John O'Sullivan: Frank Johnson - A Tory Individualist
One Monday morning in the early summer of 1973 when I was returning by train from a weekend with friends, I opened my copy of the Telegraph to scan the editorial page. I had a fierce semi-proprietary interest in its contents. Only six months before I had joined the paper as a parliamentary sketch-writer and leader-writer. Frank Johnson had come on board the same week in the same combination of jobs. Together with Michael Harrington, an editorial writer who enjoyed six months seniority over us, we made up the “Young Turks” who were supposedly pushing the Telegraph towards a more libertarian conservatism. In any event we three were agreed on the need for a more combative conservative “line,” and with the passionate suspicion of young men, we watched for any deviation from it.
The big issue of the moment was the Watergate crisis. Not even Michael, Frank and I were agreed on that last. Frank had declared early on that Nixon was plainly guilty; Michael and I were sticklers for constitutional due process and the presumption of Nixon’s innocence. So far our side had prevailed. But Frank was alone on leader-writing duty that weekend.
I opened the paper with some trepidation. My fears were confirmed: an editorial titled “An American President” listed a long catalogue of crimes of which the president had been “plausibly” accused: burgling the offices of his opponents, misusing the security services for partisan warfare, overriding the constitution, etc., etc. The editorial was appalling, a clear breach of collegial etiquette, an outrage. Something would have to be done.
Then I turned to the second paragraph. It read something like this: “Yes, Salvador Allende of Chile has been accused of all these crimes—and not without reason or evidence.” This was a very good example of Frank’s editorial writing. It was witty, indirect, wove two different themes together to illuminate both, and it was deeply conservative. Not many Fleet Street journalists then or later were brave or principled enough to take on the saintly left-wing Allende. But Frank managed to do so while leaving the Left few grounds either for responding effectively or for denouncing him. When I rang to congratulate him (and to admit that I had risen to his bait), he laughed, confessed that he had written the leader with me partly in mind, and said: “But when I pulled the rug out from under you, I also pulled it out from under the Left—but from the opposite direction.” He was quite right. His conceit had made it hard to complain about the attack on Allende without exonerating Nixon too.
Most of the obituaries for Frank, excellent though they have been, have played up his sense of mischief. But they have either ignored or underplayed the stern unbending quality of his conservatism, his anti-Allende side. That is understandable. To be sure, his conservatism shifted back and forth between different schools of thought depending on events, the topic under discussion, or his guru of the moment. Sometimes he was the Tory cynic, a follower of Maurice Cowling, who thought that all politics was about the next by-election and that principles were an irrelevant distraction. On other occasions he was helping Peter (later Lord) Bauer to hone his economic critiques of foreign aid. Frank was a curious journalist exploring current controversies not a professor of philosophy seeking the reconciliation of all his values (which professors of philosophy now tell us is impossible anyway.) Almost always, however, he gravitated to the conservative side of any argument, and on the great political issues of his life he was a devout monetarist and a firm Cold Warrior.
After a 1975 meeting with Milton Friedman in America, Frank emerged dazed: the great man had answered all his objections before he had had a chance to raise them. Because he was known to hold such opinions, he was consulted by Keith Joseph about the establishment of the Center for Policy Studies in 1974. When Keith was preparing his famous “Preston” speech that formally signaled the breach between the Heath leadership and its monetarist critics, he asked Frank to play the part of a hostile journalist interrogating him at a press conference. Frank thought this the greatest fun and he became a regular attendee at the lunches of the Center for Policy Studies where the Thatcherite agenda was first sketched out. No one present when the TUC’s Len Murray attended one of Bill Deedes’s Telegraph drink parties could have doubted that Frank had digested the full Thatcherite creed. Murray was arguing that the workers in a failing company deserved financial compensation because they had “invested their lives” in it.
“I would be a little wary of that argument, Lord Murray,” I said politely, “because if that were so..."
”When the company went bankrupt, the workers would all drop dead,” interjected Frank.
In those days too, a heated conversation in the press gallery tea room was likely to be about the Vietnam War. Frank was one of a small band who supported the South Vietnamese and their U.S. allies. He had read widely in the classics of anti-communism—it was Frank who recommended “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers to me—and he predicted the horrors that followed the victories of Hanoi and the Khmer Rouge. Such horrors had, after all, attended almost every other communist take-over.
Nor was Frank a warrior in theory only. Days after Ted Heath lost the second election of 1974, the Sunday papers all produced stories saying that Ted would stand down and back Willie Whitelaw as leader to stop Keith Joseph. None of the stories (which reflected a Central Office briefing but which foundered on Ted’s refusal to resign) contained any response from Keith. Frank rang me in a panic that Keith would be defeated unless he got some sort of press operation going. We contacted Keith who invited us around to the CPS the following morning. Admitted and given a cup of coffee, we were surprised when the door opened and Mrs. Thatcher (whom neither of us knew well) came in and said: “I am Sir Keith’s campaign manager, gentlemen. What can I do for you?”
Well, as we know, the campaign developed rather differently. But Frank remained loyal and on board with only one small hiccup: at a small Reform Club dinner a few days before the first leadership vote in 1975, Frank asked Mrs. Thatcher what she would do after the election.
“I shall be leader of the Tory Party, Frank,” she said.
“No, I mean really,” said Frank.
“Frank,” she replied, “if I didn’t think I could win, I wouldn’t run. I don’t take on losing battles.” Maybe we should have listened to her words more carefully. At any rate, Lady Thatcher, Frank and Virginia, Ken Minogue and I reminisced about these early battles of Thatcherism over a long weekend lunch at Brown’s restaurant this Spring. It may have been the last time they met. If so, it was a fond farewell. Frank went on from 1975 to be involved somehow or other in every Tory leadership struggle, always backing the right-wing runner—notably last year when he was a firm if despairing supporter of David Davis.
Why has Frank’s conservatism been underplayed? Well, Frank was a wit and comic writer. He often compared himself to a court jester who has to be prepared to offend both King and Barons. His parliamentary sketches assailed both establishments with brilliant raillery but also gave credit to independent spirits like Denis Skinner whom he christened “the Beast of Bolsover.” Frank’s wit was Tory wit throughout, and it gave heart to ordinary conservatives around the nation. But because some of his victims were Tories, he inevitably struck the more conventionally-minded as “not a team player.”
They were right about that. As one obituarist observed, Frank hated to be “one of a gang”—especially a victorious and complacent gang. He had been keen to rally to the Thatcherite standard in the embattled seventies but once it had triumphed, he wanted to demonstrate his independence. He was not only a believer in individualism, he went to the extreme length of being an individual. The purely political aspect of this individuality was that he liked to distinguish himself from any conservative orthodoxy. Again, however, he usually found respectably conservative grounds for doing so.
(And there was a simple cure that we more orthodox figures could employ to draw him back into our ranks—namely, to arrange for Frank to attend a left-wing gathering. His (and my) friend, the feminist writer Yvonne Roberts, once invited him to a party given by John Pilger. The next day Frank was sounding off like Dostoevsky in one of his gloomier moments or Gordon Brown on a good day.)
Then again, like a good individualist, Frank was many-sided. He loved music, opera, ballet, literature, history, good food, and conversation from long before he arrived in Fleet Street. He devoted more time and thought to these pursuits as time went on. The shift of emphasis in his later writing towards opera, history, etc. occurred in part because the great political battles of the 1970s and 1980s had been resolved in favor of liberty. He had fought the good fight. The lesser battles interested him much less. Now, quite logically, he was using the liberty he had defended to explore and enjoy the good life.
That good life was completed by a late and entirely happy marriage. Virginia Fraser created around him that rare thing in London—a political salon—with a foreign branch in his house in southern France. At his table you would find a Tory leadership hopeful, an opera singer, a newspaper editor, a New Labour peer, a veteran of the Thatcher years. The conversation was history, politics, music, literature, and wonderfully complicated jokes—Virginia had created for Frank the kind of high Edwardian table that as young men in Fleet Street we had long ago fantasized about. Still, as with high Edwardian tables, a good deal of Tory plotting went on around it.
It sounds odd to say so, but the last years of Frank’s life, though plagued by cancer, were tranquil and happy. The restlessness and striving of his Fleet Street days had left him. He was delightfully happy in his marriage. He had become what he wanted to be since his secondary modern schooldays in Shoreditch (and what in reality he had been all along): a genuinely civilized man. And he leaves behind a large body of writing characterized by wit without malice.
At his death his friends have learnt that we loved him more than we knew. We will miss him more than we can say.