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Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Old statesmen: Woodrow Wyatt (1918-97): lech, toady and turncoat

Friends called Woodrow Wyatt a “great English eccentric”; most people regarded him as a turncoat, a lech and a toady of monumental proportions – obsequious to the point of parody in his efforts to curry favour with Rupert Murdoch and with Tory ministers in the Thatcher and Major years.

It had all begun so well. Wyatt served with distinction through the second world war, rising to the rank of major and being mentioned in despatches for his part in the Normandy landings. Back in civilian life, he was elected in the 1945 general election as Labour MP for Birmingham Aston, and in 1951 was appointed by Clement Attlee to a junior ministerial role.

Out of Parliament when his seat disappeared in the 1955 general election, Wyatt worked in television as a reporter for the Panorama programme, where he revealed extensive ballot-rigging by Communists in the Electrical Trades Union.

By 1959, Wyatt had returned to the green leather benches of the House of Commons, but his lack of sympathy with the thinking of the Labour Party was already becoming evident. When Harold Wilson’s government was elected in 1964 with a majority of just four seats, Wyatt and Desmond Donnelly revolted over steel nationalisation and were able to block it for two years.

Leaving the political frontline, Wyatt was inexplicably made chairman of the state-run betting service, the Horserace Totaliser Board, in 1976. It was a lucrative post that he would continue to hold for more than 20 years, until removed from it by death.

He also became a columnist for the News of the World for an annual fee reported to be around £50,000 a year, writing under the increasingly inaccurate title of “the voice of reason”. Among his many interesting views was that: "Man's biological function is to impregnate the highest number of females."

As late as 1995, he would write that, far from being harmful, smoking was an aid to longevity, while the campaign against it had “no scientific basis” and was “mob driven”. He added: “The emotions aroused are akin to those which fuelled anti-bomb marches, sit-ins at Aldermaston, demonstrations against the USA in Vietnam, poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square, attacks on Jews as enemies of the state in Nazi Germany and other similar irrational mob behaviour.

By the end of the 1970s, the former Labour MP had also become an avid Thatcherite. His reward, in 1987, was a life peerage. In his diaries, Wyatt wrote: "I know she is the best prime minister of my lifetime and if I can help to strengthen and comfort her when things look bleak, I will do it." Appalled by the Tories’ decision to ditch Margaret Thatcher, Wyatt nonetheless assured her successor that he considered him “a great man”.

Even the ardent admirers of Margaret Thatcher and notably unconventional Tory MP Alan Clark regarded him as “gaga”.

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