Commentary Magazine

The Tory Succession: A London Letter


Caligula made his horse a Consul; Mr. Macmillan has made Lord Home—or Sir Alexander Douglas-Home, as he is henceforth to be known—Prime Minister. That, more or less, sums up the reaction of the more cynical commentators to the surprising outcome of our latest political upheaval. The joke is perhaps getting a little stale, but it will do for an occasion so heavily flavored with traditionalism. No doubt we shall also be hearing the other one, about the empty taxi that drew up in front of No. 10 Downing Street—“and then the Prime Minister got out.” (This one was originally coined during the Attlee administration.)

Speaking of horses, a Tory newspaper normally loyal to the party recalls the story of the pre-1914 cavalry lieutenant who was told by his instructor: “The role of cavalry in wartime is to give tone to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl.” Tone is what this new government has plenty of. Whether it also has the drive to get on with the country’s urgently necessary modernization is a question now much debated. The initial reactions are not favorable. The Opposition is scornful; many of the younger Conservatives are resentful; even the Times is tepid. The independent (and pro-Butler) Sunday Times, organ of the New Conservatism, is furious. Its star commentator, William Rees-Mogg, has been wringing his hands and predicting disaster. So, on television, has Mr. Henry Fairlie, the most bellicose of Tory journalists, who called the new Prime Minister a “silly ass.”

If I appear to be lighthearted about so grave a matter as the future of the Tory party, the explanation doubtless is that an outsider can always afford to take the long view. On this view—but then Keynes warned us against long runs—the Conservatives are quite likely to bounce back (after losing the coming election) when the electorate has got bored with Mr. Wilson and his crew, who now look like a dead certainty for the years 1964—8. But they will need to come back in the later 60′s with a different kind of leadership: one clad in a boiler suit, or perhaps an astronaut’s outfit, clutching a computer and babbling wildly about electronics. If they are really going to stick to tradition, they are sunk. New Frontiers are all the rage now—at least for conversational purposes—and Labor is dead set to win the technologists. Since Harold Wilson’s public bid for the allegiance of the scientific community at this month’s Labor party conference (just a week before Macmillan’s sudden resignation started the crisis), it has been clear that a new vocabulary has come into existence. The fourteenth Earl of Home, for all his patrician good looks and his undoubted good qualities, is no match for C. P. Snow’s “New Men.”

(Note to the historian: in last July’s Encounter, Mr. Fairlie, who is now so upset about the Conservatives missing the bus, contributed a complacent little piece dismissing as nonsense all the alarmist talk about Britain needing a drastic overhaul, and censuring his fellow-writers for being ready to sell their historic birthright for a mess of technocratic pottage.)

How did it all happen? The insiders and the gossip columnists, with their unfailing eye for the trivial and the unimportant, have an explanation: it was Macmillan’s doing. Determined to stop Butler, against whom—so the story runs—he nursed an obscure grudge, he pulled every possible string from his hospital bed to prevent his Deputy Premier from succeeding him. (The post of Deputy has now been abolished, although Butler himself remains as Foreign Secretary: there is to be no officially designated Pretender on the next occasion, whenever that may be.)

That Macmillan precipitated the upheaval is undeniable. He could, after all, have postponed his resignation until the annual party conference had been wound up, and the 4,000 delegates representing the Tory constituency members had streamed back to their suburban homes. By timing his long-awaited departure to fall plumb into the center of the annual whirlpool, he set off a tidal wave which could only result in his Deputy Premier being washed overboard. For Richard Austen Butler, though the strongest man in the Cabinet and the biggest brain of Conservatism, was unpopular with most of the delegates at the annual jamboree. To imagine that Macmillan did not know this would be excessively naïve. It is no argument to say he could not have foreseen his own sudden illness (he was in fact ready to announce his determination to carry on, when the doctors stopped him). The point is that, having at last made up his mind to resign, he might have waited another week before making the announcement. It was the timing that doomed Butler and almost threw the succession to his chief rival, the able but demagogic Quintin Hogg, alias Lord Hailsham: darling of the party regulars, though far from popular with his Cabinet colleagues. And it was the strategy of allowing Butler, Hailsham, and Maudling (the third contender), to knock each other out that determined the ultimate choice of Home as the only possible compromise candidate.



So far one may agree with the insiders. One may also detect the characteristic flavor of the Macmillan reign in the touch of frivolity which dictated the final choice. The fourteenth Earl, though personally likable and far from incompetent, was a ready-made target for Mr. Wilson’s shafts. Already the Labor leader has pulled out of his capacious vocabulary all the Lloyd-Georgian clichés most likely to appeal to voters torn between Liberal and Labor sentiments. The new Prime Minister is being depicted as an effete nobleman, the titled leader of an aristocratic cabal, a living anachronism, the embodiment of all that is keeping the country safe for the elderly and the incompetent. Tears are being shed for Mr. Butler; it is broadly hinted that the Conservative party is split down the middle since the resignation from the Cabinet of Messrs. Powell and Macleod, standard-bearers of the progressive wing. Much of this is the ordinary cant of politics, but some of it is going to stick. With the election less than a year away, the Conservatives will now need a near miracle to pull off a fourth successive victory. They will not be helped by the impression that the Establishment has tightened its death-grip on the country. When Wilson talks about “so many of our young men in industry” being held down by “the dead hand of family and hereditary appointments,” he is hitting a sensitive nerve (and incidentally serving notice that Socialism is becoming ever less distinguishable from the New Frontier). Labor is now committed to efficiency and the career open to the talents: meritocrats please note. Mr. Wilson, a clever boy from a lower-middle-class home (his father was a chemist), knows his audience. So do Macleod and Powell, the two Tory rebels, who like Wilson came up the hard way (well, almost).

There is, then, something in the contention that Macmillan imposed his personal choice (and that of his family circle, once it was realized that Hail-sham’s bandwagon had run out of steam), in contemptuous disregard of wider issues. But this is only half the story. If the fourteenth Earl represents the dying kick of the Tory aristocracy—a caste now largely made up of elderly noblemen who hire their castles out to sightseers, including American tourists—he was nonetheless Foreign Secretary in a government that arranged the liquidation of Britain’s residual African empire, contrived to let South Africa retire from the Commonwealth, and carried out no more than a rearguard action in defense of Belgian interests in Katanga and Portuguese interests in Angola. At home, the Macmillan government was committed to the welfare state and, in the end, even (though very reluctantly) to economic planning. Abroad it consistently followed the American lead, and—less consistently—the Commonwealth line it had inherited from the postwar Labor government. It also tried—belatedly and unsuccessfully—to get into the Common Market, and in the process flouted old-fashioned imperialists like Beaverbrook. None of this was exactly to the taste of the really deep-blue Tories; in fact, to many of them Macmillan began to look like a renegade from the true faith. If, after last December’s Skybolt fiasco, he had not brought back at least the Polaris deal from his Nassau meeting with President Kennedy, they might have revolted. Nassau, it is true, gave de Gaulle the excuse he needed for barring Britain from “Europe,” but to the right-wing Tories this did not seem a major disaster. Most of them had never fancied the idea of association with all those foreigners anyway.

But if the right wing was still just barely able to tag along behind Macmillan—largely because from time to time the fourteenth Earl spoke up in the brave old accents, though with little practical result—it was determined not to have Butler. The legend that it was his support of Munich which wrecked Butler’s chance dies hard. No doubt Churchill, Salisbury, and Macmillan combined against him in 1957—when Eden’s throne was vacant—partly on that basis. But after all the Earl of Home had been the greatest Municheer of all: he was Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary in 1938, and a determined champion of Appeasement at almost any cost. No, Munich had little to do with Butler’s discomfiture on this—probably the final—occasion. It was rather his evasiveness over Suez that rankled with the embattled gentlemen and ladies from the local Tory party organizations. That, and his record as a reformer at the Home Office after 1955 (he was against flogging, and only doubtfully for the death penalty), and his general air of caring more for welfare policies and domestic progress than for imperial greatness: his very latest act as Deputy Premier was to arrange for the quiet liquidation of the Central African Federation, thereby making it virtually certain that Northern Rhodesia at least will soon come under African majority rule.

There is a well-authenticated suspicion in the minds of some observers that if Britain had managed to get into the Common Market, Mr. Butler—helped by Messrs. Powell and Macleod, who refused to take office when his rival prevailed—would have turned his subtle mind to the problem of transforming the Conservative party into something resembling Dr. Adenauer’s Christian-Democratic Union. This would have necessitated better relations with the trade unions (if they could be prized loose from the Labor party) and an ideological shift away from traditional Toryism. On the other hand, he is probably equally ready—and this is the gravamen of the charge against him—to promote an “Atlantic” and pro-American orientation if it turns out that Britain’s road into Europe is permanently barred. In fact, there are those who complain that Butler’s flexibility amounts almost to opportunism. In a party where anti-American feeling runs strongly beneath the surface, this suspicion is a handicap. It was also noticed that the Economist never wavered in its allegiance to Butler, and the Economist is the foremost champion of Atlanticism and unconditional loyalty to the United States (where a good half of its influential readership resides). None of this was of much use to Butler when the Tory regulars met at Blackpool. His strongest support lay in the Cabinet room, and the Cabinet let him down: only half his colleagues—instead of two-thirds, as was expected—came down strongly on his side, while others wavered or divided their support among his rivals. The chief of these, Reginald Maudling—with over a hundred parliamentary backbenchers cheering him like a matinee star—foolishly held out for the supreme prize, instead of throwing his support to Butler while there was still time. And so the dark horse won the race, and the public was treated to the spectacle of the Tory succession being decided by the outgoing Prime Minister, who told the Queen that only the Earl of Home could hold the government together.



For all the inevitable talk of “feudalism,” the whole affair is no more than a rear-guard action so far as the Tory aristocracy is concerned. That class is now almost extinct, and the disappearance of the Empire has removed its last raison d’être. The real problem is what sort of response the Conservative party is going to make to Mr. Wilson’s renovated Labor Socialism, with its faith in Planning, Automation, and Efficiency; not to mention the Liberals, who are busy like termites eating into the loyal Conservative following in the middle-class suburbs. It would have been difficult enough even with Butler or Maudling at the helm; with Home it is going to be next to impossible. Yet Home was needed if the true-blue Tories—already cheated of their darling Hailsham—were to be kept quiet, or rather busy working for the party in next year’s election. It has been the misfortune of Conservatism that Macmillan did good by stealth, instead of providing the party and the country with a broad political education. The public was never told more than half the truth about Britain’s changed position in the world; major departures, such as the liquidation of the African empire, or the unsuccessful takeover bid for the leadership of Western Europe, were presented as business-like moves, instead of being dramatized; and even the retreat from uninhibited market liberalism à la Erhard to planning à la française, was so carefully camouflaged that hardly anyone but the experts noticed it. The result was that the modernization of the Conservative party got stuck halfway, while the public never realized that something important was happening.

All this was part of the Macmillan style—a habit of making unobtrusive moves in the Edwardian manner, when what was wanted was a grand Churchillian or Gaullist confrontation. It is perhaps the most serious charge against Macmillan as Prime Minister and party leader that he tried to conduct policy behind the backs of his own followers. The word “trickster” was always close to the surface when Tories grumbled about him in private. No doubt he was right in thinking that a head-on clash with the Old Guard might have split the party; no doubt, too, the process of unobtrusive accommodation to reality will continue under Home (and would have continued under Hogg-Hailsham, for all his frenzied ringing of ideological and other bells). But there is all the difference between welcoming the future, and backing into it in a half-hearted fashion. Wilson’s Laborites—even Grimond’s Liberals, for all the intellectual windiness which seems to be part of the modern Liberal makeup—do convey the impression of being enthusiastic about the age of technology, and willing to dispense with traditional symbols such as unrestricted national sovereignty. No one can suspect the Tories of enthusiasm for any of these things. Their appeal now is bound to be to the elderly and the tradition-bound.



This is the danger the Conservative left-wingers have sensed. With Butler or Maudling in charge, they would have shed their traditionalist image and come forward as the British counterpart if not of the New Frontier (that image has been grabbed by Wilson), at least of liberal Republicanism à la Rockefeller. As matters stand, they are bound, in their hearts, to concede the 1964 election to Labor, whatever they may say in public. The problem for them lies in capturing the party after the almost inevitable defeat. Here a grotesque irrelevancy adds to their discomfort: if the Tory representation in Parliament is sharply reduced, their supporters are likely to be the heaviest sufferers, since most of them entered the House in 1955 and 1959, and their seats are less well protected than those of the Old Guard. The hundred or so backbenchers who form Maudling’s personal bodyguard—as well as being the vanguard of “managerial” neo-Conservatism—are the most likely victims of a Labor landslide. Since the leadership is heavily dependent on the Parliamentary party—though we have just seen that other factors can also intervene—this might leave the right wing in control after a shattering defeat brought on by its own ineptitude. In that case civil war is quite likely to break out among the Conservatives, along the lines of Labor’s internal split in the 1950′s. Since at the moment it looks as though the Conservatives will poll no more than ten million votes in 1964, against fifteen million for Labor and about five million for the Liberals, the massacre at the polls might be large enough to halve their parliamentary strength; and it is the liberal wing which would suffer most.

It is thus with complete disaster staring them in the face that the Conservative “reformers” now contemplate the political upheaval brought about by Macmillan’s last-minute surrender to the Old Guard. Already there is talk of Macleod playing the part of a Tory Aneurin Bevan and, Samson-like, bringing the pillars of the Temple down upon the heads of the oligarchy in possession. In fact, the “modernists” face a task more nearly akin to that of Gaitskell and his friends after Labor’s defeat in 1959. They must somehow take their party away from the Old Guard and recast it in their own image, if Conservatism is not to dwindle away into the powerless rump it has become in Social-Democratic Sweden. The danger is very real, for a few years of Labor government—if not dogged by economic trouble—might easily accustom the electorate to the idea that Conservatism is out of fashion. Mr. Wilson is doing what he can to spread this notion, and unless he is very badly let down by his colleagues when he gets into office (unfortunately for him, the Labor front-bench at the moment looks pretty weak), he might just pull it off. The scales are certainly much more narrowly balanced than they were a couple of years ago: before the Labor party had modernized itself, and before the great psychological gear-shift in the public’s attitude had occurred.

This shift is something of a mystery. Who, a few years ago, would have expected a solid Conservative newspaper like the Sunday Times to go into raptures over technology, and to warn its readers that in view of the vastly accelerating pace of technical and social change, “the whole of government is . . . based on an almost heroic effort to foresee the course of a technological explosion and plot its needs . . . any Conservative Government now has to prove that it understands and can deal with the process. . . . This is vital because revolutions do not give one much time . . . any government which lacks an understanding of the revolution in which it is living is bound to fail” (October 20, editorial) ? Strange language for a Tory organ. The paper’s star columnist, writing the day after the fourteenth Earl of Home became Prime Minister, had this to say: “I now know of no convincing argument which I could put to a young scientist or university teacher to persuade him that the Conservative Party was both the best way of fulfilling his political ideas and a party in which he would be at home, an equal in his own natural environment.” Well, it never was. But the whole point is that the Young Turks had almost got to the point of persuading themselves that they could pull it off. With Macleod entrenched as head of the party machine—he has now been shoved out—and Macmillan apparently favoring the palace revolution, they saw themselves with victory in their grasp. Disappointment is now acute, but the real fight has only begun. It is going to get really savage if Sir Alexander next year leads Toryism to its electoral Waterloo.

Perhaps all this commotion up and down the country is evidence that there is life in the old lion yet. Materially he is in fairly good shape just now—for a change the economy is booming, even exports are going up—and getting a new set of technological teeth. The obstacles to genuine modernization are institutional and social rather than economic. Some of them were discussed in Encounter‘s special “crisis” issue last July. Unfortunately, most of the contributions were so amateurish as to underscore the editorial complaint that professional competence was not wanted. There is certainly plenty of amateurism about, and even more blinkered insularity: notably in the educational Establishment and the Civil Service, neither of which exactly corresponds to the needs of an industrial society (there is still not a single institution of higher learning of the standing of MIT or the Polytechnique, and no immediate plans to create one). It is sometimes odd to see what passes for radicalism in this tradition-bound country. Thus the Labor party is now committed to the creation of two dozen small arts colleges on the existing pattern, and this is trumpeted as a great step forward, when what is needed is half a dozen large new universities, with a minimum of ten to fifteen thousand students each, located in industrial cities, and with enormously enlarged science faculties in part subsidized by the surrounding industries, whose employees should be compulsorily educated to the age of eighteen and beyond. Notwithstanding official acceptance of the controversial Robbins Report on higher education, this is still a long way off. Yet progress is on its way, however reluctantly. All three political parties are now publicly committed to the idea that science, though nasty, is important, and that efficiency, though ungentlemanly, is a good thing.

Lest I sound too enamored of C. P. Snow and his cult of scientism, let me hasten to add that I never thought much of the notion of Two Cultures (he has now raised the number to three). There is only one culture, and Shakespeare is infinitely more important to it than the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In fact, thermodynamics has nothing whatever to do with culture, and can safely be ignored by anyone in search of a liberal education. It is, however, important to the educational infrastructure, and will have to be taught on a large scale to the hundreds of thousands of working-class and lower-middle-class boys and girls who—if all goes well—may find school places by 1975. This is now the real issue, compared with which all others shrink, for automation is a real chance for a country that is short of raw materials and has to make use of its brains. It is to the credit of all concerned that this truth is no longer strenuously resisted. In their different ways, Socialists, Liberals, and Conservatives have learned to speak the same language—even Lord Hailsham styles himself Minister of Science (though why a lawyer had to be given this post is one of those British mysteries) and talks earnestly of bringing the country up to date. With so much unanimity about what ought to be the goal, it seems almost inevitable that something or other is in fact going to be done.



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