When I worked with Thatcher’s fixer: hard Left meets hard Right

I rarely worried about working in advertising, at the core of the capitalist system one might say, despite an undiluted working class upbringing in South Wales which perhaps ought to have made me reject the very idea of such a bourgeois career. My father was active in the trade union at Aero Zipp Fasteners, where he was employed for many years, taking part in a six-week strike at one point. Socialism has always been in my blood and indeed I was born in the year Welsh MP Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. (I recently found out that my maternal grandmother was a delegate at the Labour Party conference in 1928).

Some doubts surfaced occasionally – for example, my conscience was pricked when I worked on ad. campaigns for a cigarette brand in the days when tobacco’s links with cancer were just becoming known; and I felt quite uneasy when confronted with the realities of animal slaughter at a client’s abattoir, though I admit my subsequent spell as a vegetarian lasted only three weeks. The point is, there were always compensations. Advertising paid the mortgage – and it soon became the devil I knew. You can’t beat the system. So I stayed.

But one particular experience brought home to me what I’d got myself into. Business wasn’t going too well at Washer Fox Coughlan, where I was a board director in our Soho-based London agency. Although we’d had successes, like relieving Saatchi & Saatchi of their IBM business, we felt we needed some kind of figurehead to raise WFC’s profile. We discussed maybe bringing in a ‘silver fox’ character – someone older, with contacts, who might make useful introductions. After many conversations on the grapevine and with headhunters, the right man came to the surface …

The silver fox in question was William Shelton. To give him his full title, he was William Shelton MP, Conservative member for Streatham, later to become Sir William on receiving his knighthood in 1989. His appointment as our Chairman was quite a coup: he’d already established a good reputation in the ad. business, first at CPV and later at high-profile agency Fletcher Shelton Delaney. Although Bill had held only junior posts in government, he was identified in the Tory party as being one of the “plotters” who undermined Prime Minister Edward Heath‘s position and, as one of her two campaign managers, helped secure Margaret Thatcher‘s leadership of the Conservative Party, as recorded in his obituary in the Daily Telegraph. (Ironically, it was more subterfuge – the stalking horse plot, led by Sir Anthony Meyer – that would eventually bring about the end of Thatcher’s own career. The Tories do seem to love their plots).

A sitting Member of Parliament, active in the House, Shelton was soon instrumental in attracting some high profile business to the agency. As is still the case with numerous MPs, he was in receipt of several income streams outside his work in the Commons. Bill’s role with us was just one more to be added to his entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It’s true that he did tend to rather dominate client meetings, often addressing his orations to an audience of potential customers who weren’t accustomed to being talked to as though they were in the Chamber at Westminster or at a constituency meeting. (I recall judicious use of a sharp tap on the shin under the table being made on more than one occasion). But frequently these were people with whom he had pre-established relationships, already attuned to his declamatory style.

So here was I, a Left wing boy from the Valleys, sitting on a company board in Central London, with one of the archest of arch Thatcher supporters. I hated Margaret Thatcher with a vengeance, and still do. Her anti-Left, deregulatory, privatising agenda wiped out key industries and devastated many local communities. If I’d once “got started” on this at work, my image amongst the rest of the board would have been shot to pieces. The trick was to keep my lip buttoned on the subject, something I managed to do pretty successfully at the agency, though sometimes down the pub with media sales people my true self would make an appearance.

My main focus was on getting the job done, on a day-to-day basis. Paying the mortgage, looking after the kids. These things always came first. But being such a close associate of someone who’d helped bring a character so vile as Thatcher to power was never out of my mind in meetings with him. On the other hand, Bill himself was charming company and we got on very well. He took me for a meal at the Members Tea Room at the House of Commons where I probably saw more famous faces in that one hour than I’ll have seen in the rest of my life!

He told me all about the way members of Thatcher’s “family”, as she called her inner circle, engineered the unseating of Edward Heath in February 1975. The key seems to have been that everything was done in utter secrecy. Soundings taken by Heath’s backers amongst Tory MPs didn’t reflect the true situation. Between them, her campaign managers succeeded in hoodwinking Heath’s team into a false sense of security. Thatcher thanked William Shelton in her press conference immediately after her election as Party leader. I never did get to the bottom of why he wasn’t appointed to the Cabinet, though he did get to be Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and Science; and it’s noteworthy that he was an enthusiast for Europe and opposed the appalling poll tax. Here’s a screenshot of William (left) with Airey Neave (who met a violent and tragic end at the hands of the INLA), shortly after their success in getting Thatcher elected Tory leader.

Eventually we linked up with a European seven-agency group, GGK, William retaining his role as Chairman for a time, whilst I became Executive Group Media Director. After a couple of years, I myself was victim of a plot (!) and left London for what turned out to be a much more pleasant and civilised life in Cambridgeshire.

Despite our political differences, I was sad to read of William’s ill fortune at the end of his life and his death from Alzheimer’s in 2003.



Image credits: Guards pack: Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History – https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/

UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rhymney Valley: Robin Drayton

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