Journalist, Spy, Politician
Baron Bradwell (1975-76)
Born 1905 Died 1976
one of the most deliciously mischievous, disreputable and extraordinary Labour politicians of all time
Born Thomas Edward Neil Driberg at Crowborough in Sussex, on the 22nd May 1905, he was the youngest of the three sons of John Driberg, a former Indian civil servant and Amy Mary Bell. He was educated at a number of private schools before ending up at Lancing College, from where he proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford to study classics. At Oxford he dabbled in journalism and made the acquaintance of such people as Edith Sitwell and W.H. Auden, but generally spent his time partying and otherwise neglected his studies, finally leaving Oxford in 1927 without completing his degree.
He then went to live in London, obtained lodgings above an all-night cafe in Frith Street and found employment as a waiter whilst he made his acquiantance with the delights offered by Soho. His Oxford friend Edith Sitwell procured him an interview at the Daily Express and he duly started work there in January 1928. Within a few months he was assisting Peter Sewell in writing the gossip column 'Talk of London', which he subsequently took over on Sewell's retitrement. In May 1933 Lord Beaverbrook decided it was time the paper adopted a more racier style of gossip column. Launched under the new title 'These Names Makes News', Beaverbrook decided that the column should be written under the pseudonymn of William Hickey and made Thomas the first 'William Hickey'.1
From an early age Thomas was an ardent Socialist and having been rapidly disillusioned by Ramsay Macdonald's Labour short-lived administration of 1924 he joined the Brighton branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. A keen supporter of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and made a number of visits to Spain. (Where he incidentally met Ernest Hemingway; Thomas was to regret that he couldn't remember a thing that Hemingway said to him.) He thus became a committed anti-fascist, and tried within the confines of his Express gossip column to alert his readers to the dangers of Italian and German fascism. It was his anti-fascist stance that led him to be recruited during the war as an agent for B5b, a unit of MI5 that monitored political subversion. Although he didn't know it at the time this led to his expulsion from the Communist Party. (The Soviet mole Anthony Blunt had penetrated B5b and promptly leaked the information back to the party.)
Being thrown out of the Communist Party did him no harm in the long run as in 1942 he won a by-election at Maldon as took his seat in the House of Commons as an independent. He later took the Labour whip in January 1945 and remained a member of the Labour Party for the remainder of his political career. His election to Parliament led him to being sacked from the Express in June 1943, as the editor regarded his parliamentary activities as incompatible with his journalism. Although Thomas was to continue working as a journalist, writing for Reynold's News and Liliput and later the Daily Mail and the New Statesman, he never gained the same prominence as he did when he was William Hickey.
All of which is quite interesting but not as interesting as Thomas's private life which was characterised by his prodigious appetite for casual sex of the homosexual variety and his admitted "chronic, life long love-hate relationship with lavatories"; all of which apparently started at the age of ten in the toilets at Lancing College and went on from there. Described as an "enthusiastic apostle of the doctrine that there is no such thing as a heterosexual male, but some are a bit obstinate", he was thus quite prepared to proposition any man, no matter how securely heterosexual they might appear, with the notable exception of men with beards. As the Times Literary Supplement was later to remark, "This may explain the high incidence of beards on the Labour Left".
Given Thomas's predilection for sexual encounters with complete strangers in public toilets, it is one of the wonders of the age that he managed to avoid any hint of public scandal throughout his career. His closest call was in 1935, when he invited two unemployed miners back to his home to stay the night. Inevitably Thomas made a pass, at which point his guests made their excuses and left for the nearest police station to make a complaint. Placed on trial for indecent assault, Thomas was eventually acquitted (on the basis that it was all just a terrible misunderstanding) and could thank the support of his employer Lord Beaverbrook who ensured that the trial was not reported in the press.
This did nothing to cure Thomas of his passion for cottaging which continued unabated despite two further encounters with the police. On the first occasion he was caught with a Norwegian sailor at an air-raid shelter in Edinburgh during World War II, and on the second he had the misfortune to proposition a man at the public lavatories at Jockey's Fields, off Theobold Road in London, who turned out to be a policeman. On both occasions he managed to avoid prosecution by flourishing his press card and revealing himself to be none other than William Hickey of the Daily Express.
Nothing it appears could dim Thomas's enthusiasm for what might be deemed as extremely reckless behaviour but it appears that he led a charmed life and somehow managed to generally escape the attention of the police. Thomas himself later claimed that it was simply a case of keeping a sufficient quantity of ready cash available to bribe any police constables he happened across. Chapman Picher agrued that his contacts with MI5 might well have helped him evade police attention, whilst others have noted that the authorities may well have shied away from prosecuting him on the basis that they could never quite sure what other names he might well come out with in any subsequent trial.
Of course whilst the public in general and his constituents in particular might have been ignorant of his sexual predilections, virtually the whole of Fleet Street, Parliament and the civil service were in on the secret and Thomas therefore had no chance of ever being appointed to any kind of political office. Thomas was quite well aware of this and collectively condemned both Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson as "deeply prejudiced puritans", although to be fair to both Labour prime ministers, it would have been an act of extraordinary political bravado to have appointed to him to a position of authority in an age when even the meerest suspicion of homosexuality was enough to induce a minister to resign 2. Although he did serve for many years on the Labour Party National Executive and served as its Chairman in 1957-58, the high point of his career came when he was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1965.
Despite his homosexuality he did in fact get married in 1951. His choice of bride being one Ena Binfield, who was reputedly extremely plain. This allowed Winston Churchill the opportunity to quip that "buggers can't be choosers" whilst an unnamed Commons policeman is said to have commiserated with the future Mrs Driberg with the words "Poor lady, she won't know which way to turn".
Thomas eventually left the House of Commons in February 1974 and the following year was created a life peer as the Baron Bradwell. He died on the 12th August 1976 after suffering an heart attack whilst sitting in the back of a taxi cab. It had been well known for many years that Thomas had been busy writing his autobiography, which of course caused consternation to many. Ruling Passions duly appeared in the year following his death and included explicit descriptions of his many sexual encounters. It received a number of hostile reviews. Widely regarded as a work of pornography, the Sunday Telegraph claimed that it set "a new low which is unlikely to pass unnoticed by the rest of the world", and The Sun called it "the biggest outpouring of literary dung a public figure has ever flung into print".
But to the relief of a great many people, Thomas had only managed to reach the year 1942 in his life story and thus his autobiography made no reference to his sexual conquests during his parliamentary career. We have therefore been denied confirmation of the story (as alleged by Francis Wheelan) that he once performed fellatio on Aneurin Bevan in his office at the House of Commons3, or of the tale told by Woodrow Wyatt, that Thomas once grabbed James Callaghan's penis and declared it to be "a very pretty one" before Callaghan could made his escape.
Sometime after his death it was revealed by some Czech defectors that Thomas had been recruited by the KGB as a spy, and given the codename Lepage. It is extremely doubtful that the Soviets ever obtained any useful information from him, although it is likely that they didn't expect that they would and simply hoped that his sexual activities might result in him compromising someone who could. Despite the fact that his biographer Francis Wheen has ridiculed claims that he was a spy, Peter Wright was to confirm in his Spycatcher that Thomas had admitted passing information to a Czech controller. The revelation was no surprise to many who had noted Thomas's long friendship with Guy Burgess.
Thus The Times was not to far off the mark when it described him as "an unreliable man of undoubted distinction" and "the admiration and despair of his friends and acquaintances". An outspoken leftwinger and a leading member of the Tribune movement who nonetheless had his own Robert Adam designed mansion in Essex, it remains a mystery to many as to how he managed to reconcile his radical left wing politics or his promiscuous homosexuality with his High Church Anglicism.
Generally speaking Thomas, or Tom as he was known to his friends, was a charming and likeable man. A very 'clubable' man, in the language of the day, who spend his leisure hours at sundry Soho drinking dens, in particular spending his time at the aptly named Gay Hussar his favourite restaurant. He included within his circle of friends such names as Noel Coward, Ivor Novello, and Evelyn Waugh, in addition to many of his fellow left wing MPs such as Michael Foot. A regular guest, at the homosexual orgies run by the East End gangster Ronnie Kray (where some allege he was joined by his friend Robert Boothby), he once entertained the idea of persuading Mick Jagger to head a new leftwing party with 'youth appeal'.
A colourful and flamboyant addition to the landscape of post-war British politics it appears extremely unlikely that any modern counterpart would make it through the New Labour selection process.
In 1969 Thomas was employed by Private Eye magazine in the hope that he would provide some juicy parliamentary gossip. They were disappointed by his contributions and he was given the job of compiling the prize crossword. There he displayed a fondness for devising suitably risque cryptic clues for such words such as enema and erection, thus established the tradition that continues to this day in the Private Eye prize crossword.4
- Colonnade 1937-1947 (Pilot Press, 1949)
- The Best of Both Worlds (Phoenix House, 1953)
- Beaverbrook: A Study in Power and Frustration (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1956)
- Guy Burgess: A Portrait with Background. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1956
- The Mystery of Moral Re-Armament, A Study of Frank Buchman and His Movement
- (Secker & Warberg, 1964)
- Swaff: The Life and Times of Hannen Swaffer (Macdonald, 1974)
- Ruling Passions (Jonathan Cape, 1977)
1 The original William Hickey was an eighteenth century rake whose Memoirs had been recently been discovered and published. The Daily Express gossip column continued to appear under the byline William Hickey to this day.
2 As was indeed the case with Thomas Galbraith in 1963.
3 Another version claims that the incident took place in the Gay Hussar when Bevan had suffered a surfit of red wine.
4 The prize for one of Driber's obscene crosswords was once won by a Mrs Rosalind Runcie of St Albans, otherwise known as the wife of George Runcie, future Arhbishop of Canterbury.
- Matthew Paris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals (Revised edition, Chrysalis, 2004)
- William Donaldson Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix, 2004)
- From the Sohemian Society at http://www.sohemians.com/SOHmedia.html
* Marc Glendenning, Let's blow Tom Driberg's trumpet (Tribune magazine, 23 Apr 2004)
* Andy McCorkell, Soho, sleaze and the gossip column (West End Extra, April 2004)
- Driberg always under suspicion Monday, September 13, 1999
- Thomas Driberg at
Further reading see Francis Wheen, Tom Driberg: His Life and Indiscretions, (Chatto & Windus, 1990)