29 JULY 1966, Page 9

A Spectator's Notebook

DEOPLE haven't made much of the point in r this week's economic debate in the House of Commons, for obvious reasons: but a further slide towards disillusion with our whole political set-up seems a highly probable consequence of the collapse of the Government's economic policy. However history eventually appraises Mr Wilson as a politician, no one is likely to dispute the remarkable success he achieved in opposition in his demolition of the Tories' reputation as competent managers of the economy. Now that he has performed an equally thorough destruc- tion of his own party's prestige in precisely this field, a growing sense of helplessness in the face of chronic national difficulties seems unavoidable for a time at least. Indeed, there are plenty of signs already.

The skilful management of the economy has become, for better or for worse, the chief criterion by which political performance is judged. When both the main parties appear discredited in this respect, the two-party system is in a bad patch indeed. The system has often been likened to a see-saw: one side up, one side down. The simile fails to work when both sides are down, and so, of course, does the system—satisfactorily, at least. In theory, perhaps, the Liberals might be sup- posed to.be on the brink of yet another 'revival,' but that horse has refused to gallop too often to look very convincing in present circumstances. The future may well hold in store some symptoms of disillusion far less attractive than a Welsh Nationalist upsurge, and far less innocuous than letters from worthy gentlemen in The Times appealing vainly for a national government.

St Selwyn's Day Mr Heath was no doubt accurate but scarcely prudent when he termed Mr Wilson's emergency measures 'a tatty ragbag of old ideas, a botched- up package of half-baked measures.' Mr Selwyn Lloyd must have felt affronted. Indeed, the Tories can scarcely be blamed for experiencing some sense of vindication, even if a little guiltily.

I have been trying to recall any comparably massive abandonment of policy to put beside the events of what Mr Grimond happily termed `St Selwyn's Day.' There was Baldwin and re- armament, but that hardly matches Mr Wilson and stop-go. I have heard it suggested that one must go back to 1886, and Mr Gladstone's dramatic conversion to Irish Home Rule, to find anything of the same degree of magnitude. But Mr Gladstone, whatever some of his stunned colleagues thought at the time, was able to main- tain that for years his thinking had been per- ceptibly moving in the direction of Home Rule: the decision had been 'ripening in his mind': and the exact opposite is the case of Mr Wilson's embracing of the full rigours of stop-go. He never meant to do it and he still doesn't believe in it.

Stop-go and Son

Certainly no event in recent history has turned so many of a political leader's speeches and writings into a source of embarrassment to him. Those volumes setting out the Wilsonian doctrine, heavy with paragraphs of tough, purposive, rele- vant prose analysing the crude errors of Tory economics and depicting the sophisticated new approach which would rid us of stop-go, for ever —how melancholy they look today! Those great speeches in the early months of 1964—and they formed perhaps the most impressive and suc- cessful ,series ot speeches made by a politician

since the war—how forlorn an air they wear today on the neat pages of the Penguin version!

Mr Wilson trampled over all his rivals in those months, and poor Sir Alec could never approach that outpouring of reforming indignation. 'The Conservatives'—one can hear that familiar mock- ing edge to the voice—`The Conservatives have repeatedly sought to impose a pay freeze because a stagnant economy, indeed an economy forcibly prevented from expanding, could not pay higher wages without inflation.' The country goggled at the ineptitude thus disclosed. Now, the new austerities and planned unemployment of July 1966.

Public Resort The next few days will see the first meetings of the local conciliation committees set up under the Race Relations Act 1965—the committees for London and Manchester are now in existence —and 1 suspect that even before they begin work there is some misgiving among the members at the narrow limits which that cautious Act set upon their activities. The two ultra-sensitive areas of housing and employment are excluded from their purview. With the certainty of rising un- employment, and all the possibilities of racial antagonism which that implies, the arguments for extending this work of unobtrusive conciliation will grow stronger. Of thirty-two cases referred to the London committee before it has actually begun to meet, only five come within their terms of reference; four of these relate to alleged dis- crimination in pubs, one to a hotel. Most of the others relate to jobs or housing. Significantly, the Race Relations Board has already set up inquiries into the extent of discrimination in fields outside the committees' purview, and into the nature of anti-discriminatory legislation in other countries.

This is not to say that the committees will not do valuable work in weeding out racial dis- crimination in places of 'public resort.' I'm sure they will. One early task is to clarify the meaning of 'a place of public resort maintained by a local authority or other public authority.' Does it, for example, include a hospital or a room in a police station? Most people would probably say that it did, but the Race Relations Board is taking counsel's opinion.

The RAB Show Lord Butler was at his most engaging and authoritative in his hour-long television talk with Kenneth Harris on Tuesday night. It was im- possible not to speculate, as the flow of sage and lucid reminiscence proceeded, upon the two great historical might-have-beens which he embodies. But of course one particularly attractive aspect of his conversation was his own refusal to waste time on regrets. There was something touching, as well as extremely sensible, in his mild com- plaint about the tendency to regard as a failure any politician who does not reach 'the top.' No one speaks of a cardinal or a bishop as a failure for not having become pope or archbishop. By any rational test Rab's career has been an extra- ordinary success in spite of his famous set-backs, and it was refreshing to observe that he quite properly saw his life's work in that light. The BBC ought to repeat this programme. I would dearly love to hear the passages which Lord Butler's discretion (not always his strongest suit) led him to suppress for the time being.