22 JANUARY 1972, Page 6


The Government gains ground

Hugh Macpherson

Nothing dismays the medical practitioner more than when a patient obstinately insists on living when medical science decrees that he ought decently to have died and kept the records straight. Equally there is nothing that troubles the attorney at-law more than when a man conducts his own defence and, when everything that is legal and orderly demands that he go down for a respectable ten years, obtains an acquittal without adding a single bottle of Malmsey to the cellar of those highly educated men who live off their fellow creature's misfortunes. The excellent trade of politics is devoid of such posturing When unexpected good fortune confronts the man who has chosen the career of politics, which, it is said, has ruined more good men than women, gambling, and horses put together, he embraces it with touching simplicity and finds a good party reason why it all happened. This was the curious position confronting Conservative MPs as they resumed their labours within the precincts of Westminster.

Everything indicated disaster for the Government. Unemployment was mounting steadily towards the desperate level of one million. The horrid reality of the pyrrhic victory which Mr Heath obtained in the great vote for principle on the Common Market — the most splendidly engineered event since Queen Victoria's jubilee — came home to roost when the winter's programme of actually passing the legislation hove into view. By banning a Labour party delegation's visit to Rhodesia, shooting the odd African, and arresting Garfield Todd. whilst the British government's commission plods around Rhodesia, like a collection of missionaries mixed up with the early traders, Mr Smith continues to exhibit political imbecility, being no more capable of cobbling up the facade of a settlement with the present British government than he was with the last one. In the meantime the murder of British soldiers, the killing of material witnesses in court cases and the terrorising of the population have become so commonplace in Northern Ireland that it takes second place to the emotional problems of a spoiled soccer player in news value. And the miners are on strike — "A difficult one this," said a young Conservative MP, "all that emotive stuff about coal being covered in blood." Despite all this a recent poll indicates that the Government is gaining back ground from the Opposition and Mr Heath is not as unpopular as he once was.

There is also grudging respect for Mr Heath even in Labour ranks. One bright Labour youngster, after making the obligatory noises about the Bexley member which Tory matrons in Chelmsford used to reserve for Mr Wilson, said that it had to be faced that Mr Heath was efficient and "doing a good job." Faced with this direct evidence one can only wonder at human nature and broadly analyse the various strands of the problems facing the present Government, leaving aside for the moment the massive question of the Common Market.

First there is the Government's industrial policy. Here there has been an almost unalloyed success. The trade unions have played directly into the hands of the Conservative party by destroying the attempt by the Labour government to introduce legislation and showing themselves impotent to stop the present Government pushing through their own Bill.

This has had an effect on public opinion, as indeed has the success of the Government in turning down the level of wage demands. It was a stroke of good fortune that a union as weak as the post office workers should confront the Government, and although there is a tendency to regard the miners as a specially emotive cause in British industrial conflicts there is already some indication that this is no longer the case. Providing there is no sudden Siberian weather it is widely accepted, even in the ranks of the Opposition, that the Government will win this struggle.

There is some disquiet in government ranks over Sir Alec's handling of the Rhodesian affair, but experienced hands take the view that even if the Pearce Commission comes to grief the Government can safely say that its work was ruined by a small subversive element in the African population and come to a settlement providing Mr Smith can be persuaded to stop acting like a Chicago gang boss.

On the surface there is a strangely muted reaction in the country to the high level of unemployment. There is something of a row in Scotland which led to a deputation from the Scottish Council, representing both sides of industry, coming last week to No 10 to ask the PM politely to go back to the rejected policy of direct grants to industry in the regions. In the time-honoured manner of occupants of his office Mr Heath listened gravely and told them to go away whilst the Government considered their proposals, but the rank and file know there are few Conservative seats to be won or lost in Scotland. Of much more concern is the area around Birmingham and the North West, and this could lead to some modification of regional policy.

What puzzles many a government backbencher is the lack of anger about the high level of unemployment in the country — which means in their postbag. Many put this down to the improved social benefits and, incredibly enough, to the belief that many men are supplementing their unern ployment benefit by jobs such as windovicleaning. This hardly fits the facts or the windows of the nation would be glistening from the attention of getting on for a million irregular window-cleaners. The truth of the matter is that the effects of large scale unemployment are not felt for some considerable time. In the first six months an unemployed man is eligible for earnings-related benefits, as well as income tax rebates and redundancy payments. Any income earned by his wife is not taken into account. For the next Si months he continues to receive assistance as a direct insurance right, his wife's income still not entering into the reckon' ing. But at the end of a year he transfers to social security, when the entire familY income is assessed in providing a sub sistence allowance. It is at that point that unemployment, and its effects, starts to bite most deeply. In terms of an electoral reaction to unemployment the Government could therefore be living through a phonV war period. This is not to say that the Government could not retrieve the situation before the most drastic effects are felt, but only that some backbenchers are being lulled into 3 false sense of security in believing that the days of a massive revolt against unemploY' ment have gone for ever. Some of the young backbenchers — and this is a product of the changes Mr Heath has introduced politics — believe that the Government must throw away Keynesian ideas of goy' ernment intervention and educate the country into accepting a regular level of unemployment in excess of 500,000, Mr Powell's economic views have much more popularity among the young than has Yet been realised. They would like the Prime Minister to avoid making employment the measure of success and point to the waY that Mr Wilson used the balance of OS; ments as the great national goal and almost succeeded in convincing everyone that he was right. Mr Heath, of courSe' realises that he must face the electorate and that no matter how success is des; cribed it is hard to convince an army 0' unemployed men that the best way t0 stand on their own feet is at the labour exchange. As for the chronic problem of Ireland the ranks of new intake are prag' matic in their approach and would dearlY like to see some kind of settlement to take the problem off the Government's back. 1,f the Ulster Unionists have to be discarded in the process then it is thought that theY are proving more politically unreliable a5 every day passes, and that they would be no great loss. If the foregoing seems a superficial flit through the Government's present problems it is, I imagine, the way in which the country forms its opinions of the Govern ment. With the exception of the hidden effects of unemployment, and the European adventure, the Government has achieved a considerable measure of success which the electorate seem to be recognising. One of the Labour party's academic backbenchers said quite solemnly. "They will win the next election."