We were discussing the economic arguments of the early 1980s when I had a Proustian madeleine moment. I remembered my first White Lady. It must have been in late 1981. In those days, God help me, I was a self-proclaimed Tory Wet, agreeing with Ian Gilmour that we were heading straight for the rocks. Ian Gow, the most Thatcherite of the Thatcherites, the greatest of all PPSs, an altogether wonderful fellow, summoned me to dinner at the Cavalry Club in an attempt to recall me to the paths of righteousness.
To dry out Wets, Ian believed in homeopathic medicine. We started with a White Lady: my first. And another one. And… I lost count. All good drink is moreish, especially white ladies. By the time that we levered ourselves out of the armchairs to toddle into dinner, we were both sloshed.
Ian was one of that rare species, a Tory Wykehamist. Ian Gow, Geoffrey Howe, Iain Sproat, Willie Whitelaw, John Whittingdale, George Younger; all less typical of Winchester than the Crossmans, Gaitskells and Jays: all vastly superior human beings, almost redeeming Winchester’s reputation. Drink may have played a part. Willie was as keen on white ladies as Ian. Private Eye nicknamed him ‘oyster eyes’: White-Lady-eyed would often have explained why. Gin, Cointreau, lemon juice, egg white: the guide books give the proportions, but the blending is harder than it sounds. The final product is worth the perseverance.
All this leads one on to drink and government. Shortly after the 1979 election, a friend of mine said that despite the manifest difficulties, there was no need to worry about the state of the nation. At lunchtime that day, six ministerial cars had been waiting outside White’s. In the reign of King William III, courts-martial were not allowed to adjudicate on capital cases after lunch. Too stern, too lenient: it was certainly feared that they would have been too unreliable. In good Queen Margaret’s golden days, the old customs had not yet died out. Although she would have been horrified to think that some of her ministers were as well-lunched as King Billy’s generals, there is no evidence that the country suffered, and it is always wise to keep a few secrets from the girls.
Today, ministers are barely allowed to use cars, let alone take them to White’s. There is little chance to escape from the treadmill of government business. But a break from the office — a spot of gentle refreshment — can lend perspective. All ministers, all governments, need plenty of that.
The same is true of the City. Pre-Big Bang, lunch was a serious event. This used to irritate the Yanks. At quarter of eight, already well into the day’s work, Willard from Wall Street would call Rupert in London, to be told that he had gone to lunch. Rupert would return the call at quarter to four, audibly luncheoned. ‘My dear boy. When are you next coming to this side of the pond? We’ll have a jolly good lunch.’ Willard wondered whether that was all those Limeys ever did: have lunch.
After 1987, the Willards took control, to the detriment of lunch. Secretaries had always eaten sandwiches for their midday meal; these days, there are hardly any secretaries and grown men are required to subsist on sandwiches. Is it any wonder that judgment suffers while mountebankery flourishes? Some of the boys who monkeyed about with Libor boasted about opening a bottle of Bolly. If a reasonable ration of wine had been part of their routine, there would have been more morality, less puerile peacockery.
All these so-called financial instruments which have brought us to the edge of the abyss: none of them would have stood up to an old-fashioned City lunch. I bet you that derivatives were invented by a fellow with a Robespierre physique who eats on an empty stomach. If the men who run the world spent more time over lunch, the world would be a better-run place.