4 NOVEMBER 1972, Page 6

Political Commentary

Power and demoralisation

Patrick Cosgrave

On the way to his celebrated epigram about power and its tendency to corrupt Lord Acton made a number of false starts. He often, as Sir Herbert Butterfield 'has written, thought on paper: then his hand became jerky, "as though he were writing in •a train." Contact with the kind of intellectual concept which his epigrams summarised excited and, to a degree, unmanned him; as contact with power itself excites and unmans all politicians. Of all the early drafts of his thoughts about power I like best the formulation, "Power, the greater it is, the more it demoralises." For demoralisation is a state of mind or of affairs far more characteristic of political life than corruption.

This thought occurred to me last Tuesday, while I listened to the debate on the Queen's speech in the House of Commons. It occurred, I suppose, because Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, of all modern peacetime prime ministers, were the two most endowed by circumstances with power when they assumed office. Though neither man quite grasped the fact at the right moment, Mr Wilson in 1964, or Mr Heath in 1970, could have done more or less anything he pleased: but cautiousness and nervousness intervened, and opportunities were lost. They were lost — let me get the emphasis right at the beginning — in the supreme field of national economic management. The Wilson government did exciting and important things — let me instance just the establishment of supplementary benefits and the Community Relations Commission — which, even if they have not been totally successful, portend much for the future. Likewise, the Heath government has altered the direction of the country's history, and changed the character of its politics — notably by entry in the EEC and the implementation of its tax reforms — in a way that must be immensely gratifying to the Prime Minister personally. But Mr Wilson did not fulfil, and Mr Heath no longer looks like fulfilling, the bright expectations of national renewal which burgeoned in the hearts of their followers at the time of their respective, first, election victories. That, in my judgement, is because both men have been intellectually demoralised by power. And the nature and extent of their demoralisation was displayed in their contributions to Tuesday's debate.

The first thing to note about that debate is that it did not, essentially, have much to do with the content of the Queen's speech. True, Mr Wilson referred to it as a " thin " speech, meaning by this that the Government was not offering very much by way of legislation in the coming session. Nonetheless, in at least four areas, it was a speech full of meat. Sir Keith Joseph's managerial reforms of the National Health Service will determine whether that institution can live and retain its identity in a modern society, one of the characteristics of which is a conscious and insatiable demand for health care. And his pensions reform scheme will begin the total reconstruction of provision for old age in this country. At the same time consumer protection law and action against monopolies will undoubtedly have impact. These facts the Prime Minister undoubtedly had in mind when he rebuked the Leader of the Opposition for his dismissive adjective, and invited him to await sight of the complexity and fundamental character of the legislation he and his colleagues had in train before repeating it. Nonetheless, the debate was not about these things: it was about inflation.

Mr Wilson's was not a good speech. It was over-long: his tendency to verbal diarrhoea afflicts him most notably in the House of Commons. Its jokes were undeveloped: the bits about Mr Heath cooing at Mr Scanlon, and pouring out drinks — this with a particular implication that the Prime Minister was now a servile creature — for union leaders were rushed, and not set like hard gems in a diadem of political oratory, as similar cracks were in his major conference speech. The whole was gabbled: and the best parts frequently inaudible. In spite of all this, however, there was a sustained critique of Mr Heath's failure to come to grips with the economic problems of the country, a critique all the more fascinating and effective because, if its implications were clearly seen, they would constitute the most devastating indictment of Mr Wilson's own career as managing director of the country. What in essence Mr Wilson appeared to be saying was that Mr Heath had failed, not so much because his doctrines and policies was wrong (though this argument, being obligatory in party politics, was there) but because he had failed to be true to himself, because he had done U-turns, and changed and bent to the wind. Most remarkable of all demonstrations of Mr Wilson's schizophrenia, however, was his denunciation of decimalisation, Made, it seemed, before he remembered he had introduced it.

Mr Wilson, for all his partisan rhetoric, seemed for much of his time to be in the grip of a hypnotised determination academically to analyse Mr Heath's failure to use his power effectively. You — or, at least, I — felt t'hat he was studying and dissecting his own prime ministerial career as much as that of Mr Heath; and the role and office of Prime Minister as much as either. That inclination to endless rumination about the top job and its functions is demoralisation caused by power.

In an obvious — that is, in a traditional academic — sense, Mr Wilson is a much more intelligent man than Mr Heath. His mind — to adapt and apply a phrase developed by George Eliot — surveys ground with a bird-like rapidity, while that of the Prime Minister creeps along for years. Or, while applying it to one only of the two men, to vary the metaphor in a way more favourable to the Prime Minister, one might say that his mind, like Allenby's in T. E. Lawrence's description, operates like the prow of a great ship cutting its way through the seas, without seeing the configuration and subtlety of the waves. With the bluntness and solidity — that air of being a man of business — that the comparison implies, he replied to Mr Wilson's strictures. The matter at issue being, of course, economic management, he roundly — in a most curious passage — and apparently with genuine irritation, rebuked his opposite number for daring to state " requirements " for any acceptable package deal which might emerge from the tripartite talks on prices and incomes going on at Downing Street: Mr Wilson was not, after all, a party to the talks. With justified amazement, Mr Wilson rose to ask the Prime Minister if he was propounding the novel constitutional doctrine that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition had no standing in these matters, and Mr Heath did not seem to grasp the point'.

He failed to do so because he was wholly and practically pre-occupied with the business in hand, the business of procuring, with Mr Scanlon and Mr Jones, and to a much lesser extent Mr Adamson, an agreed managerial prescription for the ills of inflation. The kind of abandonment of political doctrines, and the desire tO seek a solution of problems — or at least a palliative for them — through a consensus between power groups is another important aspect of the intellectual demoralisation that political power creates.

There was another curious passage in Mr Heath's speech. He said: The two main subjects which have commanded attention of the House over the past twenty

years have been the achievement of a high and steady rate of economic growth and British entry into the EEC.

Not only is this untrue: Mr Heath would once have denied it vehemently.

Now, it is true that he has always been obsessed by the EEC; and it is true that one of the most serious problems to have afflicted Britain since the war is our failure to achieve a sustained rate of high economic growth. But, when Mr Heath spoke of the Quiet Revolution to his party conference just after his great electoral triumph in 1970, he spoke about a great deal more than these two subjects; and of a deeper potential transformation in the country than any reference to or analysis of them could imply. He spoke, too, of the relationship between the transformation in Britain that he wanted to bring about, and the distinctive economic policies which he then favoured. Now his horizons have contracted as the diplomatic struggle with the TUC and CBI takes up more and, more of his energy and time. And because he is a man who likes to give a general intellectual justification for whatever he is doing, Mr Heath has convinced himself, EEC membership having been achieved, that the main and, indeed, sole remaining challenge is the achievement of stable growth, with low inflation, not through any structural economic policy, but through wage . bargaining, and the application to recalcitrant trade unionists of the Power and pressures available to his office.

And Mr Heath is very much a man of Power. He exudes a sense of power in the way in which Mr Wilson, when he was Prime Minister, exuded a sense of office. Whatever the tribulations his government faces the Prime Minister's physical Presence and apparent confidence continue to make a deep impression. "I cannot tell You,” a colleague of his said recently, "how deeply tough Ted is. I don't mean that he is tough in negotiation, or tough in getting his way with the Civil Service, though he is tough in both things. I mean he is tough inside himself." That toughness is something different from Mr Wilson's eternal bouncy resilience. Mr Wilson goes up and down; he gets exhausted, and that ugly sty appears in his eye; he gets depressed and loses his grip: but he comes back. Mr Heath forges steadily on, the same solid, un compromising, coherent personality, even when he is in the middle cf making compromises or conceding victories. The belief in himself which he conveys so powerfully has probably been the most important factor in sustaining the Morale of the Government through difficult gays of failure and disruption. It is so strong that his most determined critics nonetheless often halt in doubt, and Wonder if, perhaps, he has got some secret capacity for being ultimately right. But the Other side of the coin of this moral Character of the man is that he believes in himself so powerfully that he can shrug off anY number of changes of policy without losing his conviction that he is right. But, as Mr Trudeau said in a different context an awful lot of dreams have been broken in the last few years. According to the war diary which he prepared when he was in opposition, this was to be the moment when Mr Heath and his Government had achieved entry into the EEC, brought down unemployment, resolved the worst problems of the industrial relations situation, revived the British economy through tax reforms and a new industrial policy, and restored a sense of personal freedom and mission to the British people through taxation reform and the instilling into them of a new sense of destiny. For all that it has done many good things, and for all that some of its most cherished legislation has been enacted, little enough of that programme has been successfully implemented. And now we hear that on some further parts of it — like council rent reform and VAT — Mr Heath is prepared, if necessary, to compromise with Mr Jones and Mr Scanlon to obtain agreement. The programme for a parliament which was Mr Heath's manifesto is in deep trouble.

And, in terms of that programme the Queen's speech is thin. Perhaps only the pensions bill and the proposals on monopoly are part of that distinctive Toryism of 1970. The proposed consumer protection legislation is part of an altogether different kind of politics. Perhaps the task will still, ultimately, be achieved: perhaps membership of the Common Market will have all those reinvigorating effects which the Prime Minister predicted. Perhaps some of the better things Mr Heath's government has achieved — the restructuring of the tax system and other aspects of domestic life, the steady and unspectacular restoration of efficiency to the government machine, and the long, slow battle to obtain victory over the inclination to inertia of Whitehall — will finally work their way through to the country as a whole. Or perhaps the task was too great, and too much was attempted. Mr John Peyton, a great coiner of fruitful generalisations about politics, once said that the two qualities most needed for success in that profession were modesty and guts. Guts were needed to implement the kind of reforms the country needed; modesty was required to implement them at a pace and in a manner suitable to circumstances. Perhaps at the outset of their prime ministerial careers both Mr Wilson and Mr Heath were too ambitious, too immodest, to ready to arouse expectations.

No one could pretend that either the Labour party or the Tory party is in very good nick at the moment. Both are divided, but Labour much more so. Were the Government to fall, Mr Wilson would find himself encumbered with a great mass of collectivist legislation of a distinctly socialist and possibly unworkable kind. But, as Mr Heath goes on, the toils of compromise and the contradictions of circumstance entrap him increasingly. The morale of either party is sustained only by contemplation of the problems of the other, and by the remarkable capacity of both leaders — who are much more alike than appears on the surface, principally in their total dedication to politics — to sustain the nerve of their parliamentary followers. But there can hardly be any doubt that the early draft of Acton's epigram was right, and that power has demoralised.