Commentary

Articles, booklist, etc.

1979 May 4 Fr
Commentary (Ronnie Millar memoirs)

General Election: “A View From The Wings” (how MT was persuaded to use St Francis’s prayer on the steps of Downing Street)

Document type:commentary
Document kind:Memoir
Venue:-
Source:Sir Ronnie Millar, A View From The Wings (1993), pp263-67
Journalist:-
Editorial comments:-
Importance ranking:Key
Word count:890
Themes:Conservatism, General Elections, Famous statements by MT

The last crucial PEB [Party Election Broadcast] was recorded by the Leader on Monday 30 April and went out on all TV channels on the evening of 1 May. . After three ‘takes’ the broadcast was in the can and speaker and writer were shunted into a side room where a pot of tea and some biscuits were set out. The campaign had taken its toll and neither of us could think of anything to say. There was nothing to be done now but wait for Thursday 3 May.

At length tentatively, almost shyly, between sips of tea Margaret asked if - sip - I had by any chance - sip - thought of a few words for her to - sip - say on the steps of Number Ten, as was of course - sip - traditional, should the result of the - sip - election find her in the position of requiring them. ‘If’ - sip - ‘you follow me’.

‘I follow you. And yes, I've thought of something.’

She put her cup down and went into her familiar eye-covering routine. ‘Go ahead.’

‘Oh, good heavens, no. I'm not going to tell you now. That would almost certainly be fatal.’

She uncovered her eyes. ‘You’re superstitious.’

‘Of course. I'm a theatre man. Also a Scorpio.’

‘Are all Scorpios superstitious?’

‘This one is.’

‘All right. But whatever it is you have in mind I hope it's something people will remember. If, that is, the occasion should arise.’

‘I think they might. If, as you say, it comes to that.’

‘It may not.’

‘Who can tell?’

‘Not I.’

‘Margaret .’

‘Yes?’

‘Good luck.’

And we clinked teacups in that cold stark room and toasted whatever Thursday night might have in store, if it ever came .

[In the small hours of 3 May Ronnie Millar made his way to Conservative Central Office in Smith Square.]

Soon after 4.00am she detached herself from the mob in her office who were glued to the television and beckoned me into the corridor.

‘I think it’s going to be all right, dear.’

‘It’s been all right for several hours, dear.’

‘So . outside Number Ten tomorrow. Today, rather. Now will you tell me?’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘I thought perhaps you might say . ’ and I quoted some words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Where there is discord may we bring harmony, where there is error may we bring truth, where there is doubt may we bring faith, and where there is despair may we bring hope.’

(St Francis said ‘I’ but ‘we’ seemed more modest for Margaret.)

The lady rarely showed her deep feelings but this, on a night of high tension and the constant switchback of emotion, proved too much. Her eyes swam. She blew her nose.

‘I’ll need to learn it,’ she said at length. ‘Let’s find Alison [Ward]and get her to type it.’ Alison was found and the three of us went into one of her cubbyholes that passed for offices at Conservative HQ. No sooner had I begun to dictate than Alison started to weep. It struck me that if anyone came in and found me with two attractive women in floods of tears at four in the morning there could be a problem.

It was five-thirty before I left with a request to be back at Central Office, please, by noon. …

At noon, tired but living on adrenalin and ready to go another twenty four hours if necessary, I was back at Central Office. It was still fairly full though quieter in the light of day. There were empty coffee cups and dirty glasses and cigarette butts in profusion. As soon as she saw me Margaret, looking fresh and restored (which was constitutionally impossible) called me into her office and closed the door. Dropping her voice, she said a couple of her advisers were not sure about St. Francis. What was my opinion? I said I thought was a pretty good man and history would probably go along with that assessment.

‘Yes, I know, dear, but them to feel there’s a problem.’

‘You mean he’ s strictly for the birds?’

‘They’re not sure I should quote him outside Number Ten.’

‘Why in the world not?’

‘They seem to feel he - how shall I put it? - he set a pretty high standard.’

‘And they’re not sure your government can live up to it?’

‘They’re afraid it could be a hostage to fortune. What do you think?’

I said, ‘I think someone should explain to whoever it is that what the Saint said - if he said it - is a prayer, an aspiration. You’re not promising heaven on earth. All you’re doing is expressing a hope in some words that have come down to us through the centuries, that have a certain nobility and seem to me to be not entirely inappropriate to the occasion.’

‘More than possibly. What’s wrong with that?’ She obviously wanted to say them but needed maximum reassurance. Not for the first time I called in aid Winston Churchill, a name that usually worked with Margaret. ‘Churchill spent half his life being controversial and much of what he said is remembered whether people agreed with it at the time or not.’

She brightened visibly. ‘What shall I tell the boys?’

‘Tell them it’s too soon to get cold feet before you’ve kissed hands.’ …