Aitken: Nixon & Wilson sang HMS Pinafore together

This interview with Jonathan Aitken originally appeared as part of a series on the Parliament Street website.

Sunday Interview

The ‘Special Relationship’ between Great Britain and her prodigal son, the United States, is often taken for granted as something which will exist in perpetuity. Indeed, today we are used to Prime Minister and President falling over each other to shake hands and reaffirm the ties that have bound us for hundreds of years in language, culture, philosophy and law. But it has not always been that way.

Although when the War of Independence ended in 1783, both parties were keen to reestablish friendly relations and the profitable trade that went with it, it was only two weeks ago to the day that both nations marked (with varying degrees of tact) the bicentenary of the Burning of Washington during the War of 1812 (which, despite its name, raged until 1815).

In more recent years, too, relations also cooled with the new superpower’s decision to emasculate Anthony Eden following his 1956 invasion of Egypt after her president, Abdul Nasser, nationalised the Suez Canal.

Often the relationship has faltered or flourished based on the chemistry of President and Prime Minister, with Churchill/Roosevelt, Thatcher/Reagan and Blair/Bush representing the high water mark of the Special Relationship in the twentieth century.

These three relationships incorporated a large degree of political as well as personal fealty but even where there were political differences, Jonathan Aitken explains, Nixon at least was still able to maintain warm relationships with his contemporaries in Number 10 – even when that contemporary was a socialist Labour Prime Minister who vociferously opposed the Vietnam War.

“We look absolutely amazed as the President of the United States is tapping the table in perfect rhythm and with a very good baritone voice”

“Paradoxically, Nixon and Harold Wilson got on very well,” Aitken says. “When Nixon fell from grace and resigned in 1974, I helped to arrange his first visit outside the United States barring China in 1976, not long after Wilson resigned as Prime Minister.

“He comes and gets a mixed reception, though he spoke in Parliament and the Oxford Union and (former Prime Minister) Alec Douglas-Home was very keen to meet him, but Wilson took the most trouble and booked a private dining engagement at the Dorchester Hotel.

“There were four of us at dinner; Wilson, Nixon, Wilson’s aide Marcia Falkender and myself and, towards the end of dinner, Nixon asks Wilson how he’s spending his time after occupying such a great office. ‘Are you writing some great tome?’ he asks and Wilson said ‘As a matter of fact, Dick, I’m spending most of my time these days with Gilbert & Sullivan,’ as he was helping the D’Oyly-Carte Opera Company, who owned the copyright.

“So Nixon says ‘I love Gilbert & Sullivan, I’m word-perfect on some operas’ and Wilson says ‘So am I, I used to sing in them.’ Nixon says he was assistant stage manager for HMS Pinafore and, although no-one was drunk, there was a certain amount of alcohol drunk by that point and suddenly Wilson taps on the table and begins the famous aria ‘When I Was a Lad’ and this goes on for about 12 verses.

“Nixon then joins in and they’re absolutely word-perfect, both of them, while Marcia and I look absolutely amazed as the President of the United States is tapping the table in perfect rhythm and with a very good baritone voice, and together with the Dorchester waiter, we break into bursts of applause.”

“Heath was never really committed to the Special Relationship because he was dreaming of a completely new European architecture for Britain”

Relations with Wilson’s opposite number, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, were not so warm – and not only because of Heath’s infamously indiscriminate frostiness to most members of the human race. “It was probably the most unsteady relationship of any Prime Minister and President in living memory,” Aitken says, “because Heath didn’t like the American view of Kissinger and Nixon or American foreign policy.

“He was never really committed to the Special Relationship because he was dreaming of a completely new European architecture for Britain. Also, Heath and Nixon just didn’t hit it off; Heath was never buddy-buddy whereas Nixon longed to get on with Heath. Nixon was hugely pleased with himself in being alone among his advisors in predicting Heath’s victory in the 1970 general election. He felt pride with Heath’s victory only find Heath was not really interested in having a special relationship with him.”

True to form, Heath’s successor as Conservative Party leader took an entirely different approach to Nixon, even after he had resigned from office in disgrace. Well before her famously special relationship with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher hit it off with her fellow conservative, with Nixon making another (at that time) unlikely but ultimately accurate prediction about a Conservative leader’s chances in the next general election.

“Just after Margaret Thatcher had become Leader of the Opposition, she was not in a wonderfully secure position, but this was when Nixon came to London and I was in charge of his schedule. It was a somewhat controversial visit and people were seeing him and not seeing him because of Watergate. I asked Margaret Thatcher if she would see him and she said, quick as a flash, ‘I would love to meet him.’

“Nixon always carried a torch for Margaret Thatcher and, to some extent, vice versa”

“They met in Speakers’ House, which was then occupied by George Thomas, and talked for about 15 minutes. Nixon was very appreciative of that meeting, partly because not everyone was seeing him and because he immediately saw that Margaret Thatcher had what he called ‘got it.’ It was during a period when it looked as though Labour would get reelected and she would be a footnote in history – but he always predicted she would win and she would be a remarkable Prime Minister.

“He came through London every two to three years and in 1980, just after she had been elected, he again asked me if I could fix an appointment. Margaret Thatcher immediately gave an hour of her time for a one-on-one conversation and he was photographed on the steps of Number 10.

“They corresponded subsequently and I think that was useful in the Falklands conflict in that Nixon was a great supporter of the Falklands War and the Thatcher policy and it does show up in private correspondence between Nixon and Reagan in 1982. Nixon wrote to Reagan privately to say he should get behind the Brits, which is not exactly what they were doing at that time.

“He always carried a torch for Margaret Thatcher and, to some extent, vice versa. She always thought his judgement in foreign policy was very sound.”

Jonathan Aitken was elected to Parliament in 1974 and served as Minister of State for Defence Procurement then Chief Secretary to the Treasury under John Major between 1992 and 1995. Prior to his political career, he had served as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Biafra. He published Nixon: A Life in 1993 and was one of the few biographers with which Nixon granted interviews.