Memoirs of a Conservative: J.C.C. Davidson’s Memoirs and Papers, 1910-1937
Tides of Fortune, 1495-1955
The substantial victory of the Conservative Party in the British General Election has been the summer surprise. For long months almost immediately after the last election, the polls had shown the public’s disillusionment with Labour rule: every forecast was of a Tory landslide. But the pundits reminded one that every government picks up in popularity when it chooses to put the issue to the test, and that at last Labour’s success with the British balance of payments had enabled them to reinflate the economy.
In February, the Labour government began to melt the wage freeze, and suddenly what they had hoped for occurred. The polls shifted. Instead of a Conservative victory, the polls now predicted a modest Labour success. Harold Wilson dissolved Parliament and ran a campaign deliberately intended to take the heat out of everything except the weather, which remained perfect even on polling day (an asset to Labour whose working-class voters have to be persuaded to turn out to vote after supper). In the polls the Tories trailed ignominiously right up to election day. But when the electorate voted, the Conservatives coasted to victory with a swing of votes since the last election of unprecedented proportions.
Historically it was no surprise. If one accepts that after the second Reform Bill Britain became a modern parliamentary democracy with mass parties, the country has been governed since then for seventy-two out of one hundred years by the Conservative Party or by coalition governments which Conservatives have dominated. Only four of the governments formed by the left of center were in any position to become historic reforming administrations. Britain has returned to its customary political position to the right of center. There is, however, one element in the Conservative victory which gives it a special touch of piquancy. For the first time since Disraeli the Conservatives are led by someone outside the normal charmed circle.
Edward Heath does not represent a new strain in the Conservative Party, but he represents something new in its leadership. The Conservatives could not win a General Election unless a large section of the working class voted for them, but they hardly ever adopt a working-class Conservative to stand for a safe seat and thus get into Parliament. Nevertheless the party reaches right down into the middle class and numbers of Conservative MPs are products of the grammar schools. Indeed six of their sixteen-member Shadow Cabinet were grammar-school (highschool) boys, though eleven of them were at Oxbridge and none at a provincial university.
Today the Conservatives recruit a sizable number of energetic young technocrats from families who are on the way up. In times gone by they were self-made men. Today their fathers are likely to have bought a house on a mortgage, run a hire-purchase car—the sort of man who is not wholly dependent on a pension when he retires but is at the mercy of inflation, high bank rate, purchase tax, and all town planning schemes for the compulsory acquisition of property in the interests of the community. This is the background from which Heath comes. He does not go racing or relax in the traditional upper-class ways. He likes sailing small boats, playing the piano, and listening to classical music.
This is the group which, very broadly speaking, has held the leadership of the party during the last five years. Temporarily at bay, and in competition with them for the ministerial posts in a Tory cabinet, are those Conservatives who think themselves born to rule: the sons, and more often the sons-in-law, of the nobility, the upper-class Etonian with cousins in both the county and the City families or through his social connections able to be accepted by them. These are the political descendants of the aristocracy who dominated the Conservative leadership before 1914, gave way in the years between the wars to the businessmen and the upper-middle-class Baldwinites, and then came into their own after the Second World War, in the administrations of Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan, which were heavy with the well-born and the inheritors of wealth. In Macmillan’s Cabinet of 1959 only one member, R.A. Butler, could really be said to have come from the middle class.
But then misfortune fell. A perfumed cloud of scandal wafted over the party in 1963, Macmillan fell ill, the two natural contenders for the leadership, Butler and Hogg, were bypassed. The new Prime Minister to “emerge” from the dubious maneuvering behind the scenes was an undoubted aristocrat, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, of such palpable mediocrity, of such unawareness of what might worry a housewife or concern a bank clerk, that after his defeat in 1964, the Conservatives with almost indecent haste sacked him. (Now he is back as Foreign Secretary.) They instituted a democratic way of selecting a leader which would not be so affected by personal vendettas in the Carlton Club. And they chose a man who was intended to rival Wilson as a technocrat and a man of the people, a grammar-school boy of skill and decency, who had risen in life, but whose accent—just a little defect in being unable to pronounce some vowel sounds in the accepted 1930s upper-class manner—sent shudders up the spine of what is left of the country gentry.
Not only the country gentry. The rural counties and the prosperous suburban constituencies return to the House of Commons the men who are the backbone of every Conservative parliamentary party. They will never get office. They do not even desire it. Well to the right of the leadership, some of them are from upper-class families, some of them older businessmen educated at the top public schools, suspicious of the new Conservatives, quick to suspect and condemn any young Conservative whose views are unorthodox, hostile to humanitarianism, hard-liners on most issues.
These two groups are not monolithic. They never have been. The upper- and middle-class Conservatives are divided by too many personal rivalries and contain too many different sensibilities. There have been buccaneers such as Churchill and F.E. Smith, religious, bookish, hunting squires such as Halifax, feline, intellectual socialites such as Balfour, crafty and discreet hatchet men such as Margesson, blundering puritans such as Joynson-Hicks or Maxwell-Fyfe, and farsighted industrialists such as Cunliffe-Lister. But if they are not monolithic, the Tories on the way up have to learn how to placate the old upper-class crust. It was Lord Salisbury who said of Iain Macleod (who will now be Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) that he was too clever by half.
All during the campaign Heath was dogged by his public image and the traditional Conservatives muttered that the wrong man had got the leadership. He is handsome, smiles readily, is a master of facts and policies and, above all, honorable and liberal-minded. But the campaign was depicted by television and the press over and again as a boxing match between him and Wilson, with Heath as the novice and Wilson the champ who moved his opponent round the ring and could hit him at will.
Wilson appeared self-confident and secure in his role. Coming from the lower middle class, he is clear that that is where a Labour leader ought to come from in these days. He fawns on no one, not on TV or the press, nor on his critics or his supporters. He had no trouble from his left wing whereas Heath suffered nightmares of embarrassment from the odious Enoch Powell, anti-Europe, anti-East of Suez, anti-student, in favor of laissez faire and, above all, anti-immigrant, the rallying point of racism, who significantly increased his majority.
Faced with this Heath seemed to fumble. His aim to appear as a classless Conservative, a symbol of a party which had thrown off the upper-class image, lacked conviction. He looked almost as far removed from ordinary people as his upper-class predecessors of the past thirty years, and he lacked the folksiness of Stanley Baldwin. The worst of all the polls, from his point of view, was the poll on his own personal popularity. The only time it brightened was when, a few months ago, he won a yacht race in Australia; but it slumped as he toured the country.
He toured on. He hammered away at the issues. He hammered away at Labour’s record. When he spoke of the housewife’s problems, people unfairly asked where was his housewife: Heath is unmarried. He refused to bash the trade unions or exploit the race issue and he went on pounding at Labour’s inability to honor their promises, defend the pound, and keep prices steady. While Wilson was communicating and riding off every insult with a ready retort—when the first egg hit him he immediately said that here was good evidence that prices hadn’t risen all that much—Heath went on talking of the issues. His ship has come home.
The issueless campaign run by Wilson, devoid of fervor and reminiscent of Baldwin in the Twenties with his slogan of Safety First simply did not bring out the Labour vote. Labour supporters vote if at all through fire in the belly, not all that easy to ignite after the government’s policy on the Vietnam war and on penal clauses against the unions. The psephologists pooh-pooh this. Anthony King of the University of Essex claims that if the turnout had been higher the Tory margin of victory would have been greater and that the figures show a correlation between marginal constituencies in which there was a high turnout and high swing to the Tories: but to prove this the missing voters would have to be polled. Other researchers argue that Labour lost the vote of workers in heavy industries, of skilled manual workers in towns where they own, instead of rent, their houses, and of professional and managerial workers who swung to Wilson in 1966 and went back this time to the Tories. Others claim that the housewives, angered by price rises, voted Conservative against their husbands. There will certainly be an elaborate academic autopsy.
On the other side the Tory vote always depends on good organization, and the fact that Heath brought it out makes good his claim to be Organization Man. As the spokesman of the new Tories, the market researchers, business efficiency experts, and bright young directors of companies and finance houses, Heath owes remarkably few political debts. It will be interesting to see how far he will try to be independent of the traditional Tory aristocratic influence—an influence incidentally which has always dominated the City.
In the days, however, when George Curzon entered Parliament in the Conservative interest, there was not the faintest doubt that the aristocracy ruled with such help in Cabinet from their middle-class supporters as they deemed necessary. (In 1886 there were seven peers, three of them sons of dukes, in Lord Salisbury’s Cabinet of fourteen.) Nor was there the faintest doubt in Curzon’s mind that he not only deserved to be, but would be, Prime Minister. He had it all planned. His family were not grand. They had been country gentlemen for centuries, and his father, a clergyman, had come unexpectedly into the title. But Curzon saw himself from the start as the epitome of what the nobility should be.