Robert John Graham Boothby (19001986), by Howard Coster, 1940
Boothby, Robert John Graham, Baron Boothby (19001986), politician, was born on 12 February 1900 at 5 Ainslie Place, Edinburgh, the only child of Sir Robert Tuite Boothby (18711941), manager of the Scottish Provident Institution and a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and his wife, Mabel Augusta (d. 1948), daughter of Henry Hill Lancaster, Edinburgh advocate. Robert, known throughout his life as Bob, was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he enjoyed himself and made many friends, but secured only a pass degree in modern history (1921). Between Eton and Oxford he trained as a guards officer, but was too young to take an active part in the First World War.
In 1923 Boothby contested Orkney and Shetland on behalf of the Conservative Party, whose new leader, Stanley Baldwin, was a friend of his father. Although he did not win there, his campaign provided ample evidence of his political assets, which included dark and dramatic looks, a lively and independent mind, an easy way with people, and the ability to make compelling speeches enhanced by humour, wit, and a voice well described as of golden gravel. He was soon selected as the Conservative candidate for another seat, East Aberdeenshire, which he won in 1924 and held for nearly thirty-four years, until he left of his own accord. He gave his constituents, mainly fishermen and farmers, superb service as their MP, and they showed their gratitude by backing him loyally through the many vicissitudes of his career.
In parliament Boothby at once made his mark with a successful maiden speech and was soon regarded as a rising star. But some of his views were unorthodox, notably on economicshe was an early Keynesianand his sympathies, personal and political, were by no means confined to his own party. He was quick to denounce the decision by the chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill, to return Britain to the gold standard at the pre-war parity. Nevertheless, Churchill chose him as his parliamentary private secretary in 1926, and he held the post until the government fell at the next election, in 1929. Over the years his relations with Churchill, though intermittently close, were scarred by differences of opinion, for instance on India and the abdication of Edward VIII, and above all by Boothby's natural incapacity to be a disciple or courtier.
From his position on the left of the party Boothby contributed to the publication Industry and the State, a Conservative View (R. Boothby and others, 1927), to which another contributor was Harold Macmillan, his closest associate in politics. In 1929 he began an affair with Macmillan's wife, Lady Dorothy Evelyn, née Cavendish (19001966), which lasted on and off until her death. The affair was soon well known in political circles and was used by Boothby's enemies to discredit him, though Macmillan himself remained ostensibly friendly. Lady Dorothy claimed that Boothby was the father of one of her daughters, Sarah, but there are grounds for doubting this; she may have been making the claim in the vain hope of provoking Macmillan into divorcing her. Boothby himself was doubtful, but nevertheless accepted responsibility and treated Sarah with much kindness and affection.
The liaison with Dorothy Macmillan caused some colleagues to regard Boothby as a rackety character, while his attempts to make money in the City, necessitated by his extravagant and generous habits, earned him the reputation of a gambler, which was equally damaging to him politically. Yet he deserved to be taken seriously, not least because he was one of the very few MPs with a consistent anti-appeasement record in the 1930s. He took a stronger line than Churchill on Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland and on the HoareLaval pact, and he was among the thirty Conservatives, including Churchill, who refused to support the government over Munich. In May 1940 he was among the forty-one who voted against the government at the end of the Norway debate, with the result that Neville Chamberlain resigned and Churchill came to power. In the coalition then formed he was appointed under-secretary at the Ministry of Food. Since the minister, the first earl of Woolton, was in the House of Lords, Boothby was spokesman for the department in the House of Commons.
Boothby proved an excellent minister. The national milk scheme that he worked out was widely praised, and he reacted imaginatively to the problems created by the blitz. His regular broadcasts were practical and inspiring. He gained Woolton's warm confidence. Then suddenly, in October 1940, he was suspended from his duties while a select committee investigated his activities the previous year in connection with émigré Czech financial claims. When the committee reported that his conduct had been contrary to the usage and derogatory to the dignity of the House, he resigned. The verdict of Sir Robert Rhodes James, after careful analysis of the committee's report, was that it was heavily, and unfairly, loaded against Boothby (James, 281). Though he was not quite blameless in the matter, the penalty he paid was out of all proportion to his offence. After delivering a resignation speech (January 1941), which won him much support, he served for a time as a junior staff officer with RAF Bomber Command. Later in the war he worked with the Free French, and after it his services to France were recognized by his appointment as a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1950).
In the late 1940s Boothby worked enthusiastically in Churchill's movement for a United Europe, but when Churchill became prime minister again in 1951 there was no post for him. He had to be content with his appointment as KBE in the coronation honours (1953). From 1949 to 1957 he was a British delegate to the consultative assembly of the Council of Europe, and from 1952 to 1956 vice-chairman of the committee on economic affairs. He opposed the Suez adventure in 1956, though he was a fervent Zionist. Macmillan's advent to the premiership brought him no office, perhaps understandably, but when a heart attack forced him to give up his seat, Macmillan recommended him, in 1958, for a life peerage. In the House of Lords he sat on the cross-benches and was a frequent contributor to debates.
Meanwhile, in the 1950s, Boothby's appearances in current affairs programmes on television and radio had made him a household name, which did not endear him to colleagues lacking his eloquence and engaging personality. At the end of the decade he was elected rector of St Andrews University, a post he held from 1958 to 1961; he was immensely popular with the students. Music played a great part in his life; he was chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (19613) and a founder member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Society.
In July 1964 the Sunday Mirror ran a story linking Boothby with the gangster Ronald Kray. A photograph was published of the two men together at Boothby's flat, and the police were said to be investigating a homosexual relationship between them. Scotland Yard issued a denial, and Boothby wrote a powerful letter to The Times, in which he denied being a homosexual but admitted having met Kray three times at his flat to discuss a business proposal which he had turned down. He denied having any knowledge of the criminal activities for which Kray and his brother were later imprisoned. The Mirror management apologized unreservedly and made Boothby a voluntary payment of £40,000 as compensation. After his death, however, further evidence suggested that his Times letter had not been wholly candid. Boothby was, in fact, bisexual, and his connection with Kray may well have involved some homosexual activity (then still criminal) with youths procured by Kray. Another photograph suggests this, but there is no evidence of any more sinister involvement.
Boothby published a volume of autobiography, I Fight to Live, in 1947, and another, Boothby, Recollections of a Rebel, in 1978. He also published The New Economy in 1943, and a collection of articles and speeches, My Yesterday, your Tomorrow, in 1962. His ambition was insufficiently concentrated, and his temperament too reckless, for complete worldly success. Yet he was right on most of the major issues of his career, and showed outstanding promise during his brief innings as a minister. He was also, as Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, said, such a jolly man.
Boothby was twice married. On 21 March 1935 he married Diana (19091992), fourth daughter of Lord Richard Frederick Cavendish, landowner and former politician. The marriage ended in amicable divorce in 1937. In 1967 he married Wanda, daughter of Giuseppe Sanna, a Sardinian importexport wholesaler. She gave him nearly twenty years of comfort and security at the end of his life. There were no children of either marriage. Boothby died in Westminster Hospital, London, on 16 July 1986, following a heart attack, and his ashes were scattered at sea off the coast of his old constituency.
John Grigg, rev.
R. R. James, Bob Boothby: a portrait (1991) · R. Boothby, I fight to live (1947) · R. Boothby, Boothby, recollections of a rebel (1978) · The Times (18 July 1986) · The Times (24 July 1986) · personal knowledge (1996) · private information (1996) · WWW, 198190 · Burke, Peerage
priv. coll., papers | King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Basil Liddell Hart
McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, corresp. with Bertrand Russell
Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook
Parl. Arch., letters to David Lloyd George
Bassano, photographs, 192471, NPG · photographs, c.19301971, Hult. Arch. · H. Coster, half-plate film negative, 1940, NPG [see illus.] · H. Coster, half-plate film negatives, 1940, NPG · W. Stoneman, bromide print, 1946, NPG · Elliott & Fry, photographs, 194951, NPG · Vivienne, vintage bromide print, 195565, NPG · W. Bird, bromide print, 1961, NPG · R. Franks, bromide print, 1964, NPG · bromide prints, c.19641967, NPG · P. Joyce, bromide print on card mount, 1977, NPG · F. Topolski, portrait, NPG
Wealth at death
£140,259: probate, 4 Dec 1986, CGPLA Eng. & Wales