Enjoy this free chapter from First Among Equals:
WEDNESDAY 10 APRIL 1931
If Charles Gurney Seymour had been born nine minutes earlier he would have become an earl, inherited a castle in Scotland, 22,000 acres in Somerset, and a thriving merchant bank in the City of London.
It was to be several years before young Charles worked out the full significance of coming second in life’s first race.
His twin brother, Rupert, only just came through the ordeal, and in the years that followed contracted not only the usual childhood illnesses but managed to add scarlet fever, diphtheria and meningitis, causing his mother, Lady Seymour, to fear for his survival.
Charles, on the other hand, was a survivor, and had inherited enough Seymour ambition for both his brother and himself. Only a few years passed before those who came into contact with the brothers for the first time mistakenly assumed Charles was the heir to the earldom.
As the years passed Charles’s father tried desperately to discover something at which Rupert might triumph over his brother – and failed. When they were eight the two boys were sent away to Summer Fields where generations of Seymours had been prepared for the rigours of Eton. During his first month at the Oxford prep school Charles was voted form captain and no one hindered his advance en route to becoming head boy at the age of twelve, by which time Rupert was looked upon as Seymour Minor. Both boys proceeded to Eton, where in their first half Charles beat Rupert at every subject in the classroom, outrowed him on the river and nearly killed him in the boxing ring.
When in 1947 their grandfather, the thirteenth Earl of Bridgwater, finally expired, the sixteen-year-old Rupert became Viscount Seymour while Charles inherited a meaningless prefix.
The Hon Charles Seymour felt angry every time he heard his brother deferentially addressed by strangers as ‘My Lord’.
At Eton, Charles continued to excel and ended his schooldays as President of Pop before being offered a place at Christ Church, Oxford, to read History. Rupert covered the same years without over-burdening the examiners, internal or external. At the age of eighteen the young viscount returned to the family estate in Somerset to pass the rest of his days as a landowner. No one destined to inherit 22,000 acres could be described as a farmer.
At Oxford, Charles, free of Rupert’s shadow, progressed with the air of a man who found the university something of an anticlimax. He would spend his weekdays reading the history of his relations and the weekends at house parties or riding to hounds. As no one had suggested for one moment that Rupert should enter the world of high finance, it was assumed once Charles had left Oxford that he would succeed his father at Seymour’s Bank: first as a director and then in time as its chairman: although it would be Rupert who would eventually inherit the family shareholding.
This ‘best laid plan’ changed, however, when one evening the Hon Charles Seymour was dragged off to the Oxford Union by a nubile undergraduate from Somerville, who demanded he should listen to the Eights Week motion, ‘I would rather be a commoner than a lord’. The President of the Union had achieved the unique coup of having the motion proposed by the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
Charles sat at the back of a hall packed with eager students mesmerised by the elder statesman’s performance. Never once did he take his eyes off the great war leader during his witty and powerful speech, although what kept flashing across his mind was the realisation that, but for an accident of birth, Churchill would have been the ninth Duke of Marlborough. Here was a man who had dominated the world stage for three decades and then turned down every hereditary honour a grateful nation could offer, including the title of Duke of London.
From that moment Charles never allowed himself to be referred to as ‘the Hon’ again: his ultimate ambition was now above mere titles.
Another undergraduate who listened to Churchill that night was also considering his future. But he did not view proceedings crammed between his fellow students at the back of the crowded hall. The tall young man dressed in white tie and tails sat alone in a large chair on a raised platform, for such was his right as President of the Oxford Union.
Although Simon Kerslake was the first-born, he had otherwise few of Charles Seymour’s advantages. The only son of a family solicitor, he had come to appreciate how much his father had denied himself to ensure that his son should remain at the local public school. Simon’s father had died during his son’s last year at Lancing College, leaving his widow a small annuity and a magnificent MacKinley grandfather clock. Simon’s mother sold the clock a week after the funeral in order that her son could complete his final year with all the ‘extras’ the other boys took for granted. She also hoped that it would give Simon a better chance of going on to university.
From the first day he could walk Simon had always wanted to outdistance his rivals. The Americans would have described him as ‘an achiever’, while many of his contemporaries thought of him as pushy, or even arrogant, according to their aptitude for jealousy. During his last term at Lancing Simon was passed over for head of school and he still found himself unable to forgive the headmaster his lack of foresight. Later that year, some weeks after he had completed his S-levels and been interviewed by Magdalen, a circular letter informed him that he would not be offered a place at Oxford; it was a decision Simon was unwilling to accept.
In the same mail Durham University offered him a scholarship, which he rejected by return of post. “Future Prime Ministers aren’t educated at Durham,” he informed his mother.
“How about Cambridge?” she enquired, continuing to wipe the dishes.
“No political tradition,” replied Simon.
“But if there is no chance of being offered a place at Oxford, surely –?”
“That’s not what I said, Mother,” replied the young man. “I shall be an undergraduate at Oxford by the first day of term.”
After eighteen years of forty-yard goals Mrs Kerslake had learned to stop asking her son, “How will you manage that?”
Some fourteen days before the start of the Michaelmas Term at Oxford Simon booked himself into a small guest house just off the Iffley Road. On a trestle table in the corner of lodgings he intended to make permanent he wrote out a list of all the colleges, then divided them into five columns, planning to visit three each morning and three each afternoon until his question had been answered positively by a resident Tutor for Admissions: “Have you accepted any freshmen for this year who are now unable to take up their places?”
It was on the fourth afternoon, just as doubt was beginning to set in and Simon was wondering if after all he would have to travel to Cambridge the following week, that he received the first affirmative reply.
The Tutor for Admissions at Worcester College removed the glasses from the end of his nose and stared at the tall young man with a mop of dark hair falling over his forehead. Alan Brown was the twenty-second don Kerslake had visited in four days.
“Yes,” he replied. “It so happens that a young man from Nottingham High School, who had been offered a place here, was tragically killed in a motor cycle accident last month.”
“What course – what subject was he going to read?” Simon’s words were unusually faltering. He prayed it wasn’t Chemistry, Anthropology or Classics. Alan Brown flicked through a rotary index on his desk, obviously enjoying the little cross-examination. He peered at the card in front of him. “History,” he announced.
Simon’s heartbeat reached 120. “I just missed a place at Magdalen to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics,” he said. “Would you consider me for the vacancy?”
The older man was unable to hide a smile. He had never in twenty-four years come across such a request.
“Full name?” he said, replacing his glasses as if the serious business of the meeting had now begun.
“Simon John Kerslake.”
Dr Brown picked up the telephone by his side and dialled a number. “Nigel?” he said. “It’s Alan Brown here. Did you ever consider offering a man called Kerslake a place at Magdalen?”
Mrs Kerslake was not surprised when her son went on to be President of the Oxford Union. After all, she teased, wasn’t it just another stepping stone on the path to Prime Minister – Gladstone, Asquith . . . Kerslake?
Ray Gould was born in a tiny, windowless room above his father’s butcher’s shop in Leeds. For the first nine years of his life he shared that room with his ailing grandmother until she died at the age of sixty-one.
Ray’s close proximity to the old woman who had lost her husband in the Great War at first appeared romantic to him. He would listen enraptured as she told him stories of her hero husband in his smart khaki uniform – a uniform now folded neatly in her bottom drawer, but still displayed in the fading sepia photograph at the side of her bed. Soon, however, his grandmother’s stories filled Ray with sadness, as he became aware that she had been a widow for nearly thirty years. Finally she seemed a tragic figure as he realised how little she had experienced of the world beyond that cramped room in which she was surrounded by all her possessions and a yellowed envelope containing 500 irredeemable war bonds.
There had been no purpose in Ray’s grandmother making a will, for all he inherited was the room. Overnight it became his study – full of ever-changing library and school books, the former often returned late, using up Ray’s meagre pocket money in fines. But as each school report was brought home it became increasingly apparent to Ray’s father that he would not be extending the sign above the butcher’s shop to proclaim ‘Gould and Son’.
Shortly after his eleventh birthday Ray won the top scholarship to Roundhay School. Wearing his first pair of long trousers – turned up several inches by his mother – and hornrimmed spectacles that didn’t quite fit, he set off for the opening day at his new school. Ray’s mother hoped there were other boys as thin and spotty as her son, and that his wavy red hair would not cause him to be continually teased.
By the end of his first term Ray was surprised to find he was far ahead of his classmates, so far in fact that the headmaster considered it prudent to put him up a form – “to stretch the lad a little”, as he explained to Ray’s parents.
By the end of that year, one spent mainly in the classroom, Ray managed to come third in the form, and top in Latin and English. Only when it came to selecting teams for any sport did Ray find he came bottom in anything. However brilliant his mind might have been, it never seemed to co-ordinate with his body. His single greatest academic achievement during the year, though, was to be the youngest winner of the prize essay competition in the school’s history.
Each year the winner of the essay was required to read his entry to the assembled pupils and parents on Speech Day. Even before he handed in his entry Ray rehearsed his efforts out loud several times in the privacy of his study-bedroom, fearing he would not be properly prepared if he waited until the winner was announced.
Ray’s form master had told all his pupils that the subject of the essay could be of their own choosing, but that they should try to recall some experience that had been unique to them. Thirty-seven entries arrived on his desk by nine o’clock on the closing date six weeks later. After reading Ray’s account of his grandmother’s life in the little room above the butcher’s shop the form master had no inclination to pick up another script. When he had dutifully struggled through the remainder he did not hesitate in recommending Gould’s essay for the prize. The only reservation, he admitted to its author, was the choice of title. Ray thanked him for the advice but the title remained intact.
On the morning of Speech Day the school hall was packed with 700 pupils and their parents. After the headmaster had delivered his speech and the applause had died down, he announced, “I shall now call upon the winner of the prize essay competition to deliver his entry: Ray Gould.”
Ray left his place in the hall and marched confidently up on to the stage. He stared down at the 2,000 expectant faces but showed no sign of apprehension, partly because he found it difficult to see beyond the third row. When he announced the title of his essay some of the younger children began to snigger, causing Ray to stumble through his first few lines. But by the time he had reached the last page the packed hall was still, and after he had completed the final paragraph he received the first standing ovation of his career.
Twelve-year-old Ray Gould left the stage to rejoin his parents in the body of the hall. His mother’s head was bowed but he could still see tears trickling down her cheeks. His father was trying not to look too proud. Even when Ray was seated the applause continued, so he too lowered his head to stare at the title of his prize-winning essay: ‘The first changes I will make when I become Prime Minister’.
Andrew Fraser attended his first political meeting in a pram. True, he was left in the corridor while his parents sat on the stage inside another draughty hall, but he quickly learned that applause signalled his mother would soon be returning. What Andrew did not know was that his father, who had made his name as Scotland’s finest scrum-half since the Great War, had delivered yet another speech to the citizens of Edinburgh Carlton in his efforts to capture a marginal seat on the City Council. At that time few believed Duncan Fraser was more than a rugby hero, and consequently he failed to win the seat for the Conservatives, if only by a few hundred votes. Three years later Andrew, a sturdy four-year-old, was allowed to sit at the back of several sparsely filled halls as once again he and his mother trailed round the city to support their candidate. This time Duncan Fraser’s speeches were almost as impressive as his long pass, and he won his place on the City Council by 207 votes.
Hard work and consistent results on behalf of his constituents ensured that the marginal seat remained in the hands of Councillor Fraser for the next nine years. By the age of thirteen, Andrew, a stocky wee lad with straight black hair and a grin that no one seemed to be able to remove from his face, had learned enough about local politics to help his father organise a fifth campaign, by which time neither party considered Edinburgh Carlton a marginal seat.
At the Edinburgh Academy it came as no surprise to his fellow pupils that Andrew was chosen to captain the school debating society; however, they were impressed when under his leadership the team went on to win the Scottish Schools debating trophy. Although Andrew was destined to be no taller than five-foot-nine it was also widely accepted that he was the most complete scrum-half the Academy had produced since his father had captained the school side in 1919.
On matriculating from the Academy Andrew took up a place at Edinburgh University to read Politics, and by his third year he had been elected President of the Union and captain of rugby.
When Duncan Fraser became Lord Provost of Edinburgh he made one of his rare visits to London, to receive a knighthood from the Queen. Andrew had just completed his final exams and, along with his mother, attended the investiture at Buckingham Palace. After the ceremony Sir Duncan travelled on to the House of Commons to fulfil an engagement with his local member, Ainslie Munro. Over lunch Munro informed Sir Duncan that he had contested the Edinburgh Carlton seat for the last time, so they had better start looking for a new candidate. Sir Duncan’s eyes lit up as he savoured the thought of his son succeeding Munro as his Member of Parliament.
After Andrew had been awarded an honours degree at Edinburgh, he remained at the university to complete a thesis entitled ‘The history of the Conservative party in Scotland’. He planned to wait for his father to complete the statutory three years as Lord Provost before he informed him of the most significant outcome the research for his doctorate had produced. But when Ainslie Munro announced officially that he would not be contesting the next election Andrew knew he could no longer hide his true feelings if he wanted to be considered for the seat.
‘Like father, like son,’ read the headline in the centre-page of the Edinburgh Evening News, who considered that Andrew Fraser was the obvious candidate if the Conservatives hoped to hold on to the marginal seat. Sir Duncan, fearing the local burghers would consider Andrew too young, reminded them at the first selection meeting that eight Scots had been Prime Ministers and every one had been in the House before the age of thirty. He was pleased to find members nodding their agreement. When Sir Duncan returned home that night he phoned his son and suggested that they should have lunch at the New Club the following day to discuss a plan of campaign.
“Think of it,” said Sir Duncan, after he had ordered a second whisky. “Father and son representing the same constituency. It will be a great day for the Edinburgh Conservative party.”
“Not to mention the Labour party,” said Andrew, looking his father in the eye.
“I am not sure I take your meaning,” said the Lord Provost.
“Precisely that, Father. I do not intend to contest the seat as a Conservative. I hope to be selected as the Labour candidate – if they’ll adopt me.”
Sir Duncan looked disbelieving. “But you’ve been a Conservative all your life,” he declared, his voice rising with every word.
“No, Father,” replied Andrew quietly. “It’s you who have been a Conservative all my life.”