22 JULY 1972, Page 20

Reginald Maudling: temporary exile

Patrick Cosgrave

His business activities are important only in the clue they give to the operation of his complex mind and his elusive and sardonic temperament. Even his friends and admirers have, in the crisis he now finds himself in, stressed only his laziness and carelessness in the despatch of his financial and political affairs. They have been willing, too, to admit to a certain greed for money on Maudling's part which has been one of his less attractive traits, and which has led to a lack of caution in acquiring assets. But they have failed to put to the fore in any analysis of his character that contemptuousness which is so important a part of it. Maudling has always been contemptuous both of the day to day activities of politics and the day to day activity of acquiring the wherewithal to live in the style which he likes, to indulge in the kind of patronage of which he approves (of which the theatre receiving his directorial fees from Ropergate Services is an example), and to provide a fortune for his family. He finds it faintly ludicrous that other men should scramble for the power and the wealth that he has acquired so easily and mildly ridiculous that they should become heated about matters which, he believes, are so easy of comprehension and so susceptible of resolution.

On the evening of the 1966 poll Maudling was returning from a constituency meeting, driving his own car and accompanied by his wife and a Young Tory who had spoken at the same meeting as himself. His young companion was depressed at the prospect of another electoral defeat but elated, enthusiastic and vigorous about the battle itself, while being not without hope of success for his party. Maudling observed that he had been invited to appear on television the following day, supposing the Tories won. The programme was to be recorded at midday and, unfortunately, the timing coincided with the monthly board meeting of a company which he chaired "It's such a bore," he remarked, "because they give a jolly good lunch." There are two ways of looking at this story. The young man in the car with Maudling was deflated and depressed by what seemed to him to be Maudling's lack of involvement with political affairs. But Maudling himself clearly did not believe in the possibility of electoral victory and — victory or no — clearly saw little importance in a television programme to be screened after the battle was over: hence he saw no particular reason to put himself out to observe the normal proprieties of political behaviour. He would do what was required of him but, thinking it of little consequence, would not bother to be graceful about it.

The anecdote illustrates his extraordinary detachment from the passions and hurly burly of politics. That art is nor

mally considered to involve a great deal of activity, exhortation and emotion. It also involves intelligence, but Maudling is perhaps the only major politician today who sees it as being almost wholly about the application of lucid and almost abstract thinking to the business of power and government. When he chooses he can be as good as the next man, and better than most, at the game and gamesmanship of politics, but he does not care for them, and is surprised to find that others think them important. I recall an occasion during the life of the last government when, Heath being away, Maudling was acting as Leader of the Opposition. One Wednesday night he made a terrible hash of his parliamentary organisation, guessed completely wrongly how his troops would behave in a division and sat, distressed and crumpled, on the front bench while the Tories split into three groups, voting for and against the Government, and abstaining. His friends were hurt and angry, his enemies gleeful. The following day he had to take on Harold Wilson at Question Time. He scarcely looked at his brief, but wandered into the Chamber, sensed the atmosphere and inspected the form. In a fifteen minute period he made two interventions, each lasting for no more than a few seconds, both, in combination utterly triumphant and destructive of the case Wilson was making. As he came out of the Chamber an enthusiastic fan congratulated him on his recovery from the disaster of the previous night. "Oh," he grinned, "I just wanted to show I could do it, you know." He could do it; he would do it, if necessary; but he refused to pretend he thought it important.

Though not exactly a cloak for any private neurosis, his detachment does serve as concealment for his vulnerability. He does care very deeply about government, the evolution of society, tolerance, and political principle. He equates the operation of intelligence with the discharge of business and the expression of moral feeling which is so important a part of politics and government: he believes that lucidity and understanding can be all in politics and, when they are shown not to be he is incapable of the outrage and fervour which most politicians use to cover their tracks. But he is hurt and damaged when people do not understand things as well as he does and attack him for his incapacity to express feeling as easily as they do, or when his analysis of a situation and the action he takes to resolve it seem to go wrong. He cannot fight back, and when Harold Wilson began the destruction of his reputation as a brilliant and innovating Chancellor with Labour's propaganda about the £800 million deficit on the balance of payments he could only look on helplessly, explain the situation as

he saw it, deny the charge with quiet argument and — and as the canard took hold — retreat into himself. The only occasion when I saw him excited and enthusiastic about the whole business was when, in 1969, he discovered that the Labour Government's panic about economic affairs in the winter of 1964 had cost the country almost exactly £800 million in losses on the exchanges. There was a bitter jest in this: he saw it and expounded it, and forgot his own argument that the deficit he had created was a part of a brilliant gamble on breaking out of the vicious circle through growth and expansion. He believed that, had he remained Chancellor after 1964, he could have seen the country right; he was upset that others did not necessarily share that belief; but only when he saw part of it as joke, he could become involved in the argument against both himself and Wilson.

But the period of the Labour Government was immensely damaging to Maudling, both politically and personally. Although his reputation began to recover as sustained attacks on Wilson's own economic management began to have their effect, the wounds inflicted on his personality by the most superb propaganda operation in modern politics never healed. Between 1964 and 1970 Maudling's apparent indifference to affairs increased markedly: he was more careless, more sceptical, more fatalistic, and more ineffective. The situation was not helped by the fact that he had very different ideas about how to run the economy from Heath or lain Macleod, but refused to fight for those ideas. And his fall from grace as an economic strategist seemed institutionalised when he was excluded from all real power on economic matters in the new government both after the election and after Macleod's death. Immured in the Home Office he faced the intractabilities of the Ulster. crisis with incomprehension and watched the development of the economic and industrial situations with dismay. There seemed to be nothing he could do comparable to what he had done as Chancellor and, again, he retreated into himself, spreading and encouraging such frivolous rumours as that the only thing he really cared about in politics was the reform of the licensing laws on which he had embarked. From that unhappy twilight. in which he allowed himself to be trapped his forced resignation provides a blessed release.

That the opportunity to go was not unwelcome is shown by the terms of the letter he wrote to the Prime Minister declining the offer of an alternative post:

For more than twenty years now I have held office continuously, as a minister or a member of the Shadow Cabinet. I think I can reasonably claim a respite from the burdens of responsibility and from the glare of publicity which, inevitably, surrounds a minister and, inexcusably, engulfs the private lives even of his family.

Here is dissatisfaction, possibly discontent, certainly weariness of spirit. It has been clear since the election that responsibility, which once liberated Maudling, was entrapping and even engulfing him. This was particularly the case because he was not well-suited to the Home Office, and found

Its particular difficulties and problems more than ordinarily hard to handle. Apart from Ulster, his management of the Dutschke affair, as well as countless less important matters, showed him curiously and unexpectedly lacking in political finesse. Prevented from assuming a commanding position in the formulation and administration of economic policy, and aware that his policies would have been, in numerous ways, different from those of his colleagues, zest and creativity seemed to flow away from him.

But his contribution to this government has been much under-estimated. Playing the old game of if-the-Prime-Minister-fellunder-a-bus recently with a junior minister antithetical to Maudling on most aspects of party policy I was astonished when my friend insisted that Maudling was streets ahead in the succession stakes. This, he went on, was because of the extraordinary despatch and command of business which he showed in Cabinet and Cabinet Committee. On more sensitive matters, he was far ahead of his colleagues in prevision when he warned them about the dangers of a confrontation with the miners; and he accurately predicted the reversals of fortune and policy which would befall the Department of Trade and Industry. The difficulty with all these things, however, must have been that though the Prime Minister attended closely to what Maudling said, he rarely followed his advice. Now, as his demeanour in the House on Tuesday, and the terms of his own letter to Maudling show, Heath feels how serious the loss to his Government has been. And. obsessively concerned as he has always been with the mechanics of political power, he must also realise how formidable and even dangerous Maudling could be on the backbenches.

Not, of course, that he would ever be disloyal: "I do not think," he wrote to Heath, "you need any assurance that I will support you in the future as loyally as I have since you won the election for the leadership of our party." It is not, indeed, in Maudling's nature to be party to intrigue or conspiracy. But, as the letters which, for ten years, he has written at regular intervals to his constituents show, he can never resist the urge to pronounce on matters of national urgency, in the most elevated and lucid manner. He will continue to analyse and pronounce in the future and the differences between himself and the Prime Minister will gradually become apparent: once apparent they will be signficant, unless the government has by then recovered from its present difficulties and has achieved success. Simply by being there, and by speaking out, especially on economic matters, from a position of freedom from cares and burdens, Maudling is bound to become a powerful pole of political attraction. In ad dition, there is another, and perhaps more important consequence of his new freedom: he will now be in a position to Speak directly on the issues he considers crucial without having the impact of his arguments weakened by inevitable criticism of his personal or ministerial conduct on other matters.

It is always desirable for a politician to select the issues he thinks really vital and concentrate on them, rather than allow his energy and intelligence to be dissipated across a wide field: one of the reasons, indeed, why the Home Office has been the graveyard of so many political reputations is that the responsibilities there are so multifarious and ill-matched that a man is bound to run into difficulties trying to handle them coherently. And Maudling is particularly prone to handle carelessly and ill those matters which he does not consider to be of the utmost moment. But on the major questions he is not merely clear and intelligent, he is utterly and completely uncompromising in the presentation of his ideas, and force is added to what he has to say by the grace and dignity of his prose style.

Not many politicians would readily and without affectation include, as Maudling did the other day, a discussion of the Hegelian concept of society in an open letter to the electorate. Not many, indeed, would persist in the nineteenth century political fashion of using the open letter as a device for communication. But the fact that he does so underlines a very important fact about Maudling's conception of himself as a politician. He dislikes television, and believes strongly in the written word. Further, though often slovenly in manner and appearance, when he writes or speaks it is invariably with care, precision and elegance. He wrote recently: I have a deep conviction that owing largely to the progress of scientific knowledge the next few decades will see changes in human society which in the past have been the task of centuries. Possibilities will emerge, standards will change, conventions will be transmuted. The process can bring us tragedy or triumph. We must keep it fixed in our minds that the purpose of dispute is agreement: that politics are but a means of human progress; that a society divided within itself about particular claims cannot hope to realise the liberation of the spirit from torment and drudgery which for the first time in history science is making possible for man.

He is invariably balanced, coherent, somehow complete in his utterances: one has the feeling that a subject has been surveyed and dissected from all angles, and that a cogent and rounded mind has been brought to bear on it. The difficulty with him, however, is that one also feels the lack of drive or passion behind what he is saying. His appeal is to the mature and sophisticated intelligence, not to the baser instincts or to the more primitive feelings; and he always seems to imply that, if his argument is not appealing to his listeners on grounds of logic and insight, then he will not bother to sway them by any other means. When he chooses, during his period of exile, to speak out on policy, that sceptical detachment will serve him well: genuine disinterestedness is the most priceless of all boons for a senior politician out of office when his party is in, and trying hard to walk a line between disagreement and imputed disloyalty.

It must be questioned, however, whether the coolness of Maudling's passions is not an important handicap for a political leader. I wrote recently of Michael Foot that he thinks through his emotions: Maudling feels through his intelligence. He is a little afraid of enthusiasm on important matters, and tends to shrink away from it. His natural gaiety and exuberance are reserved for the ordinary or private convivialities of society and social discourses. He is a splendidly engaging and enlivening companion, but in a relaxed rather than in any intense way. This characteristic is very much reflected in his appearance and physical manner. But the rolling gait, the large and comfortable figure, the old and often shabby clothes, the spectacles pushed back on the forehead to pour a glass of wine or examine a document nonetheless conceal rather than reveal the central core of his personality, which consists of a simple and direct urge to public service in the form of politics and government and the belief allied to that impulse that rationality and clarity of thought are the best — indeed the only truly useful — instruments of action.

Perhaps his only really successful party conference speech was his first as Home Secretary. It was during the Dutschke affair and he spoke more strongly than is common with him about law and order and about his conviction that he was right to terminate the German revolutionary student's residence in this country. Afterwards, over a beer, someone congratulated him on his success. "Yes," he said, "They seemed to like it." He smiled deprecatingly and added, "But it was a bit right-wing for me, and a bit strong." He paused, and his face assumed that total seriousness which one rarely sees on it. " But I am absolutely certain," he went on, "that I am right about Dutschke. I have studied

all the arguments and I feel most strongly that I am right about the whole business."

There • is certainly a terrible occasional clumsiness about Maudling's mind which causes him to mishandle important issues; and there is a potentially dangerous tend ency to ignore matters he does not think to be important even though they are. But there is also a will to commitment and a will to action which are central to him and which, as they are supported by a calm and powerful intelligence, make him im mensely formidable once he is roused. He will now have time to reflect, time to

choose, time to select the points at which he will make an impact: Maudling will be back and, like a man who has recovered from a serious illness and completely restored to health, he will be a much more powerful figure than before.