Geoffrey Wheatcroft

The end of the Etonians

Geoffrey Wheatcroft says the long slow decline of the Tory party can be partly attributed to a devastating article 40 years ago

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Forty years ago today, The Spectator published perhaps the most important and influential article ever to appear in its pages. That is a high standard. R.W. Seton-Watson’s reports before 1914 condemning ethnic oppression may well have led indirectly to the postwar dismemberment of Hungary, for better or worse. And in a leader, headed ‘On the side of liberty’, to mark this magazine’s hemiocentenary in 1978, the Times was flattering enough to say that The Spectator was then in the vanguard of a new libertarian spirit, which would (in the event) help Margaret Thatcher to her victory the following year. But Mrs Thatcher might never have become party leader in the first place had it not been for that long essay innocuously entitled ‘The Conservative Leadership’, which appeared on 17 January 1964.

Until the previous October Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet had included Iain Macleod, a dashing, very clever Tory radical, a successful minister disliked by the Right of the party for his role in decolonisation, one of the finest parliamentary debaters, and the best conference speaker, of his generation. But he had declined to serve under Lord Home when Home had suddenly, not to say astonishingly, succeeded Macmillan (and become Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the process by renouncing his peerage). As something more than consolation prize, Macleod’s friend Ian Gilmour, the owner of The Spectator, made him editor, and he put the magazine to good effect.

After October there had been, as Macleod drily said, an unspoken agreement that the less said about those events the better, but this silence was noisily broken by Randolph Churchill with a ‘quickie’ book, The Fight for the Tory Leadership. Under the guise of a book review, itself brutally offensive and dismissive, Macleod now told the true story of how Home’s succession had been engineered. He told it with brilliant, angry eloquence, which sent shudders through the party, brought him much obloquy, and has had profound consequences to this day.

While the succession had been much discussed, Macmillan’s sudden resignation took everyone by surprise. He had gone into hospital for an operation, although any idea that he was seriously ill was disproved when he went on to live for more than another 20 years. But he was tired and dejected, and illness provided an excuse to depart — as well as the occasion to ensure that someone other than R.A. Butler should succeed him.

He was able to do this since the Tories did not elect their leader but waited for him to ‘emerge’ from what Macmillan called ‘customary processes of consultation’, whereat the departing prime minister recommended his successor to the Crown. That hadn’t mattered when there was a recognised heir-apparent, as Chamberlain had been to Baldwin in 1937 or Eden to Churchill in 1955, or even in 1957, when the customary processes took the form of Lord Salisbury asking the Cabinet, ‘Well, which is it to be, Wab or Hawold?’ Hawold was chosen, but Wab had no real cause for complaint, a contrast indeed to the story in 1963.

‘It can be argued,’ Randolph Churchill wrote in unusually absurd words, ‘that Macmillan did all he could during his seven years as prime minister to advance the fortunes of Butler.’ Almost anything can no doubt be argued, Macleod sarcastically riposted, but anyone who knew the first thing about politics must be aware that ‘at all times, from the first days of his premiership to the last, Macmillan was determined that Butler, although incomparably the best qualified of the contenders, should not succeed him. Once this is accepted, all Macmillan’s actions become at least explicable.’

Casting about for anyone who wasn’t Butler, Macmillan had brought forward three younger men: Macleod, Reginald Maudling and Edward Heath. If one of these had established himself as crown prince, the problem would have been solved, but that didn’t happen. Macmillan then turned a little desperately to Lord Hailsham, clever but buffoonish, more loved by the Right of the party than by the public. When it became clear that he wouldn’t do, Macmillan fell back on ‘the 14th Earl of Home’, as Harold Wilson derisively called him, who was presented as a unity candidate. And yet so delicate was the business of installing him that it had to be carried out by a kind of coup, kept secret not only from the nation but also from several members of the Cabinet.

In Macleod’s account, the story is as gripping as a thriller. On the morning of Thursday 17 October, he heard from a source which could be traced back to Macmillan that a successor was to be named that afternoon, and he supposed that this could only be Butler. So did Maudling, and for all their personal ambitions they were both happy enough. Then, that afternoon, Macleod was rung at Central Office by a journalist, who said that, even though he himself found it incredible, he was assured on good authority that Home was to be the man. Several other political correspondents followed up; or, as Macleod said, someone ‘had thought it proper even before the prime minister had deigned to prepare the press for the (unexpected) name that was to emerge. News management can be taken too far’ (he had never heard of Alastair Campbell).

Adding a phrase to the language of politics, Macleod said that it was a measure of the tightness of ‘the magic circle’ behind the coup that neither the Chancellor nor the Leader of the House — that is, Maudling and Macleod himself — ‘had any inkling of what was happening’. What was happening was that this magic circle, having agreed on Home, had concealed their designs from colleagues who might prove sceptical, while going to great lengths to sex up, as we now say, evidence that Home enjoyed widespread support. This was necessary to persuade not only the public but also the Palace that the previously unconsidered Home was a genuine first choice among ministers and MPs. And yet, even after the cabal had used all forms of arm-twisting, that claim required — as Macleod showed — a high degree of distortion and misrepresentation, notably on the part of Martin Redmayne, the Chief Whip and the main villain of the piece.

After Home’s name was leaked, there were 24 hours of high drama, with a succession of late-night meetings to see if a counter-coup could break the magic circle’s spell. Late that evening Macleod went to South Eaton Place, the house of Enoch Powell, Minister of Health and a friend since their days at the Conservative Research Department in the late 1940s. Before they were joined by Maudling and two other senior Tories, both men spoke to Home on the telephone. Macleod said that his appointment would be impossible to represent ‘in a convincing way to the modern Tory party.... We were now proposing to admit that after 12 years of Tory government no one among the 363 members of the party in the House of Commons was acceptable as prime minister.’ Hailsham also agreed that Home was wrong and Butler right, and these dissidents made their views known to Redmayne. As Macmillan had hoped, it was too late. The next morning, he tendered his resignation to the Queen and recommended Home, appending the dubious reports of party opinion which had been garnered and massaged. Home duly took office.

A week after Macleod’s piece, the New Statesman weighed in with an article by the fiery young radical Paul Johnson, ‘Was the Palace to blame?’, which suggested that the Queen and her advisers had been too gullible or maybe too ready to collude in the imposture. But the honest answer to Johnson’s question was no. Given the, albeit specious, evidence Macmillan adduced, it would have been, as Macleod said, unthinkable for the Palace to ask for a second opinion.

What Macleod didn’t quite say is that if anyone was ‘to blame’, apart from Macmillan, Redmayne and the other conspirators, it was Butler himself. Political compacts are only as strong as their weakest link. In 1905 Grey and Haldane proposed a deal with Asquith that, before any of them would serve in the next Liberal ministry, the party leader, Campbell-Bannerman, would be obliged to go to the Lords (they even thought of a title for him), and that Asquith would became leader in the Commons. But when Balfour resigned, Asquith quite forgot the compact and accepted office as chancellor from Campbell-Bannerman. Grey and Haldane had to follow.

When Home was asked by the Queen if he could form a government, the situation was still fraught. Macleod and Powell had decided that they would not serve under Home in any case, and stuck by their decision as a matter of ‘personal moral integrity’. Maudling and Hailsham said that they wouldn’t serve under Home unless Butler did. And Butler hesitated, before finally agreeing to serve in the name of party unity. If he and the others had hung together, it would have been very hard for Home to become prime minister.

It was Macmillan’s belief — ‘and it is only honest to admit that many others shared his view’, Macleod added — that ‘Butler had not in him the steel that makes a prime minister’. In a sense, the events of October proved Macmillan right. Powell later put it melodramatically, saying that they had placed a gun in Butler’s hands but that he was unable to pull the trigger. Rab stood ‘capax imperii nisi imperasset’ on its head: by the manner in which he failed to become prime minister he demonstrated just that lack of steel of which Macmillan complained.

If Macleod lost the battle, he won the war. He ended his essay by expressing a regard for Douglas-Home which was sincere and reciprocated. Far from there having been any animus between Macleod and Macmillan before that October, there was much mutual admiration, and Macleod was, as he said, perhaps at the end of Macmillan’s premiership the only member of the Cabinet to hold to the view that the party would do better under his leadership at the election than under any possible successor. Even under Douglas-Home the Tories were only narrowly defeated in 1964, by 13 parliamentary seats and less than a percentage point of the popular vote. Nor was there any animus between Macleod and Home, who asked Macleod to join the shadow Cabinet after the election.

Having described the way Douglas-Home had been jobbed in, Macleod added, ‘I do not think it is a precedent which will be followed.’ Nor was it. The most direct consequence of that Spectator article was the adoption by the Tories, at long last, of a procedure for electing leaders. It was used quite soon: in 1965 Douglas-Home resigned and his successor was chosen by the Tory MPs. Of those who had hoped to thwart him in 1963, Butler had departed from politics graciously, accepting from Harold Wilson a peerage and the Mastership of Trinity. Although Hailsham (or Quintin Hogg, as he had been until 1950 and was again between 1963 and 1970, when he became Lord Hailsham again; and we wonder why foreigners find our nomenclature difficult to follow) was not a modest man, he recognised that his time had gone. Macleod himself, though privately cherishing higher ambitions, also knew that he couldn’t win, and spared himself the humiliation of demonstrating this, unlike Powell, who stood and won a derisory 15 votes out of 298. The serious contenders were the other two whom Macmillan had earlier groomed, and Heath beat Maudling. When Heath then won the 1970 election, Macleod went to the Treasury and might have been a great chancellor. We shall never know, as he died lamentably within weeks of his appointment.

And yet, apart from electing leaders, he had other legacies. His philippic was a trumpet call in the class war: not poor against rich, but bourgeois ability against aristocratic privilege. Mcleod was not a proletarian revolutionist, he was a doctor’s son, educated (like Tony Blair) at Fettes, and at Cambridge, who believed in the old cause of the carrière ouverte aux talents. At the most stinging moment in his essay, Macleod listed that magic circle who had fixed the succession and added, ‘Eight of the nine men mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton.’ For all the intense ill-feeling caused by the article, not least those words, it worked. Chamberlain’s unhappy three-year premiership aside, the Tory party had been led from 1923 to 1965 by two Harrovians and three Etonians. When Douglas-Home resigned, the patrician old guard had no candidate of their own, and no Etonian has led the party since.

There were other partings of the ways. Powell had made his ‘Tiber foaming with much blood speech’ against immigration in 1968, been expelled from the shadow Cabinet, and never held office again. ‘Poor Enoch,’ Macleod said on another occasion, ‘driven mad by the remorselessness of his own logic.’ He did not guess that Powell would cast a long shadow and exercise a deleterious influence over the party when Macleod was barely remembered.

He would have had at least mixed feelings about Mrs Thatcher’s brand of populism, but he bore some responsibility for her incarnation as a class warrior. When she purged the upper-class Wets from her Cabinet — Gilmour, Soames, Carrington, Pym — she was almost acting as his heir. All four men mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton. He would have been derisive about some of her successors (Macleod was one of the most brilliant and eloquent politicians of his age; ‘from Iain to Iain’ was a sad decline). And he would have admired some aspects of Michael Howard’s career more than others. All the same, if the Tories have largely forgotten Iain Macleod, the party’s fortunes since have been shaped in no small part by that one devastating article 40 years ago.