David Blackburn

From the archives – Tories go to conference in government

From the archives – Tories go to conference in government
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Strange though it seems in hindsight, the Tory party was not uniformly enamoured with Mrs Thatcher in 1979. The Tories were in government, but doubts over her ability to confront a resurgent Labour party, her shaky presentational skills and the direction of her policy pervaded the 1979 conference. David Cameron goes to Birmingham this week pursued by reservation’s persistent hum, and he does not have winner’s rights to rely on. Ferdinand Mount recorded that Mrs T’s wooden speech did not allay concern or win gratitude; will Cameron fare any better?

But do they really love her? Ferdinand Mount – 20th October 1979

Hmm. Or rather perhaps, to put it more accurately, mmh. I quote from the Prime Minister’s speech at Blackpool, passim. Mrs Thatcher has acquired a habit of making a funny little noise at the end of a long sentence. Whether it comes from catching her breath or from clearing her throat or from a cold still not shaken off is hard to say, but the microphones remorselessly magnify the sound, lending a simultaneously emphatic and quizzical aspect to the most plonking statement of principle, halfway between the jazzman’s yeah and the cynic’s huh. Thus: ‘I would ask every man and woman who is called on in the next few months to take part in disruptive industrial action to consider the consequences for themselves, their children and their fellow-countrymen. Mmh.’

Perhaps mmh is all there is to be said about The Speech. Its text does not repay analysis. You can see the pawmarks of a committee all over it. She said nothing about unions, or indeed about anything else, she had not said before, sometimes better, sometimes worse. She omitted a phrase in the hand-out about giving the unions’ view ‘due weight in shaping national policy.’ Quite right too, for the phrase begs the underlying question about the trade unions, which is what weight is due to their views? But if there is not much to be squeezed out of The Speech, what are we to deduce from its ecstatic reception?

According to some, not all on the Right, it showed that Mrs Thatcher is securely entrenched as the ‘most popular leader since Macmillan.’ According to others, not all on the Left, the applause concealed continuing divisions within the party and feelings of deep unease about the direction of government policy. Either Mrs Thatcher dominates an awestruck Cabinet or she is encircled by a ring of potential conspirators ready to bundle her off into oblivion at the first sign of trouble. Or is there a dangerous split between her solid support in the constituencies and her quavering Cabinet. Or both or neither. Mmh.

We might try to find our way through this tricky bit of country by venturing the simple if oblique observation that Harold Macmillan was never remarkably popular inside the Tory party. He did not evoke that instinctive affection which only Eden and Baldwin – and perhaps Sir Alec – have evoked in modern times. MacWonder, even at his peak, was so obviously not quite ‘sound’; there was something a little racy, even gamy about him. What Mr Macmillan earned in his heyday was gratitude instead; he picked the party off the floor and won the election. Mrs Thatcher has done the same. She has the winner’s rights.

But does she have more than that? All these people waving their revolting polystyrene boaters, are they not ‘Maggie’s people’, small shop-keepers and middle managers and so on? Is not the Conservative Party Conference now a genuinely petit-bourgeois conference in which the only toffs left are sitting on the platform? Do not her themes of thrift and discipline strike chords in the hearts of her audience?

There is no doubt that Mrs Thatcher does talk the language which connects the middle class and the ‘deserving poor’. The difficulty is that this language has not been the language of the post-war Conservative Party. Harold Macmillan is only the most conspicuous example of leading Conservatives who have talked in an expensive cornucopian bountiful manner. Churchill himself, Eden and Butler (not to speak of recent Chancellors like Maudling and Macleod) have all defined the Tory Party as the party of unbuttoned plenitude – particularly as opposed to the restrictive, austere Labour Party. This was in part dictated by the need to offer an enticing alternative to the Atlee government.

To call this approach ‘Keynesian’ is to dignify it with non-existent rationale; it is no more than the belief that there is plenty more cash where that came from and that if they don’t spend it, the mob will turn nasty. It is vain to ask what is the alternative economic policy of the ‘liberals’ in the Cabinet who are sceptical about ‘monetarism’. It is not so much that they don’t have an alternative policy as that they don’t feel called upon to have one and have given little thought to the matter; except for Jim Prior, they don’t even have much enthusiasm for income policies. The point is that economics is not a pastime for gentlemen; their calculations are purely political. And they are uneasy with a policy which contravenes all their ingrained views about the need not to favour the rich conspicuous. Nobody believes in the politics of envy more wholeheartedly than an old fashioned Tory.

This unease is not to be underestimated. The air was heavy with the stuff at Blackpool. Norman St John-Stevas gave it quite an airing. On the one hand, he said, ‘the strategy of the Government will have to be pursued resolutely and over a long period if it is to succeed’ – which would seem to rule out any deviation from the strategy. On the other hand, ‘we must as a party avoid the danger of elevating our economic priorities into absolute moral principles from which it is impossible to deviate or to develop in any circumstances’ – which is known as having your deviation from the norm both ways.

One of Norm’s colleagues speculated whether, if U-turns were unmentionable, it might be permissible to talk of ‘veering’. No wonder Treasury Ministers begin to despair of ever persuading people that there isn’t going to be a U-turn. Every time they are met with a confidential nudge and wink as much as to say that ‘you and I know that, when it comes to the crunch, the government will have to, won’t it?’

By contrast, the Labour Party is by its history the party of prudent finance. Every Labour Chancellor except from Dalton – who got the push – has sooner or later become a sound money man: Snowden, Cripps, Gaitskell, Callaghan, Jenkins, Healey. The only two Tories who saw the light – Thorneycroft and Lloyd – were removed from office. The budgetary policy of Conservative governments has been dominated by the open-handed attitudes of what Jimmy Maxton called ‘Keep-the-change Tories’.

The Tories are not used to presiding over retrenchment. Hence the rather awkward transitions noticeable at Blackpool and the unconvincing attempts to make virtue out of necessity. School classes of 40, previously regarded as the greatest social evil since little boys were sent up chimneys, were praised as a bracing atmosphere for imbibing the threes Rs. The purchase of computers for hospitals and town halls, once demanded as the precondition of progress, is now mocked as a waste of money.

Although a ritual battle is fought in and out of Cabinet each time, Labour governments are more accustomed to being compelled to make cuts. The bogeyman ‘Savage Coutts’, originally identified in this column as a member of the cadet branch of the banking family, notorious for the callous pleasure he took in oppressing the workers, has, I think, now metamorphosed in ‘Dr Savaj Kutz’, an émigré monetarist economist of Slav origin, possibly a distant Kinsman of Vladimir Kutz, the great 5,000 metre runner. But in the end Labour governments do what they are told to. And nothing is more remarkable than the candour with which Treasury Ministers in the last Labour government now admit that they, too, would have had to make considerable cuts in government spending – though not, you understand, of quite this magnitude and not of such callous indiscriminateness.

The curious thing is that the tributes paid to Mrs Thatcher at Brighton seemed somehow more spontaneous than those paid in Blackpool. It is not only that her passionate commitment corresponds more to what Labour ideologues expect of a political leader; so does her willingness to take unpopular decisions and to err on the side of stringency.

This doesn’t mean that Mrs Thatcher won’t be able to see it through to the sunlit uplands; but it does mean she can’t expect her own party to love her wholeheartedly until they are properly back in clover.