Lord Longford, who yesterday celebrated his 80th birthday, talks to Peter Stanford about a lifetime in the public eye
rrHE image of meeting with St Peter at the gates of heaven is a sobering, some would say frightening, one. And especially so on your 80th birthday. Yet Lord Longford, contrary to popular prejudices, is a sober and reflective man, with the accumulated wisdom of four score years.
"To succeed in a worldly sense in one's life is not the same as success in a St Peter sense" he says. A Times obituary would rightly concentrate on an outstanding career in public service — a member of' the Attlee Government as Minister for Civil Aviation and then First Lord of the Admiralty, Leader of the House of Lords for three years during the first Wilson administration, a Knight of the Garter, Chairman of the Bank of Ireland, prolific author . . . the list could go on and on.
But Frank Longford would prefer St Peter to look a little deeper in evaluating a man who almost defiantly states that his guiding principle in life has been his faith, the gospels — although he adds, with an honesty some might mistake for arrogance, "interpreted by me of' course".
He hesitates to put words into St Peter's mouth — "its risky to talk about achievements. : They may look very different to him" — but the Earl of Longford has one or two points to make in his own defence.
The first concerns his book on humility. While he makes no claims to such a virtue, and indeed likens himself in undertaking the work to a "person who's failed in three marriages and then writes a book on successful marriage", he feels that it was, and remains, an original contribution on a difficult and much neglected subject.
Its hard to be humble and not be elitist, he points out, especially if you come from an aristocratic background and went to Eton and Oxford. However, Lord Longford has tried throughout his life to apply Christian beliefs both in private and public matters. He left the Wilson government in 1968 over the issue of the school leaving age because he felt that "moral principles were being abandoned".
"Christianity did not begin for me with my reception into the Catholic Church in 1940", Lord I ongford wrote last year in One Man's Faith. Brought up a Protestant, his family creed he sums up as "an undemonstrative, undoctrinal Christianity". Describing his conversion in the same book he wrote: "I had satisfied myself at that time (1940) that Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again; that he had founded what is now the Catholic Church and had inspired it ever since that time".
As a Christian in public life, he did not entirely abandon ambition. He admits that "I'd have been awfully disappointed if I hadn't been a cabinet minister" in Wilson's 1964 government,
Yet in a deeper sense he felt the clash between public life which is founded on achieving and maintaining popularity, and the example of Jesus who preached an uncomfortable message and suffered for it.
In the public mind Lord Longford is now most readily associated with unpopular causes — prison reform, pornography, Myra Hindley. It is his Christianity which leads him to take up such issues without fear for his image.
I.ord Longford is one of the most caricatured of contemporary public figures. From the popular papers which call him the "anti-porn king", to the many anecaotes about his lack of awareness of what others might consider embarrassing subjects, Frank Longford has seldom enjoyed a favourable press.
He recalls discussing the matter with that other butt of the satirists' jokes, Dennis Thatcher. Both agreed that they do not take kindly to such attentions. "If anyone pretends they like being caricatured, that they like being mocked, take it they are lying".
It was once suggested that the epitaph on Lord Longford's tombstone might read "the outcast's outcast". Ile is flattered by such a suggestion, but returning to earlier comments about humility, stresses that it is often forgotten that he comes from a privileged background and so to an extent is an insider in the establishment.
Having said that, Lord Longford feels a responsibility towards outcasts from society. One of the "causeswhich he has pursued throughout his life has been that of prison reform — never a popular subject at the best of times, and certainly not in times of recession and belt tightening. His desk in his tiny office in Bloomsbury is tittered with letters from prisoners and their families asking for help, advice. Although he has only limited secretarial help, he replies to them all.
He continues to bring the question of prison reform to the public's attention in the House of Lords where he remains very active. However, in regard of his concern for prisoners, he is most clearly associated, in the press at least, with his long campaign for parole for the "Moors Murderess" Myra Hindley.
For 14 years he has visited both Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, both convicted in 1965 of the murder of 10-year-old Lesley Anne Downey. Miss Hindley is now a devout Catholic. Lord Longford was bitterly disappointed by the Parole Board's decision earlier this year to refuse her .parole.
One solid achievement of his work for prison reform, Lord Longford notes, is the New Bridge society which he founded in 1956. He remains its president and oversees its work in helping former inmates adjust to life outside prison in terms of finding homes, jobs, and so forth.
When he encounters prisoners and those society judges to be outcasts, Lord Longford asks himself "what would Christ have been saying about it". Reflecting on the Christian message in regard to outcasts, he remarks "if' Christianity is anything distinct from the general attitude, I think 'love your enemy' is very distinctive".
The real test for Christians in his eyes is "how you tackle evil". This can range over a whole variety of issues from nuclear weapons to water cannons in riot situations. The idea of loving your enemy is a difficult one to put into practice in such situations as the recent inner city riots. "When you get a lot of howling youngsters hacking a policeman to death, its not enough to say love them — its a start, but not enough" he says.
In the face of such a dilemma, Lord Longford would adopt "what can only be described as a double line". He would counsel "restraining the wrongdoer in love". His belief in prison reform does not mean that he rejects the idea of prison as a form of punishment, but rather that it should he humane and should not be merely punishment, but also should help the offender. However, whatever the offence, "one has to say as a Christian, I will go on loving these people".
1,ord Longford's involvement with the whole concept of the state helping individuals to achieve a reasonable standard of life goes hack a long way. He was Beveridge's assistant on his famous report which led the Attlee government to lay the foundations of the welfare state. Dismissing his own role as "the bottle washer — almost literally", Frank" Longford praised Beveridge for "having the brains and the knowledge and experience to draw up a report that no one other person could have drawn up". In fact if we are to talk of achievements, Lord Longford cannot "think of any single handed effort to compare with the Beveridge report in English history".
There has been talk in recent months of the principles which Beveridge established being abandoned, that the slogan -we can abolish want" no longer rings true in the age of Thatcher and Norman Fowler. lord Longford admitted to not having examined Mr Fowler's proposals on the reform of the welfare state in detail, but his impression of the Secretary of State for Social Services was that he was a "washout". He feels that to an extent this government is dedicated to "saving the money of the rich", a notion
that he has always rejected as a member of the Labour party since the mid 19305.
His ties with the party that defends the poor remain strong. He attended the annual conference this year to hear Neil Kinnock round on Militant. He's "the best oratorical speaker I've ever heard" this veteran of party conferences asserts. However, that is not to say he's a good leader. Using a tennis analogy (rather surprisingly since Lord Longford is hardly legendary for his sporting talent), he likens Neil Kinnock to a player with a good serve but a bit weak on the groundstrokes.
Labour has a good chance of being the largest party at the next election, Lord Longford says, but lie is doubtful about their chances of winning an overall majority. The rise of a third force in parliament has surprised him little. After all, he points out, he grew up in the days when Lloyd George's Liberals were still a formidable force in the Commons.
On the subject of family, Lord Longford feels that he has been blessed with "a wonderful wife". Pictures of Elizabeth, Countess of Longford, decorate the walls of his office — alongside one of the Pope.
Prophets of gloom have been predicting the collapse of the family as a unit throughout his life, Lord Longford remarks. Divorce has become more common, sex outside marriage likewise, but these pointers to decline in moral and Christian standards can be set against positive things — greater concern and understanding of the handicapped to name just one example.
Society's attitude to women has undergone a remarkable change in his lifetime. He puts to one side the success of his daughters — 1,ady Antonia Pinter, Lady Rachel Billington, and his wife as writers — that is a career they have followed in the home — and has particular words of praise for women who are active politicians. Women in the Lords have played a major part in the chamber, he estimates. There is a nerd for greater numbers though — especially in the Commons. The example of Mrs Thatcher is perhaps not symtomatic of the change in women's roles, he adds. "She is a special type of woman — that amount of dogmatism and that toughness will not be generally acceptable".
Apart from his activities in the Lords, Lord Longford is still involved with the publishers, Sidgwick and Jackson (although he expects that to come to an end soon). He remains president of the New Bridge, and of New Horizons Youth Centre, based in London. With both an old age pensioners' bus pass and a senior citizen's rail card, he continues to travel about the country.
Talk of retirement is quickly dismissed. "I don't know where I'd retire to" he says. And anyway, he's afraid he'd get under his wife's feet.