22 AUGUST 1958, Page 5

Westminster Commentary

As I was saying when I was inter- rupted, things are coming to a pretty pass. The Labour Party is unable to formulate a coherent policy that has any chance of commending itself to the electors (they could formulate plenty with no chance of doing so, of course, as a glance at some of the stuff those Victory for Socialism—Victory for Socialism?—fellows have been turning out will indicate), and the electors are in consequence dis- playing a growing reluctance to fall in behind Mr. G. and his lot and follow them. The situation being what it is, they are left with virtually no alternative but to fall in behind Mr. M. and his lot. A sweet choice indeed; but what else is there to do? The heady days of the Liberation are over; the Welfare State is here for good or ill (or even, which may not have occurred to a lot of people who get ifery red in the face when it is mentioned, both), and nationalisation lies buried beneath more fathoms than ever covered thy father, and without anything more interest- ing than compost being made of its bones.

Now the Labour Party cannot change itself into a party of conservation; for one thing we already have one, and for another its tastes do not lie in that direction (except for the trade unions). And the Conservatives are not going 0 leap into the heffalump-trap in which their opponents, driven into it by history, their urge towards self-destruction, the completion of their mission and the inadequacy of their human material, reside. 'You ain't never had it so good, had it so good, had it so good, so good, so good, so good,' the Tory parrot will continue to screech, this being one of those phrases of which it can be said, as Shaw said of '411 Gaul is divided into three parts' that although it is neither interesting nor true, it is at any rate easy to remember. And the public, it seems, is remembering it The Gallup Poll has never, for me, held that scriptural authority that it has for many; but I cannot deny that if I were Mr. Gaitskell (say I'm growing old, but add, that one missed me.) I would be strongly tempted to go out and hang myself.

The public, I have long maintained agaihst a good deal of evidence, is not stupid; but it is unsophisticated to a high degree, and a strong indication is supplied in its slow but undeniable shift back into the Conservative column. For once, all the commentators are agreed as to the principal cause of this, and for once they are all right. Nobody with even a grain more independ- ence of political character than, say, the merry yes-men of Tammany-on-the-Bourne, could honestly pretend that the present Government has behaved in a sensible, useful or even reasonably honest way, and nobody could seriously maintain that a Labour Government under Mr. Gaitskell is an obviously unacceptable alternative. Here, in- deed, comes in my distinction between stupidity and lack of sophistication on the part of the public; for while it requires only the merest flicker of conscious reasoning power to see through the Government, it takes something more to see through Mr. Macmillan. It is the public's apparent capacity to swallow without choking practically limitless doses of the Prime Minister which is, fundamentally, behind the remarkable rise in the Tory Party's fortunes. This, to me, is a mite de- pressing, and indicates that the public is in pretty poor shape. Why the public takes Mr. Macmillan at his own valuation is a question that many a page of crisp, white paper could be used up in trying to answer, but there it is. The head- shrinkers would doubtless say it is the universal human search for a father-figure that is behind it; in Mr. Attlee they had a schoolmaster, in the Member for Woodford a full-fledged deity, in Sir Anthony a wayward son. Only in Mr. Macmillan can they see a real, full-sized, accept-no-imitation sugar-daddy, and 'old men who can remember Baldwin are rushing about grabbing other people by the lapels and bellowing ?static dimittis' in their faces.

But where do we go from here? For under the hypnotic influence that Mr. Macmillan is be- ginning to exert more and more strongly upon the electors, the Tory Party looks- like coasting home to victory, which may be nuts for the Tory Party, but is certainly rough on the country. For once there, there will be no incentive for them actually to do anything; in fact there will be a powerful incentive for them to do nothing and to prevent anybody else, doing any- thing either. With the Labour Party gasping on the bank for a breath of policy, the Tories would be foolish indeed if they were to do anything but turn over and float gently down the stream. The braking pressure automatically exerted by many millions of people trying to decide what they want, combined with the natural inertia of history, will do the rest, until the next catastrophe. If the next catastrophe should be a thermo- nuclear war, none of us will need to worry. But suppose it isn't? Suppose that it isn't even the next most likely contingency—an overwhelming finan- cial crisis? Suppose it is the slow erosion, the slow decay, of a country governed by people whose only conscious thought is 'Apres moi les feet wet"? It is not, after all, as if the prospect of a Government pledged to do nothing at all, and carrying out its pledge with a fanatical zeal, really represented a situation in which there was nothing to do. The irony of it all is that while the Labour Party goes footling about with policies nobody wants at all, and the Tories are busy battening down the hatches on an empty hold, there is more to do than ever before. But the field of endeavour that now remains to be ploughed is the very field that neither of the principal ploughmen is willing to enter, for fear of the bulls with which it is (at any rate to their timorous eyes) crowded. I refer to the huge acreage of virgin land on which social reform grows—or rather does not grow.

Marriage and divorce, prostitution and homo- sexuality, the trade unions, penology, gambling, subtopia, the arts, mental (and indeed physical) health—there is a political programme in these enormous and untouched subjects to keep any party happy for half a dozen administrations. But • neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party will touch the hem of their garments. It is true that there are votes by the thousand and ten thousand to be found in these topics : the votes of all those who are sick to death of the idiot round of party politics and the dissemblings and dishonesties and incompetences that go with it, of those who do indeed want Britain to be strong and free, but with the strength and freedom that comes from a healthy mind in a healthy body politic rather than those which come from send- ing men with guns abroad (I gather we shall be shooting Icelanders out of the water fairly soon) and tapping telephones at home.

And, to do them justice, there are men in both parties who know this perfectly well; Mr. Butler is a sufficiently -intelligent man to know it, for instance, on the Tory side, and I daresay that Mr. Greenwood knows it on the other. But they both know, too, that there are votes to be lost to any party which dares to disturb these sleep- ing and mangy dogs. Nobody is going, within the foreseeable future, to lay a finger on the trade unions, despite the shocking condition they are in and the harm they are doing to the nation; nobody, to give one trivial but immediately appre- ciable example, is going to do anything, or make the TUC do anything, about the scandal of the ETU. Bro. Cousins and Bro. Cannon and Bro. Williamson and Bro. Padley and Bro. Jones would start to scream the place down, and the fact that a resolute Government (don't make me laugh) could stuff its fingers in its ears and carry on regardless makes no difference; nothing will in fact be done. Nor will anybody do anything about the Wolfenden Committee Report (why has Sir John Wolfenden not spoken out about the dis- graceful reception of his committee's work?). Nor will sanity be allowed to interfere with Sunday observance. Nor will anything be done about the licensing laws on the one hand or the drink trade on the other. Nor will our prison system be cleaned up, or even our police forces. Nor will anybody propose the instant decupling of the subsidies given to the arts. Nor will there be any divorce reform—unless, indeed, it be in the direc- lion of making it more difficult. Nor will there be legislation which will enable, say, the people responsible for the Board of Trade building or the edifice which has replaced the Holborn Restaurant to be publicly hanged. The slow ooze of political, social and moral corruption will continue, and not a finger will be lifted.

It is not, I repeat, that there are no votes in these subjects; there are many. But there are also votes to be lost therein. (In this they differ from such subjects as education; I cannot believe that there is a single vote to be won or lost by backing or opposing comprehensive schools, say.) And so those two huge and unlovely repositories of in- competence and self-seeking, the Conservative and Labour Parties, will turn their eyes away and leave the nation in its slow decline.

Need it be so? It need not. For there are not two parties in the State, but three, or so we are always told by the leaders of the third. The Liberal Party is now at the flood of that tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to—well, not to victory, or at any rate not yet. But to a huge leap forward, a real breach of the dykes of indifference. If Mr. Grimond would fight the next election, whenever it comes, on a platform of genuine and radical social reform, he would attract to his banner an elite the size of which would shake his opponents as they have never been shaken before. The same Gal- hip Poll which set the Tories clucking gave the Liberals 13 per cent. of the votes; as it is, they would not in practice get these, even if they had candidates in every constituency, since many would slip away before polling day in terror of letting 'the others' in. But if those 13 per cent—and per- haps 10 or 15 per cent, more—could be provided with a policy fundamentally different from any- thing else available, they could be riveted to their trembling allegiance. Oh, there will be talk of social reform and the like in the Liberals' pro- gramme; mealy-mouthed mutterings about one or two projects for tinkering with these problems at the edges. But nothing more. For one thing, Mr. Grimond is not that kind of man (oh, for a Lloyd George, who wouldn't do it because it was right, but would at any rate do id), and for another a straightforward and unequivocal pledge to repeal the Sunday Observance Acts would go far towards losing Mr. Clement Davies his Welsh Nonconformist seat. And so the same cribbing and confining forces will work on Mr. Grimond as work on his opponents, and he will once more miss the point—that he is different from his opponents and is not subject to the same con- siderations. The Liberals will not—probably can- not—heed my advice, and the Liberal dream will fade and die. But there is the candle, and there the matches; is it yet possible that Master Grimond will play the man? TAPER