Secret’s out, Harold Wilson had another affair. There’s nothing sweet about that, boys | Catherine

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How have we managed without the expression “sunshine at sunset”? As in, when an older married man is granted sex with a much younger colleague and better still, keeps it quiet? So much so that his wife stays on to nurse him through Alzheimer’s disease?

We owe this promising euphemism to the former Harold Wilson aide Bernard Donoughue, 89, who appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme last week. He was confirming gossip that he and the former Labour prime minister’s press secretary, Joe Haines, 96, have treasured for 50 years: Wilson, during his final term in office, had an affair with Janet Hewlett-Davies, Haines’s Downing Street deputy.

They think it’s time her story came out, Hewlett-Davies having recently died, so that, Haines says, historians can recognise “her importance to Wilson’s morale”. Wilson’s alleged confessions (“I’ve never been happier”) are supplied, along with relevant logistics. At Chequers, Haines says, Hewlett-Davies once swapped rooms with his, which adjoined the prime minister’s, allowing Wilson to sneak in. “And what did he do? He left his slippers under her bed.”

Would Hewlett-Davies, who remained married, rewardingly employed and never divulged the affair, have cared for these disclosures? Or for being, personally, summarised as a kind of human Sertraline? The Today programme did not inquire.

How about Marcia Williams, the powerful private secretary critical throughout Wilson’s career and probably for a time his lover, who is still loathed by Haines and Donoughue? Donoughue only took the opportunity on Today to belittle her (“She would shout at him and blame him for everything”), without explaining why “a brilliant and fascinating politician” like Wilson was unable to deal with a female so generally despised.

Maybe, as Linda McDougall, author of biography Marcia Williams: The Life and Times of Baroness Falkender, has argued, he needed her. As for Wilson’s wife Mary, a poet, entirely missing from the Today segment, we can only extrapolate from a passage in Donoughue’s published diaries of his career in Downing Street: “Mary Wilson told me she was very angry with me.” The cause was a biography of Herbert Morrison: “Mary objects to my references to Morrison’s sex life – and especially to sex problems with his wife. Said that should not be written.”

Haines and Donoughue will also know from Ben Pimlott’s biography of Wilson, which features a now meaningful-looking section on Hewlett-Davies, 22 years younger than Wilson, that Mary “became irritated by what at times seemed almost like a schoolboy crush”.

The Today programme, reflecting Donoughue’s mood, made the revelation into a near-hilarious good news story. You did wonder where the conversation might have gone if he had been interviewed by a presenter less tickled than Nick Robinson by statements like: “This was a little sunshine at sunset, she obviously made him finally happy.”

As for the wider significance of the disclosure: “We knew” – Donoughue reached again for his euphemism – “there was a little touch of sunshine, not in any of the stories so far, and that was his very happy final relationship with Janet.”

Final? After resigning in 1976, Wilson lived in declining health for almost 20 years, looked after by Mary, with help from Marcia Williams. Mary’s eulogy, composed for Wilson’s funeral and possibly not fully appreciated at the time, begins: “My love you have stumbled slowly/On the quiet way to death.”

Haines and Donoughue went on to work for the late villain, Robert Maxwell.

Last week, Donoughue’s contagious – at least to the BBC – merriment only increased when the conversation lurched, unexpectedly, into Patricia Highsmith territory, with questions about the time, new to many, that Wilson’s physician, Dr Joe, later Lord, Stone, suggested murdering (Donoughue uses “dispose of”) Marcia Williams.

“He would be doing it for the nation,” Donoughue explained, altruistically putting the protection of Stone’s reputation above his own, “because he thought Harold Wilson was a really great man, but while Marcia was nagging at him he couldn’t perform greatly.” Haines, in his memoir, Kick ’Em Back, prefers to phrase it as “removing the burden of Marcia from Wilson”, a proposal he dismissed, though without reporting Stone. “Even if we had agreed,” he writes, reasonably, “it meant that three people were in [on] the secret which for a secret was two too many.” What if one of them confessed? “The grim process of digging up the grave and carrying out an autopsy would follow, unless of course she were cremated.”

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If news of Wilson’s second (probably) affair does not transform understanding of either the man or his legacy, we are indebted to Haines and Donoghue for contributing to another important historical record: that illustrating how thoroughly office life in the 70s bore out Germaine Greer’s contention that “women have very little idea of how much men hate them”.

In the Wilson aides’ testimony, you can practically feel the advancing hand, see the men roll their eyes at mature-female “nagging”, hear them assess the available talent. Hewlett-Davies, Haines recalls in Kick ‘Em Back, was “a young blonde”, “saucy”. Not so Williams: “She should have been a ridiculous figure, consoled by a ‘there, there’, a pat on the knee before that constituted sexual assault …”

What’s more, the “sunshine at sunset” revelations allow for useful insights into Downing Street’s transformation since the days married ministers courted female juniors as much as 22 or 23 years younger than them, confessing only to intimates: “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” Now they can thrive in the open, enjoying sunshine not just at sunset, but at breakfast, lunch and tea, including, as Boris Johnson has demonstrated, candidates who look worse in shorts, evidence indicates, than Harold Wilson.

True, a dismaying number of reports have failed, faithfully reflecting the spirit of Haines and Donoughue, to register that women were sentient participants in Wilson’s office adventure and would almost certainly have condemned its exposure. But to be positive: we can surely recognise that plausible death threats on women who have annoyed men are now hardly, if ever, reported in the progressive workplace. That’s what X is for.Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

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Read More: Secret’s out, Harold Wilson had another affair. There’s nothing sweet about that, boys | Catherine

2024-04-14 07:17:00

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