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 …