21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 6

Political Commentary

The rediscovery of Tory liberalism

Patrick Cosgrave

The true consequences of the battle of Blackpool are not to be found in whether or not the Tory establishment triumphed over Mr Powell, but in the discovery by that establishment of a moral identity of its own. It is an identity that has always been there, but which has, of late, been sleeping. To say that its revelation was the essence of the conference, to say that it was dramatically protrayed in the speeches of Mr Whitelaw and Mr Carr — the latter, I think, the best conference speech I have ever heard — is not to minimise the challenge offered by Mr Powell, a challenge revealed in the tight and superior organisation of his followers; nor is it to minimise the validity of a great deal of what Mr Powell has to say. It is merely to state that a party leadership is always best when it is truest to itself; and that the truth to self of the Conservative leadership at Blackpool was immensely attractive.

Dame Peggy Shepherd dispensed with the banalities common to the speeches of those who normally take their chair at the tribal rally which brings Tory conferences to a close, and made a uniquely deliberate reference to the quarrels of the week, after casually dealing with the heckling aroused by an earlier such reference. "All of us in this hall," she said " know that bitterness and selfishness is divisive and we know that it is generosity of spirit which can alone help us to achieve the fulfilment of the dream — our dream of one nation . . ." No better abstract than the phrase 'generosity of spirit' could be found to express what the Tory Party managers were after in trying to redefine the character of their party through the maelstrom of their conference. With that phrase, that keynote struck, Tory liberalism rose again.

Now, all this has a certain amount to do with seeking the middle ground of politics on which, it is supposed, general elections are won; it also has a certain amount to do with the ruthless organisation that went into securing the victory over Mr Powell, that lonely and passionate figure, on Thursday. But it has much more to do with the character of the party itself. When Boyle retired, when Macleod died, when Maudling became ineffective and eventually withdrew, a certain distinctive strand of modern Conservatism appeared to be disappearing, torn to ever more slender threads by the competing forces of meritocratic Heathism and doctrinaire Powellism. That liberal Toryism had — and has — one distinct failing: it is not susceptible to doctrinal formulation; it is a matter of attitude. If major political figures who possess the attitude are not present, the philosophy itself dies. However, when the philosophy is alive it commands, more effectively than any alternatives, the allegiance of that ruthlessly efficient Tory machine for achieving consensus, which we have all from time to time admired. even when we cannot love it.

The truth of all these generalisations can be shown by the events preceding, and the events of, the conference. Even by Tuesday the leadership had no conception of how formidable Mr Powell's challenge would be. This, in itself, demonstrated how far, in recent years, the leadership had got out of touch with what was going on in the constituencies; it was symbolised by their total ignorance of how many local Conservative associations Mr Powell and his admirers had infiltrated; it was summarised by their embarrassment at the way in which Mr Powell had outmanoeuvred them to gain the favoured place at the opening of Thursday's immigration debate. The leadership, thus, started late in the battle and, to their distaste, found that it would have to be fought out on the conference floor.

The decision to be taken then was whether or not the motion proposed by Mr Powell — a word for word repetition of that put to the conference of 1969 by Lord Hailsham — should be accepted as it stood, and replied to with the decent and dull speech which Mr Carr already had sketched out. 'That way," said one Machiavellian party manager, "no one will know whether they are cheering Bob Carr Cr Enoch at the end." The alternative, and bolder, course was to accept an amendment, tabled ten days previously, by Mr David Hunt, National Young Conservative Chairman, which specifically welcomed the Government's decision to admit the Ugandan Asians, and thus specifically repudiated Mr Powell. Some indication that the bolder course would be adopted was given in the Prime Minister's address to the Tory agents on Tuesday night, when he went out of his way to slap down Mr Powell. But, even by Wednesday it was known only that Mr Carr was "smiling on" Mr Hunt's amendment. It was later still that Mr Carr's speech had to be re-written, in a way that would emphasise his welcoming of the Young Conservative amendment, and place him in direct and open confrontation with Mr Powell.

And it was at this point that Mr Carr, always regarded as a liberal Tory, but more often than not as a rather feeble one, assumed the mantle of Macleod, Boyle and Maudling. He was flanked and supported, in a particularly felicitous conjunction, by David Lane, the member for Cambridge, his Parliamentary Under-Secretary, and Nicholas Scott, the member for Paddington North, his Parliamentary Private Secretary. Mr Scott has been Macleod's PPS: both these young men had come under severe and often hysterical threat in their constituencies in 1968, when Mr Powell had lifted the lid on fears about immigration. They were junior acolytes of liberal Toryism, but without enough weight in themselves to put its attitude across. They beavered away, both in encouraging the Home Secretary to take a stand, against Mr Powell, and in helping with the finer touches in his speech. During the drafting sessions, however, it was Mr Carr himself who took the lead, constantly repeating the absolute necessity of being true to himself; of responding to the challenge of Wolverhampton, not with evasions, but with such directions as he felt were suitable to the political faith he held. What, in the event, he expressed above all was generosity of spirit: but he tied it in with references to the past, to the empire and to Churchill, which have not for some time been expressed with such vibrant enthusiasm by a senior minister at a Conservative conference. Further, given that he was supported by an unusual alliance between the establishment and the Young Conservatives — a body I have not often had occasion to praise, but which, on this occasion, allied their enthusiasm to practical politics in an unexpected and unprecedented way — it was instructive to find Mr Tony Baldry, of the University of Sussex, supporting Mr Carr's historical references, and pride in the past, with a vigour and clarity rarely found nowadays in the young, and almost never in universities.

It is not necessary to support the moral urges which thus dominated the effort of the leadership and their allies in order to say that they were moral urges. Nor is it necessary to turn a blind eye to the organisational impetus turned on in their support. A three line whip (so described by one minister) was on to ensure a full turnout of the Cabinet on the platform to support Mr Carr. Mr Hunt was not deprived of the assistance of the Conservative Research Department. Th* chairman of the conference was generous in selecting proven conference speakers to support Mr Carr, while his eye unaccountably developed a certain mistiness when Mr Powell's supporters strove for his attention. An old friend of my own, a Tory agent of distinctly Powellite hue, was in no difficulty, before the debate, in understanding that his own role in things was to assist in the execution of Enoch. But all this was old hat: one would expect nothing less from the Conservative establishment under threat, and already caught wrong-footed; nor would one expect anything less than the now open threat to find out how many constituencies Mr Powell is President of, and to do something about them. What is distinctive is still the development of a new spirit, a positive spirit, not evolved solely in opposition to Mr Powell, which this formidable organisation will serve.

It was, it seems, awareness of the power he still possesses, and the intellectual substance that lies behind that power, which led Mr Francis Pym to express, at the end of the conference, the hope that Mr Powell would not feel it necessary to detach himself any further from the main body of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. It is nonetheless a particularly delectable irony that Mr Powell, in suffering a defeat but not a rout, in indulging — as in his pre-conference attack on Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Lord Hailsham — in wilder and less gracious tactics than ever before, served not so much to emphasise his own point of view as to reawaken a kind of Toryism that was almost dead.