16 OCTOBER 1953, Page 8

Confident Conservatives

By FRANCIS BOYD THE state of the Conservative Party has been obscured in recent months by speculation about the future of Sir Winston Churchill and Mr. Eden, and the effects upon the party that would be caused by their departure from office. The main result of the conference that was held at Margate last week has been to blow away a good deal of this obscurity. The delegates—officially they are " representatives," but even Lord Salisbury, the president of the party, kept refer- ring to them as " delegates ' last week—revealed themselves in a new mood. They seemed to be adapting themselves to a future in which the younger men among the leaders would be in control, and the prospect was viewed with confidence. Lord Woolton, in winding up the conference, contrasted the atmosphere of Margate, 1953, with that of Blackpool, 1946, and to anyone who attended both conferences the contrast was remarkable indeed. In 1946, after the terrible defeat of the previous year, the party was angry and bewildered. The authority of Sir Winston Churchill was the only sure comfort.

In successive years the party plucked up its courage, Mr. Butler produced his policy documents, and an election was won. The party now believes-that it has adjusted itself to the post-war world, and this is the basis of a new confidence. In this process of adjustment, the work that Mr. Butler and his assistants did during the years of opposition is held by a large section of the party to have been indispensable. And now Mr. Butler has proved himself as Chancellor of the Ex- chequer. His old helpers are in office. His eminence within the Government is regarded as a guarantee that, whenever new adjustments are netessary, they will be made. Mr. Butler himself is well aware that the party sees him glittering on top of an intellectual pinnacle. When, he began to reply to the economic debate during last week's conference he told the delegates jestingly—but the jest covered the truth—that he could have provided the party with some more policy docu- ments, but he had rather assumed that they did not need any at the moment.

This is the prevailing mood of the moment. It would be foolish to pretend that the mood could become a permanent attitude without the most patient tending. The agricultural hurdle has yet to be jumped, and Mr. Butler himself has been obliged, both as Chancellor and as the representative of an agricultural constituency, to put himself at the head of the ministerial team that is trying to reconcile a policy of guaran- teed prices and markets with the principle of a free economy. There are-other, more constant, difficulties that face the leaders of a party that draws its emotional force from powerful dreams. One is the compelling dream of Commonwealth-Imperialism that has held Mr. Leo Amery in its grip for so long, and has bewitched his son, Julian. It is a dream shared by thousands of their fellow Conservatives, indeed, almost certainly by the bulk of the party. It fires the imagination of all those Tories —and they are so many among the rank, and file—whose lives are circumscribed economically and humdrum socially. But Commonwealth relations cannot easily be made to fit into the dream-pattern, as Mr. Peter Thorneycroft tried to point out when defending himself against Mr. Leo Amery's attack on his conduct at the GATT committee in Geneva. The division of the Commonwealth between the sterling and dollar worlds is an extremely complicating factor. The balance of payments is another difficulty. So far, the terms of trade- have helped the Government since it took office, but they may not remain favourable, and what would the Chancellor do then ? Would he not be obliged to reverse the process of de-control ? This would offend many members of the party and would have to be justified with great care.

What part does the annual conference play in controlling relations between the leaders and the rank and file ? Enemies of the Conservative Party always assert that the role of the Tory delegates is farcical, and it would be easy to make fun of the conference procedure. How comes it, for example, that the chairman can announce without protest that no amend- ments to the motion before the conference will be called This happened more than once last Week. And devout Labour supporters would have been delighted to witness the upset caused by the decision, which not even a Tory chairman could evade, to take a recorded vote last week. (To be fair to the Tories, it is rather an upsetting. business. Some four thousand delegates had each to record a separate vote : the Tories have no cards to hold up with thousands of votes upon them.) But it would really be irrelevant to spend much effort on mocking a procedure because it differs from that of the Labour Party. The Conservative conference fulfils a different purpose. The movernktnt of opinion within the party is not measured by the text of 21 motion' or the exact size of a vote. It is sensed rather than measured, and it is true to say that at no Con- servative conference since the war have the managers of the party been more anxious to ascertain the sense of the party, not so much with regard to particular issues, but with regard to particular people. Which of the leaders would evoke so pro- found a response that he would be best placed to lead the party in hard times as well as in good ? The answer was plain—Mr. Butler. Lord Salisbury said last week that the main purpose of party meetings was to 'enable the delegates to hear the leaders and to enable the leaders—" and this is equally important "—to hear the delegates, and to erlable both to come to agree on the policy to be expounded to the elec- torate during the coming year. This definition may be dis- missed as a platitude or, by harsher critics, as eye-wash. Yet the commanders are faced with an increasingly articulate body of troops who must increasingly be ." put in the picture.". The task of educating the party, of applying its principles in the context of the modern world, has gone a long way. Whatever Mr. Bevan may say, this is a different Conservative Party from that which existed before the war and which had remained substantially unaltered for decades. The paper on the hospital service which Sir Hugh Linstead wrote for the Conservative local government conference (also held last week) is a sign of the care with which the social' problems of today are being examined. Nevertheless, the task of education will remain and will become increasingly necessary if hard times impose hard policies—that is to say, policies which go against the grain of traditional Conservatism—on the Government. For the leaders rely upon the support of a body which is largely middle-class, with a very powerful element of the lower middle-class in it; and this is a body to which traditional Conservatism makes an almost passionate appeal. Mr. Angus Maude, who is the director of the Conservative Political Centre, has made clear the tribulations under which the middle-class feels itself to be suffering, and indeed, as a class, it is paying dearest for the welfare state. (Hence the constant pressure on the Government to reduce rates and taxes.) But one is apt to forget the force with which the lower middle-class, which is furthest from its goal, struggles towards a state in which thrift and-personal effort will secure individual advantages. The leaders may know that the goal which beckons the party on may be difficult, if not impossible, to attain, but they have to reckon with the force that they and their pre- decessors have helped to create.