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.
The foundations were laid at Eton where he had a glittering success, contemptuous in true Etonian style of his teachers, wafted on breezes of admiration from his contemporaries, masterly in his insolence, cavalier with his illicit champagne cup parties, elegantly superior in his ability to master the classics, the acknowledged leader of the school who had got Gladstone down to speak to the literary society.
Balliol was merely an extension to these triumphs. Only a speck of misfortune stuck to his glittering career. He “missed his First.” But this he swept away by ostentatiously taking a few of the prizes that he thought worth his attention and winning a Fellowship at All Souls. Anyway almost all his gifted contemporaries seemed to miss their First, which had become a hallmark stamped on the solid silver of Victorian success, an indication that you could have been the equal of scholars and intellectuals had you cared to be.
But the slight blemish irritated Curzon because he, perhaps more than any other individual, set the tone and the pace for what was to dominate the minds of the bright sparks of the public schools and Oxbridge until after 1914: Worldly Success in Public Life. This was the late Victorian and Edwardian ideal held up as the higher morality by generations of schoolmasters, by the champions of imperialism, by cooing hostesses and affable elder statesmen. The epitaph of this ideal was written explicitly by Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise and was destroyed by the satire of the novelists of the interwar years who hated the cult of success as the begetter of the First World War and its aftermath, and the corruptor of the life of sensibility.
But Curzon had it all planned. He had inexhaustible energy, limitless effrontery, complete faith in his ability to command, cajole, or win what he wanted. For he had ability: far more ability than any of his contemporaries. He could turn verses, write majestic prose, learn the politics of the Middle East from his travels, make speeches suitable for the hustings or the House or for a dinner at the innumerable clubs which he graced. Women as much as men admired him. He was second perhaps only to Arthur Balfour among the beloved idols of the Tennant sisters. Curzon belonged to the new set which was emerging in late Victorian times. There was the Queen’s circle, asphyxiating in its respectability, pious and dull. There was the Prince of Wales’s set, vulgar, brassy, brainless, who called clever men prigs and clever women “advanced,” liberals socialists, the ambitious intriguers, and artists mad.
In defiance of this crew and of the gross conventionality of their sexual and social arrangements, the Souls came together: both the men and the women were exceedingly clever, and the fact that the girls were uneducated made them sharpen their wits and appear less predictable. Margot Tennant was the most celebrated and unconventional of the coterie. “I hear you are going to marry her,” someone said to Arthur Balfour, the future Conservative Prime Minister. “No, that is not so,” he replied, “I rather think of having a career of my own.” It was of no consequence: she married a future Liberal Prime Minister.
Even in the great rows over the House of Lords and Irish Home Rule the ruling class remained astonishingly unified and on good terms with one another whatever their party. The clubs existed to heal the wounds politicians inflicted upon each other in the House, and the hostesses existed to rub either balm or salt into them. Curzon was not a suitor for the Tennant girls. Having failed to marry the widow of Lord Grosvenor and her fortune, he married an American heiress.
This was the circle in which Curzon shone at his brightest. He soon entered Parliament, became undersecretary for India in view of his knowledge as a traveler on the Northwest Frontier, and then when Salisbury was both Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, the undersecretary at the Foreign Office who answered for foreign affairs in the Commons. He was poised. In 1897 he read that some marquis, who was heir to a dukedom, was likely to be the next Viceroy of India. This was the post he had always coveted. He saw himself less and less as a politician than a great proconsul returning in due course from the East to take over the Foreign Office and then the leadership of Conservative policy. He therefore made his ambition known to his chief.
Salisbury hesitated. Curzon throughout his life suffered from an agonizing spinal complaint. His ferocious appetite for work, his inability to say in two pages what he must express in thirty-six, his mania for detail, his high spirits and delight in society gave his tortured frame no chance to relax. The doctors, however, passed him fit and at the age of thirty-nine he was appointed Viceroy. Feted by Etonians at a banquet, he heard the Liberal leader, Rosebery, boast how fit it was that once again an Etonian should fill that post and add yet another name to the list of statesmen and proconsuls who owed their place to their Alma Mater. His speech did not please Curzon. He thought of himself as a self-made man who had risen by his fantastic industry, his triumph over illness, and his passion for success.
But what did it matter? His closest friends were there to help his work forward. Arthur Balfour would be the next Prime Minister; St. John Broderick, an older and particularly devoted admirer, was the Secretary of State for India, and his old crony Welldon just translated to the see of Calcutta. He was certainly at one with the Queen, who in her eightieth year gave him sound advice to break through the red tape of British administration in India to “hear for himself what the feelings of the Natives really are, and to do what he thinks right and not be guided by the snobbish and vulgar, overbearing and offensive behaviour of our Civil and Political Agents.” So he set out wreathed in laurels. What went wrong? Why seven years later had he resigned and broken with his closest friends? Why did Churchill write of him on his death: “The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid and each was polished and shone after its fashion”?
Curzon is an unimportant political figure, yet his personality was so extraordinary that he still captivates scholars and biographers today. For instance, David Dilks has written two volumes on his administration in India, and Harold Nicolson’s best writing is to be found in his bemused and amused contemplation of Curzon.* In Superior Person, the current biography, Kenneth Rose devotes one chapter to Curzon’s viceroyalty and adds an epilogue to relate the golden morning to the leaden evening. Yet by clever devices he covers practically all the rest of Curzon’s career.
It is a dazzling piece of work and of all the books under review easily the most readable. It is biography through anecdotes; some of those he tells one greets like old friends, others are engaging, and almost all illuminating. The gaiety, the pace, the ability to bring to life in a few sentences the dozens of men and women that flit through the pages are beyond praise. Kenneth Rose is as worldly as Curzon. He has watched London politics during the past twenty-five years and understands the curious fluctuations of antagonism and affection that move the English upper classes.
There is nothing that the upper classes distrust more among their number than a man who loves administration. Curzon was a demented administrator. Copious memoranda, interminable letters poured from his pen. He would spend as much energy and time on trapping a fraudulent cook as on ensuring that the military were subordinate to the civil government. Exasperated with his arrogance, Balfour and Broderick sold him out to Kitchener, the Commander-in-Chief in India, an expert intriguer who to Curzon’s astonishment had maneuvered himself into the confidence of those very gilded circles that he prided himself on dominating. Humiliated, he resigned, and when he returned to England found himself denied the customary reward of an earldom.
He was not to regain a position of power until the wartime coalition. By that time he would do anything to stay in office and endured the insulting position of Foreign Secretary under Lloyd George, who openly ran a foreign policy of his own counter to that of Curzon. Curzon changed sides just in time to dish Lloyd George and retain the Foreign Office; and when Bonar Law fell ill with cancer of the throat, the prize of the Premiership appeared to him to be at last within his grasp.
To him, to the press, to Tory buffers such as Lord Derby, who habitually got things wrong; but not to those at the center of power within the party. The unknown Prime Minister, Bonar Law, was to be succeeded by someone almost as obscure. It was not only that Curzon was in the Lords. Those who mattered, from the King to the inner cabal of the Conservative Party, knew he was impossible. With all the malice of a one-time friend who had already twenty years before suffered from guilt at his own treatment of Curzon, Balfour as an elder statesman traveled to London to advise the King to send for Baldwin. Returning that night to Norfolk he was greeted by the house party, numbers of whom had been Souls. “And will dear George be chosen?” one of them asked him. “No,” he replied, “dear George will not.” Summoned by the King’s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, Curzon traveled in a state of euphoria to London and asked for his wife to be present to hear the news. The blow fell. But he did not resign. He stayed on as Foreign Secretary and in the best British tradition of the stiff upper lip formally proposed that Baldwin should be elected leader of the Party.
The chief actor behind the scenes in this drama was a pink-faced young man who had already for some years been a hatchet man of the new Conservatism. John Davidson was a redoubtable private secretary who had served first Crewe, then Harcourt and Bonar Law, and finally Baldwin before entering Parliament after the war. When Bonar Law as a dying man refused to give advice on his successor, Davidson wrote a hasty unsigned memorandum in favor of Baldwin, which he handed to Bonar Law’s son-in-law, who was to present the Prime Minister’s letter of resignation to the King. He was not a man to miss such an opportunity and had already established himself as a trusty off-the-record source of advice with Stamfordham. The memorandum was only one drop in the rain of advice which descended on the Palace, but it was a drop intended to wash out the chance of Curzon’s forming a government and bringing into it Chamberlain, Birkenhead, and the rest of his Conservative colleagues in the old coalition. Davidson was determined to dish Beaverbrook’s intrigues and see that the new Conservatism should prevail.
What was the new Conservatism? It was a revolt against Lloyd George’s morality—against his sexual goings-on, his selling of peerages and knighthoods, the proceeds going to his private political fund, his ceaseless intrigues, his contempt for Parliament, for channels, for the Court, for the Establishment. The Coalition Government was the ablest government England was to have for many years. But it fell through arrogance, double-dealing, and the corruption which often infects the leaders of a democracy who have tasted the kind of “limitless” power which is possible only in war.
It was Baldwin, not Keynes, who described the Coalition’s back-bench supporters, returned to Parliament in Lloyd George’s notorious General Election of 1919, as “hard faced men who looked as if they had done well out of the war.” For paradoxically Baldwin, the Premier who defeated the General Strike, was more contemptuous of the bloody-minded coal owners who referred to their workers as “the enemy,” than of the syndicalist trade unionists of that time. The son of an industrialist, Baldwin pictured the true England as a rural Arcadia where, if men would only trust each other and act decently, the class war would vanish. Although Kipling was his cousin, his mind and mystique are more easily understood by reading the works of John Buchan. Like a wise Conservative Premier, his instinct was to support the men of peace in his party such as Edward Wood (Halifax), who as Viceroy tried to come to terms with Gandhi and produced a more liberal policy for India, which had the effect of driving Churchill into violent opposition and confirmed the worst suspicions of the rank and file Tories that he was unsound and impossible.
Baldwin could strike to kill: Beaverbrook declared that Baldwin always beat him and was the most ruthless politician he knew. But Baldwin’s inability to hate and pillory the left during his years in opposition nearly lost him the leadership of his party, and his loyalty to those with whom he worked not only made him retain ministers when they were failures but made him incapable of shoving aside the vain, incapable Macdonald who in his last years as Premier in the National Government was ga-ga.
People called him lazy, and so in a sense he was, but the laziness was induced by his propensity to brood on problems as if each was a metaphysical enigma. Nothing could be more characteristic of his talents, no crisis could be more susceptible to being “solved” by his peculiar type of wisdom than the so-called Abdication crisis when Baldwin appeared to his devoted public not merely to be wrestling with the mighty devils of concupiscence for the soul of his Sovereign, but also to be carrying on his shoulders the fate of the Empire. Had not George V’s dying words been “How is the Empire?” (irreverently emended by incredulous scholars as “How’s that, umpire?” or “What’s on at the Empire?”).
Such profane speculations do not sully the thousand pages of the Middlemas and Barnes biography of Baldwin. There need not have been quite so many pages, as some passages written by one author are echoed at the beginning of the next chapter by the other author, but it is a sound piece of work remarkably free from small errors, sober, dispassionate, neither claiming nor conceding too much. Time and again the authors defend Baldwin by showing that on the issue in question his opponents were far wider off the mark than Baldwin even when he was dilatory or wrong. After all, who can take seriously A.J. Cook as a labor leader, or Empire Free Trade as an economic policy, or the simultaneous advocacy of collective security and disarmament? And yet is this kind of defense adequate? It may even be possible for David Marquand to adopt such a defense when he writes Ramsay Macdonald’s biography.
The truth is that whether it was unemployment or industry or the gold standard or foreign policy which bored Baldwin, he had no policy, had no conception of the depths of the problems, had no energy to identify maladies and enlist people to solve them.
Yet far more fascinating than this enormous volume are the memoirs of Baldwin’s favorite young politician, Davidson, whose devotion to Baldwin cost him the chairmanship of the Conservative Party at the lowest ebb of Baldwin’s fortunes in 1930. For here one can see how the campaign to clean up politics was run and how deep was the distrust of Birkenhead, Churchill, and Austen Chamberlain, and of all those who in the Coalition period had become enmeshed in the web of Lloyd George’s wizardry and Max Beaverbrook’s transatlantic wheeling and dealing.
Davidson had tangled with Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) as soon as the Coalition began, when Bonar Law had been contemptuously given the Colonial Office by Asquith and found Davidson to be his private secretary. At that time the Australian Government were negotiating with Britain for the purchase of all their non-ferrous metal deposits. Clearly it would be interesting to know which companies had got the concessions, and Davidson suspected that Aitken had come to find this out when he dropped in to see Bonar Law, who treated him as if he were a favorite son. When Aitken left Bonar Law, he asked to telephone the City. Davidson told him that he could do so from a public telephone box across the road but not in his office. Forced occasionally with his chief to lunch or dine at Beaverbrook’s country house, he resolved never to spend a night under his roof. “I didn’t like the house or the way it was run.” Davidson had noted how ill Beaverbrook’s baronetcy, and then peerage, had been received in official circles in Canada.
Davidson was determined to stop the squalid practice of the sale of honors, and in doing so brought off his greatest coup. The practice of giving an honor in return for a contribution to party funds had begun in, of all Premiers, Gladstone’s time, when the defection of the wealthiest part of the Liberal Party over Home Rule made it dependent on contributions by manufacturers. Lloyd George almost openly imposed a tariff—£100,000 for a peerage, £30,000 for a baronetcy, £10,000 for a knighthood—and he defended the system as being healthier for politics than the trade union subscriptions to the Labour Party or interest groups such as the brewers to the Tories, each demanding their pound of flesh. The defense would have been more convincing had not the money gone straight into Lloyd George’s personal “fighting fund.” In due course, brokers set up shop, the most notorious being Maundy Gregory who lobbied on behalf of his clients and took a commission.
How Davidson penetrated Gregory’s organization, broke him, got him sent to prison, and eventually obtained for him a secret pension for the rest of his life provided he lived in France and kept his mouth shut is a story worth reading to see how efficiently the British Establishment can operate when they realize that there is a link in their armor weakened by corrosion. Davidson explains his cleanup campaign by saying that he came of puritanical Scots stock. It is far truer to see him as a pre-1914 public-school head prefect. British upper-class life has always had its self-appointed prefects. The most notable, of course, is the Governor of the Bank of England who is responsible for keeping the city clean and handing out a public-school caning, six of the best, to bankers or overzealous entrepreneurs who transgress the code. A mumur here or there that So-and-so is a bit “iffy,” or such-and-such a firm “too hot,” is held to be much superior to the more formal safeguards in Wall Street, and the City points proudly to the aggressive firms of yesterday such as Warburgs or Philip Hill as operating today in the odor of sanctity.
Davidson was the prefect of the Conservative Party and indeed of British politics; and his memoirs, which are expertly edited by the rising star of British contemporary history, Robert Rhodes James (who can, however, very occasionally get a date wrong), are bathed in the light of Davidson’s stern, if not entirely sympathetic, virtue. He was not always popular in the party he served so well. Since Aristides the just are praised but do not inspire affection, and as politics are concerned with the reward of interest groups, the man who is out to stop a graft makes more enemies than just the grafters.
He was thought, moreover, by the Tory rank and file to be soft—not, of course, to liberal ideas, but to forces such as the trade unions, or to colonial peoples. This brought him into collision in the General Strike with Churchill, who was determined to treat the strikers as rebels who must be smashed—whereas Davidson, as editor of the Government’s news-sheet, saw correctly that the famous incident when the police and the strikers played football together should be blown up and used to discredit the ideology of the strike. No one who reads the record today will judge that Davidson was anything but a main-line Conservative, but he was more representative of Baldwin’s docile good temper than of the Colonel Blimps whom he regarded as the bane of the party.
He passed out of active politics on Baldwin’s retirement. To his credit he saw clearly how dangerous, narrow, and convinced of his own rectitude Chamberlain was. To his credit also he stood by his old chief during the war when Baldwin became the scapegoat for the sins of the British people and was subjected to shameful humiliations.
But whereas Baldwin was genuinely soft toward labor, and by acting so time and again drew the sting of his opponents’ assault in Parliament, the Conservative Party could have no lack of zeal or ingenuity to complain of in the way Davidson attacked socialism. He paid spies in their organization; he hired an official of MI 5 to organize intelligence in the Central Office; he raised hush money to damp down scandals in his own house, and did what he could to set them alight in Labour’s camp. One of the pleasures of reading his memoirs is to see how assiduous he was to maintain close relations with the Palace and the Secret Service. Naturally, he was among the first to suspect Mrs. Simpson.
Was decent, clean government enough? There is a clue to an answer in the index to Davidson’s memoirs. Harold Macmillan’s name is mentioned once—and then by one of Davidson’s cronies as a man likely to defect to Moseley’s New Party. The distance between the wings of the political parties was terrifyingly wide, and the failure of governmental policy from whatever quarter was due in part to the lack of consensus, and hence of national faith, for any policy. At one extreme there were the Blimps who saw a Bolshevik under every bed, at the other a Communist Party which could usually return one member to Parliament, Clydeside syndicalists, and the ill-assorted alliance of trade unionists and socialist theorists. The post-Second World War complaint by the left that Labour and Conservative policies are often indistinguishable, mere examples of Butskellism, neglects the disaster of the interwar years: when the left of center position was in fragments scattered by Lloyd George’s destructive genius, and when the electoral collapse of 1931 further reduced whatever power the center had and brought upon it the just hostility of the left.
Davidson may have regarded himself as always pushing Baldwin to the left, but the younger radical Conservatives such as Macmillan and Boothby were written off by him as too eccentric to be taken seriously. In the first volume of his memoirs. Macmillan described his apprehension as a young man in politics that the unthinking decent Conservatism of Baldwin and worse still the harsh Toryism of Chamberlain would not be forgotten by the electorate; and the third volume of his memoirs begins with the memorable defeat of the Conservatives in 1945 and ends ten years later with the Conservatives restored, Macmillan first an excellent Minister of Housing with a knack for picking forceful assistants, and then successively, Minister of Defense, Foreign Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
There are good chapters in this autobiography when he can be persuaded to gossip about politicians or the nature of the House of Commons and in particular Churchill. But, good God! were the politics of the Fifties really as dull as that? The interminable pages about interminable conferences, each apparently solving a “crisis,” or molding an alliance, each conducted in gleaming chancellories to which the statesmen were escorted by screaming outriders, thereafter repairing to embassies to banquet and exchange inanities—the full horror of being a diplomat or having anything to do with international negotiations at a high level becomes all too clear.
No doubt periods of reconstruction in history are dull, and these were the years of the rebuilding of Europe with American aid and the petrifying years of the cold war. But surely something else was stirring in politics.
There are two reasons for the specially sepulchral quality of the air that this volume exhales. The first is that Macmillan in the Churchill tradition has always been more interested, in foreign than in home affairs. After 1945 this was to nourish illusion. That Churchill was alive in 1951 to form a government confirmed the British in a delusion which should have become apparent when Gaitskell had had to introduce a wartime budget at the time of the Korean War. The reason why Macmillan’s chapters appear so often to have a second-class look is that the initiative had passed in foreign affairs to America, and despite all the sagacious interventions and deft alterations in drafts which the skillful British make, it all seems like a charade, in which the deplorable joke is that the Foreign Office cannot see that they have no clothes on.
It—was, of course, this delusion which led to the debacle of Suez—and it will be of considerable interest to see how Macmillan handles this incident at the beginning of his fourth volume, since he was one of the most ardent advocates of British intervention. There is one significant hint. Having lambasted the Labour Government for scuttling out of Britain’s imperial responsibilities and being humiliated by Mossadeq, Macmillan explains that the Conservative decision to leave Egypt was made possible by categorical assurances to young imperialists such as his son-in-law, Julian Amery, that at all costs Cyprus would be held as the Middle East base. Yet only a few months later he was suggesting that perhaps sometime Cyprus might achieve self-government.
Right to the end, even when they had recognized that Britain must give self-government to all her colonies, Macmillan and his colleagues remained imperialists at heart. They wanted a tidy, orderly, dignified transfer of power with flags being hauled up and down. They wanted to realize the imperial dream of handing power over to native administrators who would be imprints of themselves and would keep the tiresome local politicians firmly under control in the same way as the great Victorian colonial administrators in the past had outwitted the ignorant parliamentarians in Westminster.
But if the hand-over of power did not look like being “tidy,” then that was clinching evidence that the time to hand over power had not come. What is more, they became convinced that they had invented the policy of dignified withdrawal from Empire. The “winds of change” speech which Macmillan was to deliver in Africa was spoken as if it were a God-given revelation. In fact it rested on a contention which his political opponents had held for thirty years.
The second reason for the hole in the book is more entertaining. Having fought unsuccessfully before the war to convert the Tory Party to the notion that mass unemployment was a disgrace and should not be shrugged off as an inevitable misfortune; and having rightly forecast that their neglect of this obsessive social problem would be visited upon them by electoral defeat, Macmillan regarded himself as the prophet of the new postwar Toryism. He may have been its prophet but he was not its architect. The architect was Rab Butler, an exceedingly complicated, fascinating figure, despised in Churchillian circles as a Municheer, thrown the education portfolio by Churchill during the war in disdain, but emerging in the years of the Tories’ defeat as their best asset. He was the author of the new Education Act, and the animator of the research department outside the control of the Conservative Central Office. It was his group consisting of clever and able men such as Iain Macleod who produced the Conservative Industrial Charter which emancipated the Party from the past in much the same way as Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto had done in 1834.
If there was a central figure in Conservative politics between 1945 and 1955, it was not Churchill, nor Eden, nor Macmillan. It was Butler, and if the Churchillians were sniffy toward his liberal policies, Churchill was not. When forming his government in 1951 he made Butler Chancellor of the Exchequer although, thought Macmillan, “everyone knew that Oliver Lyttleton had worked hard to fit himself for the conduct of financial and economic affairs.” (On the other hand, Macmillan wrote in his diary, “Maxwell-Fyfe’s appointment is a good one…he will be a good Home Secretary.” He was the worst since JoynsonHicks.)
In 1955 Eden asked Macmillan to leave the Foreign Office and take over the Treasury from Butler. With many misgivings Macmillan agreed—but on conditions. He stipulated that Butler should not be given in his new post as Leader of the House the title of Deputy Prime Minister (which constitutionally does not exist but which Churchill had bestowed on Eden, who had been impatiently awaiting the succession some time earlier).
Macmillan explains that he was not “actuated by some degree of personal rivalry with Butler.” All he wanted
…was unchallenged control within my sphere. It never occurred to me that there could be any question of a choice between him and me as successor to the Prime Minister.
Perhaps not: still, it is always as well to be safe in these matters. The truth was that Butler, who was not glamorized by foreign affairs or defense, had become the most powerful and able Tory in home affairs, associated in the minds of the public with the freeing of the economy from wartime controls and with the prosperity of the Fifties built upon the limitless worldwide market for consumer goods. Is it an accident that, although all references to him, as indeed to almost everyone except Soviet statesmen, are friendly, Butler appears as a shadowy figure during the years of his greatest service to the Conservative Party?
Just as Balfour, having formed his estimate of Curzon, held to that estimate in old age and did his part in thwarting Curzon’s ambition to be Premier, so Macmillan, forced on his sickbed to resign as Prime Minister, held to his estimate of Butler and denied him the Premiership again by throwing his weight behind Douglas-Home.
Both were choices between persons for the highest post in British politics, yet in Macmillan’s case it is hard not to see something more than a mere personal judgment. Unlike Balfour he was not the nephew of a marquis: he was the grandson of a Scots publisher, went to Eton as a Colleger, and had married the daughter of a duke. As a minister he appreciated the need for experts—he brought in Ernest Marples, an industrialist, to organize his house-building campaign. But his appointments when Premier to ministries were singularly loyal to the aristocracy into which he had married. He won the reputation of being the most astute leader of the Conservatives since Disraeli, a brilliant and subtle politician who enraged his opponents, particularly the Liberals who regarded him as villainously dishonest and devious. Significantly, he is the Prime Minister whom Harold Wilson most admires.
Now the wheel has come again full circle. The Butlerites, the Baldwinites again control the Conservative Party and the Balfours, Curzons, and Churchillites are in eclipse. Had Heath lost the General Election there might well have been a palace revolution. Sons-in-law play important roles in the history of the aristocracy and in the British Embassy in Paris Churchill’s son-in-law was sitting waiting.
Reading the lives of politicians is an enjoyable pastime, and each of these books is instructive as well as entertaining. Intellectuals are apt to expect too much of politicians, as well as of politics, and to read too much into their maneuvers. The antipathy between the two breeds of men is very strong, and no wonder each dislikes the other.
But there is one reflection which must strike anyone who reads the lives of politicians, be he an intellectual or not. How astonishing is the unselfquestioning certitude and consoling belief in their own rectitude politicians display! Their opponents are always wrong or feeble or dastardly; their colleagues are marvels of sagacity and ability. Not once does one sense the hint of a doubt that all was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Such sentiments are not confined to Conservatives; they animate the writings of statesmen regardless of party or country. Racked with guilt, unsure even of his own assumptions, aware that however prescient he may be about long-term trends and present moral issues, his mind is ill-equipped to judge short-term expedients, an intellectual must regard such unassailable assurances with wonder, envy—and perhaps even with faint amusement.
A century ago intellectuals expected to be able to take their revenge upon statesmen, a revenge which might be long delayed but which was certain. Sooner or later among their number the historians would gibbet the evildoers and sanctify the good. But the days of Acton are past. Today historians, unimpressed by the motives and professions of the protagonists who are the victims of the unpredictable and inescapable social forces at work at the time, scarcely pause to make a judgment upon them, and biographers, aware of the limitless traps in which politicians may be caught to their ruin, mercifully ignore their amazing pretensions.
July 23, 1970