Books

Harold Wilson's mistress-cum-secretary Marcia Williams was more trailblazer than troublemaker 

Harold Wilson's right-hand woman became a political hate figure, but was her boss's decline really all her doing?

Illustration of Marcia Williams

Illustration: Chris Bentham

A feminist all my life, I had my doubts about writing a biography of Marcia Williams, Baroness Falkender, the infamous ’70s dominatrix- cum-secretary to Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. But my late husband Austin Mitchell, who had retired after a long stint as the MP for Grimsby, said he really liked Williams and had enjoyed her sharp intelligence. He thought she’d been badly misjudged, and I soon
realised he was right. 

When Williams died bedridden and broke in a Warwickshire nursing home in 2019 she was a political hate figure with a horrible history of having ruined the reputation of her prime ministerial partner. The accusations were impressive. She bossed him about, humiliated him and wrote a famous ‘Lavender List’ (it was on lilac-tinted paper) of all her friends, most of whom Wilson had never met, and demanded that he give them all peerages.

Worst of all, when he was leader of the opposition, she had come between Wilson and his wife Mary. She stood on her front doorstep and shouted at Mary, “Back in the ’50s I had sex with your husband six times, and it was unsatisfactory every time!” 

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All these accusations were collected and presented over the years in various attempts to reveal “the truth about Marcia” by Joe Haines, a brilliant journalist who had been Wilson’s head of press between 1969 and 1976.

Marcia Williams, whose first job was working for Morgan Phillips, general secretary of the Labour Party, and Wilson became an item on the night of 3 April 1956 at a Labour dinner in the House of Commons for Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin. Williams and a co-worker were in charge of the seating plan and taking shorthand notes of the speeches.

Williams remembered how nervous she was, and how Wilson noticed and was very kind and sympathetic. After the event he offered her a lift home. A party worker, George Caunt, who was later to be Wilson’s election agent, wrote that this was the night Wilson and Williams began their affair.

Within months Williams had become Wilson’s right-hand woman, and she never left his side until the day he died. In their first eight years working together Williams transformed Wilson from a talented shadow chancellor into leader of the Labour Party, and in 1964 to Britain’s first Labour prime minister in 13 years. But it was then that Williams’s reputation began to suffer.

She and Wilson believed that the PM had a dual role in 10 Downing Street. The civil servants were there to help and advise the government. Wilson and Williams wanted an addition, a second department run by her to deal with the prime minister’s role as leader of his political party, his MPs and their constituents.  

The civil servants disagreed. They hated Williams’s constant interventions and did everything they could to get rid of her. But the PM and his sidekick refused to budge, and the many special advisers who work in Downing Street today should give their thanks to Williams, who was the very first. 

When work finished for the day in No 10, Williams began to realise how lonely she was. Wilson would always have a wife and family to go home to; she had no one, and began a passionate affair with the married political editor of the Daily Mail. In 1968 and again in 1969 while working full-time in Downing Street, Williams produced two sons just 10 months apart. For seven years she managed to keep them secret. It’s unlikely that workers in Downing Street failed to notice two full-term pregnancies, but they stayed absolutely silent.

Haines had arrived as head of press just before Labour lost the 1970 general election. He was horrified when the PM took him aside and told him about Williams’s illegitimate sons. From that day forward Haines took on the lead role in the “men against Marcia” campaign. Each time her reputation as a difficult woman began to fade he ramped it up with a new book or interview. He tried to persuade Wilson to dump her. He failed, then 25 years later he tried again.

In his book Glimmers of Twilight he refreshed the story of Marcia Williams’s influence over Wilson’s 1976 resignation honours list. The BBC turned it into a drama documentary, The Lavender List. Williams sued, and the BBC paid her £70,000 and promised never to show the programme again. Just a few months ago I interviewed Haines and he was still determined to see justice done. He said, “Marcia was a wicked woman who dominated a prime minister  and ruined his legacy.” I didn’t believe him at all. Was Wilson really such a mouse? 

In That Was the Week that Was, the must-watch TV programme in the early ’60s, a man stood holding a big box of soap powder. It was labelled WILSON. He shook it vigorously and shouted triumphantly “You don’t use Wilson, Wilson uses you!” That was more like it.

Marcia Williams:  The Life and Times of Baroness Falkender book cover

Marcia Williams: The Life and Times of Baroness Falkender by Linda McDougall is out now (Biteback, £25)

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