British Conservative politician
Born 1900 Died 1986

Robert Boothby was a Conservative politician who once showed a certain amount of promise, but his political career never quite took off as it was always touched by the faint whiff of scandal.

Churchill's Ally

Born Robert John Graham Boothby in Edinburgh on the 2nd February 1900 he was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford. He appears to have had his heart set on a political career from an early age and within a few years of graduation was selected to stand as the Conservative Party candidate for East Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire and was returned to the House of Commons at the 1924 General Election. Two years later was appointed to his first government post when he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill and remained in office until 1929, when the Conservatives were defeated at the General Election and replaced by a minority Labour government.

Thereafter Boothby frequently visited Europe in particular Germany and in 1932 secured an introduction to Adolf Hitler. He was later to claim that after talking with Hitler for an hour or more "it was not long before I detected the unmistakable glint of madness in his eyes" and returned to Britain convinced that Nazi Germany posed a threat to European peace. On the 11th November 1934 he warned Parliament that Germany was now "governed by a group of able and ruthless men, who have persuaded the German people that they can never become great again except through armed force", whilst in January 1938 he was arguing for the re-introduction of compulsory national service and trying to persuade the government to double the frontline strength of the Royal Air Force.

This was of course very much the line that his former boss Winston Churchill was following at the time and Boothby became one of the small group of Conservatives who gathered around Churchill, calling for increased defence spending who were generally viewed as right-wing extremists and alarmists by the National Government which had been in office since 1931.

Of course once Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, following the Norway Debate of May 1940, Boothby was drafted into government as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Woolton1, the Minister of Food. There he was responsible for the introduction of the National Milk Scheme2, widely hailed as a success in ensuring the efficient distribution of milk to the nation's children and young mothers. However his promising political career came to an abrupt end when he was forced to resign on the 21st January 1941.

The Weisenger Affair

The cause of Boothby's downfall was his friendship with Richard Weisenger, a US businessman who became a Czech citizen in 1923 and had various business interests in both Czechoslovakia and Britain. During the course of 1939 Weisenger became concerned that he would not be able to liquidate his Czech assets and asked Boothby for his help. In return for a 10% cut of the proceeds Boothby agreed to the suggestion and was due to travel to Czechoslovakia to begin work when on the 15th March 1939 Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

The Bank of England immediately froze all Czech bank accounts in the United Kingdom and just over a month later on the 18th April a Committee for Claimants for Czech Assets was established with Boothby as its chairman, on the anticipation that the frozen Czech assets in the United Kingdom would be used to compensate British holders of assets that had similarly been seized by the Germans in Czechoslovakia. At the beginning of May 1940 Boothby wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Simon forwarding a letter from Weisenger and wrote again on the 31st May urging an early settlement. However Boothby became anxious to persuade all potential claimants on Czech assets to join his Committee and in particularly tried to use his influence to persuade one of the largest of such claimants, the Petscheck brothers, to sign up. The Petschecks believed that they were being threatened by Boothby and so complained to the Chancellor. Simon summoned Boothby and sharply rebuked him for his behaviour.

This incident might have served as a warning but although Boothby then decided to wind up the Committee, he continued his campaign to win compensation for Weisenger. He twice spoke in the House of Commons in favour of the Czechoslovakia (Financial Claims and Refugees) Bill, kept pressing the Treasury for a rapid settlement of Weisenger's claim and even wrote a letter on the 1st August 1940 using Ministry of Food headed notepaper.

Boothby eventually came unstuck as a result of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act. When this act came into force Weisenger was interned as an enemy alien, and the police seized all his papers including copies of his correspondence with Boothby3. They brought the matter to the attention of the Prime Minister and on the 17th October 1940 Churchill announced that a Select Committee would be established to investigate Boothby's behaviour. The problem was that during all the lobbying he had carried out on behalf of Weisenger, Boothby had quite neglected to mention the fact that he stood to gain a cut of any compensation that was awarded. The Select Committee duly concluded that "Mr Boothby's conduct was contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignity of the House and inconsistent with the standards which Parliament is entitled to expect from its members"4.

In his defence Boothby claimed that "the whole unfortunate business seems so unnecessary" as it had simply never occurred to him that he should have declared his interest in the matter. What he didn't mention was that he had a gambling problem, and since Weisenger's claim amounted to around £240,000 even a partial settlement would have earned him a cut sufficient to pay off his debts. Nevertheless his resignation speech, later described by Churchill as a "remarkable Parliamentary performance that perceptibly affected the opinion of the House" persuaded his fellow MPs not to impose any further punishment.

A suitably chastened Boothby joined the Royal Air Force, and served with the Number 9 Bomber Squadron based at Honington where he soon reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

After the war

He returned to the House of Commons after the war, but since it was fairly clear that there was not much chance of another post in government he had to seek other outlets for his talents. Europe provided one avenue, as Boothby became an original member of the Council of United Europe in 1948 and then served as the British delegate to its consultative assembly from 1949 to 1954. (For which he was awarded a KBE 1953.)

However it was radio and the emerging medium of television that provided him with the greatest opportunity. In March 1950 BBC television launched its first regular scheduled political discussion show called In the News. Hosted by Edgar Lustgarten, Boothby soon became a regular guest and one of the 'Famous Four'5 who established themselves as a permanent fixture on the programme. When Independent Television was launched in 1955, Lustgarten took the ‘Famous Four’ over to ATV where they had a starring role in a very similar programme called Free Speech.

Now better known as what we would now term a media personality, Boothby's one notable intervention in domestic politics was in December 1953 as a result of the publicity surrounding the Montagu/Pitt-Rivers/Wildeblood Case. In an adjournment debate he supported a call by the Labour MP Desmond Donnelly for the appointment of a Royal Commission "to investigate the law relating to the medical treatment of homosexuality". Boothby pressed the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe to consider a change in the law but he declined to become involved saying "I am not going down as the man who made sodomy legal". Maxwell Fyfe therefore decided on the 26th August 1954 to establish the requested committee under the chairmanship of John Wolfenden.

The Peer and the Gangster

After thirty-four years Boothby decided to retire from the House of Commons and accepted a life peerage in 1958 as the Baron Boothby of Buchan and Rattray Head. It was thus as the Lord Boothby that he was to face another scandal when The Sunday Mirror of the 11th June 1964 ran a story under the headline 'Peer and a Gangster : Yard probe public men at seaside parties', which hinted at a homosexual relationship between a member of the House of Lords and a figure from the London underworld. Political insiders recognised as Boothby and Ronald Kray who were in any case named six days later in the German magazine Stern, which of course operated outside the constraints of the British libel laws.

The following week The Sunday Mirror returned to the story when it referred to 'The Picture We Must Not Print' which the paper described "as of the highest significance and public concern". As it happens what they had was simply a photograph of Kray standing next to Boothby which was of no significance and of little public concern, but the story nevertheless caused a minor panic in government circles, despite the fact that Scotland Yard denied that it had any such investigation in progress, as they feared it was all part of a conspiracy between the Labour Party and the Sunday Mirror to discredit the government.

Boothby, who was abroad on holiday at the time, revealed all in a letter to The Times after he'd returned home. He admitted that he had met Kray to discuss a proposed business arrangement (the Krays were having some problems with a Nigerian investment). According to Boothby he had declined to become involved but had agreed to Kray's request for a photgraph (Kray was in the habit of getting himself photographed with anyone slightly famous.) Faced with this explanation of events and apparently with no other evidence beyond the Boothby-Kray photograph, on the 7th August The Daily Mirror printed a full and unreserved apology whilst IPC (which owned the Mirror newspapers at the time) agreed to pay Boothby £40,000 in damages together with his legal costs.

Boothby's private life

This leads us to the question of Boothby's colourful private life. He was rather handsome and dashing, drove around in a two-seater Bentley and enjoyed seducing other men's wives, his most notable 'conquest' being Dorothy Macmillan nee Cavendish daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and wife of Harold Macmillan, with whom he conducted a long affair over a number of years from 1929 until Dorothy's death in 1966. She even bore him a daughter named Sarah, whom Harold stoically accepted and brought up as his own daughter. In 1935 Boothby did marry Diana Cavendish, who was a first cousin to Dorothy. Boothby himself described the marriage as a "damned silly thing to do" and they were divorced in 1937, leaving Boothby to continue as before.

According to his cousin Ludovic Kennedy, Boothby also fathered at least three other children in a similar manner. This does not, of course, take account of the possibility that the there were others that escaped Kennedy's attention, or indeed that there were other women that Boothby had simply failed to get pregnant. Boothby got away with such behaviour mainly because everybody (including the press) were far more reticent about discussing such matters at the time. Macmillan put up with being cuckolded for the simple reason that the publicity of a divorce would have destroyed his political career, and no one else wanted to see the upper class's dirty washing cleaned in public; even George V is reputed to have issued the instruction to "Keep it quiet".

It also helped that Boothby was a charming and clubable (in the language of the day), happy to stand a round of drinks and ready with an amusing anecdote or two, and was therefore well liked by a wide range of acquaintances who were quite prepared to turn a blind eye to his antics. Boothby himself remained blissfully unashamed of his lifetime of philandering. Ludovic Kennedy once called him "a shit of the highest order" to his face; Boothby's response was to laugh and say "Well a bit. Not entirely."

But despite such evidence of rampant heterosexuality it has often been suggested that Boothby's sexual tastes also included young men. The argument in favour of this assertion appears to be based on three pieces of evidence; firstly that he was in favour of reforming the law on homosexuality, secondly that he was friendly with Thomas Driberg and finally that he was once photographed with Ronald Kray. Whilst this can be regarded as conclusive evidence that he had a friend who was homosexual, was once photographed with a homosexual, and was in principle against the idea of locking up homosexuals simply for being homosexuals, it seems rather a wild leap of the imagination to therefore assume that he was a homosexual, but many assert that he was. Michael Foot once referred to him as a "non-playing captain", which is probably nearer the mark.

He was also Rector of the University of St Andrews from 1958 and 1961 and Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra betwen 1961 and 1963), also serving as the President of the Anglo-Israel Association from 1962 to 1975. He he wrote a number of books including The New Economy (1943), I Fight to Live (1947), and My Yesterday, Your Tomorrow (1962). He briefly returned to the public eye with the publication of his memoirs Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel in 1978 thanks to the inclusion of a number of candid revelations such as he fact that Churchill was drunk when he spoke in the House of Commons on the debate regarding the abdication of King Edward VIII.

Robert Boothby died on the 16th July 1986.


NOTES

1 Otherwise known as Frederick Marquis, 1st Earl of Woolton.
2 The last vestiges of the the National Milk Scheme survived until the 1970s when it was abolished by a certain Margaret Thatcher.
3 Oddly enough Weisenger had given most of his papers to Boothby for safe keeping and it was he that handed them over to the police.
4 Although it has been claimed that since the chairman of the Committee was an old supporter of Chamberlain, he might have been biased against Boothby it is difficult to see what other conclusion could have been reached.
5 In addition to Robert Boothby, the Famous Four included the former Independent MP W.J. Brown, the Labour MP Michael Foot, and the historian A.J.P. Taylor.


SOURCES

  • Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals(Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
  • Robert Boothby at
    http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRboothby.htm
    http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/scotgaz/people/famousfirst541.html

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