14 MARCH 1998, Page 42

Politics without tears

John Grigg

THE ROAD TO NUMBER TEN: FROM BONAR LAW TO TONY BLAIR by Alan Watkins Duckworth, £25, pp. 314 By no means every master-columnist is equally good at writing books, but Alan Watkins succeeds in both genres. A book by him is no less enjoyable than his weekly column (at present in the Independent on Sunday). Reading him for a few minutes or over a longer period is rather like attending a tutorial with the best sort of old- fashioned don. His expositions are enlivened by a pawky, allusive, anecdotal and deceptively relaxed style — deceptive, because he writes, in fact, with an intellec- tual rigour that many dons might envy.

He is a stickler for accuracy, noting with some relish any lapses from it on the part of others, not least in the matter of grammar. When he quotes a passage, the word sic (in square brackets) is always liable to appear, denoting a grammatical error. His own standard of accuracy is so high that readers can perhaps be forgiven a moment of unworthy triumph if they ever find a mistake in his work. In The Road to Number Ten I have found only two slips. Derrick Gunston, a backbench Tory MP who opposed appeasement in the 1930s, is misnamed Robert; and Mussolini is said to have invaded Italy in 1935 (the sort of mis- print that can survive any amount of proof- reading). But these, of course, are trivialities.

The title of the book is interpreted wide- ly to include not only descriptions of the final steps whereby every prime minister from Bonar Law to Tony Blair has reached No, 10, but also how the mechanism for choosing party leaders has evolved, whether or not those chosen have made it to the premiership, and a variety of other related topics, such as the royal preroga- tives of appointment and dissolution. The book deals, therefore, with very important aspects of British constitutional politics during most of the present century, and does so in a way that never ceases to be informative and fascinating.

Without allowing gossip to take over from serious narrative and argument, Watkins is well aware that the business of politics is conducted by human beings, whose idiosyncrasies are relevant to any worthwhile study of the subject. His per- sonal asides and thumbnail sketches are a constant joy, particularly those depicting relatively minor figures. For instance:

Walter Padley was an affable, muddled, popular MP who prided himself on his inter- national socialism and whose chief subjects of conversation were cricket (he claimed to have kept wicket for Gloucestershire on one occasion) and Rosa Luxemburg.

Or: Sir Archie [Hamilton] was a very tall Etonian former Guards officer but could be distinctly on the short side in his manner. It was said that if he was unlocatable during a division the Whips would advise one another: 'Look everywhere except the Library'.

In only one case does the author let us down by mentioning a name — in a most intriguing context — without supplying any personal background. Nobody, he suggests, had more to do with the drastic constitu- tional changes in the Labour party in the late 1970s and early 1980s than Vladimir Derer. But he never tells us who Derer was (is?) or how he came to be so influential. The only other reference to him in the book is to the effect that he received hardly any publicity for the work he did. Disap- pointingly, Watkins has redeemed him from oblivion only as a name.

When discussing the formation of the National Government in 1931, the author argues that Ramsay MacDonald was disastrously at fault in allowing himself to be persuaded by King George V to form `Terrible . how about you?' it, and also that the King exceeded his proper role in bringing such pressure to bear on MacDonald. The first point seems to me entirely correct, the second more dubious. The right of a sovereign to ques- tion a prime minister's decision to resign, and even to try to persuade him or her to stay on as head of a coalition, seems to fall within Bagehot's famous definition of a constitutional monarch's rights (to be consulted, to advise and to warn). If Mac- Donald had stuck to his intention to resign, the King's pleas would have counted for nothing.

Watkins might, however, have men- tioned a negative failure on the part of the present Queen, which led her into an appearance of constitutional impropriety. After the choice of Harold Macmillan rather than R. A. Butler to succeed Antho- ny Eden in 1957, through the arcane meth- ods then traditional in the Tory party, the Queen would surely have been entitled to insist that the party devise an open and above-board system for choosing a new leader, to protect her from any semblance of involvement in the process when a change again occurred during the lifetime of a Tory government. Unfortunately she failed to do so, with the result that in 1963 she seemed to be involved in the murky procedure whereby Alec Douglas-Home became leader of the party and prime minister. (Change occurred soon after- wards, on the initiative of Humphry Berkeley, but it would have been much bet- ter if it had occurred earlier, on the Queen's private initiative.) In future all party leaders will not only be openly elected, but chosen by an elec- toral college that far transcends their par- liamentary parties. Tony Blair is the first prime minister of any party to be the choice, as leader, of a body in which extra-parliamentary forces are predomi- nant. Labour leaders since Michael Foot have been so chosen (that is to say, Neil Kinnock and John Smith as well as Blair), but Blair is the first to have become prime minister. Watkins notes that so far the choice of trade unionists and constituency members has not conflicted with that of Labour MPs, but such a happy coincidence can obviously not be relied upon in every future election.

Conservative leaders will, under the Hague reforms, have a similarly populist base, and the Liberal Democrat leader has, from the first, been the choice of the whole party membership. We are entering a new era, in which party leaders, in or out of office, will be very much harder to remove. Is it likely that Margaret Thatcher would have fallen in 1990 if her fate had been in the hands of all party members rather than merely Tory MPs? The implications of what is happening for parliamentary, as distinct from presidential, democracy are only hinted at by Watkins. A full considera- tion of them would make a good subject for his next book.