Lord Boothby

Lord Boothby

Robert Boothby, the only son of Sir Robert Tuite Boothby, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 12th February 1900. Boothby was educated at Eton College and at Magdalen College. After leaving university he joined a firm of stockbrokers.

Boothby was also a member of the Conservative Party and eventually East Aberdeenshire selected him as their parliamentary candidate. In 1924 he was elected to the House of Commons.

In 1926 Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, appointed Boothby as his parliamentary private secretary, a post he held for three years.

In 1930 Boothby began a long affair with Dorothy Macmillan, the wife of his parliamentary colleague, Harold Macmillan. It has been claimed that he was the father of Sarah Macmillan. The writer and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, who is Boothby's cousin, has argued that "to my certain knowledge (Boothby) fathered at least three children by the wives of other men (two by one woman, one by another)." Boothby married Diana Cavendish but the relationship was dissolved two years later.

Robert Boothby and Winston Churchill in 1928
Robert Boothby and Winston Churchill in 1928

Boothby was a frequent visitor to Germany and in 1932 met Adolf Hitler. He was later to record that "I talked with Hitler for over an hour; and it was not long before I detected the unmistakable glint of madness in his eyes." Boothby came out of the meeting convinced that Hitler posed a serious threat to Britain's security.

In October 1933 Boothby made a speech where he warned: "If those of us who believe in freedom refuse to fight for our faith under any circumstances, then assuredly we will succumb to the military forces of Fascism or Communism, and most of the things which seem to make life worth living will be swept away."

Boothby joined a small group in the Conservative Party, including Winston Churchill and Leo Amery, that called for the government to increase spending on defence. In one speech Boothby suggested that the British government was in danger of betraying those soldiers who had been killed during the First World War. "In relation to the facts of the present situation our Air Force is pitifully inadequate. If we are strong and resolute, and if we pursue a wise and constructive foreign policy, we can still save the world from war. But if we simply drift along, never taking the lead, and exposing the heart of our Empire to an attack which might pulverize it in a few hours, then everything that makes life worth living will be swept away, and then indeed we shall have finally broken faith with those who lie dead in the fields of Flanders."

In January 1938 Boothby became the first person in public life to demand the introduction of compulsory national service. He followed this with a campaign to persuade Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative government to increase the frontline strength of the Royal Air Force from 1700 to 3500. However, both these suggestions were rejected by Chamberlain.

Boothby returned to office in 1940 when Winston Churchill appointed him as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Ministry of Food. Boothby worked under Lord Woolton and was given responsibility for devising the National Milk Scheme, which provided milk for children and nursing mothers during the Second World War.

In 1941 Boothby was forced to resign after a Select Committee published a critical report of his behaviour before the war. The committee pointed out that Boothby had made a speech where he advocated the distribution of seized Czechoslovakian assets to Czech citizens living in Britain. It was claimed that this broke the rules of the House of Commons as Boothby had not disclosed that he had a financial interest in this policy.

After resigning from office Boothby joined the Royal Air Force. After completing his training as a pilot officer he became Adjutant of Number 9 Bomber Squadron at Honington with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

In 1948 Boothby became an original member of the Council of United Europe and was a British delegate to its consultative assembly (1949-54). Boothby was knighted in 1953 and raised to the peerage in 1958. He was also Rector of the University of St Andrews (1958-61) and Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (1961-63).

Boothby was bi-sexual and although he kept his homosexual activity a secret, he did campaign for a change in the law. In his autobiography he comments on a speech he made to the Hardwicke Society: "I said that the present law regarding homosexuality was iniquitous, and that the clause in the Act which made indecency between consenting male adults in private a crime should be removed from the Statute Book."

Boothby sent a copy of his speech to the Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe. He replied: "I am not going down to history as the man who made sodomy legal." However, he did establish a committee to look into the issue that was chaired by John Wolfenden.

Lord Boothby attended sex parties with Tom Driberg in London. He also began an affair with gangster Ronnie Kray. Boothby was on holiday with Colin Coote, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, when on 12 July 1964, the Sunday Mirror published a front page lead story under the headline: "Peer and a gangster: Yard probe." The newspaper claimed police were investigating an alleged homosexual relationship between a "prominent peer and a leading thug in the London underworld", who is alleged to be involved in a West End protection racket.

The following week the newspaper said it had a picture of the peer and the gangster sitting on a sofa. Rumours soon began circulating that the peer was Boothby and the gangster was Ronnie Kray. Stories also circulated that Harold Wilson and Cecil King, the chairman of the International Publishing Corporation were conspiring in an attempt to overthrow the Conservative government led by Alec Douglas -Home. Boothby's friend, Colin Coote used his contacts in the media to discover what was going on.

As journalist John Pearson pointed out: "By doing nothing he (Boothby) would tacitly accept the Sunday Mirror's accusations. On the other hand, to sue for libel would mean facing lengthy and expensive court proceedings which could ruin him financially - apart from whatever revelations the Sunday Mirror could produce to support its story." Boothby was then approached by two leading Labour Party figures, Gerald Gardiner, QC and solicitor Arnold Goodman. They offered to represent Lord Boothby in any libel case against the newspaper. Goodman was Wilson's "Mr Fixit" and Gardiner was later that year to become the new prime-minister's Lord Chancellor.

Boothby now wrote a letter to The Times and argued that the Sunday Mirror had been referring to him and that he intended to sue this newspaper for libel. He claimed that he had only met Kray three times. However, this had been public events in 1964 (there were published photographs of these meetings and so they could not be denied). When the case came to court, the newspaper decided not to reveal the compromising photograph. Unwilling to defend their story, Lord Boothby was awarded £40,000 and the editor of the newspaper was sacked. This resulted in other newspapers not touching the story. Scotland Yard was also ordered to drop their investigation into Boothby and Ronnie Kray.

The rumours about Boothby's homosexuality continued to circulate and in 1967 he decided to marry Wanda Sanna. According to friends, the relationship was platonic.

Boothby made frequent appearances on television and radio and wrote several books including The New Economy (1943), I Fight to Live (1947), My Yesterday, Your Tomorrow (1962) and Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978).

Lord Boothby died on 16th July 1986.

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Boothby was a frequent visitor to Germany. He wrote about these experiences in his book Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

I received a telephone call from my friend 'Putzi' Hanfstaengi, who was at that time Hitler's personal private secretary and court jester. He told me that the Führer had been reading my speeches with interest, and would like to see me at his headquarters in the Esplanade Hotel.

It is true that when I walked across the long room to a corner in which he was sitting writing, in a brown shirt with a swastika on his arm, he waited without looking up until I had reached his side, then sprang to his feet, lifted his right arm, and shouted 'Hitler!'; and that I responded by clicking my heels together, raising my right arm, and shouting back: 'Boothby!'

I talked with Hitler for over an hour; and it was not long before I detected the unmistakable glint of madness in his eyes. I was much impressed by his grasp of Keynesian economics at that time. He said that I was quite right about economic

expansion, and the means by which it could be achieved. But he added that this was now a political crisis, and that political forces would bring him to power. "After that," he said, "I shall bend economics to my will; and I have in my hands the necessary instrument, a man called Schacht." He had no sense of humour. He asked me how I would feel if Germany had beaten us in the last war, and driven a corridor between England and Scotland. I said: "You forget, Herr Hitler, that I

come from Scotland. We should have been delighted." He did not smile. Instead he brought his fist down with a crash on the table and said: "So! I had no idea that the hatred between the two peoples was so great." Perhaps this was one of the reasons why he sent Hess to Scotland in 1940, for I am sure that he did; and why he never bombed Edinburgh.

I then asked him, point-blank, what he was going to do to the Jews. I thought Hanfstaengi was going to faint, but only a flicker of irritation crossed his face. After a moment he said: 'There will be no pogroms.' I think that, at the time, he probably meant it. He had already planned to take over the whole of central and eastern Europe, and intended to deport all German Jews to those countries. What I cannot bring myself to believe is that he was unaware of what Himmler ultimately did to them.

That night I thought long and earnestly about the interview. I came to the conclusion that his plans were far more advanced than I had thought. He did not then wish to attack Britain and the British Empire, or even France. What he was determined to do was to bring the whole of central and eastern Europe under German control; and for this purpose Austria, and above all Czechoslovakia, were the key points.

(2) Robert Boothby, speech (October 1933)

If those of us who believe in freedom refuse to fight for our faith under any circumstances, then assuredly we will succumb to the military forces of Fascism or Communism, and most of the things which seem to make life worth living will be swept away.

(3) Robert Boothby, letter to Stanley Baldwin (31st January 1934)

There is little enthusiasm for the National Government; and I am firmly convinced that we are now moving towards a very considerable electoral debacle.

This seems to be to be due

(1) to the absence of any political philosophy, or theme, or policy, adequate to the needs of the time; and

(2) to the lack of constructive measures, and a reactionary tendency on the part of the Government which has become apparent lately. e.g. ineffective housing policy; continued and unwarranted retardation of public works; and, last but not least, the financial provisions of the Unemployed Insurance Bill.

I don't share the views of some regarding the necessity for State 'planning' of industry, although I think that some new guiding principles will have to be laid down to enable us to deal with certain industries of national importance along modern scientific lines.

But I do jib at starving the unemployed. And that is what it amounts to in some districts at the present time.

If the Government is to prosper, the people must be given something in which to believe.

But my immediate purpose in writing to you is simply to say that if something isn't done to mitigate the sufferings of the unemployed either in this Bill or in the Budget, I personally could not go on supporting the Government.

It isn't fair to ask people to vote down a proposal to give an extra shilling to the first two dependent children, and vote for the purchase of a Bible which no-one can read.

(4) Robert Boothby, speech (11th November, 1934)

Those who gave their lives in the war did so to save freedom and to gain peace; but today tyranny has regained the upper hand in Europe, and the danger of war is as great as in 1914.

The cream of Britain's manhood was killed in the last war, and those who survived were never allowed to play any part in the rebuilding of Europe. The result is that there is little but brute force left.

Today Germany is governed by a group of able and ruthless men, who have persuaded the German people that they can never become great again except through armed force.

I tell you they are rearming. And I say this - that if we go on as we are today, in a year or eighteen months' time they will be in a position to strike a vital blow at the very heart of the British Empire.

It is not too late to save the situation if only we learn the lessons of the past. The British Empire still stands for the things those men died to win - freedom and peace. But I would not care to share the responsibility of those who today are exposing us to mortal peril.

In relation to the facts of the present situation our Air Force is pitifully inadequate. If we are strong and resolute, and if we pursue a wise and constructive foreign policy, we can still save the world from war. But if we simply drift along, never taking the lead, and exposing the heart of our Empire to an attack which might pulverize it in a few hours, then everything that makes life worth living will be swept away, and then indeed we shall have finally broken faith with those who lie dead in the fields of Flanders.

(5) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

Reflecting the mood of the country, the Conservative Party was rotten at the core. The only thing they cared about was their property and their cash. The only thing they feared was that one day those nasty Communists would come and take it. The Labour and Liberal Parties were no better. With the exception of Hugh Dalton (and even he, speaking from the Front Opposition bench, announced that they would give no support of any kind to resistance to Hitler's military occupation of the Rhineland), they made violent, pacifist speeches; and voted steadily against the miserable Defence Estimates for the years 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1938. Churchill did not forget this after he came to power. When he was once asked why he did not sack more Conservative ministers, and appoint more from the Labour and Liberal Parties, he said: "They were worse."

(6) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

The terms of the Munich Agreement turned out to be even worse than we had supposed. They amounted to unconditional surrender. Even Goering was shocked. He said afterwards that when he heard Hitler tell the conference at Munich (if such it could be called) that he proposed to occupy the Sudeten lands, including the Czech fortifications at once, 'we all knew what that meant'. But neither Chamberlain nor Daladier made a cheep of protest. Hitler did not even have to send an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain did that for him. Ashton-Gwatkin of the Foreign Office brought it from Munich to Prague for presentation to the Czech Government. He had breakfast with our Military Attaché, Brigadier Humphrey Stronge, before he showed it to the British Minister, Basil Newton. Stronge said that Czechoslovakia could never accept such terms, as they involved, amongst other things, surrendering all the fortifications, and thereby rendering her defenceless. Ashton-Gwatkin said that they had got to accept, and that there was no alternative. Stronge, in his own words, was 'staggered'; and wondered what the outcome could possibly be. Later that day, after a heated argument with some of his generals and politicians, Benes capitulated.

(7) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

I was lucky to go to the Ministry of Food. Lord Woolton was not only a great administrator, but he knew how to treat his Under-Secretary as few ministers ever do. Since I was responsible to the House of Commons for policy over the whole field, he gave instructions that I should be kept fully informed about every aspect of it. But he went further than that. He gave me specific jobs to do. For example, he said to me: "One thing we are not short of is milk. We need a National Milk Scheme. Draft one for me, and let me have it by the end of next week. The whole resources of the Ministry are at your disposal." I did this, and after he had made certain amendments, he told me to submit it to the Cabinet on his behalf. It was approved, and I got it through the House of Commons without opposition, and even without debate, during the evacuation from Dunkirk. Thus the National Milk Scheme, which provided ample supplies of cheap milk for children and nursing mothers, came into existence. Scientists are now generally agreed that this did more than anything else to nourish, and sustain the health of, the youth of this country throughout the war.

(8) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

Then came the Blitz. After Coventry, the East End of London had to bear the brunt. Every night, from dusk to dawn the German bombs fell upon them. Woolton suggested that I might go down there every morning about six o'clock when the 'All-clear' sounded, and see what I could do to help. I found that, as they came out of the shelters, what comforted them most was a kiss and a cup of tea. These were easily provided. Almost overnight I got the Ministry of Food to set up canteens all over the East End, manned by voluntary workers, where the tea was free. When we took them back to their

homes, often reduced to rubble, their chief concern was what had happened to the cat. I am afraid that the cat searches which I tried to organize were less successful than the canteens.

A number of people, including Kingsley Martin, the Editor of The New Statesman and Ritchie Calder, now Lord Ritchie- Calder, came down to help. But the dominant figure was a priest called Father Grozier. He never failed. He seemed to be everywhere all the time; and his very presence brought comfort, and revived confidence and courage, to thousands of people.

The people of the East End of London - the true cockneys - are a race apart. Most of the men were dockers, all the women cosy. Taken as a whole, they were warm, affectionate, gay, rather reckless, and almost incredibly brave. Sometimes the language was pretty rough, but it was so natural and innocent that it never jarred. One day I came across a small boy crying. I asked him what the matter was, and he said: "They burnt my mother yesterday." Thinking it was in an air-raid, I said: "Was she badly burned?" He looked up at me and said, through his tears: "Oh yes. They don't muck about in crematoriums." I loved them, and I am glad to have been close to them in their hour of supreme trial.

(9) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

I soon came to the conclusion that the policy of area bombing of Germany, then being pursued mainly by Wellington bombers, was not paying off, because the expenditure of our resources and, still more, of our skilled manpower, was far greater than the results achieved. Too many of our bombs were dropped in fields. German arms production was not being seriously interfered with. The best that could be said for it was that a considerable number of Goering's fighter aircraft, which might have been sent to other fronts, had to be kept in Germany. The truth is that in those days the instruments for accurate navigation did not exist. There were high hopes of one gadget, which I did not begin to understand; and which was brought to us one day in a brand-new Wellington bomber. All the navigators in the squadron went up to see how it worked. Five minutes after take-off, a wing fell off the plane, and they were all killed.

Early in 1942, Lindemann, by then a member of the Cabinet, circulated his famous paper on strategic bombing. This said that if it was concentrated entirely on German working class houses, and 'military objectives' as such were forgotten, it would be possible to destroy fifty per cent of all the houses in the larger towns of Germany quite soon. Charming! The paper was strongly opposed by the scientists, headed by Sir Henry Tizard and Professor Blackett. Tizard calculated that Lindemann's estimate was five times too high, and Blackett that it was six times too high. But Lindemann was Churchill's man; and Lindemann prevailed. After the war the bombing survey revealed that his estimate was ten times too high.

The story of the Lindemann-Tizard controversy has been well told by C. P. Snow in his book Science and Government; and I have not seen it seriously contradicted. But one thing remains to be said. I think the scientists underestimated the psychological effect of our bombing policy not upon the German but upon the British people. They themselves were under heavy bombardment; and between 1941 and 1944 bombing was the only method by which we could directly hit back. I am sure that it gave a tremendous boost to British morale; and that, to this extent at least, the thousands of brave and skilled young men in Bomber Command did not give their lives in vain.

(4) The Sunday Independent (1st January 1995)

In it's dying days in the summer of 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home's Tory government feared it was about to face another sex scandal similar to the the Profumo case the year before.

John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, had been forced to resign after it emerged that he had slept with a woman who was also having an affair with a Soviet diplomat.

On 12 July 1964, the Sunday Mirror published a front page lead story under the headline: "Peer and a gangster: Yard probe." The newspaper claimed police were investigating an alleged homosexual relationship between a "prominent peer and a leading thug in the London underworld", who is alleged to be involved in a West End protection racket.

It said the peer was a "household name", and that the inquiries embraced Mayfair parties attended by the peer and the thug, and "the private weekend activities of the peer and a number of prominent public men during visits to Brighton". Scotland Yard was also looking at "relationships between the East End gangsters and a number of clergymen". It also spoke of allegations of blackmail.

Although the peer was not named, Fleet Street and the Commons had heard the rumours, and identified the peer as Lord Boothby, a former Conservative private secretary to Churchill, and then a radio and television personality. The Kray's had not yet achieved their notoriety.

Other newspapers did little about the story, and Scotland Yard denied it, but the Home Office and the Prime Minister's office were taking it seriously. The Profumo scandal had similarly simmered beneath the surface for months before exploding.

Sir Tim Bligh, the Prime Minister's private secretary, illustrated how the rumour mill had begun to operate when he sent a note to Douglas-Home on July 18 saying he had spoken to the chief whip, who had heard from two backbench Tory MPs that "Lord Boothby and (Tom) Driberg, (a Labour MP) had been importuning males at a dog track and were involved with gangs of thugs who dispose of their money at the tracks".

Bligh, apparently believing the tales, said the information "has been passed on to the Home Office", and that "the chief whip's (Martin Redmayne) view remains that if a prosecution was impending and was being held up, it should proceed".

The next day the Sunday Mirror splashed again on the story, saying it had a picture of the peer and the gangster sitting on a sofa.

At Chequers that day the story and its implications were debated by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne, the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, and the Prime Minister.

Later another backbench MP told Brooke's personal private secretary he knew the photograph of Boothby and Kray was incriminating, although he had not seen it.

Boothby had by now returned from holiday abroad with Sir Colin Coote, editor of the Daily Telegraph, and sent a detailed letter to the Home Secretary explaining his innocence. The photograph had been taken when Ronald Kray had come to his house six months earlier to discuss a legitimate business proposition. Boothby had not known Kray was a criminal, and had in any case turned down the business plan. Kray had wanted to be pictured with Boothby because he was a personality, and it would have been churlish to refuse. Boothby was not a homosexual, he told Brooke.

On 21 July the Home Secretary chaired a secret meeting of senior Conservatives to discuss what is now being seen as an impending crisis. At his request, the editor and reporter at the Sunday Mirror were interviewed but said nothing.

At this stage MI5 was asked what it knew, and said it had nothing on Boothby or Kray. The chief whip said he believed there was a conspiracy between the Labour Party and the Mirror.

Given a note about the meeting, the unworldly Douglas-Home, out of touch with the subtleties of London gossip, scribbled a note puzzling that if it is politically motivated, why is Boothby involved?

William Deedes, future editor of the Daily Telegraph and then a minister without portfolio, tried without success to find out from Fleet Street the source of the Mirror's story.

Bligh, the Prime Minister's private secretary, by now had the story completely out of proportion, and had picked up the fact that Coote had been peripherally involved with characters in the Profumo scandal.

Then almost as suddenly as it had blown up, the story went away. The Mirror later conceded it had no justification, apologised and paid the peer £40,000 in out of court damages, a massive sum 30 years ago.

Boothby, although always in precarious financial state, partly because of his gambling, gave the money away, mainly to members of his family and children of his friends for their education.

(5) John Pearson, The Sunday Independent (15th June, 1996)

Anyone who needs reminding how effortlessly corruption can occur in the highest - as well as the lowest - reaches of society and politics should watch next week's `Secret Lives' documentary.

Startling new evidence, presented here for the first time by the Kray twins' official biographer, shows that an extraordinary establishment cover-up resulted in London's most notorious villains being given the freedom of the city. Thanks to what took place, the Krays became `untouchables', who over four long years were allowed to create the most elaborate crime ring this country has ever seen.

More than 30 years on, the true story of Lord Boothby and the Krays can finally be told - it is a story that today's politicians might do well to ponder By 1964, Robert John Graham Boothby, first - and last - Baron Boothby of Buchan and Rattray Head, had become famous but not in quite the way that he had expected.

As a Conservative politician his background was impeccable - rich father, Eton and Oxford - and, on entering parliament at the age of 24, he became the type of young MP who gets tipped as a future premier. He became the friend and follower of Winston Churchill who, in 1939, gave him his first big chance as Minister for Food in the wartime government.

But Boothby had certain flaws in his character. In the first place he was an addicted gambler and something of a liar - and it was for lying to a parliamentary committee over a financial deal by which he had hoped to pay his debts, that Churchill sacked him.

He was also a promiscuous bisexual. At Oxford he relied on men for pleasure, but later was also inclined to women and, as a young MP, he started a long affair with Lady Dorothy Macmillan, wife of his friend and fellow MP Harold Macmillan and daughter of the Duke of Devonshire. Besides a daughter, this affair produced some curious results.

Harold Macmillan wouldn't agree to a divorce, and to divert himself from domestic misery, put all his energies into politics - which could be why he and not the more flamboyant Boothby finally became Prime Minister. It was towards the end of the affair that Prime Minister Macmillan, in a show of absurdly stylish condescension, offered his wife's old lover a life peerage.

A vain man, Boothby loved his title, and it coincided with a period of remarkable success for him on television. Never at a loss for an anecdote or an aphorism, Boothby with his battered looks and maverick charm was a natural for the medium, and rapidly became a celebrity.

But then, in July 1964, his enviable life seemed suddenly derailed by a front-page story in the Sunday Mirror. Under the headline "Peer and a Gangster: Yard Probe", the story claimed that Scotland Yard had virtually completed an investigation into a homosexual relationship between a peer "who is a household name" and a notorious London gangster.

The following week, the paper repeated its allegations and this time effectively libelled Boothby by stating that it had a photograph of the gangster and the peer taken together in the latter's Mayfair flat. By now photographs were circulating in Fleet Street of Ronnie Kray, the gangster, decorously perched on a sofa with Lord Boothby in his flat in Eaton Square.

In Germany, Stern had run an article actually naming him in its headline: "Lord Bobby in Trouble". Boothby was on holiday in France when the story broke, and claimed to have been puzzled initially by the peer's identity. It is interesting that when he was back in London, the first person he rang to find out who it was, was his friend, the journalist and former Labour party chairman Tom Driberg.

According to Boothby, Driberg's reply was brief and to the point: "I'm sorry Bob, it's you." For a man of his exalted situation, this placed Boothby in a tricky position. While admitting that somebody called Ronnie Kray had visited his flat to discuss a business deal, he emphatically denied the rest of the Sunday Mirror allegations.

This left him two alternatives. By doing nothing he would tacitly accept the Sunday Mirror's accusations. On the other hand, to sue for libel would mean facing lengthy and expensive court proceedings which could ruin him financially - apart from whatever revelations the Sunday Mirror could produce to support its story.

According to a friend, he was on the point of suicide when help appeared from an unexpected quarter. It came in the shape of two of the Labour party's legal heavyweights - Gerald Gardiner, QC, who would become Lord Chancellor in that autumn's newly elected Labour government, and Harold Wilson's portly "Mr Fixit", the overweight solicitor Arnold Goodman, who was soon to join Gardiner in the House of Lords. They offered to represent him.

At their appearance Boothby's troubles vanished as if by magic. Sir Joseph Simpson, the Commissioner for Police, denied ordering the Yard investigation that the Sunday Mirror mentioned. The Sunday Mirror suddenly discovered that it had no evidence to support its story.

And, advised by Gardiner, Boothby penned a famous letter to the Times specifically denying all of the Mirror's allegations. He firmly stated he was not a homosexual and that he had met the man "who is alleged to be king of the underworld, only three times on business matters and then by appointment in my flat, at his request and in the company of other people ... In short, the whole affair is a tissue of atrocious lies."

Backed by this letter, Goodman jumped into action, and by winning a swift agreement from the International Printing Corporation, owners of the Sunday Mirror, saved Boothby from the court case he was dreading. He did more than that. Like the tough negotiator he was, Goodman won his client a record out-of-court settlement of pounds 40,000 and a grovelling public apology signed by Cecil Harmsworth King, the chairman of IPC.

At the time it seemed that justice had been done, and that Boothby had indeed deserved this massive sum - over half a million pounds in today's inflated currency. It also seemed as if this settlement would put an end for ever to the doubts and queries raised by the Sunday Mirror article.

In fact, they were just beginning. I got to know the Krays in 1967 when, in a fit of investigative zeal, I agreed to write their joint biography with the promise of their full co-operation. This was nine months before they were arrested, and the more I saw of them the more worrying Found them.

These were emphatically not the cheery cockney villains of popular perception, keen to help old ladies and steer clear of honest citizens. Ronald, a homosexual, was seriously psychotic, and his identical twin brother, Reginald, was living on his nerves - and Gordon's gin.

Both were palpably dangerous. But despite, or possibly because of this, the twins were extraordinarily successful in their chosen line of business.

In their dark blue suits and chauffeur- driven cars they were essentially early figures of the enterprise culture, criminal entrepreneurs who made large amounts of tax-free money from a vast and efficiently administered protection racket, mostly operated with other criminals.

They were the enforcers of the underworld, "Percentage Men", whose reputation was so fearsome that hardened criminals obeyed them. Much of the Krays' money came from the arsonists, gamblers and fraudsters they saved from trouble.

They had connections with the American Mafia, "protecting" their gambling interests in London together with the sale of stolen bearer bonds in Europe. Many West End clubs paid them to keep out of trouble, and the Krays had a knack of getting money out of any crime they heard of either by threats or extortion.

They could be useful if expensive allies - and lethal enemies. Like the big businessmen they were, they were always anxious to expand their operations. One of the last discussions I had with Ronnie Kray, a night or two before he was arrested, was over whether he should get involved with some stolen uranium on offering Switzerland - and I remember him adding that "the Firm" would soon be moving into sophisticated drugs.

He knew someone in the Pakistani Embassy who could use his diplomatic immunity to bring heroin into Britain, and clearly saw this as only the beginning. The Krays also murdered people. How many was a matter for speculation. The rumours of their gangland killings were an important part of their mystique, for what particularly impressed the underworld was the way they seemed to murder with impunity.

Bodies were rarely found, no one dared give evidence, and the police evinced no eagerness to catch them. The twins were expert in what they termed "propaganda"; spreading the rumours round the underworld which formed the basis of the fear they marketed.

Much of this fear depended on the sense of their invulnerability. I was impressed by it myself. The press steered clear of them. So, it seemed, did the police, and they claimed to have protectors and informants in the highest places - "even in the House of Lords," as Ronnie said to me on one occasion.

Certainly their inside knowledge was uncanny. Some thought Ronnie Kray was psychic but I suspected more prosaic sources of protection.

From all that I could gather, the twins' immunity had started at around the time of their "victory" over the press and the police in the Boothby case in 1964, but this was something they would not discuss. So I interviewed Lord Boothby on the subject in his flat in Eaton Place.

Despite his celebrated charm, it was not the easiest of conversations. Unsurprisingly Boothby was very guarded on the subject of the twins. He insisted that he barely knew them, and that "the truth about my relationship with the Krays is contained in my letter to the Times" .

Boothby added one thing that I've always remembered. I asked him why, as a lifelong Conservative, he was assisted in his troubles by important members of the Labour party. "That was all down to the little man, " he said. "What little man?" I asked him. "Harold Wilson," he replied.

"He was always one of my admirers." I took his word for it, and there the matter rested until July 1968 when, in a series of dawn raids across London, a great policeman, Commander Leonard "Nipper" Read, arrested the Krays and their henchmen in their beds.

Their years as criminal "untouchables" were over. When dealing with gangsters it's advisable to get on with their mothers. I genuinely liked the Kray twins' mother, Violet, and a few days later, when I visited her in her top-floor tower-block flat in Moorgate, she said she wanted me to have a small,brown suitcase "which might be useful for your book".

Along with old newspaper cuttings of the twins, it contained a personally inscribed copy of Lord Boothby's memoirs, and a photograph. The picture was of Ronnie Kray and Boothby and a pair of criminals I recognised, sitting with a teenage boy in Jermyn Street's Society Club - now Tramp.

There were also some letters to Ronald Kray from Boothby, written on headed paper from the House of Lords, which began, "Dear Ronnie" . One of them thanked him for the gift of an expensive vase. Another proposed to call to see him at his Knights, Esmeralda's Barn.

The letters were dated 1963, the year before the three brief business visits to the flat in Eaton Place which he had specifically stated were the only times they'd met. These letters made it clear that in his letter to the Times, Lord Boothby had lied.

This lie had important implications for the book that I was writing, but it was made apparent by lawyers on both sides that if I mentioned it, I could face a libel action that would ruin me for ever. I was also coming up against another wall of silence from a different quarter.

Lord Goodman refused to see me, as did Cecil King and Lord (Hugh) Cudlipp of the Mirror. It was explained to me that when Goodman had made the deal with IPC, he had insisted on a clause forbidding anyone involved from subsequently discussing it in public.

This meant that when my book about the Krays, The Profession of Violence, was published, it lacked what I knew to be a crucial section of the story. But once the Old Bailey trial of the Krays was over, people around them talked more freely, and I found out more about the curious relationship between Ronnie Kray and Robert Boothby.

There was considerably more to it than I suspected. Not only did they share a love for teenage boys, which Ronnie Kray provided, but Boothby clearly had a fascination for dangerous company, coupled with a reckless disregard for its consequences.

There was evidence that when he dined Ronnie Kray in the House of Lords and took him for a drink at White's Club in St James's, members of Scotland Yard's Intelligence section already had him under surveillance. There was also evidence that, in return, Ronnie Kray could offer Boothby something more exciting than dinner at the Lords.

As well as boys there were East End orgies and sex shows involving criminals. One account described Boothby lying under a glass-topped table while boys were made to defecate above him. Another described him sitting naked in a room with a number of criminals and boys around him, and "love beads" protruding from his anus.

Normally such behaviour would have been Lord Boothby's own affair but for someone so famous - and so recognisable - it was madness, and one must wonder if he was seeking self- destruction.

Certainly it made him subject to blackmail by the Krays. More to the point, it raised again the crucial question of why, in that early summer of 1964, distinguished members of a future Labour government should have let themselves become involved in saving such a character from a disaster of his own making.

From what I knew of Harold Wilson, Boothby's suggestion that "the little man" had done it from the kindness of his own heart appeared unlikely. The heart of Harold Wilson didn't operate like that, and the idea of two top legal members of the Labour high command taking on a case like this on their own initiative - and on the eve of a general election - struck me as improbable.

From what I finally discovered, the answer seemed to lie with Cecil Harmsworth King, who had eagerly insisted on running the original story in the Sunday Mirror, in the hope of impressing the Labour leader with what he thought would be an election-winning scandal.

But Wilson and his close adviser Arnold Goodman felt otherwise. Just the year before, during the Profumo affair, Wilson followed Goodman's wise advice not to make party capital from scandal, and enhanced his image as statesman. Now it was even more important for Labour not to spoil its chances in the election by exploiting an even murkier affair.

It was an awkward situation. But, not for the first or the last time in his life, Harold Wilson's clever Mr Fixit came to the aid of the party. In 1994 a further twist was given to this extraordinary saga when cabinet papers, released under the 30-year rule, showed that back in June 1964 members of the Conservative government led by Alec Douglas Home had been even more alarmed at the prospect of a Boothby scandal on the eve of the election than their Labour counterparts.

This was not because they thought their man was innocent and had been cruelly libelled by the Sunday Mirror. Quite the contrary. Only a few weeks earlier, two Conservative back-benchers had reported to the chief whip that they had seen Lord Boothby at a dog track importuning boys with none other than his friend Tom Driberg.

The Tories were so shell-shocked from Profumo, that the situation called for a crisis meeting at Chequers to decide what to do. As no one apparently had the least idea, the Conservatives must have felt extremely grateful when Arnold Goodman inadvertently saved them - even if pounds 40,000 for a rogue like Robert Boothby did strike some of them as at ouch excessive.

The most interesting fresh evidence to come to light, and in its way the most pathetic, is the story of how Boothby met the Krays. This was through Leslie Holt, a young, good-looking cat burglar, with whom Boothby fell in love after meeting him at gambling club in 1963.

Holt was also one of Ronnie Kray's drivers and lovers, and Ronnie clearly used him as a lure for Boothby, who was all too willing to be caught. To his credit, Boothby tried to save Holt from the dangers of the life he was living,and it was not the fault of Boothby - or the Krays - that Holt was later murdered by a Harley Street anesthetist.

There is also new and probably conclusive further evidence of why Labour's high command moved so swiftly into action on behalf of Robert Boothby. This involves yet another future member of the House of Lords, Boothby's fellow enthusiast for boys and dog tracks.

Tom Driberg - just as Boothby became involved with the Krays through Leslie Holt so Driberg got to know them through "Mad" Teddy Smith, a good-looking psychopathic gangster who was a friend and occasional enemy of the Krays. Driberg,described as a "voracious homosexual", is said to have given Smith the addresses of his rich acquaintances, whose houses he might burgle in return for sexual favours.

Knowing Driberg, this is not unlikely, but if Boothby was self-destructive, Driberg had a famous knack of getting out of trouble. As Boothby's friend he was very much aware of his situation from the start. He knew that if the case went to court he would almost certainly be named and ruined along with Boothby.

But as an important member of the Labour executive, Driberg had a lot of influence, particularly over Harold Wilson, and he would certainly have used it to encourage Arnold Goodman's rescue operation which would save Boothby and himself.

All of which undoubtedly explains why, after the settlement, there was not a squeak in parliament about the case - and why instead there seemed an overwhelming cross-bench willingness to let sleeping dogs, however dirty, lie - and go on lying. Which Lord Boothby did until he died in 1986.

Whatever the reasons for the rescue of Lord Boothby, what can never be disputed is the dire effect it had upon the three great institutions which are meant to protect us from dangerous criminals like the Krays. First in responsibility were the politicians in parliament who had previously been concerned about the growth of organised crime and protection rackets but who now fell silent.

To have mentioned the Krays would have meant reviving their involvement with Lord Boothby, and who could tell where that would lead? The press fell silent, too; pounds 40,000 was a lot of money, and there was little point in risking a similar performance with such tricky characters.

The press, once so vociferous against the Krays, found other targets. But the worst effect was on the police. Here, the crucial point was that the Sunday Mirror story was correct. A Scotland Yard investigation had been observing and reporting on the obvious relationship between Boothby and the Krays. It had been conducted by the Yard's Intelligence section, on the initiative of its then commander, Detective Superintendent John E Cummings.

But, worried by the prospect of trouble from the politicians, the Commissioner, Sir Joseph Simpson, had chosen to deny it, and from then on there was no real incentive at the Yard to catch the Krays. What Sir Joseph wanted was a quiet life.

An Old Bailey trial against the Krays for criminal protection foundered - thanks partly to the way they interfered with members of the jury, and also because of a lack of commitment from the top. It was while the Krays were on remand that Boothby infamously felt obliged to ask a question on their behalf in the House of Lords.

For the next three years the police would leave the Krays alone. Even when they turned to murder, there was no attempt to catch them, and when "Nipper" Read finally obtained permission for a full-scale offensive from a new police Commissioner, Sir John Waldron, in 1967, he wisely insisted on conducting the entire operation away from Scotland Yard itself. It could be argued that, as political scandals go, the Boothby case was an exception.

But scandals are exceptional by their very nature, and now that it is part of history, the Boothby case should be remembered for what it was - an exemplary and most extraordinary cause celebre among British political scandals.

It embodied almost everything that makes us cynical about politicians - the neat manipulation of events, the bland suppression of the truth, and the way the establishment protects its own.It is also a fascinating demonstration of the way the fault lines of corruption run in our society, how the law can be manipulated, how class solidarity is exerted, how secrecy becomes a curse and how power corrupts.

The lessons are endless and I recommend them to a new and - we hope - less gullible generation of British politicians. It would be good to think that Lords Boothby, Driberg, Goodman - and the Krays - could not have got away with it today.