Linda McDougall’s review of “The Life and Times of Baroness Falkender” by Marcia Williams delves into a scandalous account.
Imagine a narrative involving sexual encounters, substance abuse, and concealed information within the walls of Downing Street. It centers around a political spouse who is accused of interfering, and a list of honors for stepping down that is tainted with controversy. And no, it’s not the one you may be familiar with. This is the captivating account of Marcia Williams, the political secretary and “work spouse” to Labour’s prime minister Harold Wilson. If this were the story line of a suspenseful novel, it would appear too unbelievable to be based on fact.
During a time when women were mainly expected to perform administrative tasks in Downing Street, Williams had to struggle to gain credibility while also keeping a shocking personal secret. While working in No 10, she gave birth to two sons with Walter Terry, the chief political correspondent for the Daily Mail at the time. With the assistance of a wealthy party donor and a cooperative Fleet Street, she managed to conceal her pregnancies and the existence of her children for several years. Her story is one of the most intriguing and often overlooked tales in 20th-century politics, making it ideal for a modern reexamination with a more understanding perspective. This is precisely what Linda McDougall’s new biography, geared towards millennials, provides.
Wilson acknowledged that he would not have achieved the position of prime minister without the help of Williams, but during her lifetime, she was often portrayed as a difficult and controlling figure. However, McDougall presents a convincing argument that she should be seen as a complex product of a time when women were expected to be compliant and not assertive, and when it was uncommon for a man to rely on a woman’s political insights. The prevailing belief was that she had some sort of influence over him, similar to the way Monica Lewinsky was portrayed, using alleged sexual encounters as a way to manipulate the most powerful man in the country. However, McDougall argues that this was not the case between Harold and Marcia.
However, she admits that Williams, acting as the office spouse, competing with Wilson’s real wife, Mary, may have crossed boundaries and potentially led to allegations of wrongdoing. If McDougall’s character, Marcia, is not as evil as previously thought, she is still not a hero.
Baroness Falkender, previously known as Williams before her death in 2019, has been fortunate to have a biographer who has written about her posthumously. McDougall, a documentary maker, has captured various individuals on camera throughout her extensive career, including a young Margaret Thatcher who cleverly welcomed the film crew into her kitchen. In 1997, McDougall also interviewed female members of the Labour party who openly discussed the sexism they faced in parliament. Although she never met Williams personally, McDougall’s husband, former Labour MP Austin Mitchell, did. McDougall has a clear understanding of the challenges faced by working women in the 1960s and therefore does not trust the disrespectful and belittling opinions of Williams’s male peers.
In 1956, Marcia Williams, a 24-year-old married secretary at Labour party headquarters, encountered the up-and-coming Wilson. Resourceful and driven, she began sending him anonymous notes detailing political maneuvers within the party; she only revealed herself as the sender after he had hired her.
Although there are still uncertainties in the narrative due to the deaths of the main characters, McDougall proposes that it is during this period that they probably engaged in a sexual relationship – despite Wilson and Williams consistently denying it. However, by 1964, when Wilson became prime minister, McDougall believes that their sexual relationship, which is hard to believe never occurred, had ended a long time ago. In its place, a political alliance emerged that Williams saw as one of equals, even though those around her viewed her as an ambitious secretary with no right to raise her voice at the prime minister.
Creating a new role in No 10 without any previous examples required assertiveness, and she quickly gained a reputation for being aggressive. However, according to McDougall, it wasn’t until the late 60s that Williams started being referred to as “unhinged” and causing dramatic scenes that forced the prime minister to attend to her. In 1972, she supposedly became upset when Wilson took his wife out for her birthday and allegedly told Mary Wilson, “I had sexual relations with your husband six times in 1956 and it was not satisfactory.”
McDougall does not ignore her unreasonable actions and the strain they placed on No 10. However, she does mention that between 1968 and 1969, Williams (now divorced) had two children within a year from a married lover. This left her struggling to raise them as a single mother, constantly afraid of being exposed for this potentially career-ending scandal. She was only able to quickly return to work after giving birth because the millionaire Labour donor Joe Kagan, who was later imprisoned for tax evasion, provided her with a nanny and a flat. Her mother and sister also secretly helped raise the children. Both Kagan and businessman James Goldsmith, who paid for the children’s education, would later receive peerages in a controversial manner. To manage her long working days, Williams relied on “purple hearts” – amphetamines sold under the counter in 1960s pubs and cafes. She then used Valium, prescribed by Wilson’s doctor, to calm herself down. McDougall, who was also an overstressed working mother at the time, reveals that she too was prescribed Valium with alarming side effects. With hindsight, could Williams’s erratic behavior be attributed to the drugs and her never-ending anxiety of being exposed?
It remains a mystery how the Wilson administration managed to keep this information confidential. Speculation had been circulating for some time about a possible affair between Marcia and Harold, with Harold successfully suing over a cartoon depicting them in bed together. According to McDougall, other journalists were aware that she was involved with Terry. However, even after Private Eye published the story, Wilson’s legal team convinced newspaper editors not to pursue what was considered scandalous gossip. What is even more perplexing is that no one in No 10 seemed to notice her multiple pregnancies. Joe Haines, Wilson’s press secretary, claimed that she always kept her coat on to hide it, but as McDougall points out, it is difficult to believe that anyone could be fooled so easily. Could it be that some people simply chose not to acknowledge it?
During her time in No 10, Williams faced controversies involving her brother’s financial dealings and the controversial “lavender list” of resignation honours, which she wrote on lilac paper at Wilson’s request. However, some believed she used her influence to include individuals she owed favors to. In her later years, she turned to past political connections to assist with her medical expenses.
Despite its attempt to view her from a feminist perspective, this biography fails to delve into Williams’s direct political impact, such as her decision-making in cabinet reshuffles or her role in shaping policies. While the book highlights her importance to Wilson, it mainly analyzes their partnership rather than focusing on Williams as an individual. However, like many intelligent women of her time, her position of power was only possible through her relationship with a man. The biographer also touches on the sexual politics of the era, serving as a reminder of the progress made since the 1960s but also the unfortunate familiarity that still exists.