Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



The Heat of the Kitchen. An Autobiography
Bernard Donoughue

London: Politico’s, 2004
£25, 465 p., ISBN: 1-842275 093 3

Reviewed by Richard Davis


Bernard Donoughue’s varied career as political adviser, banker, journalist, academic and minister may not have set him amongst the most influential decision-makers of his day. Indeed, he once described himself as part of the “marginalia” [175] of the Prime Minister’s entourage. However, if he was not on the frontline of politics, operating instead very much in the background, his role was clearly an influential one and he is well placed to pass judgement on the governments and Ministers he served. Regarding this latter group the image Donoughue gives is not in itself ground breaking: Harold Wilson—clever but not trustworthy—, James Callaghan—solid and dependable but unadventurous and lacking vision. Nevertheless, his insights into the intimate workings of 10 Downing Street and the government machinery of which he was a part are fascinating.

On a personal level, Donoughue’s life story takes the reader from the obscurity and poverty of pre-war rural England to the very centres of political and financial power in Whitehall and the City. His earliest memories of his first home for example, “a low, thatched stone cottage beside a stream, set back from the quiet country road among a group of old farm buildings” [1], convey a certain nostalgia. But if this bucolic image gives the reader an impression of some sort of harmonious idyll, this is soon dispelled. Indeed, the disappearance of this old world, a world which had remained in many ways unchanged for centuries, is one of the themes highlighted in Donoughue’s accounts of his youth, in which he traces the transformation of his village resulting from the building of new factories and houses (which spread “like a cancer” [14]), and the arrival of the car culture.

Donoughue, though, has few regrets for the disappearance of this old world which, as he points out, while it may have had its charms, was not an easy one. His account of the living conditions in his childhood is a reminder that rural England in the 1930s and 1940s was not exempt from poverty. His own material difficulties were exacerbated by an almost complete family breakdown, the Donoughue family being, he admits, “impressively dysfunctional” [27-28]. Above all, it was his mother’s inadequacies that marked his early life. His mother’s efforts to give away his brother [37-38] and the break-up of the family which resulted in him not seeing his sister for fifty years naturally left a scar. Given his story it is hardly surprising, though nonetheless shocking, that he should conclude quite simply that “I did not like [...] very much (my) uncaring and often violent mother” [5-6].

If Donoughue’s story does not end there it is because he was able to escape the restraints imposed by both his family’s poverty and the violence that went with it. The key agent for this escape was education. With no books at home, his village school and then the local grammar school (which led on to Oxford University) were to provide him with the intellectual stimuli he needed. The opportunities these provided, and his exemplary meritocratic ascension up the social ladder, resulted in a life-long defence of the grammar-school system and, inversely, a deep-rooted distaste for comprehensives. His praise for his own schools and teachers contrasts with his condemnation of the later generation of teachers as well as the politicians behind the educational reforms of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The achievements of his headmaster at Northampton Grammar School, he complains, were “vandalised by the egalitarian experiments and politically correct claptrap of the local Labour Party’s educational prejudices.” He goes on: “Worse occurred in London, where my own children suffered perverse educational deprivation [...] not surprisingly they cannot remember the names of most of their dilatory teachers, misled by irresponsible trade union leaders” [50-51]. Donoughue may claim to be a life-long Labour man, brought up by a flat-cap-wearing father who never lost his suspicions and dislike of the bosses, but his was very much a “New Labour” version of the party long before the term had been coined. Donoughue passionately defends the grammar schools and scholarships to Oxford, based on his own experience and the benefits he himself drew from them. But, like others who take the same educational line, he does not seem to ask about what becomes of those who are left behind. He may have used this elitist system to good effect, as he says, to “work myself into a better world” [51] but his story was always an exceptional one.

Donoughue’s autobiography naturally covers all the various fields in which he has worked. It is, however, politics which is at the heart of this book and it is his years as aide to Harold Wilson from 1974 onwards that are central to this political career. The heat that this period is still able to generate (see, for example, a previous review by Roy Hattersley in The Observer in July 2005 on <,6903,1524937,00.html>) and the colourful characters that peopled it are remarkable. His own key role in the so-called “Kitchen Cabinet” means, of course, that his personal opinions come through clearly as do his favourable or unfavourable opinions of those around him. For example, Joe Haines, Wilson’s Press Secretary, had, according to Donoughue, “seriously good qualities” [119]. Not so the other controversial figure behind Wilson’s throne, Marcia Williams. The influence she exercised remains a subject of controversy. It has never been a secret that Williams and Donoughue were rivals for the affections of the Prime Minister and that relations between them were stormy. It is not surprising, therefore, that more than once Donoughue should question Williams’ character and hot temper, emphasising, for example, her use of abusive language and her personal nastiness. Others, of course, have painted a quite different picture of these people and events. Whatever the validity of his case, his recourse to astrology to explain these personal clashes (he asserts that “Marcia is a volatile Pisces and I am the stellar opposite, a pedestrian Virgo” [260]) hardly add up to a convincing explanation.

Just why Wilson should have been “humiliated by this relationship (with Williams) from which for some reason he could not escape” [219] remains unanswered even if a whole chapter and more is given over to the question. Nonetheless his conclusions are damning: Wilson “physically hid from her intimidating telephone calls” [231]; “she had frightened Harold Wilson and reduced him to a dependence which was sometimes pathetic to observe. He occasionally showed resentment at that dependence and tried briefly to shake it off. But in the end he for some reason needed it and always reverted into subjugation” [232]. The origins of this fear are not revealed although the author suggests that there was something behind Williams’ hold over the Prime Minister:

She several times threatened in my hearing to give the press information which she claimed would “destroy him”, once ominously tapping her handbag and implying that it contained the fatal ammunition to destroy him. Wilson was visibly intimidated and frightened by these threats. They clearly agitated some fears deep within him, real or imagined. [234]

“Wilson showed acute fear of these threats” [263], he writes, but why? What could have justified the “extremes of fear” [263]? Donoughue rules out a sexual peccadillo. However, while he is sure, “as far as an outside observer can be” [263], that there was no affair between them during the years he worked in Downing Street, he does point out that Wilson had successfully sued an American magazine for libel after it had suggested an earlier affair. Should Williams have shown that Wilson had been lying, then his perjury would, Donoughue argues, have “destroy[ed] him politically” [263].

Bernard Donoughue was very much the political insider and it is this side of his account that is of the greatest interest. He was undoubtedly well placed to observe and comment on the workings of the political and governmental machinery. Indeed, his role as adviser to the television series Yes Minister can be seen only too clearly in the parallels between fiction and reality. His personal contacts with many of the key players also provide a fascinating perspective. He records Dennis Healey’s view that attacking (Tony) Benn never had any effect–“like cutting moonbeams”—an opinion which was given as the two men shared the Downing Street toilets [160]. On another occasion, he spends the early hours of the morning during one European summit in 1975 in the Prime Minister’s bedroom with the latter listening to him in his “voluminous underpants” [174]. Another happy memory is of the impromptu briefing session between Wilson and his officials in the lavatory of the Irish Prime Minister’s residence—“the only private location then available—and hopefully not bugged” [176]. When they agreed to reject the plan for the European budget that had been proposed, Donoughue “ceremoniously pulled the chain to flush it down the loo” [176].

Harold Wilson—certainly the key political character here—is, in general, presented in a less than flattering light. Constantly obsessed with the short-term maintenance of his personal popularity and of that of his party, he never seems to have risen above the details and ephemera of politics. The end of his reign goes down as "the slow tick of an old clock winding down” [209]. In particular, his growing concerns for “the plots, leaks, conspiracies, agents and mercenaries” [214] and the conviction that he was being bugged give a rather comic impression. His “final great error” [223], his resignation honours list, completes this sad picture.

Donoughue’s portrayal of Wilson’s attitude towards Europe is an excellent summary of his inability to grasp this particular nettle. He was, he writes

never warm to things European–nor indeed to anywhere abroad other than through his sentimental attachment to the old Commonwealth [...] For holidays, the furthest he could usually be tempted was to the Isles of Scilly [...] he was probably mildly anti-European in the sense that he did not like the continental style of life or their politics. The French and southern Europeans appeared particularly alien to him. He disliked their food, generally preferring meat and two veg with HP sauce. When he returned from a Paris dinner with the French President in September 1974 suffering from an upset stomach, he readily accepted Marcia’s admonition that it was a proper punishment for going abroad. Politically, he believed that British democracy and the British Parliament were the most wonderful political systems and institutions ever invented. His observations of continental politics from the 1930s onwards did not convince him that very many Europeans were fundamentally democratic [ ...] Harold Wilson was [...] basically a provincial, non-conformist puritan with all the virtues, vices and inhibitions of that background, including touches of the little Englander. [179]

This judgement may evoke a certain criticism of Harold Wilson but Donoughue’s own opinions of Europe are not fundamentally different. Although his story is essentially an English one, there are occasional excursions farther afield particularly to France, which he first visited in the immediate post-war years and where he later bought a second home. This he sold in 2002, “finding the local habit of treating the truth as just one tactical option increasingly unacceptable” even if the views were “stunning” [162]. His final judgement of France and the French is not untypical of many British people. He admits to a “love affair [... ] with the country” but this has had to survive “many difficult periods with individual French people. Some of [whom] were the most cynical and least romantic I have met” [53]. The food may be great and the climate wonderful, he seems to be saying, but if it’s a nice country it’s a shame about the people. On the few occasions when the author comes into political contact with the French he complains that he and his political superiors “faced typical French hostility” [175].

Bernard Donoughue comes out of this book as a model of the Blairite and Thatcherite virtues of self-help and self-improvement. This is reflected in his defence of the “modernisers” in the Labour party, in his view its “radical right wing” [106], and even more so in his visceral opposition to what he refers to as “left-wing zealots” [108] or “left-wing reactionaries” [201]. Labour’s left, he writes, “was wrong in many of its extreme statist policies—and especially in its often blind attachment to the appalling communist regime in the Soviet Union” [106]. While there may have been some on the far left of the party for whom the Soviet Union was a model, this is surely not a fair criticism of most of those in the party whom Donoughue was so determined to fight. The idea that “Labour’s left [were] aping Stalinist centralism” [159] is also surely to take the case too far.

At the same time, it is the intellectual vacuum at the heart of “New” Labour (perhaps also at the heart of “Old” Labour) that the author reveals despite himself. His record of his time at the “Policy Unit” in 10 Downing Street is paradoxically one which shows precisely the lack of ideas and ambition that was at the heart of the Labour Governments of these years. This is shown by one anecdote told by Donoughue of the 1974 election campaign when Wilson told Donoughue: “Really, Bernard, I am just offering them [the electorate] a quiet life” [132]. When Donoughue enthusiastically gave Wilson a “very clever formula solution” that he had come up with to overcome the Anglo-French differences on the question of cheap Commonwealth food imports and the CAP (“that burgeoning Alice-in-Wonderland lunacy,” he “looked at me with sad resignation and said, ‘No, Bernard, no. Don’t you understand? I don’t want the solution, I want the grievance’” [173]. This surely says much about the style and substance of the Wilson government.

The impression that Donoughue leaves is that there was little in the way of real policy in those years. Instead, it is the power politics, the back stabbing and personal machinations that appear as the key characteristics. Both Wilson and Callaghan in their different ways—the former tinged with a deep sense of opportunism, the latter with solid virtues but without any substantial policy ideas or answers to the problems then facing the government and the country—lacked any firm ideas. This stands in contrast with the author’s acceptance of, even admiration for, the Thatcher revolution. As early as the 1964 election he noted how he “grew more impressed by her” [110]. A few years later he was instrumental in her being elected to the Court of Governors of the LSE. He records one meeting during which she was “engagingly flirtatious” with an “attractive glint of steel” alongside the “more worryingly rigid mindset” that was to become so characteristic of the “Iron Lady” in later years [110]. His overall judgement is that her impact on British politics was “on balance probably for the good” [110]. In particular, she is praised for having grasped the nettle of trade union reform, something which the Labour governments he worked for had failed to do. In his view, the greed and short-sightedness of the trade unions which brought down the Callaghan government meant that, in Mrs Thatcher, they got what they deserved. Added to this, Labour’s refusal to consider selling off council houses gave Thatcher “a winning electoral card,” leaving it to a Conservative Prime Minister “to pursue the necessary change” [201]. When the Callaghan government, which he condemns as having “far too many marshmallows and too few vertebrae” [311], was on its last legs, Donoughue noted that “from the national interest point of view I was not totally depressed by the prospect of a Conservative Government, even though it would leave me unemployed and penniless […] Ironically, it was the Conservatives who provided the radicalism necessary to break out of the policy cage” [326]. All of this stands awkwardly alongside his claim to be a Labour man through and through.

It is perhaps not surprising then that The Heat of the Kitchen should be so “New Labour” and Blairite in its tone. As early as 1960 Donoughue recorded his determination never again to refer to himself as a “socialist” [108]. On social welfare reform he portrayed himself as “tough,” believing that “people should ‘carry their own luggage’ and not always look to the state to bail them out” [148]. On the economy he was strongly against state planning or interference in industry, which was best left to Britain’s industrial management. His own contacts in the City, where he had worked as a merchant banker, were also used during his time inside Downing Street. On the rising tide and influence of New Right economists, he notes that while he “certainly did not share all their free market beliefs” he did admire their “engagingly radical views” [159]. On a more personal level he admits that it was his experience in the wartime black market which gave him his “first introduction to market economics” [31]. This business and the skills he learned in it, he recalls, were much the same as those he employed later in life, “under a smoother social veneer” [32], as a stockbroker. His rejection of Labour’s previous “statist, interventionist and nationalising approach to economic problems” [160] is unambiguous.

The personal side of The Heat of the Kitchen is certainly touching. As a political memoir it cannot be placed in the highest ranks. On the central issue of the inner workings of Downing Street in the Wilson-Callaghan years and the personalities who played out these scenes, Donoughue’s book shows how, even thirty years after the events, personal friendships and animosities can still condition the accounts given. Nevertheless, The Heat of the Kitchen adds another layer to the already considerable literature on this subject and will be of interest to all students of these years and to anyone interested in how the heart of the British government operates.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.