Political Commentary Resale and Return
By DAVID WATT
(HOME [aside]: I know not what to say; my title's weak.
BLAKENHAM [kneeling]: Sir Alec, be thy title right or wrong,
Lord Blakenhairi vows to fight in thy defence, etc.)
That Mr. Heath should wantonly alienate 450,000 small shopkeepers, the very men who chair ward-branches, the men who pass Con- servative propaganda across the counter with half a pound of lard and a bottle of disinfectant, seemed the height of politiCal folly. Tory MPs who gathered in their Trade and Industry Com- mittee on the evening of Mr. Heath's statement greeted him with a certain amount of mockery and demands to know how his policy fitted in with the Prime Minister's exhortation to direct every word and deed towards the election.
A period for reflection has produced brighter thoughts. The Prime Minister's performance at Swansea has convinced the rank and file, for the moment; that however he came to his present eminence he is the best man for the job. Again, the expected flood of complaining letters from revolting tradesmen has not materialised. It is true that the chemists have been spurred on by their trade association to write letters; but this organisation made the mistake of sending its members a 'model letter to MPs.' After receiving six letters in identical terms to the effect that any weakening of the present price system 'would be regarded by me and I am sure by all other private traders as a betrayal of our interests and could have serious repercussions at the time of the next general election,' an MP's sympathy is apt to be a trifle blunted. Apart from the chemists, interest and complaint has been patchy—stronger in the large towns or suburbs where the small man is already up against the supermarket, weaker in the country Where the village shop still has its monopoly. By and large MPs appear to be comforted with the thought that on this issue the other two parties, on paper even more strongly opposed to price maintenance, afford no refuge to the shopkeeper.
It is possible to see Mr. Heath's driving am- bition to get some major innovation on the statute book under his name, whatever the cost, as being both politically astute and long-sighted.
Whether or not Mr. Heath had any such un- worthy thought at the back of his mind, he may well find himself in a strong position. Within three months of taking office he has seized on an issue which the party has av6ided for twelve years, he has reversed two recent Cabinet decisions and he has, in a blaze of publicity, forced his col- leagues to make what one Cabinet Minister called 'the first real decision this administration has taken.' The very controversy this issue has aroused has helped. In the first place it has inflated the true importance of RPM. All academic authori- ties and a large majority of politicians on both sides are now agreed that RPM ought to go in principle. But no one, certainly not Whitehall ministries, appears able to say by how much, if at all, prices in the shops will fall in the long run if it is abolished, nor is it absolutely certain that the new competitive pressure on retailers would be passed back to manufacturers by more than a marginal amount. Flexibility and efficiency in retailing is, objectively speaking, where Mr. Maudling put it in his speech last Saturday—fairly well down the list of ,economic priorities, being only one contributing factor in stable prices and having precious little to do directly with profits and wages. Yet because a vociferous section of the Conservative, Party objects to abolishing RPM, its abolition appears a psychological break-through of a greater magnitude than Mr. Maudling's more difficult operations in the wages field or even than Mr. Heath'S own proposals for monopoly legislation which are apparently not to be put into effect this session.
Again, Mr.. Heath is now in a position where the more he is fOrced to modify his original con- ception the more he will appear to be a victim of timid and reactionary colleagues. As a matter of fact there are probably not more than two or three members of the Cabinet who are positively opposed to the abolition of RPM (Mr.• Butler has been much maligned in this respect). The older generation's objection was primarily to the timing and it is this factor which may in any case force such concessions as Mr. Heath may make. For the Bill cannot be presented for another' two or three weeks (this in itself is a miracle of speedy drafting) after which there are only three weeks before Parliament becomes in- volved in Easter and the Budget.
The possibilities of obstruction are almost unlimited. The' dog-fight will revolve around a number of issues, including such questions as whether and how manufacturers shall be pre- vented from cutting off supplies from retailers, whether any time limit should' be set to prevent manufacturers flogging the new machinery with frivolous applications and so on. The chief field for obstruction, however, will certainly be 'the definition of criteria by which the tribunal is to decide what is against the public interest. The 1956 Restrictive Trade Practices Act lays down seven conditions under which agreements' can be considered not to be against the public in-' terest. The RPM lobby threatens to add to this list wide and plausible—and crippling- considera- tions about value for money, standards of quality, price stability, conditions of employment in the retail business and doubtless numerous others. If this is the case we may well see the unedifying spectacle of the Government applying the.guillo- tine procedure to its own supporters.
Nor can the Government expect much help from the Opposition. It is true that the trade unions, and in particular Mr. Walter Padley, the leader of the Shop Workers, are less dubious about abolition after experience with the decline of RPM in the last five years. But they will sup- port any move to write into the Bill safeguards on wages and employment and will strongly resist any idea that shopkeepers should be recompensed for fiercer competition by being allowed to' stay open longer hours. It is also true that Mr. Wilson himself is a strong anti- RPM man—one of his last acts as President of the Board of Trade in 1951 was to produce a blistering White Paper on RPM containing pro- posals far more ruthlessly radical than anything we are likely to see from Mr. Heath. But his tactical sense will almost certainly prevent Mr. Wilson from helping the government out of the hole at this stage of the game, especially since there are a number on his left who are pot exactly enthusiastic about free competition in a capitalist society.
The National Chamber of Trade (whose honorary vice-presidents include such dis- tinguished figures as Lord Kilmuir, Mr. Maurice Macmillan, Mr. Duncan Sandys, and Mr. Richard -Wood, not to mention Sir Cyril Osborne and Captain Waterhouse of Suez fame) appears to be genuine in its belief that it can force the Government to withdraw the Bill entirely or emasculate it in order to be able to get it through in time. This entire lobby reckons, I believe, without the toughness of Mr. Heath and the downright obstinacy of Sir Alec Home once he has made up his mind. The Prime Minister is determined to go down fighting and the more likely it appears that he will lose the election the more he is determined not to be relegated to a neglected niche in history as a caretaker Prime Minister. He aspires at least to be the Pope John of the Conservative Party. Modernising fever has seized him and we are to expect within the next two or three weeks decisions on the Educa- tion Ministry, science and technology, the school- leaving age and the Channel Tunnel. No doubt on RPM Sir Alec and Mr. Heath might have climbed down if they had been isolated—no Prim'e Minister can afford a split just before the election. But they are not isolated. The younger half of the Cabinet is behind them and the Government as a whole is now committed to a point where there is no going back or even hesitation without very damaging loss of face.