15 AUGUST 1958, Page 6

Westminster Commentary

ASSUMING that the world does not come to an end before October 23 (and it is a large assumption), and assuming (which is a rather smaller one) that a General Election does not take the place of the Last Trump, there will be a Queen's Speech to intro- duce the session. Time enough to speculate on its contents a little nearer the day; for the moment it may suffice to say that whatever else is in it there will almost certainly be a promise of immediate legislation on a Conservative pensions scheme to rival that proposed by the Labour Party. And not only to rival, but to anticipate it. Those back- room boys have not been working away all this time for the fun of the thing, nor yet in the same spirit of pure research which presumably animated that distinguished Tory thinker who was discovered in Central Office in 1948 working out a plan for the invasion of Burma. No; the Oppo- sition has gone down to the river to bathe, leaving to guard its clothes on the bank nobody more formidable than Mr. Crossman. (Oh! those happy, heady days at Brighton, when Mr. Cross- man, after making his speech, could hardly get back to his seat for the gauntlet of Wykehamists- not to mention Old Serhovians—waiting to pat him on the back!) And you may be sure that when the rival gang, headed by the muffin-man (the greatest political street-urchin in the business) happened by and saw the situation they realised what a spiffing jape it would be to fall upon the luckless custodian, black his eye, bloody his nose, and run away with his playmates' trousers.

Come October 23, then, and cries of 'Ow! Yaroo! Leggo, you brutes!' may confidently be expected from the direction of the riverside not a thousand miles from Westminster Pier, and shortly afterwards Mr. Boyd-Carpenter will be seen strolling into the Chamber in a suit that fits him rather less snugly than his usual pin-stripe.

Still, that is the Opposition's worry; I really cannot be expected to double the job of referee with that of ringside reporter. But it does raise one very important long-term question. If the Tories have got a comprehensive pension scheme on the Statute Book before the ball goes up, what major legislative proposals will they have to fight the election on? Clearly they do not envisage any further denationalisation; clearly, also, no further additions to the Welfare State are envisaged, apart perhaps from a general tidy-up and reorganisa- tion of the social services. National Service, if it is really to be ended, can be disposed of by merely allowing the National Service Acts to lapse; no positive action is required. No fundamental re- construction of our taxation system will take place until the last black-coated barnacle in the Treasury is taken out and hanged in Trafalgar Square. The road to colonial independence is well charted (except in East and Central Africa) for many years ahead. The nuclear power pro- gramme goes steadily on. No sweeping reform of the educational system is contemplated, and even if it were it could not in fact be carried out while the Burnham scale so effectively keeps the teach- ing profession about 190,000 under strength. The Rent Act is going into operation. You cannot pass an Act of Parliament to double the standard of living in twenty-five years, any more than you can pass an Act of Parliament to make Mr. Butler shut up. No radical departure in the field of foreign policy is conceivable, and whether the European Common Market collapses or not the Government's course is plain. Even Local Govern- ment, with the recent reorganisation of its finan- cial structure, has been taken care of.

Now, clearly, this situation is not going to worry Mr. Macmillan. He will fight the next elec- tion on a jingoist platform decorated at the edges with attacks on nationalisation. And presumably what happens in the election after next will not affect Earl Macmillan of Birch Grove. But it will affect (fill in the space to taste; candidates writing 'Mr. Butler' will be disqualified). For consider for a moment the plight of the Labour Party. It came into existence to right the wrongs of labour and ensure that the grosser abuses of inequality were removed; and that job is now done. Mr. Gaitskell may don as many cloth caps as he can borrow from Mr. Robens (I'll wager Mr. G. hasn't one of his own, and he certainly won't find one on the sideboard at meetings of the XYZ club), but he cannot pretend that any major project, which has the slightest chance of commending itself to a sizeable body of electors, remains for the Labour Party to take a flyer on. (There is, as a matter of fact, one exception to this—foreign policy; but a sensible foreign policy might be described as The Bus Mr. Gaitskell was Proud to Miss.) This, of course, has been true for some time as far as the Labour Party is concerned, and there are few who will deny it, at any rate in private. The ten policy documents, for instance, on which so many committees laboured for so long, do not amount to a row of has-beens,.with the possible exception of the pension plan, the likely fate of which I have already indicated. Nobody is going to follow the Labour Party down the road of more nationalisation, however it may be disguised, and the fact that the party is planning to tear itself to pieces at Scarborough on the public schools is not only hugely funny, it is also an indication of the emptiness of that once-crammed locker, social equality. (Besides, anybody who really thinks there are votes anywhere in that gallimaufry might do worse than look at a recent study of some working-class winners of large sums on football pools; three out of four immediately tried to sign up their children for Eton, Harrow or Roedean.) So the Labour Party, having surrendered the right to fight the Tories at the election on foreign policy, will be reduced to saying 'We'll do the same things as they've been doing, only better'—a rallying-cry which ranks for blood-stirring alongside 'Anyone for tennis?' rather than 'Aux armes, citoyens.'

Whereat, Tory chortling may be heard. Now Tories are by tradition—indeed, by their very nature—short-term chortlers, taking the chortle of the day as it comes. Only think, though, if they could manage to transform the situation into one perpetual chortle! If the Labour Party has nothing positive to propose, and the Tories have nothing positive to propose, the electorate is hardly going to be so foolish as to change barrels, to put it in some memorable words of Mr. Mencken's, half-way over Niagara Falls. The Tories have always made out that they represent, rain and shine, the essence of the nation; every now and then, they imply, the nation literally forgets itself and puts some half-baked crowd_ of social re- formers in, but sooner or later it must veer back to its traditional allegiance, since that allegiance is, after all, to itself. If one examines the main Tory manifesto at the last election no very detailed plan of legislative action emerges; drivel about Britain strong and free and a property-owning democracy is the prop upon which it leans most heavily. Still, there were outlines to be discerned through the fog, and it cannot be denied that they have since filled the outlines in. But now, it may be, the necessity for even an outline is fast dis- appearing.

To begin with, the tempo is clearly slackening; despite all the alarms and excursions and extra- curricular nonsenses like the latest Middle East expedition, the Government's timetable has never seriously been disturbed, and one does not have to be a regular reader of this column to have noticed that a substantial amount of House of Commons time is spent upon trivialities. This process, if the Tories win the next election. may be expected to continue; there will still be legis- lation of a minor kind to be enacted (whatever became of the Milford Haven Conservancy Bill?), but the Conservatives will endeavour to entrench themselves even more solidly in their role, of cus- todians of the nation's well-being. On the Oppo- sition benches, after all, there will be no great activity; there will be no great radical programme for the Tories to reject, outbid or simply steal. For the Tories the situation holds out bright promise; for the nation as a whole there are more serious questions. Their answering will be none the worse for a further week's reflection. To be