Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Article excerpt

A party responds variably to defeat. Labour in 1979 continued a quarrel already latent between a weak but established moderate leadership and a left-wing determined that `the rank and file' -- activists in the constituencies and union executives -- should call the shots. What followed -- a two-year war within the Party culminating in a split -- destroyed it for good as a radical influence. It all seems unimaginably long ago, but eleven years after the final subsiding of the SDP (Social Democratic Party), the Labour Party stands to their right, the left-wing challenge is fled into thin air and the issues of 1981 are cinder and ashes. History there looks like a thing accomplished.

The Conservatives have been luckier ... so far. They have registered three comparable defeats this century, 1906, 1945 and 1966. That of 1945 was a surprise. Only R.A. Butler, with an ear to the ground in Saffron Walden, had sensed it coming. Which was more than many Labour leaders had done. Hugh Dalton wrote of the Labour candidate in neighbouring Stockton, George Chetwynd, `Excellent and pleasing young candidate, but don't think he can beat Macmillan', Chetwynd beat Macmillan by 8,664 votes!

Churchill rather defined his own predicament observing to his doctor, Moran, `I have no message for them now ... I feel very lonely without a war'. But Churchill himself would be no hindrance to a shift leftward. As early as 1943, contemplating the future of the public schools, Churchill envisaged bursaries for free pupils accounting for 60 per cent of places. It didn't happen but Churchill's contemplating such a thing is eloquent.

Famously, the Tories in opposition would revive Neville Chamberlain's creation, the Research Department which, under David Clarke and with Rab Butler as its political head, would point lain Macleod, Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell at policy research. The Tory Party would offer itself as a more efficient custodian of what Labour had created. Intellectually, Butler and his aides are not to be compared with Mr Blair for whom submission has become a reflex, but water was waved on its way under the bridge in a startlingly similar way.

Some Conservatives wanted to change the very name. Lord Woolton, a wartime Minister of Food, proposed the `Union Party', while Harold Macmillan favoured the `New Democratic Party'. Conference delegates resisted such thinking as they did not seriously resist the Tory charters. `They', wrote Brendan Bracken, Churchill's buccaneering friend, of the 1946 conference, `demanded a real Conservative policy instead of a synthetic socialist one so dear to the hearts of the Macmillans and Butlers'.

The rejection hardly went beyond a collective harrumph. As Harold Macmillan would write, the Tories' Industrial Charter, which he helped draft, `accepted as irreversible the nationalisation of coal, the railways and the Bank of England, and the impossibility of unscrambling these scrambled eggs' ... Nous avons change tout ca!

But the Tory Party kept its return to Manchester liberalism for a date thirty-five years on. Its leadership, Churchill, Butler, and although this is often overlooked, Eden -- who went through a distinctly cerise phase -- and the rising Macmillan, were all what Labour today call `realists'. A Tory Right there was. But Sir Waldron Smithers and Captain Charles Waterhouse echo like the receding snorts of antique club members. And right-wingness in the Tory Party would not be an economic thing. The Tory Right would for years put its genius into flogging and colonisation.

That highly civilised free market machine room, the Institute for Economic Affairs, was not created until the mid-1950s and its first, isolated breakthrough persuading Edward Heath to end resale price maintenance, came in 1962. The acceptance of so much of Labour's accomplished agenda was tactically helpful, but it was more than tactics. The panel patient, the poor law hospital and the pool of unemployed lacked attraction to many Conservatives then. …

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