Barnsbury author recalls politics before spin...and the truth behind Michael Foot’s ‘donkey jacket’

Keith McDowall has written a book on his time as advisor to ministers between 1968 and 1978: before

Keith McDowall has written a book on his time as advisor to ministers between 1968 and 1978: before the days of spin. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

Keith McDowall served impartially under seven Cabinet ministers. Then came New Labour. He tells James Morris why he penned a book about the political world before spin doctors.

Michael Foot was ridiculed for his 'donkey jacket' at the 1981 Remembrance Sunday service, but autho

Michael Foot was ridiculed for his 'donkey jacket' at the 1981 Remembrance Sunday service, but author Keith McDowall knows the truth. Picture: PA - Credit: EMPICS Sports Photo Agency

A political world of non-stop spin.

Speeches that are publicised, yet haven’t actually been made.

A daily barrage of stories from Downing Street that fall flat.

It all sounds very familiar. But it wasn’t like that when Barnsbury man Keith McDowall was in Whitehall.


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His new book, Before Spin, recalls life before spin doctors like Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson began to wield huge power over government communications.

Keith, 86, of Malvern Terrace, worked as an advisor for seven Cabinet ministers – Labour and Conservative – between 1968 and 1978.

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“That wouldn’t happen nowadays,” he says.

“We were impartial. One day I was working for William Whitelaw [Conservative] and the next, Michael Foot [the future Labour leader].

“In terms of political ideology, you can’t get any more different than that.”

Keith McDowall has written a book on his time as advisor to ministers between 1968 and 1978: before

Keith McDowall has written a book on his time as advisor to ministers between 1968 and 1978: before the days of spin. Picture: Ken Mears - Credit: Archant

So what has changed?

Many would point to Tony Blair’s Labour government, and his press secretary Mr Campbell.

“The Labour Party was out of power for 18 years and had a rough time,” Keith says. “It decided it was not going to be run around by the press any more.

“They went into Whitehall and took over the government information machine.

“Of course, there is also TV and the 24-hour news cycle.

“Previously, if you got a scoop, it would wait until the next day. Now you can’t hold a story for more than five seconds and it can mean politicians play up to that. Some of the stuff that gets out there is in no way news.”

If all this sounds like Keith is bleating back to the “good old days” of his time, he makes no apologies.

“I think the public can smell spin. They don’t believe anything a minister tells them any more.

“It’s more: ‘What are they trying not to tell me?’ It’s a corrosion in public affairs. Mistrust is the produce of spin.

Keith McDowall is husband of Brenda Dean, the first woman trade union leader. She was general secret

Keith McDowall is husband of Brenda Dean, the first woman trade union leader. She was general secretary of Society of Graphical and Allied Trades, and is pictured in Trafalgar Square in 1982 for a rally in support of workers sacked in the print union dispute with Rupert Murdoch's News International. Picture: PA - Credit: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

“We told the truth and never lied. We could choose not to answer a question, but we never lied.”

Keith started out reporting on south London papers in 1946. In 1955, he moved to the Daily Mail as its industrial editor.

From there, he went to Whitehall in 1968, fully intending to return to journalism after a couple of years. It didn’t happen.

“I was hooked on Whitehall,” he admits.

“I had an interesting career and people kept asking me about it, so I thought I would write it down in the book.

“I also have six grandchildren and one great grandchild, so I want them to see what I got up to.”

After leaving Whitehall, Keith – husband of Brenda Dean, the first female trade union leader – formed his own public relations firm and was chairman of Kiss FM.

But our conversation returns again to his time in front-line politics.

He remained on speaking terms with Mr Foot when he became Labour leader.

In the 1981 Remembrance service at the cenotaph, he was lampooned by the press for wearing a green “donkey jacket”, something he never lived down.

This was unfair, says Keith. “I talked to him about it and he said his wife bought it. I looked at it and it was from Harrods, and was actually very good quality!”

Which brings us to our very own MP Jeremy Corbyn, another Labour leader whose fashion choices have been in the spotlight.

“He’s clearly hard to stomach for many in the Labour Party,” laughs Keith.

“But he’s doing better than he was. For a start, he’s smartened himself up and put a tie on, which I’m glad about.”

To buy Before Spin, visit keithmcdowall.com

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