And there were a number of people in the local Labour Party who simply said, ‘Our first loyalty is to Maurice Janis, whatever has become of him, and we’re not willing to put anybody else in a situation whereby at some point in the future, Maurice Janis, if he turns out to have survived, might have been displaced. So that was a further complication. But nevertheless, Driberg decided he’d go ahead, he had enough support, and he submitted himself as a candidate. Now, he fought what was, by universal agreement, a very good campaign. He got a lot of big names to come and speak for him, J B Priestley, Tom Hopkinson, he had support from Dorothy L Sayers, who lent him – I’ve seen it described variously – some people say that she lent him furniture for his Committee rooms, somebody else who was involved said she lent him ‘a chair’. [laughter] But, whatever it was, at least for that campaign, Dorothy L Sayers was with him. He was young, he was articulate, he was a good public speaker. The other candidates – the Conservative candidate was a man called Reuben Hunt, an ironmaster from Earls Colne, who was described by the local newspaper as being a man of ‘stalwart appearance and robust outlook’. [laughter] A historian of the period simply describes him as being elderly and uninspiring. [laughter] But Tom Driberg, using his favourite word of assassination, describes him as being ‘stuffy’. [laughter] There was another Independent candidate, a man called Borlase Matthews, who’d been a farmer in Sussex and in Wales, and who described him as an ‘independent agricultural candidate’, whose main platform was the importance of electrifying agriculture. And he apparently had advised the Soviet Union on the electrification of farms, and to show how advanced he was, in what he argued was an engineer’s war, he campaigned running a coke-fired gas-driven motor car. Unfortunately, at one point he ran this into a ditch, and this was headline news in the local paper, that this splendid engineer who knew what he was doing, had actually wrecked his vehicle.
In the end of course the campaign was won by Driberg, with a majority of something like 7,000 votes. And he found himself in the House of Commons, as an Independent MP. Now, he had promised during the campaign, that, if he was elected, he would make sure that those who voted for him had proper reporting back and accountability. Of course he didn’t have a Party organisation, he had to create his own, and he set up a body called the Maldon Constituency Association, which had branches throughout the constituency.
And in those days, of course, it was an enormous constituency, which ran from Burnham on Crouch in the south, up through Southminster, Maldon, Witham and Braintree, through Finchingfield up to Cornish Hall End, and basically, it was five miles north of Southend, and five miles south of Cambridgeshire, an enormous great long slice, and he set up branches wherever he could, and those branches had their own committees, and he reported back to them, and they organised support for him. What sort of people were they, who were attracted to this new political organisation? Well, many years ago, I was able to talk to a guy called Les Tilbury, from Wickham Bishops, who was the secretary of the Maldon Constituency Association. His estimate was that perhaps three quarters of the members had not hitherto been normal Labour supporters. In the south of the constituency there were quite a lot of Liberals who joined it. On the other hand, in Tollesbury, the entire local Labour Party branch decamped en masse from the Labour Party to the new Maldon Constituency Association, so it was a mixture. But when I asked Les Tilbury to recall some of the major individuals, what sort of people were the leading lights, they were an interesting collection. There was a clergyman, and that would have been Jack Boggis, the Bocking clergyman whom I mentioned. There were two Grammar School teachers, there was an engineer from Crittall’s, there was a dentist, there was a bank manager, there was a garage owner, there was a junk shop owner, a farmer, and, my favourite, the retired manager of the Bombay Tramways, [laughter] who had retired to Wickham Bishops on the proceeds of winning the Calcutta sweepstake. So, they were a mixed bag, but clearly, for the most part, not traditional Labour supporters. And in some ways they were similar to the sort of people who, later in the War, congregated around a body known as the Common Wealth Party, which won another Wartime by-election in Chelmsford in 1945, and who were described by one historian as people who might have been Labour if it hadn’t been quite so rough and tumble. They were people who had vaguely progressive left-wing leanings, but just wouldn’t have felt at home in the Labour Party as it was in the forties. They formed, as I say, the bedrock of his support, and sustained him throughout the period from ’42 until ’45.
In ’45, of course, we then come to the situation in the run-up to the General Election. Now, already in 1944, the local Labour Party in the Maldon Constituency had begun to make – make, well, to take soundings, with Driberg as to what his intentions were when the War ended and a General Election took place. Was he going to stand again as a left-wing Independent, or not? Now, within the Labour Party there were, again, still divided views. Should they invite Driberg now, now that he’d proved himself electable, to become a Labour candidate at the post-War election? Or should they still cling to their loyalty to Maurice Janis, who by now was known to be alive, and in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp? Now, this again was totally divisive. There were some people who said ‘we now know that Maurice Janis is alive, we pray that he will come back to us, and be able to fight the next election, whenever it is’. and of course they didn’t know when it was, ‘We hope that he’ll be able to come back and fight the election’. There were others who said ‘Be realistic, he’s in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, we don’t know when he’s going to come out, we don’t know when the General Election is going to come. If the election is called next month, there’s no way he can get here and sign the nomination papers, we’ve got to have a Labour candidate ready’. Well, I mean, that was very divisive. Two leading figures in the Maldon Labour Party refused to campaign for Driberg. One of them said, quite simply, ‘He stole this seat in 1942, and I’m not voting for him’, and he went off to campaign for the Labour candidate in Saffron Walden. However, most people in the local Labour Party recognised the realities, that if they wanted to put up a Labour candidate, then, with the best will in the world, it was very unlikely it could be Maurice Janis, the person most likely to win it was the one who’d won it in ’42, and had been working it hard ever since, and so eventually it was agreed to approach Driberg formally, and ask whether he would be interested in being the Labour candidate.
As Driberg himself says in his autobiography, there was a problem with this; he didn’t really want to join the Labour Party. I’ll give you one reason, guess one reason why? It was too stuffy! [laughter] However, it was put forcibly to him that if he wanted to be the Labour candidate, he might at least do the Party the courtesy of being one of its members. And eventually a selection meeting was arranged, to take place in Witham. An organiser from head office came down with the necessary membership forms, and it was made quite clear to Driberg that if he really wanted to be selected he would have to sign on the dotted line there and then. As it was, his version is, is that he spoke, and was adopted, and then joined the Party, so he always liked to claim that he was the only person in the Labour Party’s history ever to have joined the Party after he became a candidate. [laughter] However, he was the candidate, and in due course he was elected. And he remained the Member of Parliament until 1955.
What sort of a Member of Parliament was Driberg? I’ve dipped into Hansard, as one way of answering this, and the thing that strikes me, looking at the interventions he made in the Commons, were that – and this is consistent, I think, with what else one knows about him – on the one hand he was extremely interested in international affairs. During the War, a lot of his interventions in Parliament were about the direction the War was taking, about conditions of servicemen and servicemen’s families, about what the War aims were going to be, those sorts of questions. But he was also interested in defence, later on he became a keen advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament, he was interested in foreign affairs more generally, he was interested in dismantling the Empire, he was interested in issues of colonialism and racism, so he had quite a broad international horizon, as far as his interests were concerned. He was also very committed locally, to local people and local issues. The thing that seems to me to be missing, relatively, not absolutely, but relatively, is that he doesn’t really seem, if you like, to have majored, as the Americans put it, to have majored in national policy debates, things like the economy, health, housing, education, social services. I mean he referred to those, like all politicians would, but my impression is that in a sense that his heart was, on the one hand on the international scene, and on the other hand it was here in the Maldon constituency. Those were the two focuses of a lot of his activity. Let me say something briefly about the local aspect, cause that’s really, obviously of particular interest to us this evening. It was partly because of his local activities that he became so well known and well remembered by people in the constituency, and I’ll just quote a couple of instances of that, from some oral history tapes that Janet did many years ago, talking to a couple of people who remembered Driberg very vividly and very favourably. The first of these was a lady who in fact used to live opposite us in Chalks Road, called Dorothy Ireland, and her comment was that until Driberg arrived ‘You never saw a Member of Parliament. The one we saw most was Driberg, and we did see him, he was always in the place, oh he was a splendid man, oh he was’. Now, just the presence of him clearly had made an impression on her, that this was someone who was actually around and about, and you could get in contact with. The other person I quote is Lucy Croxall, who I’m sure many of you will know or know of, and she said, when she was talking to Janet, and this was in the context of the Girls Training Corps, which she was very much involved in organising, ‘I always speak so highly of Tom Driberg, because he was such a friend to us, marvellous, wasn’t it. Of course he was a bachelor then. We’d got to be enrolled and receive our badges, you see, and so I said to the girls, “we must get somebody, some VIP, to present the badges”. So they said “Well, whoever wins the election”, so of course, Tom Driberg came’.
‘We had some nice-looking girls really, in the white blouses and the navy tie, and the Glengarry hat, they did look smart, and as they went up to Tom Driberg, they all gave him the glad eye, and he didn’t quite know which way to look.’ [laughter]
But apart from those two quotes, turning as it were from the impact he had on individuals, to the issues he took up, looking again through Hansard, he took up a number of Essex issues at various times. For example, at one point he, it seems to me slightly implausible, but he was complaining that Essex was not getting, that people in Essex, motorists in Essex, were not getting adequate fuel allowances to take into account how damp Essex was. Now, given that Essex is historically one of the driest counties in England, this seems perhaps over-egging the pudding. But he does at one point claim that Essex really ought to be re-classified for the purposes of calculating the fuel allowances. He even quote the Oxford Advanced Academic Atlas, which he claimed supported him, but I’m afraid the Minister would not relent, and said that the advice he was given was that Essex was getting precisely what it was entitled to. But he did, interestingly enough, pursue this question about motoring. In one debate in 1942, he quoted in the House the registered numbers of cars parked outside the Savoy Hotel, on a Friday afternoon in October, and said these cars were parked, quote, ‘at a place that is readily accessible by public transport’. He said this was surely a lavish and lazy use of petrol. Although he made his point, it didn’t produce any changes in the regulation allowances, and the Minister said that, from such enquiries as he had been able to make, he was sure that these motorists had been there on legitimate business [laughter]. Then on another occasion, for example, he spoke about the proposed Hanningfield reservoir, and what consultations were going to take place about this proposal to build a new reservoir.
But he also, on a couple of occasions, had questions quite specifically about Witham, all of which, I think, will ring bells in various ways. This was a bit later on, after the War, in the early fifties. He raised the question of heavy traffic driving through the town and down the High Street, and wanted to know when additional pedestrian crossings could be provided, and could they please be provided before the heavy summer traffic began, cause of course in those days the coastal traffic went all the way up the High Street. He didn’t get much joy from the Minister, because the Minister’s response basically was that he understood the problem, but there were various procedures that had to be gone through before you could get crossings installed, and since he was being asked this in February, and summer started in June, he couldn’t, etc. etc. etc., you know how it goes. But then another interesting couple of questions, this one I’ve got verbatim, this was in 1950, ‘In view of Witham Urban District Council’s plans to provide a Civic centre at the Grove, with a library on the opposite side of the road, would he modify his proposal to build Inland Revenue offices at this site?’ Now, this was a question to the Minister of Public Building and Works, and the Minister’s reply was ‘No. Temporary Inland Revenue office building is urgently needed. However, the site is only on a 21-year lease. The Council’s scheme is not proposed, is not programmed for at least another twenty years, and we should therefore be able to manage all right’. We do indeed have a library on the opposite side of the road to the Grove, and we do have a permanent Inland Revenue office, but it took rather a long while. The other interesting question was, again this was in 1950, ‘Has any decision yet been taken on the future use of the nurses’ home at Witham, which has proved very useful for maternity cases’ [i.e. 46 Collingwood Road]. The response, from Nye Bevan, who was Minister of Health, ‘The Regional Hospital Board had decided to continue using the premises for suitable maternity cases’. Of course that was true at the time, but not for ever. But those were the sorts of issues which he was raising, wearing, as it were, his local hat. Now, I think the other thing that has to be said about Driberg’s affections for the locality, was that this took two forms.
One was an enjoyment of, I suppose the word is the environment, the setting, the character, of his constituency. At one point in his writing, he refers to the temptation for all rural Labour MPs to find a safer seat in an industrial constituency. He then goes on to say ‘And then you go and speak for a colleague in one of those constituencies, and you see the Gothic architecture, and the heavy slate roofs, and the grey buildings, and then you come back to your own constituency, and you come back to the rolling farms, and the Dickensian inns, and the cottages huddled around the churches, and the fishermen sunning themselves on the jetty, and you know where you belong.’ So he clearly had, if you like, a thing about this part of the world, it’s where he wanted to be, it’s what he wanted to represent. And the other thing was, of course, his constituency included Bradwell Lodge, which he loved, and indeed, I think it’s his biographer, Francis Wheen, at one point says that Bradwell Lodge was actually the greatest love of Driberg’s life. And although that’s probably true, it was also great problem for him, because it was incredibly expensive. It’s a half Tudor, half Georgian building, originally the old rectory, and it cost a bomb to maintain. By the 1950s the Tudor part was beginning to get seriously derelict. He began opening it up to the public, two afternoons a week and bank holiday weekends. And on occasions he actually took parties round it, and show them the glories of it, I think it’s got an Adam fireplace, but I mean it was, it was something to see. But it was a major problem financially. He tried to get the National Trust to take it off his hands, but the various requirements and conditions with which he wasn’t able to comply. By the early fifties he’d come to the conclusion that his financial circumstances were dire, and that he really had to make some money, so he announced with regret in 1954 that he would not fight the next election, he would have to concentrate on journalism and writing to make some money, and so in 1955 he didn’t stand again for Parliament.
The following year, he made more money from journalism than he had as an MP. He was writing in Punch, he was writing for Housewife Magazine, he was writing for the New Statesman …
[overlap with side 1)
The following year, he made more money from journalism than he had as an MP. He was writing in Punch, he was writing for Housewife Magazine, he was writing for the New Statesman, he was writing for Reynold’s News, he was writing for TV Times, he was even appearing on television. He was making a lot of money. And he was also writing the biography of Lord Beaverbrook, which involved a great deal of hassle with Lord Beaverbrook’s solicitors, but which did eventually come out, to a fair amount of publicity.
And then in 1956, something else happened, which I think has great significance in the way his life developed. He was sitting in his flat in Great Ormond Street one afternoon, working, and the phone rang. This was in the summer of ’56. The operator said, ‘I’ve got an international trunk call for you from Moscow, will you take it’. As one does, Driberg says ‘Yes, of course’. There was silence, and then a voice said ‘Tom, this is Guy Burgess.’ [Audience: Oh] And this of course was Burgess, of Burgess and Maclean, who had fled to the Soviet Union in 1952, and never been heard of since. Now, in fact, a few weeks previously, Burgess and Maclean had given a press conference in Moscow, explaining what had happened, where they’d been, etc. etc. And Driberg had written an article in one of his newspapers, saying that surely the time had come to let bygones be bygones, or to understand how this had all come about, etc. etc. And some time after that, this phone call arrived. And Driberg was a bit taken aback, obviously. But decided, having spoken to Burgess, had agreed with him to fly out to Moscow for an interview. He flew out to Moscow, he had a couple of very long in interviews with Burgess, he came back to England, and within a month, he had written a book on Guy Burgess and his career and his defection. He got serialisation rights in the Daily Mail, he got £5,000 up front, which in 1956 was a great deal of money. With that he paid off the mortgage on Bradwell Lodge, although it still continued to be a drain on his resources. But perhaps more significantly, in some ways, whilst he was in Moscow, he was caught in the gent’s toilets behind the Hotel Metropole, by the KGB. And from that point onwards he became a Soviet agent, under the code name Le Page. Now, again, as in the days when he’d been suspected of being an MI5 agent by the Communist Party, basically, what he was able to provide was gossip. He was a Labour MP, he was on the Labour National Executive. At one point he was actually chairman of the Labour National Executive. The KGB probably thought that he was more important than he was. Knowing the way office politics works, they probably persuaded the Politburo that he was even more important than he was. But for twelve years, he was used by the KGB as a source of information on what was going on inside the Labour Party. In 1968 when his health was beginning to fail, he had a heart attack, he managed to tell them that he wasn’t doing this any longer, and they’d obviously decided it wasn’t worth making a fuss about, they probably realised that he wasn’t quite the asset they’d thought, and that side of his life dropped.
But clearly that had not helped him politically, because of course the notion that there was something dodgy about Driberg’s relationships with Russia became proven. Now he was always very sad that he’d never attained ministerial office. Clearly, one of the reasons why he never attained ministerial office when Wilson returned to power in ’64, was that, I imagine this to be the case, was that the Secret Service told him that he was basically a security risk, firstly because was homosexual, in the days when that was more serious than it is now, and secondly because he was leaking to the Russians. He’d never been offered a job by Clem Attlee, who probably just disapproved of Driberg’s lifestyle, not to mention his left-wing opinions.
So by the late sixties, in a sense, it must have been clear to Driberg that his political career had gone as far as it was ever going to go, and that he was never going to achieve high office. He had financial problems, and early in the seventies he announced, by then he was MP for Barking, he announced that he would stand down from Parliament at the next election. And that came, of course, in 1974. He was offered a peerage late in 1975, he was sworn into the House of Lords in January 1976, and he died seven months later in August 1976.
What does one make of him. It’s very hard to find any consensus about Tom Driberg as a person. And all I can do by way of conclusion, is simply to give you some of the comments that have been made by people who knew him. Two people who served with him in the Labour Party, and who shared his political views, were Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo. Now, Michael Foot said ‘The lonely Tom could be a marvellous comrade.’ Ian Mikardo said ‘I don’t know anyone who liked him’. You’d think they were talking about two totally different people. The psychiatrist, Anthony Storr, said ‘Tom Driberg was simply evil’. But the historian AJP Taylor said ‘Tom Driberg was a good man.’ Jane Russell, whom he’d met on one of his trips to America, and who herself was fervently religious, thought he was divine, and I don’t mean in the ‘Divine, darling’ sense. [laughter] I mean, she once wrote to him and said that she had had a dream in which God had appeared to her, and said that he had placed you in a highly strategic position, and was using you, which is an interesting observation. Another woman, perhaps more perceptive, was Barbara Castle. She was asked by Driberg’s biographer, Francis Wheen, if she’d contribute her insights. And she declined, and the reason she gave was ‘I realise now that I was always out of my depth with him’. She had this sense that she’d never really, now she thought about it, understood him, and therefore didn’t feel it right to talk about him. He was buried in the churchyard at Bradwell on Sea. The funeral was attended by Tony Benn, who by then was Minister of Energy, and various other local and national figures. There’d been a big church service up in London before the burial in Bradwell. The Bishop of Southwark spoke. Well, perhaps the kind and final word is something that was said by Canon Burling of Bradwell at the service, and then a comment by the local newspaper, the Maldon and Burnham Standard. Canon Burling said ‘Tom was a courteous and kindly man.’ And the Maldon and Burnham Standard wrote a little piece which told of an occasion when Driberg had been drinking in the Cricketer’s Arms in Bradwell, after hours, and the place had been raided by the police, but somehow Driberg had escaped through the back door, and scuttled back to Bradwell Lodge, and was never found out. And it concluded ‘Driberg was something of a village character’. And I suppose, whatever his many strange characteristics, and successes or failings, I suppose everybody could agree, he was something of a character. Thank you very much.
I have got, on the table here, copies of two of Driberg’s election addresses, a couple of photographs of him campaigning in Witham during the Maldon by-election of 1942, one of them has got photographs of a crowd – if any of you recognise yourselves or others in the crowd, perhaps you could write them down for Janet’s and posterity’s benefit, on this sheet here. Thanks. If anybody’s got any comments or questions after tea and coffee, then I’d be happy to respond if I can.
[general chat, not noted]