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The Housekeeper of a World-Shattering Theory
Jenny Diski
Martha Freud: A Biography by Katja Behling trans. R.D.V. Glasgow [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Polity, 206 pp, £25.00
In the membership roll of the worshipful guild of enabling wives, the name of Martha Freud ranks with the greatest: Mrs Noah, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Marx, Mrs Joyce, Mrs Nabokov, Mrs Clinton, and their honorary fellows, Mr Woolf and Mr Cookson. Wives, of either sex, are what keep the universe orderly and quiet enough for the great to think their thoughts, complete their travels, write their books and change the world. Martha Freud was a paragon among wives. There is nothing more liberating from domestic drudgery and the guilt that comes of avoiding it than having a cleaning lady who loves cleaning, a child-carer who’s content with child-care, a homebody who wants nothing more than to be at home. And Martha Freud was all those things. Quite why she was those things is something that her husband might have been the very person to investigate, but Freud was nobody’s fool and knew when to leave well alone in the murkier regions of his personal life – especially that dark continent in his mind concerning women. Freud mentioned in passing in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss (to whom he wrote that no woman had ever replaced the male comrade in his life), that at the age of 34, after the birth of her sixth child in eight years, Martha was suffering from writer’s block. Impossible to imagine why. But like other mysteries about Martha’s life, this new biography does not (or perhaps cannot because some of the source material remains unavailable) elaborate on what she might have been trying to write. A shopping list, I expect. Unless it was that book about interesting new ways she had thought of for interpreting her dreams, which she worked on in those odd moments when the children weren’t down with chickenpox or needing their stockings mended.
History tells of Mrs Freud – the wife – as a devoted domestic, and there is little in Katja Behling’s biography to suggest we adjust our view of her. The big idea seems to be that we must value her contribution to the development of psychoanalysis as the provider of a peaceful home life for its founder. The sine qua non of radical thought is someone else changing the baby’s nappy. In his foreword to the book, Anton Freud, a grandson, puts it with incontestable logic:
Would he have had the time and opportunity to write this foundational work if he had had, say, to take his daughter to her dancing classes and his son to his riding lessons twice a week? . . . His youngest daughter was born in 1895. When she cried in the night, was it Sigmund who got up to comfort her? . . . If Martha had been less efficient or unwilling to devote her life to her husband in this way, the flow of Sigmund’s early ideas would have dried to a trickle before they could converge into a great sea. Martha always saw to it that her husband’s energies were not squandered.
And if Freud had comforted his daughter when she cried in the night, would Anna have been so desperate for her father’s attention as to devote her life to publishing his papers and continuing his work? Apostles need more than ordinary unhappiness to fit them for their task.
Juliet Mitchell, in praise of the new biography, berates those who dismiss Martha Freud as a stereotypical Hausfrau rather than seeing in her ‘a highly ethical and decent human being’, though it isn’t at all clear to me that they are mutually exclusive descriptions. As to dismissing her, on the contrary, one wrings one’s hands and weeps over her, or would if she didn’t seem to have been perfectly content with her existence. In his biography of Freud, Peter Gay quotes Martha’s reply to a letter of condolence after Freud’s death that it was ‘a feeble consolation that in the 53 years of our marriage there was not a single angry word between us, and that I always tried as much as possible to remove the misère of everyday life from his path’. Like strange sex between consenting adults, there’s nothing to be said against contentment and a division of labour which both parties are happy about. We must read and wonder at the good fortune that each should have found the other. Which of us would not wish for a Martha of our own to take care of the misère in our daily life while we sit in our study or silently at the lunch table bubbling up enlightenment for the world? Then again, who among us would wish to be Martha, no matter how essential her biographer might claim her to be in the production of the grand idea? To be a muse, an inspiration, might, I suppose, have its attractions; but to be the housekeeper of a world-shattering theory isn’t quite the same.
There’s no point in pretending in the light of 53 years’ evidence that there was a great originator in Martha struggling to get out. But you can’t help wondering how it could be that she wanted only this of herself, a woman who at her marriage was neither thoughtless nor completely self-effacing. Martha was a voracious reader of John Stuart Mill, Dickens and Cervantes, though her husband-to-be warned her against the rude bits unsuitable for a woman in Don Quixote. She was interested in music and painting, and had no shortage of suitors. When Freud became obsessively suspicious of her brother (and the husband of Freud’s sister), Eli, who controlled the Bernays’s finances, he insisted, on pain of ending their relationship, that she break with him completely. She held her own, firmly reflected Freud’s ultimatum back at him, and maintained her relationship with Eli. She travelled to northern Germany to holiday with only her younger sister for company and had a wonderful time in spite of her fiancé’s suspiciously heavy-handed use of ironic exclamation marks: ‘Fancy, Lübeck! Should that be allowed? Two single girls travelling alone in North Germany! This is a revolt against the male prerogative!’ But as soon as they were married Freud forbade his devoutly Orthodox Jewish wife to light the sabbath candles. It wasn’t until the first Friday after her husband’s death that she lit them again. What do women want is one thing, but the real question is what made Martha run: run the household, the children, the travel arrangements, the servants, and with never a word of complaint except a mildly expressed bafflement at her husband’s choice of profession. ‘I must admit that if I did not realise how seriously my husband takes his treatments, I should think that psychoanalysis is a form of pornography.’
Marriage, they say, changes people, and it does look as if Martha Bernays might have had the makings of another woman – at any rate, another life – altogether. What this otherwise rather dutiful biography (the mirror of its subject, perhaps) does offer us is a glimpse (but sadly very little more) of the by no means uninteresting Bernays family and their oldest daughter, Martha, before she became the other Mrs Freud. Three of Martha’s six siblings died in infancy; her oldest brother, Isaac, was born with a severe hip disorder and walked on crutches; and the next brother, Eli, was not much liked by his mother. When Martha was six, her father, Berman Bernays, was imprisoned for fraudulent bankruptcy after some shady dealings on the stock market. Two years later, the family moved away from the public shame in Hamburg to Vienna, and Martha recalled hearing the ‘sizzling of her mother’s tears as they landed on the hot cooking stove’. She was teased at her new school for her German diction. Isaac died when Martha was 11, and seven years later Berman collapsed in the street, dying of ‘paralysis of the heart’ and leaving the family without an income. Berman’s brothers had to support them, and Eli took over his father’s job in order to help out. Not an uneventful childhood, not lacking in trauma to be lived through. There are all sorts of pain and difficulty there, yet Martha did not take to her bed and succumb to the vapours. There is not the slightest indication that she lost the use of her legs, or found herself unable to speak. And this is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that when her father died, her mother appointed as her temporary guardian none other than the father of Bertha Pappenheim, later better known as Anna O., who might have told her a thing or two about the proper way to react to family loss. Nor is there any indication that her positively neurotic lack of neurotic symptoms (unless you count obsessive compulsive caring for her husband’s welfare) struck the father of psychoanalysis as worth a paper or two.
What Sigmund and Martha had in common were families embroiled in shadowy financial scandals. Freud’s uncle was imprisoned for trading in counterfeit roubles, and persistent rumour had it that his father was implicated in the scam. The way both dealt with the discomfort of public shame and lived happily ever after together was by embracing a perfect 19th-century bourgeois existence, provided you don’t include Sigmund’s incessant thoughts about child sexuality, seduction theory, the Oedipus complex, penis envy and the death drive – or perhaps even if you do. Presumably it was precisely that exemplary bourgeois surface, the formal suits, the heavy, glossy furniture, the rigid table manners, ordered nursery and bustling regularity, that made it possible for those deeper, hardly thinkable thoughts to be had and developed into something that looked like a scientific theory. By polishing that surface and keeping the clocks ticking in unison, Martha was as essential to the development of Freudian thought as Dora or the Rat Man. It’s just that she didn’t have the time to put her feet up on the couch, and Sigmund never cared to wonder what all that polishing and timekeeping was about. Martha was not there in order to be understood; she was there so that he might learn to understand others.
Not that women weren’t interesting. Anna O. and Dora were fascinating. Minna, Martha’s younger sister, who lived with them, was someone to whom, when no serious man was around, Freud could talk about intellectual things. Who could have been more stimulating than Lou Andreas-Salomé, Marie Bonaparte, Hilda Doolittle, Helene Deutsch or Joan Riviere? But they were none of them his wife. It is the woman’s place, Freud said to his oldest daughter, Mathilde, to make man’s life more pleasant. Intellectual companionship was to be found elsewhere. The more intelligent young men look for a wife with ‘gentleness, cheerfulness, and the talent to make their life easier and more beautiful’. (Not Lou, then.) In 1936 he spoke to Marie Bonaparte of his married life: ‘It was really not a bad solution of the marriage problem, and she is still today tender, healthy and active.’ He expressed his relief to his son-in-law Max Halberstadt, ‘for the children who have turned out so well, and for the fact that she’ – Martha – ‘has neither been very abnormal nor very often ill’.
In fact, it was precisely Martha’s sturdy, if somewhat timekeeping and cleanliness-fixated nature that Freud found most attractive, according to Behling. She was the lodestone, the quintessence, the elixir to which his life’s work was ostensibly devoted. He was the Doctor and she was what the cured would look like. She was normal. Obviously, it would have been extremely trying had Anna or Dora or the Wolf Man been like her. But in his world of psychical distortion, Martha represented what no one who takes his works seriously could ever really believe in: the ordinary, undamaged specimen. According to Ernest Jones, ‘her personality was fully developed and well integrated: it would well deserve the psychoanalysts’ highest compliment of being “normal”.’ No problem for Martha coming to terms with her missing penis at the right stage of her development, no big deal about transferring her Oedipal desire for the mother to the father. She had adapted nicely to her castration, and although it meant her superego was a flimsy thing compared to that of a man (woman ‘shows less sense of justice than man, less inclination to submission to the great exigencies of life, is more often led in her decisions by tender or hostile feelings’), it served well enough for Freud’s purposes. Imagine if Freudian analysis had gone quite another way and the master had studied the normality he apparently had so close to home instead of its deformation. What was it that Emmeline (whose bossiness and self-absorption Freud hated) and Berman Bernays did so right? How could he not have been in a rage to know? But what intellectual innovator would want to give up interesting for ordinary, especially when ordinary, if left to its own devices and sublimation of desires, arranged such a comfortable life for him?
Behling suggests that Martha’s great value to Freud was her very existence, which prevented him from getting too depressed about the nature of human nature. He was able to see in her ‘someone who stood apart from what he learned about humankind in general’. She was not part of the ‘rabble’, as Oscar Pfister explained, of ‘good-for-nothing’ mankind. So not only did he not study her, he did not communicate any of his professional thoughts to her. ‘Freud did not wish to share the blackest depths of his knowledge with Martha, but rather to protect her from them,’ Behling writes. Or perhaps, more likely, to protect himself. During their engagement Freud was taken ‘greatly by surprise when she once admitted that at times she had to suppress bad or evil thoughts’.
Martha’s sunny nature, so very different apparently from human nature, was encouraged if not carefully tutored by her fiancé during their epic four-year engagement. Martha’s mother had set her face against the marriage of her daughter to an impoverished researcher, and they were reduced to writing letters and stealing occasional meetings. It seems to have been Freud’s single stab at passion and he went at it with all the will of an adored son. He must have found it alarming, because the heavy curtains of contentment came down as soon as the wedding was over. Before that, he raged with jealousy at the mention of other men, demanding, for example, that Martha stop calling her interesting painter cousin by his first name. ‘Dear Martha, how you have changed my life,’ he said in his first letter to her. And when they were engaged and he was battling against her mother for Martha he explained: ‘Marty, you cannot fight against it; no matter how much they love you I will not leave you to anyone, and no one deserves you; no one else’s love compares with mine.’ Clearly the time for the master’s self-analysis had not yet come, so he was free to wish to give his fiancée a fashionable gold snake bangle and write how sorry he was that in the circumstances she would have to settle for ‘a small silver snake’. He wanted her well turned out so it would ‘never occur to a soul that she could have married anyone but a prince’. But his letters also made other things clear. Martha’s nose and mouth, he told her, were shaped ‘more characteristically than beautifully, with an almost masculine expression, so unmaidenly in its decisiveness’. It was as if nature wanted to save her ‘from the danger of being merely beautiful’. Even so the romance was powerful: the two young lovers exchanged flowering almond branches, and Freud told her that his addiction to cigars was due to her absence: ‘Smoking is indispensable if one has nothing to kiss.’ But in describing his views on the state of marriage he explained that ‘despite all love and unity, the help each person had found in the other ceases. The husband looks again for friends, frequents an inn, finds general outside interests.’ Martha, who would apologise each time she screamed during her labour, had been warned.
After his death, Martha did not run wild, aside from lighting the shabbos candles, but sat on a chair on the half-landing between the first and second floors of the house in Maresfield Gardens and took to reading again, though only, she assured a correspondent in case she was accused of idleness, in the evenings. Life, she said, had ‘lost its sense and meaning’ without her husband, but she quite enjoyed receiving the grand visitors who came to the house to pay homage. Anna took over her father’s work and Martha suddenly began to take an interest in it. Her daughter found Martha far too inquisitive about the patients who came and went. Martha even expressed a view: ‘You’d be amazed what it costs, this child analysis!’
Freud blamed Martha for preventing him from gaining early recognition in the world of medical science. ‘I may here recount, looking back, that it was my fiancée’s fault if I did not become famous in those early years,’ he wrote in his self-portrait. His experiments with cocaine in the 1880s were taken up and elaborated by others. What the late Princess Margaret knew as ‘naughty salt’ was found to have a beneficial effect as a local anaesthetic, a use Freud inexplicably hadn’t thought of and which he had omitted to mention in his paper ‘On Coca’. It was an unexpected opportunity to visit Martha that had distracted him from fully exploiting the potential of his discovery, he claimed in old age, but was generous enough to excuse his wife since, as Behling puts it, ‘49 years of wedlock had compensated him for missing out on fame in his youth.’ But here’s a thought, an unconsidered key, perhaps, to understanding Martha. While Freud was making his experiments with cocaine, he sent several vials of it to his fiancée extolling its effect on vitality, with instructions on how to divide the doses and administer it. Martha wrote and thanked him, saying that although she didn’t think she needed it, she would take some as he suggested. She reported back to her fiancé that she found it helpful in moments of emotional strain. From time to time, Behling says, Martha ‘enhanced her sense of well-being with an invigorating pinch of cocaine’. For how long she continued to do this is unknown, but it does suggest an altogether different way of viewing the devoted, domestically driven Martha Freud, who for half a century went about her frantically busy daily round of cleaning, caring, tidying, managing and arranging all the minute details of her husband’s life with a fixed and unfaltering smile.

Be mean and nasty
Jenny Diski
Nothing like a Dame: The Scandals of Shirley Porter by Andrew Hosken [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] · Granta, 372 pp, £20.00
What is the only place in England the joke went, where you can buy three cemeteries and a pint of beer and still have change from a pound? Answer: the London Borough of Westminster. Boom boom. This makes the price of a pint of beer in 1986 slightly less than 85p. The cemeteries, in Hanwell, East Finchley and Mill Hill, whose upkeep was the responsibility of the Highways and Works Committee of Westminster City Council, were sold by the council for 5p each. Aside from thousands of dead bodies, they included three lodge houses, a plant nursery suitable for housing development, 12 acres of grazing land equally suitable for building on, a foreman’s flat and a car park. To be fair, these extra features were not part of the 15p price for the three cemeteries: they cost another 65p in total. The cemeteries themselves were not great assets – indeed, the cost of their upkeep (£400,000 a year) was what prompted the sale in the first place – but they did contain among many others the interred remains of Billy Fury; a thousand Dutch servicemen killed in the war; PC Keith Blakelock, who had died in the Broadwater Farm riot the previous year; a former Tory chancellor of the exchequer, Austen Chamberlain; and Mrs Eileen Sheppard’s husband, Harold, who had been buried there at a cost of £1200 22 months earlier. When the grass began to grow wild and the headstones to crack and topple as a result of neglect by the new owners, more than eight hundred distraught relatives marched on City Hall, and the newspapers had a field day. The leader of Westminster City Council stood firm at first, telling the relatives that they were ‘peddling cheap emotions for the cameras’, but eventually agreed to buy the cemeteries back when the bad publicity refused to go away. It took five years for them to be retrieved: they were bought back for 15p in 1992. However, the development land, the properties and a crematorium have remained in private hands. The affair had cost the residents of Westminster £4.25 million. Less, I suppose, the interest on 15p.
Until this idiocy was revealed, Westminster City Council and its leader, Shirley Porter, had been the darling of the Tory Party; a showcase example of how local government could benefit from an efficient, cost-cutting, commercially-minded, unsentimental head, just as the nation had been doing since 1979. Porter was Margaret Thatcher’s mini-me; they were even both the daughters of grocers, though Jack Cohen’s Tesco proved to be a more lasting success than Alderman Roberts’s shop in Grantham. Porter rode high in public and party esteem thanks to a passionately media-friendly campaign to clear the streets of litter, and then by keeping Westminster rates unreasonably low by axing libraries, privatising and scrapping services and taking on the unions. She was never popular among those who worked under her. ‘Redundancy,’ she told the council officers when she took over as leader in 1983, ‘is an unpleasant fact of life.’ Andrew Hosken, a Radio 4 reporter who investigated the Porter scandals for the Today programme, suggests that the daughter of a multi-millionaire knew less than nothing about redundancy, but perhaps that’s not entirely right. Being rich has never precluded anyone from being unnecessary, and if your father and the source of your wealth won’t let you into the boardroom, and it doesn’t cross your mind to give up all your company shares and see if you can make your own way in the world, you might well know something of what it feels like to be redundant. Jack Cohen gave his daughter’s husband, Leslie, a seat on the board of Tesco, but not Shirley – because he was firmly of the opinion that women belonged in the home. In 1985, after her father was dead, Porter tried again for a seat on the board, citing her experience in running the council as proof that she could manage the affairs of Tesco. ‘Look, Shirley,’ Ian MacLaurin told her, ‘you’ll just have to accept that as long as I am chairman of Tesco, you’ll never get a place on the board.’ Perhaps not just because she was a woman but because, as a council member said, ‘she lacked spontaneity and mental agility, and possibly humour.’ MacLaurin said later that his only regret in blocking her was that it allowed her to give her full attention to destroying Westminster City Council.
Porter’s money had been made by someone else and spending it could take up only so much of her time. For some this might mean a lifetime of pointlessness. Others might train for a career of their own or choose to offer their services freely to the community. After she had been a home-decorating housewife, and the children had grown up, Porter appeared to choose the latter option. She claimed that the shock of finding herself a mother-in-law led her into prison visiting, and then she became a magistrate. Local government was the logical next step. But finding something useful to do with her time and being of service wasn’t at the heart of what was going on in her progress to a Tory seat on Westminster Council. Her real aim – in which she succeeded for a remarkably long time – was to make the community serve her frustrated need to prove she could run a big organisation. The time was perfectly right for this. Thatcher had declared that society didn’t exist. Why would anyone who idolised her as Porter did think of society as anything other than something to exploit?
Like her mentor, Porter had no time for tradition, and very few local governments were as stilted by tradition as Westminster. When the new city solicitor, Terry Neville, took over in 1981, his secretary asked him if he would like to take an afternoon nap, as his predecessor had done. Hosken adds:
The city architect and the director of cleansing had their own ‘grace and favour’ flats in the best parts of town, one senior officer started his week by asking for a supply of the latest books from the city librarian and spent the rest of the week, when not inconvenienced by meetings, reading them. Neville says: ‘I’m not saying they didn’t work, but it was all very genteel and leisurely before Shirley Porter.’ One clerk remembers: ‘It was fossilised, in the past, totally antiquated and chronically overstaffed.’
How they were to regret those days. And how attractive the idea of a council official who wants to read books instead of balance them strikes me – apart from the fact that such old-guard attitudes were exactly what allowed the Thatcherite tendency to get its grip on government. Certainly, the new Tories took care of over-manning and overspending, but of society they took no care at all. It was precisely as a result of those severely utilitarian principles that what Hosken calls ‘one of the most calamitous political careers in the history of British local government’ was allowed to develop.
Nonetheless, and without it justifying Porter’s behaviour in the slightest, a small troubled voice in my head whispers to me of snobbery and an undeclared racism in many of her critics. As well as her ignorance of politics and how the council worked when she took over, it was noticed that her voice was ‘shrill and rather nasal’, the result, Hosken says, of a chronic throat complaint. He suggests that ‘to some of the snootier patricians, wreathed in their old money, Porter’s slightly manicured accent bore the unmistakable taint of elocution lessons.’ Jack Cohen is described in this book as an ‘East End barrow boy’ who made ‘the transition from “gorblimey” street trader to respectable shopkeeper’, and ‘followed a path well trodden by successful London Jews: from the cramped squalor of Whitechapel to the more comfortable areas of Hackney and north to the leafier and desirable neighbourhoods of Golders Green or, even better, Hampstead Garden Suburb’. Shirley Porter’s flat in Gloucester Square, where some meetings were held, is described in detail:
Witnesses attest to huge mirrors and a profusion of vulgar ornaments. By common consent, the fittings, furniture and kitsch paintings represented a victory of wealth over taste, and it was a sign of her unpopularity that people laughed about her bad taste behind her back. Porter became so acutely aware of the cowardly mockery of 19 Chelwood House that she was reluctant to allow newspaper interviewers to use the lavatory in case they wrote about gold-plated taps.
She was in other words seen as a working-class Jewish upstart. I’ve been an English Jew for too many decades not to recognise the echo of something more than simple class snobbery in the judgments made of her voice and decor. The English part of me recognises exactly what is being described and the Jew in me flinches ever so slightly. Perhaps the nouveaux riches of any race might have their accommodation described like this, but the picture on the front of Hosken’s book is of Porter as a racial caricature. Bright lumps of gold adorn her ears and finger, brass buttons decorate her blazer, a gold smiley-face pendant hangs round her neck, the most garish of orange lipstick outlines her lips, her arms are arrogantly akimbo, her less than gracile facial features perform an ugly, over-bronzed sneer of contempt. She is outsized against the background, looming over London, the curse of the 50-foot woman, lording it over and diminishing the Houses of Parliament and the City: common as muck and in control. Call me oversensitive, but she’s not just dreadful, she’s so Jewish.
But to return to what she did. The selling of the cemeteries turned out to be a trial run for her biggest, stupidest and most cynical act of corruption, which became known as the Homes for Votes scandal. There was nothing very original in what she did: gerrymandering has a long history. And she isn’t the first, and won’t be the last politician to display complete disdain for any notion of democracy. Democracy, we know, is a useful tool to those who are in a position to manipulate it to get what they want. In 1986 Porter very nearly lost her second term in office to a highly organised Labour campaign to get the Tories turfed out in Westminster. The electors voted her in with the tiniest of majorities and gave her a nasty fright. By this time she was running the council almost entirely with her small, unelected, virtually secret cabal. Orders went down from on high and officers were expected to do exactly what they were told, no matter about the legality. So when Porter decided that Westminster needed more resident Tory voters in the marginal wards the answer was to sell off council housing stock to private buyers. Get the Labour voters out and the Tory voters in. This was only what Margaret Thatcher was doing in the country at large. Council tenants’ right to buy their houses was designed to give the working classes a good reason for voting Conservative. Porter was able to take this a step further and aimed to ship the working classes out of her marginal wards and ship the yuppies in. The problem was the legal requirement for a local authority to house the homeless. There were 23,000 council houses in Westminster (considerably fewer than in other local boroughs), and thanks to its central position and nearness to railway termini homeless people turned up there from all over the country. Ten thousand people were on the waiting list for a council house. A secret strategy paper looked ahead to the next local elections, in 1990: ‘Unlike other London boroughs the sale of council houses offers little opportunity to socially engineer the population of Westminster. This remains a longer-term objective, but there is an immediate need to socially engineer the population in marginal wards.’
It was decided to export the homeless outside the city and sell off the council housing that should have been available for them. ‘Homelessness,’ one of Porter’s conspirators wrote: ‘Be mean and nasty.’ Empty flats had steel security doors to keep the homeless from getting in. They were fitted at an initial cost of £300 for each property, with £50 a week added on for rental. It was, as it happens, the United Nations International Year of the Homeless. So it was in Westminster, but not in the same way. It is, obviously, illegal for a council to manipulate policy in order to gain votes for the majority party, but although some officers had misgivings all of them complied. A meeting took place between Porter and a consultancy company at which the company was commissioned to write a favourable report on housing and planning policy. One of the consultants took notes. Hosken quotes from them:
There was a need ‘to push Labour voters out of marginal wards’ and to ‘privatise/gentrify council blocks in marginal wards’, she said . . . On the population decline in central Westminster, which had brought about the electoral disaster, Porter raised the question: ‘Is loss a bad thing? . . . Who are you losing? Concentrations of ethnic minorities. Social imbalance. Social problems from concentration.’ She concluded the meeting by telling the consultants: ‘We want the right answers.’
But the consultants decided that the answer to population decline was the provision of more social housing, and Porter was furious. Her rejection of the report was used later as evidence that she knowingly continued her unlawful policies in spite of advice to the contrary.
As with corrupt bureaucracy everywhere, the distortion of language played an important part in an attempt to regularise the indefensible. The whole campaign to ensure Tory voters in the borough was termed Building Stable Communities and became a kind of code. People were ordered to ‘think BSC’, to demonstrate ‘BSC initiatives’ and everything was required to fit in with the ‘total BSC concept’. Designated Sales meant selling council houses to people with job offers in the City or first-time buyers at a huge discount. In fact, speculators bought them up and then sold them on at a market price. This didn’t matter to Porter: it still ensured the right kind of people moved in. The Quality of Life Strategy was all about improving and tidying up the eight vital marginal wards. Potholes were filled by Pothole Eater Squads, known familiarly as the PES, pavements were mended, estate agents’ boards and builders’ skips were made to disappear, hanging baskets were installed. Four and a half million pounds were spent in the first year, almost all of it in the key wards. A memo headed ‘Disabled Mobility Schemes’ read: ‘All schemes under this heading and those relating to tree planting and pavement trouble spots are to be specifically angled to the eight key wards.’ Hosken continues: ‘Streets which formed ward boundaries presented a particular problem for the engineers. What if someone in a wheelchair crossed from a marginal to a non-marginal ward? Should there be a ramp to receive them? The conundrum was never satisfactorily sorted out. Sometimes it happened; sometimes not.’
In a sub-initiative called Greening the City large wooden tubs containing trees were dotted about the marginal wards. In no time at all the tubs were full of litter and the vomit of passing late-night revellers. The director of planning was furious. The tubs disappeared overnight and 42 tubs ‘complete with vomit and West End detritus’ turned up in the Labour stronghold of North Paddington. ‘It was mad,’ a Labour councillor said. ‘There were elderly people and mothers with pushchairs who were finding it difficult if not impossible to get round these tubs. One woman living in a basement flat complained that a tub blocked out her sunlight. No one saw them being delivered, or even knew where they came from or who put them there.’ Hosken explains: ‘The action had taken place at the behest of the City Council in the early hours of two consecutive mornings at the cost of £6000.’
For her services to society, Porter was made lord mayor of Westminster after she retired in 1993 from Westminster Council. She was given a damehood, although she had been determined to secure a peerage for herself. (Funny to think that if she had waited for a Labour government, she could have saved herself all the trouble and just bought herself a peerage.) It took an extraordinarily long time, but finally the law got round to scrutinising Porter’s actions as leader of Westminster Council. Huge numbers of documents and files were seized by the Audit Commission, though it was later discovered that many others had been shredded. Porter’s millions allowed her to fight the allegations and judgments at each step and buy herself crucial time. She retained some support. A team was formed to campaign against the district auditor and newsletters were circulated attacking the ‘integrity of the district auditor and the soundness of his findings’. It was led by two women, one a new Tory councillor, Nicola Woodhead-Page, and the other a former employee of Private Eye called Rowan Pelling, better known these days for having edited the now defunct Erotic Review.
The legal battle went on for more than seven years, with Porter taking her case to ever higher courts. Overall, Westminster lost more than £100 million thanks to Porter’s schemes to rid her borough of the poor and keep her party in power. As council officers are personally liable for losses that result from incompetence or criminal activity, Porter was surcharged. When presented with a bill for £31.6 million, she took the judgment to the House of Lords, where she lost her final appeal. She had spent £3 million on legal fees and by now the surcharge had gone up because of interest to £43,321,644; it was ‘the biggest debt to the public purse in the history of England’. When Porter was at last forced to disclose her assets in 2001 prior to payment of the fine, it turned out that she was worth no more than £300,000: the eight years of court proceedings had given her the time to hide her money. The £3 million she spent was a bargain. In her sixties she emigrated to Israel with her frail husband and somewhere in the world £69 million waited for her. The Audit Commission continued to fail to find her money for another three years until Porter’s son got into financial trouble and some stolen emails enabled them to trace the money she used to bail him out back to an account that could be proved to be hers. In order to get the thing sorted out, or perhaps just out of desperate weariness, the Audit Commission made a deal with Porter and agreed that she could settle the debt by paying just £12.3 million of the £48,717,334 she now owed. Of that, nearly half was used to pay the Audit Commission and other legal fees. Porter signed an ‘Agreed Statement of Facts’, in which ‘she admitted the corrupt reasons for her actions, although she does not recognise that her betrayal of public trust was absolute.’
Clearly Shirley Porter was a rich woman who had something to prove and had no problem about using public resources to prove it, but it was only her fatal penchant for getting everything down on paper that made it possible for her to be found guilty. Even those who didn’t support her in Westminster Council went along with her, out of fear or laziness or in the hope that it would all just go away. Somehow the opposition Labour Party on the council failed to find out what was going on, or to get to grips with the scale of it. ‘Political corruption, if unchecked, engenders cynicism about elections, about politicians, and damages the reputation of democratic government,’ the Law Lords declared, and ruled that Porter’s attempts to engineer political success was ‘a deliberate, blatant and dishonest misuse of public power’. But public power in a liberal democracy is quite accessible to those who want it very badly, and those who want it very badly quite often want to use it to further their own private and personal ambitions. That’s a conundrum that still remains to be solved.