“Greedy.” “Corrupt.” “A liar.” All these epithets hurt; but most hurtful was the last. Neil Hamilton still could not believe that “his” word – the word of a former MP – had been disbelieved. And whose word did the jury believe? Some “flatulent Levantine” (Paul Johnson’s description) and his hirelings.
Thirty years ago, Hamilton would surely have been given the benefit of the doubt by his peers. The idea of a countryman in such a position of trust offering a string of bare-faced lies on oath would have been, well, unthinkable.
A turning point in our attitude to politicians’ honour was a case, which, although now forgotten, was sensational in its day: Sir Gerald Nabarro and the Totton roundabout.
Nabarro was a “self-made man”. Born in 1913, the son of a failed shopkeeper, young Gerald left school at 14. He ran away to sea then joined the army, rising to the rank of sergeant. He was discharged, having served his time, in the mid-30s. He went into the timber-supply industry, working his way up from yard-labourer to tycoon. In the second world war, he rejoined the army – now as an officer and a gentleman.
After the war, Nabarro was adopted as a Conservative MP. In the Commons, he made his mark as a backbencher of the old school. He opposed Europe, the abolition of capital punishment, drugs, students, pornography and pop music. He supported Enoch Powell on immigration and white rule in Rhodesia. If he could have, he would have stopped the calendar at 1959.
Despite humble origins of which he made no secret (no “imaginative precis” for Nabarro) he was backwoods Toryism incarnate. He sported a Jimmy Edwards handlebar moustache, a booming baritone, and a fruity Terry-Thomas accent. Of course, he wasn’t the real thing, any more than Edwards (“Wake up at the back there!”) was a public-school teacher or Terry-Thomas (“What a shower!”) was a genuine toff. That’s what made Nabarro so delicious.
Knighted in 1963, Sir Gerald took as his motto “Audax et Fidelis”. The British public adored the old dinosaur. He was a natural performer. Whenever Nabarro appeared on Any Questions?, listening figures peaked. Even liberals loved to hear him baying for the castration of sex-criminals, the repatriation of Caribbeans, the flogging of muggers.
But Nabarro’s world crashed in 1971. It was his flamboyant practice to drive an expensive car with the personalised numberplate NAB 1. His driving style was more “audax” than “fidelis”. On the night of May 21, NAB1 was seen to swerve at speed the wrong way round a roundabout at Totton, in Hampshire. It had two occupants. Sir Gerald and his company secretary, Margaret Mason.
Witnesses positively identified the reckless driver as Sir Gerald. Given his fame and vast moustaches, he was one of the most identifiable men in England. None the less, Nabarro insisted that Mrs Mason was at the wheel. She loyally backed up her employer.
The press had a field day. The cartoonist JAK, in the Evening Standard, depicted a police line up of young women, one with a handlebar moustache. The case came to court, the jury disbelieved Nabarro, the judge pronounced his behaviour “outrageous” and fined him £250. Stoutly proclaiming his innocence on his honour as an MP, he went to appeal.
In the year’s interim, Nabarro – a 59-year-old man in robust health – suffered two strokes. A second trial was held, and he was cleared. “Calumny has been defeated,” he proclaimed – a shadow of his old booming self – on the steps of Winchester Court.
I believed, as did most people, that the jury had brought in their verdict to spare the dear old fellow the horrors of a perjury trial. And he was an MP. Nabarro retired from parliament on health grounds a few months later, and died soon after, aged only 60. Broken.
“Behind him on the court steps,” the Times reported after his second trial, “Miss Christine Holman, his private secretary, wept.” What happened to Miss Holman? She married an up-and-coming young MP, Neil Hamilton, in 1983.
A number of commentators have remarked on Christine Hamilton’s extraordinary composure, alongside her clearly shattered spouse. Why does she not weep now? Probably because she’s seen it all before, poor woman. And, possibly, she’s foreseen what happens next to mendacious MPs who stake their lives on their honour.