Can Conservatism Work?

The Squandered Peace: The World, 1945-1975

by John Vaizey
Hodder and Stoughton, 455 pp., £8.95 (paper)

Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties

by Paul Johnson
Harper and Row, 817 pp., $27.95

The British Political Tradition, Vol. I: The Rise of Collectivism

by W.H. Greenleaf
Methuen, 336 pp., $45.00 each

The British Political Tradition, Vol. II: The Ideological Heritage

by W.H. Greenleaf
Methuen, 579 pp., $45.00 each

Crossing the floor of the House, that is to say changing one’s party in Britain, has always been somewhat nerve-racking. Will old friends speak to one and how will new friends treat this potential cuckoo in the nest? Churchill had some experience in this matter, deserting his family’s party as a young man for the Liberals and in the 1920s sliding back among the Conservatives when the Liberal party was split and doomed never to govern again. He said, “Anyone can rat once; but it takes a certain ingenuity to rat twice.”

No one uses this word for those who left Labour to form the Social Democrat party. Those defections are too numerous and serious. The fact that most of the Labour members of Parliament who went over to the SDP lost their seats in the general election has not put heart into those who stayed with the party, because so many of them too were ousted. Far more bitter are the comments Labour politicians make about those who actually joined the Conservatives. They varied from the dirge sung over the former Labour minister, Reg Prentice, who not only seceded but got a post in Margaret Thatcher’s first administration (“that poor, misguided and deranged man”) to the delicately worded advice to her colleagues concerning the treatment appropriate for another defector which was breathed by the alluring baroness who until recently was the Labour chief whip in the House of Lords: “Speed the shit on his way.”

Outside Parliament people are more tolerant. During the Seventies it became evident that Harold Wilson could no longer maintain a credible government and keep the Labour party together—that was one of the reasons why he quit. Callaghan, who had wrecked Wilson’s bid to get an agreement on wage control with the unions, reaped the harvest of his opposition to his leader. When his turn came to deflate the economy, their unions showed him no gratitude and the strikes of the winter of 1978-1979 discredited his government. The policy and philosophy of the Labour party were discredited too. The Gaitskellite policy, which Anthony Crosland advocated in his writings, was to increase public expenditure to maintain full employment and create a larger cake by stimulating industry and business to become more efficient. Egalitarian legislation would ensure that the work force would get a larger share of the cake in order to reconcile them to greater efficiency. The bankruptcy of this policy, just as much as the swing in the Labour party to the loony left, made numbers of perplexed but thoughtful people ask whether it might not be true, as in 1945, that a complete break with the policies of the past was needed to revive the British economy. In present circumstances changing one’s party is scarcely more surprising than changing one’s dentist.

And yet clearly there must be something traumatic about it. If it were not so, why has it become apparently obligatory on being converted to the …

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