I always planned to spend more time with Ian when we were both retired, but now I never shall, and that’s what I will miss most.
I met Ian at Oxford where political generations tend to last a year – three at most. He was a year above me and, as Al Murray once said of Stewart Lee, “he always will be”. That meant he’d fought all the fights I fought a year earlier, and so he always appeared very wise. Only later did I discover it was no illusion.
Oxford student politics in our time was unusual because it revolved around mainstream political categories, unlike most, where the variations of the extra-parliamentary left were dominant. So we experimented with Lib-Lab pacts to wrench the student union from the Tory Reform Group and Ian was one of the theorists while Euclid Tsakalotos, Jonathan Davis, Morag McDermont, me and others were the lieutenants (the position of humourist was not open, but he could have filled that too.) That Euclid ended up as the popular one of Syriza’s two Finance Ministers in Greece during the past decade (influential with EU finance ministers and the opposition in a way Yanis never was, to the Greek people’s cost) indicates just how impressive Ian was.
He was certainly approached by both sides in the cold war and could have ended up as a spy although I doubt his sense of the absurd would have let him get far. A tutor at his college asked him if he wanted to join MI5, so he was not surprised at the subsequent approach from the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain (not quite yet eurocommunists) to work for ‘the other side’. He responded that he thought it unlikely he could work for both, to which MacLennan replied “oh, I don’t know, several people do.”
Like so many socialist activists in the Labour Party, Ian was entranced by the insanity and irrelevance of the ultra-left, and later deployed his encyclopedic knowledge of Trotskyist groupuscles to good effect in the London Labour Party of the late-1980s, helping to ensure that the ground was cleared for the sort of return to sanity that may just have happened again. Although that isn’t to say he much liked what replaced the leftist versions of the Labour Party, and he was not keen to play a similar part in the latest transformation, although that was partly due to ennui and the desire not to repeat ourselves.
Ian left Oxford for London and the Department of Employment where he was working for uber-Thatcherite Norman Tebbit. When they met in the lift, Ian dropped his papers, prompting Tebbit to say sardonically “a lot of people do that.” But a successful bureaucratic career was nipped in the bud when his principles overcame him. He leaked the ‘Donaldson memorandum’, in which the supposedly politically independent Master of the Rolls advised the Tory government how best to screw the trade unions, to the Guardian (Ian liked journalists, but they were and have become much less louche than he liked them. Claud Cockburn and Peter Hitchens were particular favourites.)
When a Cabinet Office enquiry into the leak identified Ian as the culprit, the retired Air Vice Marshall in charge admitted they didn’t have sufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution, but that they hoped he “would do the decent thing.” Ian asked if that meant he would find a bottle of whisky and a revolver in his desk drawer, to which the Air Vice Marshall menacingly retorted “oh no, we don’t do that sort of thing any more.” Ian duly resigned and turned to campaigning, first at Youthaid with Paul Lewis, later at Friends of the Earth and more recently at Action on Smoking and Health. He also spent some years at the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, as well as at the Transport and General Workers Union, where the standard joke was that his attachment to his mini meant he had rarely caught a bus in his life.
That little brown mini featured strongly in so much of Ian’s youth, partly because so few of us owned our own car. He used it to return from London to Oxford to tutor further generations of Labour students, and he ferried people around in it all over the country, often as far as his parents’ holiday home overlooking Little Haven Bay in Pembrokeshire, and where, on 7 April, he died. Most people were terrified to be in Ian’s car, although on one occasion the heavily pregnant friend driving it back to London from the Willmore home in Hartley Wintney did take it down the entry ramp onto the wrong side of a motorway, so getting Ian back for all of us.
Ian was never that ambivalent about becoming a political front-man (despite the banner he claimed to have designed for peace demonstrations at Oxford: ‘Future Rulers Against the Bomb’ was meant as irony) although he was eventually forced to become Deputy Leader of Haringey Council, and did stand for Parliament three times (but in unwinnable seats.) He regularly recounted the take of being where his proudest moment was being ferried round in a speaker car by Fred Housego, the cabbie who won Mastermind. His message to the electorate was, in various formulations, “I’m Fred Housego. I won Mastermind, so I’m pretty clever. And if I’m telling you to vote for Ian Willmore, you should bear that in mind!” Ian also once canvassed Vanessa Redgrave when he was standing for Hammersmith and Fulham Council in the early 1980s, and swore that she pledged him her vote, probably because the Trotskyist sect she belonged to, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, didn’t stand in council elections.
Ian was an assiduous local councillor, once shocking Haringey dustmen by turning up early enough in the morning to see them off when he was chair of the relevant committee. No one had ever bothered to do that. But Ian was always happier thinking, planning, plotting. Even when in 1988 he first stood for the Council in Bernie Grant’s old seat after Bernie became MP for Tottenham, it was a political rather than an electoral move, part of the return to sanity of a previous bulwark of the so-called loony London Labour left. “Oh god,” said the Tory organiser in Tottenham, “it’s the suit and skirts Labour Party back again.” We ended up in the High Court over that one when Ian’s opponent for selection, the once notorious Mandie Mudd, took out an injunction against the Local Government Committee of which I was secretary.
But thinking was the key. Earlier in the 1980s, when he moved to London, Ian had a flat in Fulham which became the salon for the sensible left on the NUS National Executive. If a salon can be run down, untidy and overcrowded. Various people passed through the flat (I was never sure who actually *lived* there), including now-SNP MP Tommy Sheppard, then NUS Vice President Hank Hastings (daughter of playwright Michael), and Labour Student Chairperson John Boothman (later Head of News at BBC Scotland but principally known at the time for designing – with Ian – the iconic “Benn: extremely critical support” badge for the watershed 1982 Labour Deputy Leader election.)
Despite the frequent mentions of the Labour Party – and the excessively large part of his life it took up for so many years – Ian was not tribal, and not hostile to political opponents just because of their different allegiance. There just weren’t that many alternatives. When there were, he could be enthusiastically non-denominational, like when the powers that were in the National Organisation of Labour Students decided to back their previous allies in the Left Alliance (Communists and Liberals) rather than Sarah Veale for Vice President (Welfare) at NUS.
Sarah had been a ‘neighbour’ at the then Oxford Polytechnic where she was President of the Student Union – and subsequently she was for many years a close colleague of mine at the TUC where she ran the Equality and Employment Rights Department (so, in adulthood, pretty much as mainstream as you can get!) But she was unfairly characterised as an ultra-leftist by Labour’s student leadership. We ran her campaign, which annoyed our Labour Student friends enormously, and she won, which was even more annoying. But we ran it as ‘Martov and Axelrod’, the leaders of the anti-Leninist Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, as much of as an in-joke as to protect our future careers. A couple of weeks ago, we were discussing the campaign and I couldn’t remember which of us was Martov. Ian could, but now I will never know…
As a Haringey Councillor he set out one of the most cogent arguments for how to run a socialist local authority, combining service to the people with a radicalising influence, even after the chill winds of over a decade of Thatcherism. And eventually he turned his political thinking to the service of the campaign against climate change long before it was as popular as it is now, and then for tobacco control nationally and globally. He was at the battle of Seattle for FOE, and I think I recall him mentioning that he was dressed as a fish to draw attention to the impact of gene splicing on tomatoes. Or something.
In every case, although committed to the cause that paid his wages, it was resistance to the rich and powerful that motivated him.
That couldn’t have been envy, either, because Ian was raised in the privileged background of Marlborough School before going to Oxford. He knew the ruling class, and he quite appreciated much of what they had done for the world in terms of culture, although his interests ranged so widely that he would have described them as eclectic (when my interests ranged half as far, on the other hand, they were “indiscriminate”!) But he didn’t like them running things, things like the world. And he may also have been influenced by the fact that life as a public schoolboy in the ‘60s and ‘70s exposed people to the brutality and abuse of power that are central to the widespread physical and sexual abuse that infected private schools at the time. We discussed such things, gently, in the last few years, when my own school had a historic sex abuse police investigation all to itself.
He spent many years with Kathy Jones, introduced to him by her best friend at school, Rachel Brooks, with whom he shared a political as well as personal relationship. Ian also had cats, nieces and nephews and a world of friends, with all of whom Ian was liberal with his affection. I particularly remember Ian naming one kitten he was collecting from my parents-in-law in Teesside ‘Vinny’ after football hardman Vinny Jones. Ian had been teasing the kitten with a piece of string dangled in front of it while he sat on the floor. Tiring of the sport, the kitten did what Vinny Jones would have done, and swiped Ian’s (unexposed, I should make clear) genitalia with its tiny claws.
Kathy and Ian came on holiday to the Lot with me and Sarah in the winter of 1993 and, when we asked Ian to be best man at our wedding, he eventually agreed. After he and Kathy had argued for some time that marriage was bourgeois and patriarchal, naturally. A year later he gave the best best man’s speech (possibly the best speech of any kind) we’ve ever heard, and it’s such a shame we don’t have a record of it. All we have is the memory and photos of people decking themselves as he delivered it (we don’t even have a photo of him giving it – probably because the people taking photographs were laughing so hard*.)
I haven’t seen Ian as much in the last twenty-five years as I had when we lived in the same towns, partly because although he was always up for planning an evening out, he didn’t always turn up! But he was always good value when he did deign to put in an appearance, and I know it wasn’t that he was rationing exposure so that it would be all the more welcome when it was available. There were lots of dinners and even more engagement on facebook, but that really isn’t the same. In person, we could compete to display our erudition and wit (I think not the worst form of male competition) but he could also turn on the charm and the generosity – of money and spirit, which I think he thought synonymous in the best way.
He put me right and told me off regularly enough, but the only time I remember him being genuinely cross was when we were very young, and I expressed the view that tipping generously was only appropriate when special service had been delivered. He was stern and firm: tips were a much-needed part of the remuneration of particularly badly paid workers, and as people who could afford to eat out, we were duty-bound to leave a large one. I have done as I was told for over thirty years and try to pass on the advice as well.
The less frequent dinners, drinks and finger-pointing but genial sparring are the main things I will miss. And the political education he gave me. What am I going to do when I retire?
* Yes. I know. If the photographers were laughing too hard to snap Ian, they were laughing too hard to photograph people laughing at his speech. Ian would quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”