7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 6

Political Commentary

Humphrey Bogart and the Labour Party

Patrick Cosgrave

All conferences — of whichever party — are about power; and only incidentally about other things, like policies, or emotions, or principles. Hence the complicated speculation about leadership crises, and leadership possibilities, in which we all indulge as the conference season approaches. There are two kinds of power worth considering: one is power within a party — power, that is, considered as esteem — the other is power manifested as electoral triumph. A party conference is about the first kind of power, considered in relation to. the second.

On Monday morning at this Labour conference Wilfred Sendall of the Daily Express told me that his wife had been reading the biography of Humphrey Bogart, in which that great screen hero's rules for barroom hell-raising were quoted. The first rule, according to Bogart, was never to accept the other fellow's invitation to come outside. Before and during the early stages of the conference, the Labour Party were in the dubious position of a man who had accepted that invitation. They had been crying out for a general election, and had not considered too closely how good their chances of winning were. Then, in the week preceding the conference various ministers — the Prime Minister himself, the Chancellor, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries — made noises suggesting that they were prepared to go outside. Suddenly, the Labour Party looked scared.

And why not? The natural fissiparousness of the party has been more than ordinarily apparent in recent months. The Friends of Jenkins Society in the press and the media were hinting that their hero and his allies might walk out of Conference if it tried to commit a future Labour government to withdrawal from the Common Market. The leader of the party seemed at his lowest ebb: he had muttered about gunboats for Ugandaafter a long and — according to Mr CrOssman in the Times — devious silence on the question of the right of British citizens to come to this country.

He seemed unable to control either the executive or the discontented unions. On his right he had Jenkins, sulking in his tent in Printing House Square. On his left he had Hugh Scanlon and comrades asserting the right of Conference to use the Parliamentary Labour Party as messenger boys. Behind him — bearing dagger or gifts, no one knew — stalked Anthony Wedgwood Benn, former second Viscount Stansgate, prophet of participatory democracy and chairman of the conference, who said of his role, "1 am in the hands of conference." The stage was set for a riotous assembly, and the crisis, it was thought, would come to a head on Wednesday morning, when the dreaded Market pawn was set, poisoned, before the unhappy delegates.

On Tuesday morning Harold Wilson changed all that.

Monday lunchtime he was asked, as he passed through the lobby of the Imperial Hotel, how he thought his great speech on Wednesday would go. "Wednesday?", he asked, puzzled. "My speech is on Tuesday." "What about the EEC motion on Wednesday, then?" "Oh, that's just wrapping up the Market debate."

In defiance of chronological order • it would be as well here to dispose of Wednesday. Mr Wilson gabbled his speech, and garnished it with historical references. Mr Benn played an exceptionally dirty trick on Mr Jenkins: he first announced that Roy Jenkins would speak — though it was difficult to see where he got that idea from; he then announced that "Roy Jenkins has indicated that he does not wish to speak," thus making Mr Jenkins look like a man frightened to come out of his corner.

I do not want to belittle Mr Wilson's Wednesday achievement. It was remarkable that he succeeded in turning the tide of conference anger, thus defeating those engineering radicals who wanted tightly to tie the hands of the future Labour Government. In addition, his disquisition on Spanish history was masterly; his peroration planned; and the whole business beautifully calculated for a man who believes that his party can be led only by instinct, and not by cunning. But for all the incidental delights which the performance of Mr Wilson on Wednesday offers for the delectation of the Wilsonologist the real victory was won on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning's was the most confident speech he had delivered since the last general election. In one way, of course, it could be called routine — and one or two tired journalists discarded it as such. Mr Wilson is the best jokesrnith in politics, and all his cracks are good. He can always turn on a conference show; he's always good for a connoisseur's laugh, or for a round of applause. All his welltried qualities and virtues were on display this Tuesday: when there was, in addition, a good deal more.

What more there was is, I believe, of the utmost consequence for the future of the Labour Party; and perhaps for the future of the country. The first thing I noticed was the genuine, as opposed to pretended, contempt with which the Leader of the Opposition spoke of the Prime Minister: there was more than the routine gibing in the vehement way he spat in Edward Heath's face. There was a kingdom of heat, he intoned, and he described the history of the Government thus:

All the time he was blaming increased prices on the trade union movement. And so we had the pitched battle, the set-piece confrontation.

The dustmen and other local authorities' manual workers. Edward's finest hour. He fought them on the beaches, on the hills, the refuse heaps and the sewage farm, until our cities were reeking with the stink of rotting • garbage. And he lost.

I cannot easily convey the savagery with which the last three words were spoken. Even if I could, my conveyance, and my quotation, could still look like Harold's own set-piece. But I have quoted from the conference press handout. Before he said, "And he lost," Mr Wilson made an impromptu addition to his speech, when he referred, after rotting garbage, to "the delicate perfume of A Better Tomorrow." That was genuine venom welling up from within the man; and a man genuinely venomous is a man genuinely confident.

That confidence, and the security which went with it, swept across to the conference like a strong and fresh breeze. I sought its justification somewhere other than in the man himself and his presence. And I found it in a curiously and untypically tentative passage referring to the second kind of power. Speaking of the possibility of a general election Mr Wilson said: "When the election comes it is not for us here to decide. But the very nature of the crisis Mr Heath has inflicted upon Britain throws upon this Conference a responsibility some of us might not have foreseen a week ago." There was a sort of grand fatalism about that particular invitation to the PM to come outside.

It was the second something extra about the Wilson performance. The third was an almost philosophical analysis of the uses and possibilities of power, which hit cruelly at the Government's admittedly weakest point. Mr Wilson argued that, whatever the merits or demerits of a given party's policies or ideology, that party could not govern unless it enjoyed the consent of the nation. This theme ran like a strong thread through his whole speech. It was never — to me at least — wholly clear where consent left off and action began. But he hammered away at the Government's failure to win the nation's heart, insisting that a government that could not do that could do nothing.

That could simply be taken as a statement of Mr Wilson's lovability, and ,Mr Heath's unlovability. But it is more than that. For Mr Wilson also spelt out in great detail the things he would do to create national unity, the steps he would take to show that the policies which a government under him would pursue were in the national interest and in the interests of national unity. And that spelling out — the fourth "something more" in the Wilson speech — is perhaps the most important of all: for it shows that Harold Wilson, for the first time in his life as leader, has a policy. And it is a socialist policy.

Tory jibes at Mr Wilson's inconsistency lie ready to every hand. It is worth remembering that, before the 1964 election he had a rhetoric, not a policy, an absurd rhetoric of technology which Mr Heath tore to shreds at the Tory Party Conference of 1969. One of the reasons why his government failed so conspicuously in power was that he and his colleagues were terribly uncertain in 1964 about what they wanted to do. Now the Labour front bench know exactly what they want to do, what steps they will take, consistent with the theme of national unity in their leader's speech. It is a policy of direct state intervention everywhere: its watchword is " controls " — controls over prices, over land, over dividends, over everything. Every measure Mr Wilson advocated last Tuesday is a state socialist measure. He never looked more formidably a socialist than then.

The power Mr Wilson exercises over his party and the power he may again exercise over the electorate, lies in his ability to make state socialism comfortable and comforting: it is as though the abrasive Wilson of 1964 was combined with the fatherly Wilson of 1966. Speaking for example, of the operation of the Industrial Relations Act he said: On both the occasions when they were saved by the Official Solicitor, the Government had a clear duty to act, and they were powerless to do so. A Government should never manoeuvre itself into the position that when it needs to act, and the interests of the country demand that it should act, it is impotent, immobile, deprived of the power. to act. That is the mark, not of Government, it is the mark of abdication, impotence. When Britain elects its government, it does not intend that that Government, save in acute national emergency called by its own doctrinaire actions, should be dependent on a mysterious legal functionary.

In other words — and in addition, clearly, to showing that he has learned the lesson of his own failure to leave room for manoeuvre over industrial relations legislation — Mr Wilson proposed to bring his kind of highly controlled government into direct relation with the people through his own personality — potent, where Mr Heath's is the reverse.

It is a beguiling, but in a way terrifying prospect. It is important, because Mr Wilson is now so evidently in control of the Labour Party. The totalitarian democracy of his new vision made nonsense of the populist pretensions of poor Mr Wedgwood Benn who, with sublime irony, made a terrible mess of conference procedure just before Mr Wilson got up to speak. The Chairman who wanted to put himself in the hands of conference, who was the great spokesman for participatory democracy, was heard to observe, as his leader waited in the wings, and as he muddled both the order of items on his agenda and the mood of the conferenbe, "democracy is a messy business, and slow." Mr Benn was the amateur, and Mr Wilson the professional.

And that is important ifan index to the control Mr Wilson now 'has. A man who, in recent months has had no friends in his own ,party, now need fear no enemies. On Sunday Mr Jenkins and Mrs Williams, reaffirming their European faith, nonetheless made obeisance to Mr Wilson and said that in no conceivable circumstances would they leave the party. Later, Mrs Castle, walking along the beach was approached by a slim figure in headscarf and dark glasses . who -asked for her autograph. She gave it, graciously; and the figure then revealed itself to be Mrs Wilson, quietly enjoying a joke. Later still, a prominent marketeer confessed to me that, while he had clear ideas about socialism and what the Labour Party should do, he would never dream of addressing conference on the subject. At such, and at all other potential Labour rivals, the Wilsons are laughing, as Mrs Wilson laughed at Mrs Castle.

And they have every reason to laugh. By his performance this year Mr Wilson showed that he was master both of the pretentious to competence without the appeal of Mr Jenkins and Mr Lever, and of the appeal without the competence of Mr Benn. The dismal performance of Mr Callaghan, briefed to speak on the whole range of Labour's policies, on Monday morning removed yet another rival from his path. Harold Wilson looked, at this conference, the only politician supreme in every department: he looked a leader.

And yet, what lies ahead? I suspect that those policies of control which Mr Wilson has adopted were adopted, not because powerful forces in the Labour party insisted that they should be, but because he favoured — and savoured — them as he .brooded on his, to put it at its highest, mixed experience as Prime Minister. This it was which conference felt; this intimacy with policy was part of his appeal to them. He was the only man there who had been to the top of the mountain, had fallen off, and was beginning to climb again. He was able to combine two different appeals, of power and intimacy with power, and that of social conscience, the two appeals most difficult for a Labour Party leader to combine. That combination Was what made the delegates at the conference happy with him. But it behoves, the country to realise that the combination was achieved only through some unique personal chemistry, a chemistry which may produce a Prime Minister with only one throw left, a Harold Wilson at last come to terms with himself, and decided .to be a socialist; a Harold Wilson willing to invite anybody and everybody to come outside. Such a Wilson might be a very dangerous man.