She was a bloody, bloody nuisance! The verdict of Harold Wilson’s Private Secretary on Marcia Falkender, ‘the first woman ever to wield real power in No 10’

Four days earlier than the 1974 General Election, Bernard Donoughue, head of Harold Wilson’s coverage analysis unit, went for lunch with Marcia Williams and the No10 press secretary Joe Haines. 

‘She took a purple heart to keep her awake, as she frequently does, and now has a headache,’ famous Bernard in his diary later.

Alongside his matter-of-fact comment about Marcia’s use of the stimulant Drinamyl, colloquially often called purple hearts, he added: ‘But her intelligence is undiminished. I can see why H. W. is fascinated along with her.

‘This shouldn’t be – now, at the very least – a sexual relationship. Harold is astounded by her countless nervous vitality, her instinctive capability to go to the center of any challenge. He loves it when she shouts at him, corrects him, opposes him.

‘It is the almost incestuous father-daughter relationship with no mom and no guilt to intervene.’

Marcia Williams (pictured, left) was seen exhibiting more and more eccentric behaviour, which is believed to have been brought on by an habit to Valium
She turned Baronesss Falkender of West Haddon, in Northamptonshire,  and had two sons, Dan (left) and Tim (proper)

By the tip of that week, on February 24, 1974, Harold Wilson had received a new time period in workplace, having misplaced power to Ted Heath’s Conservatives in 1970. The Harold and Marcia double act was again at No10.

But one thing important was altering: Marcia herself.

It was at this key level in Labour’s historical past that these round Wilson started observing the Prime Minister’s right-hand woman’s more and more eccentric behaviour.

Joe Haines had admired Marcia’s undisputed political expertise in the 1960s. But he now famous that ‘the intemperate calls for for Wilson to cancel no matter he was doing have been appalling and too frequent: nobody, spouse, mum or dad, sibling or secretary, who was wholly balanced ought to ever behave in such a style.

‘But she did, to the misery of Wilson and the embarrassment of these round him’.

Donoughue was equally alarmed by her erratic actions. On the night of May 15, 1975, he wrote: ‘There was a dinner for the Prime Minister of Fiji. We have been all upstairs having drinks till 8.50, ready for Marcia, who arrived 20 minutes late. The PM made a charming speech of welcome.

‘Just because the Fijian Prime Minister was rising to reply, Marcia bought up and stamped out of the room.

Marcia Williams was a 24-year-old secretary at Transport House, the Labour Party¿s HQ, when she met the person she had already talent-spotted as a rising star, former Oxford don Harold Wilson. Pictured, Harold Wilson British Prime Minister with Marcia Williams making ready notes for the Labour Party
Perhaps surprisingly, Mary had complied, setting out right away for Marcia¿s mews dwelling, solely to obtain the shattering revelation about her husband¿s supposed infidelity. Pictured, Marcia Falkender on a buying journey for New Life Peeress, May 1974

‘She is heavy on her toes, so all people seen. Joe and I mentioned it however had no concept what it was all about. After the meal the thriller was cleared up.

‘Marcia returned to the reception room along with her pal the property developer Eric Miller, and the singer Frank Sinatra.

‘She was fawning throughout Sinatra… She took the PM off to communicate to him. Joe blew up. We gathered she needed to attend the forthcoming Sinatra live performance. We left at midnight, by when the PM was wanting very drained.’

Now in his 80s, Wilson’s Private Secretary on the time, Robin Butler, advised me: ‘Marcia was a bloody nuisance, and such a bloody nuisance that I could hardly believe it. She would arrange commitments and engagements for Harold without any concern for what was in his official diary; clashing engagements and so on; using the Prime Minister’s automobile when she needed to buy groceries or choose up her youngsters from faculty and customarily behaving in a manner that, for me, aged 34 and a barely idealistic civil servant, appeared to be utterly surprising.’

But I recognised Marcia’s behaviour. Like her, I had been a busy mum with two small children and a taxing job as a producer/director with the BBC, Granada after which Thames Television, and I was taking steadily rising doses of Valium on daily basis.

I had begun by going to my GP and telling him I felt careworn as a result of I was busy with my youngsters, my job and the half I had to play in my husband’s function as an MP, and, of course, he prescribed Valium. The label stated 2mg per day.

When Mary bought dwelling after the meal, Marcia had telephoned and introduced that she needed to see her instantly. Pictured, Harold Wilson and Mary in 10 Downing Street, 1967
Pictured, Harold Wilson and his spouse, Mary, on the doorway of 10 Downing Street, September 1974

It was a nice assist for a very quick time. I upped the dose and it appeared a good better assist, after which I began to really feel a bit wobbly, to see myself as a nervous individual, getting extra anxious and careworn. It took me simply a few weeks to realise I was hooked.

Had the stress Marcia had suffered since arriving in Downing Street – from her job and from her extraordinary non-public life, in which she’d had two infants whose existence she was compelled to hold secret – made her, like so many different girls in the 1970s, dependent on prescribed drugs?

For folks akin to Marcia, who needed to work punishingly lengthy hours and keep awake, purple hearts have been at the moment thought to be a godsend. They are now not manufactured, although they have been as soon as recurrently used to hold troopers alert in battle.

As she took an increasing number of medication to hold her awake and over- stimulated, the unwanted effects turned more and more apparent. Anxiety, loss of inhibition, hostility, aggression and paranoia are all pointers to Drinamyl habit.

It’s not recognized whether or not Marcia bought all her medication from Wilson’s physician, Joe Stone, or from road sellers. But regardless of the actuality, she was beginning to seem very unstable certainly.

To calm her down, Stone started prescribing giant portions of Valium to reverse the impact of the purple hearts. Those who watched her use it from a vial she wore on a chain round her neck stated she typically took it by the handful.

We can not blame Stone; the error he made was in widespread with each different GP in the land in that period.

It was some years earlier than the medical career started to realise how addictive benzodiazepines have been and the way onerous it was to get off them after lengthy and heavy misuse.

In the tip, Stone did go too far. Haines studies that Stone as soon as recommended to him and Donoughue that they ‘dispose’ of Marcia (put her down, kill her) in the curiosity of liberating Harold from the burden he believed she had change into. Of course, they have been shocked and rejected the suggestion outright.

It’s intriguing to be aware that in all of the proof of her instability and drug-taking equipped by those that labored with Marcia, there have been by no means any questions on what may even have induced the dramatic adjustments in her behaviour.

Pictured, Prime Minister Harold Wilson together with his secretary Marcia Williams
Marcia and Harold¿s marketing campaign was as profitable a double act as that of their musical contemporaries Lennon and McCartney. Pictured, Harold Wilson together with his spouse and Marcia Williams

No one at No10 apparently thought to ask why she was appearing so surprisingly – nonetheless much less to think about the chance that she could be in poor health and need assistance to escape from the dreadful habit which was dragging her down.

Everyone assumed with out query that she was a political dominatrix, hellbent on governing Britain by retaining Harold Wilson firmly underneath her thumb.

Everyone who labored with Marcia thought her unacceptable behaviour, her worry and her hysterical reactions occurred as a result of she was terrified of dropping her grasp on Wilson.

But it appears to me that, as an alternative, she was worrying on daily basis that she was dropping her grasp on every thing – that she wouldn’t give you the chance to cope along with her youngsters, not to mention her big and traumatic job at No10.

FURIOUS on the manner Marcia was continuously sneered at and belittled, the Prime Minister raised two fingers to her detractors. It was introduced on July 11, 1974 in the London Gazette: ‘The Queen has been pleased by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm, bearing date the 11th day of July 1974, to confer the dignity of a Barony of the United Kingdom for life upon Marcia Matilda Falkender (formerly Marcia Matilda Mrs Williams), CBE, by the name, style and title of BARONESS FALKENDER, of West Haddon in Northamptonshire.’

Westminster was agog.

‘The papers are full of Marcia’s set up in the Lords yesterday, which I didn’t get time to go and see,’ wrote Labour veteran Barbara Castle in her diary. ‘Ted [Barbara’s husband] tells me she did it impeccably and with dignity. Whatever else one thinks of her, she actually is a outstanding persona. Personally I all the time bought on nicely along with her, however it’s astonishing how many individuals are outraged at Harold’s gesture.’

Some, together with Haines, although he produces no proof, believed that Marcia compelled or cajoled Wilson to make her a peer.

‘Though it was Wilson’s proposal in the formal sense, he was merely endorsing Marcia’s calls for,’ wrote Haines. ‘When he announced the peerage to us, the thump of our hearts hitting our boots must have been heard in Outer Mongolia.’ Haines recommended that he and others in Wilson’s internal circle had tried to cease the PM from going forward.

Further controversy over the honours system was quickly to observe.

In 1976 Wilson, to Marcia’s fury, introduced his resignation. Speculation as to the rationale was rife. Was it one thing to do with Marcia? Marcia and intercourse? Marcia and cash?

Donoughue advised me, nonetheless, that Wilson had knowledgeable him many months earlier than the precise occasion that he’d executed a take care of his spouse Mary. He would give the workplace up when he was 60 and they’d have a new life in Oxford or Cambridge, the place, as a former economics don, he might return to academia.

On February 20, Donoughue wrote in his diary: ‘Bill Housden [Wilson’s chauffeur] advised me Marcia and H. W. had a 20-minute row in the automobile, along with her nonetheless attacking him as a result of he was retiring. As he bought out of the automobile, he stated, ‘After what you have said, I am even more determined than ever to go.’

The notorious resignation honours listing which adopted induced a big scandal, with commentators akin to Labour veteran Roy Jenkins suggesting that it disfigured the previous PM’s legacy. But why blame Wilson when there was a woman by his aspect who might take the rap?

Harold Wilson broadcasts his resignation as Prime Minister throughout a press convention on the Ministry of Defence in London
Whatever the reality of the matter, in October 1956 Wilson appointed Marcia as his private secretary. Pictured, Harold Wilson throughout a press convention in 1976

Immortalised because the ‘Lavender List’, the ideas, written by Marcia herself in blue ink on violet-coloured notepaper with corrections by Harold in purple, have been believed by many to have been solely her try to reward her personal buddies and supporters.

No one was accusing Prime Minister Harold Wilson of promoting honours, or of any misconduct. The implication was that Marcia had a lot power over him that she might hand out awards to whoever she fancied – or maybe fancied her.

Marcia later stated she didn’t know the place the lavender-coloured paper had come from, it was simply what she occurred to have in her hand when the Prime Minister had requested her to make a be aware. She insisted the listing represented Harold’s needs.

All she had executed, she stated, was jotted down a few of his ideas as he spoke to her strolling alongside a hall, and the paper wasn’t hers personally. She’d by no means seen it earlier than – it was simply one thing she grabbed on the time.

The nice storm related to the one created by the listing can be unlikely to occur as we speak. Bernard Delfont, Lew Grade and Max Rayne – who if not family names would definitely be acquainted to older readers – have been all made friends in 1976 for his or her companies to theatre, tv or the humanities.

Also on the listing have been George Weidenfeld, chairman of one of the most important British publishing corporations, and John Vaizey, professor of economics at Brunel University. Joe Stone, Harold Wilson’s shut pal and private doctor, turned Lord Stone.

These have been simply the kind of names which were showing in honours lists from Prime Ministers from either side of the House earlier than Wilson’s governments and ever since. Among the recipients whose ennoblement induced essentially the most controversy, nonetheless, was the entrepreneur James Goldsmith. His was the one identify which was onerous to clarify and should nicely have been Marcia’s contribution.

Richard Ingrams, who was the first editor of Private Eye, later recommended an intriguing chance. ‘It is undoubtedly true that, in 1976, Marcia inspired Sir James Goldsmith, with whom she loved a shut relationship, to destroy Private Eye, of which I was then editor.

‘She did so partly to revenge herself on the Eye which, in 1974, had uncovered the extent of her affect over Wilson in addition to revealing the existence of her two youngsters by the Daily Mail’s chief political correspondent Walter Terry. Goldsmith not solely issued 64 writs on his personal behalf however arrange a fund to allow others to sue.

‘Luckily for us, the plot misfired. As a result, partly, of the publicity generated by the writs, Goldsmith was deprived of the peerage which Falkender had put down for him on her famous Lavender List. He had to be content with a knighthood. Like many aspects of the Falkender story, Goldsmith’s quotation “for services to exports and ecology” has by no means been totally defined.’

From this distance, and realizing what we now find out about Marcia, whose psychological well being had been in decline for the reason that delivery of her sons and who was taking countless medication to get her via the lengthy and troublesome days, it’s actually attainable that she added a few ideas to the listing to talk about with Harold.

The Wilson papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford comprise file after file of carbon copies of letters written on behalf of the Prime Minister by Marcia, ceaselessly with neatly handwritten notes. ‘Is this OK with you? Marcia’ with ‘Fine by me, H. W.’ in response. Everything was a collaborative dialogue between the pair.

There isn’t any proof in any respect that she wrote her personal listing of these deserving peerages and slapped it down in entrance of Harold saying, ‘Implement this!’

‘Suggestions and discussions’ had been very a lot half of the best way they labored collectively since Marcia began out with Harold in 1956. But to say that your entire Lavender List was masterminded by her can be short-sighted and inaccurate.

HER years in Downing Street had not ready Marcia for all times in a modest terraced home in the London suburbs along with her youngsters on the native state faculty.

Although she nonetheless espoused socialism and, when she spoke publicly in any respect, spoke loudly and clearly in its defence, she additionally appeared to be stating she was Baroness Falkender now, and needed to reside like a baroness. For the remaining of her life, she yearned for privateness and seclusion. She needed taxis and rent vehicles, non-public schooling for her youngsters – later paid for by one of her supporters, in accordance to Joe Haines – and safety for her household.

Marcia continued to work as Harold’s secretary, and for a few years she wrote a column for the Daily Mail. But when she died in 2019 in a nursing dwelling, she was nearly penniless. Four years later, no will nor probate declaration has been printed, so we should assume her web price was small.

Her contribution to British political life was not, nonetheless – though the Labour social gathering head workplace by no means understood how a lot they owed her or gave her credit score for what she did. They have been caught firmly in the 1950s with the previous hierarchical buildings.

Men on the high. Men in cost. Women firmly in second place as housewives and homemakers and every thing else that they had to match into their day.

According to Haines, Marcia in the end turned so disillusioned with Labour that she wrote to Margaret Thatcher forward of her barnstorming 1979 Conservative victory providing to assist her beat the then Prime Minister Jim Callaghan.

Haines was horrified, however I might see how Marcia should have felt. It was so thrilling to see a feminine politician on the cusp of power that many ladies of her technology felt precisely the identical manner.

Like Thatcher, Marcia was a pioneer. But the place she started to slip and slide was in the best way she introduced her case for assist.

It is true that she screamed and shouted.

She was frightened, she panicked and he or she bought out of management.

But nobody supplied Marcia any assist and assist. No one appeared past the tantrums to see that she was clearly in misery. Her tireless ardour and pleasure had by no means been seen in Downing Street earlier than and it was all too simple for folks to misread it as bossiness, even craziness.

She knew what she needed, and he or she demanded it forcefully.

But behind all of the drama was a woman who might additionally see what she was lacking out on. She had accepted Wilson’s superb talent at compartmentalising his life.

He had demanded and bought one life at dwelling and one other in the workplace. He loved his regular relationship together with his spouse Mary and their boys. She might see that Harold was pleased, and thought he had an enviable dwelling life.

Marcia had nothing like that.

We won’t ever know what sort of relationship led to her short-lived, early marriage however it was shortly identified by her as a huge mistake when she noticed what Wilson had to provide. There is little question in any respect that he was the love of her life.

When Wilson’s premiership was over, Marcia continued her profession as a politician in the Lords. She lived lengthy sufficient to be the longest-serving Labour peer however she by no means made a speech in the Lords.

Many stated she went in every day simply to accumulate the attendance allowance. When she was in poor health and fragile in the first a long time of this century, she wrote to the Lords whips asking that they need to counsel to members that she was previous and poor and wanted assist along with her payments.

Some have been sympathetic and sort. Others have been appalled that a woman who they believed had been a harridan and troublemaker in Downing Street ought to go begging from their lordships.

Marcia Falkender’s ashes have been tucked in a plot along with her mother and father in the graveyard at All Saints’ Church in West Haddon, Northamptonshire. Hers was an extremely romantic, if additionally unhappy, story. She made it attainable for Harold Wilson to win a nonetheless unmatched 4 General Elections for the Labour social gathering. She was extremely proud of what he had achieved.

But Marcia, the sensible politician, the A1 organiser, the tireless campaigner, paid a heavy worth. The world wasn’t but prepared to lengthen a serving to hand to the woman who had pushed her adored Harold to the highest.

It is now time Marcia obtained the respect she has lengthy deserved: as a real trailblazer and the first woman to wield real power in Downing Street.

Marcia Williams by Linda McDougall (Biteback Publishing, £25) to be printed November 7. To order a copy for £22.50 (provide legitimate to 13/11/23).

UK p&p free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or name 020 3176 2937. 

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