When it became inevitable that
This archaic method of choosing a leader was acknowledged, even by traditionalists, to be unsatisfactory, so after the ‘emergence’ of Macmillan’s successor, the Earl of Home [later Sir Alec Douglas-Home], a method of election was devised, chiefly by my Cambridge contemporary and friend Humphry Berkeley, then a Conservative MP but destined soon to join the Labour Party. This, in modified form, has been used ever since.
Harold Macmillan gave a [not entirely accurate] impression of being unflappable, and his steadying hand on the tiller served the country pretty well for some years, earning him the soubriquet of ‘Supermac’. Like Churchill, he had a taste for flamboyant gestures and fancy hats, one of which startled even the buttoned-up Russians when he visited
In 1960 he famously told the South African parliament that a wind of change was blowing through the African continent and, whether we liked it or not, this growth of national consciousness had to be accepted as a political fact - an audacious statement which went down like a lead balloon with the South African apartheid government! At home, his government became less popular, and in 1962 he impetuously sacked six cabinet ministers in the ‘night of the long knives’ . This was widely interpreted as signalling loss of nerve, and his hitherto serene command of events slipped from his grasp. A year later he resigned in the wake of the sordid ‘Profumo affair’, whose titillating revelations of widespread [mostly mythical] sexual orgies in high places, involving senior politicians and even [so it was said] judges, appeared to bemuse him as he remarked plaintively that he had no knowledge of such things and ‘did not move among young people’.
Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who renounced his peerage to sit in the Commons as prime minister. had been a capable foreign secretary, but proved a lacklustre premier and only survived in office for just under a year. He should not, however, be under-rated and had a nice line in self-deprecatory humour. He once said "There are two problems in my life. The political ones are insoluble and the economic ones are incomprehensible" [he confessed to using matchsticks when contemplating the latter]. His party’s narrow defeat in the 1964 general election ushered in the shallow modernity of Harold Wilson, who promised a revolutionary ‘white heat’ [which never materialised] to sweep away restrictive practices and outdated methods on both sides of industry. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ which – against his own personal preferences – enlivened
Edward Heath, who succeeded Douglas-Home as the first elected Conservative party leader in 1965 and was prime minister from 1970 to 1974 was, unlike the bulk of his party, a convinced enthusiast for the European Union, and successfully negotiated Britain’s membership in 1973 – a high point of his premiership. In Opposition he proposed an agenda of trade union reform, tax cuts and spending restraints; but adverse economic circumstances forced him as prime minister to adopt price and incomes policies to combat inflation. His government also had to deploy troops in Northern Ireland to combat the IRA’s military campaign, and widespread industrial unrest in the face of pay restraint policies led for a time to power cuts and the imposition of a three-day working week. Nevertheless, the Conservatives gained more votes nationally than Labour in the 1974 general election, though they retained fewer parliamentary seats.
In 1975 Heath was defeated in a leadership election by Margaret Thatcher – an event which he took as a personal snub, and thereafter poured scorn upon “that bloody woman”. This sullenness did his party little good in the eyes of the public, as in similar fashion Gordon Brown’s prolonged sulk at his predecessor’s over-long tenure of No. 10 Downing Street did New Labour no favours.
Mrs Thatcher triumphantly won the 1979 general election, becoming the United Kingdom’s first woman prime minister and eventually, after winning two further terms, the longest serving one for 150 years. Although when entering No. 10 for the first time as prime minster she invoked St. Francis’s plea for peace in place of strife, and pledged to bring hope in place of despair, she quickly morphed into the most controversial and, for some, the most hated premier of the 20th century. This was because she rightly perceived that the country could not continue to drift as it had been doing and required shaking up, which she proceeded to do with characteristic determination – or, as some preferred to put it, sheer pig-headed obstinacy. It was unfortunate both for her and for the country that some of her preferred nostrums proved mistaken and engendered much unnecessary hostility – especially the briefly imposed poll tax, which led to mass riots and police violence in Trafalgar Square.
In her first two years of office unemployment fell and the prime minister gained great popularity by her determined and victorious response to
Mrs Thatcher also became a leading player on the international stage, being on cronyish terms with US President Ronald Reagan and gaining the approbation of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev whose countrymen admiringly dubbed her the ‘Iron Lady’. Unlike her predecessor Heath, however, she was not favourably inclined towards the European Union, and engaged in hard bargaining for what she saw as threatened British interests. The Conservative party as a whole remained split over Europe, the majority only reluctantly supporting UK membership of the EU and a vociferous minority clamouring for withdrawal. It was
Her successor, John Major, was prime minister from 1990 until 1997 - a difficult few years for both himself and his party. The internal revolt of the anti-European group whom Major in an unguarded moment called ‘the bastards’ rumbled on until the whip was withdrawn from several of them. The prime minister’s efforts to give the impression that he was firmly in charge were sabotaged when his ‘back to basics’ slogan – lip-read as code for a stricter morality in politics – was undermined when several Conservative MPs’ involvements in sexual scandals and, more seriously, in financial corruption charges [‘cash for questions’] mired the Major government in an atmosphere of sleaze. The government was obviously exhausted, and when the Conservatives lost the 1997 general election, the ex-prime minister made no bones about his relief at being free to slip thankfully away to watch cricket at Lords.
Since 1997 the Conservatives have tried out almost as many new leaders as a fussy woman buying hats. After a so-far-so-good start, the latest one, David Cameron, is not yet home and dry. Although a better debater than the increasingly unpopular New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, he has a formidable task ahead of him if he is to establish an enduring lead in public opinion and consolidate in his party’s favour the growing feeling that after eleven years of Blair-Brownism it’s time for a sea-change in the country’s political direction.