29 MAY 1964, Page 5

Political Commentary

Selwyn and the Pirates


y BEGIN with three predictions. The Govern- 'pent will not attempt to curb Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta. The Government will not make any commitment before the election to introduce commercial radio. And lastly, if a Conservative Government is returned in October they will license half a dozen or so experimental commercial stations within six months.

First, the radio pirates. The Cabinet has now definitely sat on the wretched Postmaster- General, who was apparently persuaded as usual by his officials to take the bit between his teeth —to attack the pirates and draw up legislation— without thinking of the political consequences. The sometimes-watchful eye of Mr. Selwyn Lloyd was finally awakened to what was going- on and by his strenuous personal exertions the axe was brought down on Mr. Bevins's plans at the next Cabinet meeting. It would be un- charitable to say that Mr. Lloyd put his foot down solely because he is as ardent and effective a proponent of commercial radio as he was of commercial TV. Quite as important was the searing experience of the resale prices Bill. Mr. Lloyd is reported to be still bitterly regretful that he did not head Mr. Heath off from a measure which proved a pure gift to the Opposition.

On that occasion Mr. Lloyd was newly returned to office and Mr. Heath was a very different proposition from Mr. Bevits; so he allowed himself to be persuaded. This time, how- ever, as he sniffed the air he detected, firstly, a strong emotional gust of sympathy for the pirates, and more particularly a long-standing and violent antipathy to Mr. Bevins, who is neither upper class nor adroit nor strong. The thought of the wretched man floundering through the committee

stage of a complicated Anti-Pirate Bill to the accompaniment of Conservative derision and hatred was too much. Mr. Bevins, fortunately, had left himself a loophole and we shall next, week presumably have a sorrowful denunciation of piracy, abuse of the seas, money-making and so on but an equally sorrowful confession that he is advised that legislation is not feasible.

The arguments which produced this result are also likely. to weigh heavily in the decision about whether to go ahead and make a commercial radio promise in the Conservative election mani- festo. The fact is that until the election the Government want a quiet life with their own supporters and although many Tory back benchers are strongly in favour of breaking the BBC monopoly, enough are high-brow opponents of the vulgarisation of sound radio to cause endless trouble. The difficulty is that commercial radio cannot be tackled without raising the whole problem of the BBC's future. If the Corporation is to press on with its plans, hemi-semi-endorsed by the Government, for its own hundred local stations, there is a strong possibility that licence fees will have to be raised, with dire political consequences. On the other hand, if commercial radio is to be introduced, some wave-bands will probably have to be filched from the BBC and indeed it is hardly po'ssible to conceive the intro-.

duction of commercial radio without the sup- pression of the BBC's ambitions and even per- haps the closure of the Light Programme alto- gether. These are deep waters upon which the present Government can hardly embark.

Finally there is the long-term prospect. Much has been written about. the commercial radio

lobby and most of it hag been exaggerated. In the first place there is no reason to disbelieve Mr. Jocelyn Stevens and others who run the pirates, when they declare they have never been in a . dark plot to force a commercial radio break-- through. Caroline received a letter of hearty congratulations from the chief commercial radio.

lobby grotto, the National Broadcasting Develop- ment Committee, a day or two after they began transmission: but until that moment there was

no contact. The truth is that the pirates are being seized by, the lobby as a convenient stick to beat

the Government with but as soon as the main commercial point is gained the pirates will be quickly abandoned and undercut.

Again, the NBDC itself has been remarkably quiet for some time. It contains, it is true, three MPs Of medium weight and three lords; this hardly constitutes, a vast lobby. Its entire budget for the years 1961-63 was only £12,000 and during the last year it has only had two' full meetings. Its• much-publicised meeting on June 2 is unlikely to produce more than a strong letter to the PMG.

The real prospects lie not in the radio lobby but in a shift in the climate of opinion in the Cabinet and the Commons. The Labour Party, who re- member the TV pressure group, are imbued with the spirit of Pilkington, and will probably oppose commercial radio for years on the grounds that they don't like the smell of it. Whether Labour would actually extend the BBC's monopoly and costs is, of course, a very different question. (Mr.

Woodrow Wyatt has produced the ingenious solu- tion that local authorities might run local stations without advertising in conjunction with local newspapers.) The Tories are another matter. The present pre-eminence of Mr. Lloyd is of great im- portance, so is the prevailing feeling of fed-upness

with the BBC, for which no one can quite account; so too is the search among Tories for policies' which can display, without undue elec-

toral disadvantage, the true Conservative virtues of free enterprise. Now that the NBDC are being intelligent enough to limit their ends to the idea

of experimental stations (which look attractively non-committal bat whose introduction would be decisive) their chances of success in the long run look extremely bright.

Mr. Terry Boston, the Labour candidate al Faversham, has stuck his neck out to the limit by agreeing that there are no peculiar factors at Faversham that would account for a freak result. Devizes and Sudbury, the two biggest Labour failures of the last few months, were subsequently designated as 'special cases'—unfairly brilliant

Conservative organisation, forelock-touching feudal tenantry, rural distrust of change, and so on. At Faversham there can be no such excuses and if Mr. Boston fluffs it he can have only him- self and his party's image to blame.

Where, then, does a certain shiver of Tory optimism come from? The answer is the key to the real interest in this constituency. The Con- servative candidate, Mrs. Elsie Olsen, who fought the seat in 1959, maintains that there has been a turn-over of about 5,000 electors in the con- stituency since then and that the newcomers will vote for her. Both sides produce more or less the same stereotype of this standard 'immigrant'—an `affluent,' aspiring, young, white-collar worker living in a house on mortgage full of appliances on hire-purchase, paying his railway fares to Lon- don and Chatham on the newly electrified Kent Coast line and in general living slightly beyond his means on a prestigious bungaloid estate. But who will he vote for? The Tories say he is a typical Conservative who is in need of status, who never had it so good and wants to keep it that way. Labour maintains that he has probably moved down from London where land prices and rates were too much for him, that he is still worried and discontented and that he is prepared to risk a change on the grounds that things cer- tainly won't be worse under Labour.

This description of what Mr. Fairlie would no doubt call 'Faversham man' is, like 'Orpington man,' a revolting simplification, but both parties firmly believe that he exists in large quantities and is multiplying. if that is even half right these kind of people are going to decide the political fate of the South-East for this and perhaps many years—hence the almost frantic tending by the Labour Party of the owner-occupied estates on the outskirts of Sittingbourne.

This apart, Labour's chief worry appears to be that they might win by too much. The local pundits calculate that a big victory now would give the local Tories the chance they have been looking for to sack Mrs. Olsen and bring in a formidably bright young barrister for the General Election. I do not think they need worry. Mrs. Olsen, who has been fighting and losing general elections regularly since 1950, is an eccentric Welshwoman given to outstanding flights of loquacity and emotion and is not exactly a dream candidate. But she has her defenders and will hardly allow herself to be pushed out without a dangerously disruptive battle.