The Making of a Conservative: Part Two

Article excerpt

Into Politics

FOR the next twenty years after the War, my base was the University of Glasgow: the obligation to teach modem history objectively, but also with some passion and concern. In my early years I lectured and tutored in modern British history; after I became a Professor I lectured on European and World History, including courses on the U.S. and on the Middle East. I tried to go down the middle of the road: it was - it still is - the historian's creed. I reviewed regularly for The Glasgow Herald, did occasional 'leaders' on American topics, and in the end was on the board of the paper as deputy chairman. I was a frequent radio and T.V. interviewer, and this reinforced the need for objectivity. To ask a succession of different political animals a series of searching questions requires a certain versatility, but done over a span of years you end up either as a political eunuch or as a chameleon, or, what is worst of all, just a performer. In the end, a man must choose - though it is possible, and it is very easy, for academics and cynics, cushioned in academic affluence, to say that the fence is also a point of view.

But why step down from it and into the ring? Was it only mounting distaste for the role of the neutral observer? Not quite. There were two dominant facts: alarm at what in practice the idea of Socialism was proving to be, and an equal alarm at the neglect of the major problems of our day and generation by Socialists and Conservatives alike. It became overwhelming with the emergence of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. He dressed up his appeal to the people in the 1964 election as 'the white heat of the technological revolution'. In fact, he had spent the war as a civil servant in London, and as Prime Minister (like Blair) he became the prisoner of the often-repeated fancy phrases he or his speech-writers coined, and which he thought were 'policies'.

Mr Wilson's Socialism in practice meant bureaucracy: a bigger Government than ever before in British history; one in three of Labour M.P.s was given a job, as is also true with Tony Blair's regime, a legion of non-elected boards filled with jobs for the boys at fat salaries; at least 64,000 extra civil servants since 1964; those added up to a Government that was and is costly, inefficient and irresponsible. Far from being made efficient, government has been made top-heavy, unwieldy and expensive. It still is. There has been a shift of power at Westminster from the House of Commons, the 'elected' Government, to the Executive and the Civil Service, the 'permanent' Government, and now to the Labour Party's own elaborate P.R. men. This faith in government is rooted in the heresy that all problems can be solved by passing laws. But the laws, said Burke: '... reach but a very little way. Constitute government how you please, infinitely the greater part of it must depend upon the exercise of the powers which are le ft at large to the prudence and uprightness of ministers of state. Even all the use and potency of the laws depend upon them. Without them, your commonwealth is no better than a scheme upon paper; not a living, active, effective constitution'. Jefferson said it best: 'That Government is best that governs least'.

I was angered too by Shirley Williams' campaign against grammar schools (and her copying of American parallels), the relaxation of discipline and the attack on the whole structure of competitive examination and external examiners that ought to be Britain's pride, having undermined self-discipline and the notion that hard work and talent should get due reward. This has now led to the current crusade against Oxbridge 'privilege'. Add penal taxation of the honest, decent citizen, and now an alarming threat to his own insurance arrangements against his old age, and you get a rejection of responsibility and respect for worth, and an erosion of that mutual trust and regard for law without which civilisation itself becomes impossible. …