The Shape of Things to Come in Politics

By Redmond, Robert S. | Contemporary Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Shape of Things to Come in Politics


Redmond, Robert S., Contemporary Review


Winston Churchill once said 'Political ability is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. And to have the ability afterward to explain why it didn't happen'.

Most commentators, today, look upon the next election as already won by the Labour Party. They forget that five years ago, in the run up to the 1992 poll, they were sure Neil Kinnock would become Prime Minister. After the event, of course, they could explain what had happened and why. Nevertheless, here they are again, confident in their forecasts. Perhaps they will be right, but it may be a year before polling day and, as Harold Wilson said, 'A week is a long time in politics' - particularly if the Conservatives can, somehow, stop fighting among themselves.

Whatever the election result, political forecasters, obsessed with the short term, are ignoring a trend which must soon reach a watershed destined to change all our political alignments. Perhaps this 'big bang' looked imminent in the 1980s when the SDP came on the scene intending 'to break the mould' The trend faltered then but it never disappeared.

It all began around 1950-51. Labour had come to power in 1945 with a huge majority and a reforming zeal. Attlee, Bevin, Morrison and others took office on a moral and intellectual tide. They saw themselves as taking part in a great crusade to rebuild Britain. By 1951, however, they had run out of steam. Even under Harold Wilson, when the Party revived, much of the old ardour had faded. In any case, the character of the Parliamentary Labour Party was changing too. No longer were their benches filled with the traditional Trade Unionists. There were more intellectuals and professional people. If, also, one looks at successive election results, one finds that after each period of Tory rule, there were more Liberal MPs. This suggests that while voters were unhappy, they were not all prepared to cross the Rubicon. They saw the Liberals as a kind of half-way house indicating a desire for change, but not too much.

There is another factor which cannot be ignored. In the 1950s, following the end of Labour's first post-war government in power, there was a remarkable consensus known as Butskellism. Differences in emphasis existed between the two main parties, but in his book It Seems To Me, John Cole, the former BBC parliamentary correspondent tells us how the prominent Tory MP Reginald Maudling had said he could not think of a single policy issue on which he disagreed with Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Leader. Anyone who knew Reggie, can believe it. In other words, free of Clause IV and Socialist dogma, the two could probably have worked together on the same side of the House. They were not the only ones.

When, at that time, the average Conservative constituency activists were asked why they were members of the Party, the answer always began with excellent reasons why they were opposed to Socialism. It would be some years before what was called The Common Market became an everyday topic of conversation.

Towards the end of Harold Macmillan's reign, in 1963, grass root Tories began to complain about what they called the ratchet effect of Socialist legislation. They were restive and deplored the way nationalisation kept advancing while Tory Governments seemed to want to make it work. They were demanding more radical policies to prevent Britain sliding into a Socialist State beyond the point of no return.

Those were the days when the Conservative Party was moving to the Right. It never 'lurched' as some try to tell us and it might be said that, today, it is less 'Right' then it was twenty-five years ago.

Perhaps the move suffered a set-back when Edward Heath was Prime Minister (1970-74) following a leap in unemployment, but it resumed and gathered momentum when Margaret Thatcher succeeded him. Even so, we still hear about the Right and Left as if every MP will fit neatly into a pigeon hole. …

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