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2 November 2021

From the NS archive: Thirteen years soft

16 October 1964: This government was a shambles such as has rarely, if ever, existed before.

By Malcolm Muggeridge

The 1964 general election resulted in the narrow defeat of the Conservative Party to Labour. Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge reflects on the previous 13 years under Conservative governance and the “little that is memorable in the record”. From Winston Churchill’s re-election in 1951, it was evident that this government “represented anything but a transient arrangement”, yet it was not until Anthony Eden succeeded as prime minister in 1955 that “in a matter of months” he had reduced “his country to a laughing-stock throughout the world”. It was the mishandling of the Suez Crisis in 1956 that called for his resignation, “a fatal itch to do something about Nasser”, but for his replacement Harold Macmillan it was his “equally fatal propensity to do nothing” about the John Profumo affair in 1963 that ended his leadership. With the defeat of Alec Douglas-Home to Labour’s Harold Wilson, this era of Tory rule was a time when “nothing was said or done by those in authority which could possibly seem worthy of remembering hereafter”.


Looking back on 13 years of Conservative rule, now, as we must all hope, drawing to its close, and on the men ­– Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Home – who have ruled over us since October 1951 there is little that is memorable in the record, except the Suez fiasco and the Profumo scandal; two episodes which they, certainly, would prefer should be forgotten. How, one wonders, did they employ their time?

Baldwin used to disconcert the more earnest among his supporters by sitting for hours and hours on the government front bench, apparently dozing or turning over the pages of a magazine. Churchill’s mental powers were already seriously impaired when he came to form his postwar government. In conversation, one of his visitors told me, he was liable to confuse the 1939-45 war with the 1914-18 one. Macmillan, one gathers, was always surprisingly available. Visitors would find him sitting ruminatively before an empty desk. Certainly, he never lacked time for one of those meandering historical disquisitions which so tried the patience of his colleagues, and reduced Americans to a condition of frenzied boredom. (Thus Kennedy, at the Bermuda Conference, in desperation was reduced to passing a note to one of his aides, telling him at all costs to intercept Macmillan’s relentless flow.) Even Home, who as far as paperwork is concerned is what French schoolmasters call a retardataire, has been able to absent himself from Downing Street for a good proportion of his short period of office without, apparently, suffering any ill consequences. There seems to have been no particular need for him.

Few can have supposed, when Churchill formed his 1951 government, that it represented anything but a transient arrangement. The majority was tenuous; the names of the ministers, as they were announced in little batches, were far from reassuring, especially when it became clear that Churchill was hankering after a revival of his wartime overlord arrangement, with outsiders like Lord Leathers supervising the work of the regular politicians. Stories abounded of how incomprehensible appointments were made (for instance, Manningham-Buller’s as Solicitor-General) because Churchill forgot faces and muddled up names. Men called to Downing Street found themselves addressed as someone else, and some, though they served in his ministry, never did succeed in establishing in the mind of the Prime Minister who they actually were.

Both in the manner of its formation and in its conduct of affairs, this government was a shambles such as has rarely, if ever, existed before. It has largely escaped criticism because of the Churchill legend. Like an Anglican clergyman turning to the altar and intoning: “Now to God the Father…” on completion of his sermon, it is part of the Conservative ritual to proclaim at some point in a discourse that Churchill is the greatest living Englishman. If he is the greatest living Englishman, clearly he cannot, on the record of his postwar administration, have been one of the worst of modern Prime Ministers.

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After the war, the Conservatives were stuck with Churchill, and in private groaned over the weight of the burden. They never liked him, and when he led them to overwhelming defeat in 1945 their dislike and distrust, submerged in the war years under mountains of sycophancy and adulation, came to the surface again. As Leader of the Opposition he gave them little joy. ln the only private conversation I ever had with Eden, in 1951, he remarked bitterly that Churchill might yet keep Labour in office a little longer.

For the Conservatives, getting Churchill out once he had formed his postwar government was a major operation. He wanted at all costs to go on having the diversion of his dispatch boxes – his toys, as he called them. The Conservative party-machinemen, however ardently they longed for him to go, could not admit as much in public. The choicest and largest collection of abusive communications I received when I was editor of Punch was as a result of a cartoon suggesting that Churchill was unfit to go on being Prime Minister – a proposition taken for granted in the conversation of most of his colleagues, as well as at most Conservative dinner-tables.

In assiduously hanging on, Churchill was helped by the fact that his chosen successor was Eden, who was disliked by quite a few Conservatives and despised by many more. This may have been why Churchill was so strong for Eden to be accepted as his successor, even though, in private, he seldom troubled to hide his poor opinion of him. He may well have calculated that, if the alternative to him was Eden, he might reasonably expect to remain in office for the maximum possible time; no one was going to turn him out to put Eden in. If this was his calculation, it proved in the end mistaken. Eden, then in possession of his faculties such as they were, was preferred to Churchill with his in disarray. In the end, Churchill was told in the bluntest and most brutal terms that he had to go. In the context of British politics, it must almost have been like getting rid of Stalin. Nor would it surprise me if, as with Stalin, a mood of de-Churchillisation of the Conservative Party were, in due course, to set in. Indeed, there are signs of it already.

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At long last Eden’s moment came, and he moved into Downing Street, the previous incumbent having been given a big send-off on the occasion of his 80th birthday. It must be maddening for Eden today to reflect that if, instead of embarking on his fatuous Suez adventure, he had followed the normal Conservative routine and just done nothing about anything, he would probably be Prime Minister today and about to go to the country for yet another renewal of his mandate.

Precisely why he should not have run true to form is still a matter of dispute. I suspect myself that the basic reason was a desire to demonstrate that, contrary to the prevailing opinion, he too, could be a man of destiny – like Churchill, send for his chiefs-of-staff in the middle of the night, study maps, initiate campaigns, and even on occasion defy the White House. Descriptions I have heard of his conduct of the dismal affair of Suez convey an impression of a grisly parody of Churchillian war leadership; of a benzadrine Napoleon and pinchbeck Foreign Office Machiavelli all in one.

Alas, the poor fellow was ill-suited for such desperate courses, and, if a recent work (Dulles Over Suez by Professor Herman Finer) is to be believed, burst into a flood of weeping when President Eisenhower rebuked him on the transatlantic telephone. In a matter of months he succeeded in reducing his country to a laughing-stock throughout the world, his government to impotence, his party to confusion, and himself to a condition of nervous prostration, accentuated by excessive doses of sedatives, pep-pills and John Foster Dulles.

The lesson was not lost on his successor, Harold Macmillan. No Conservative Prime Minister, it is safe to predict, will ever again act in defiance of an American President or Secretary of State, or even of the CIA. Nor will one ever again recommend large-scale military operations in defence of imperial interests or positions. To guard against any such possibility the empire has been dismantled. “I was not appointed to be His Majesty’s principal Secretary of State,” Churchill remarked in one of his grandiloquent moods, “to preside over the dissolution of his empire.” This, had he but known it, was precisely what he had been appointed for. Conservative ladies still sing “Land of Hope and Glory” at their rallies, without, I should suppose, reflecting that under successive Conservative governments our bounds have been set narrower still and narrower.

Macmillan’s choice came as a surprise. Churchill, for some impish reason of his own, or perhaps mistaking Macmillan for Sir John Anderson, sent him first to the Ministry of Housing. One saw him in those days disconsolate in gumboots. Nonetheless, with the expert assistance of Mr Marples, houses were duly built – at a price. Eden, to keep him away from the Foreign Office, sent him to the Treasury. There, initially, he was an ardent supporter of the Suez operation, though subsequently, according to Randolph Churchill’s account, one of the decisive voices in calling it off.

After the Suez debauch, Macmillan was a sorely needed prairie oyster. The Conservatives swallowed him, and lo! their shakes subsided, their eyeballs again fitted into the sockets, and those pink elephants which Eden had summoned up mercifully disappeared from view. Telling the W*gs where they got off was all very well at garden fetes, or at meetings in country schoolrooms across a table adorned with a Union Jack; but for Eden – of all people – to carry matters to the point of actually moving troops about! And then petrol-rationing! And the pound shaky! That would not do at all. What a relief, when Eden mercifully disappeared into the shadows, to be confronted by this genial Scottish publisher, with crofter origins and ducal connections and enough relatives in and around parliament to form a family government, down to the under-secretaries!

Eden had ruled out the field of battle as a sphere of operations for Conservative Prime Ministers, but there remained diplomacy. It was in pursuit of distinction in this field that Macmillan put on his white fur hat and undertook his hilarious visit to Mr Krushchev in Moscow. No one who accompanied him (as I did) is likely to forget the experience; particularly the visit to a collective farm, with Macmillan in a grousemoor outfit which he had brought with him for such outdoor occasions; and his speech at Kiev, when he recalled how in the 12th century a Ukrainian princess had married into our English royal family, and was not this a happy augury for relations between our two peoples?

With the collapse of the subsequent Summit Conference in Paris, Macmillan had one more try; this time to get into the Common Market. It, too, was a failure, thanks to De Gaulle, who had old scores to settle, dating back to the time when Macmillan was Resident Minister in North Africa. In those far-off days Macmillan had imprudently followed Churchill’s example, and treated De Gaulle with lofty condescension. It was a mistake. Condescension, as Talleyrand once remarked of treason, is all a matter of timing.

Summitless in Westminster, and excluded from the Common Market, there seemed no reason why Macmillan should not drift quietly along until in the fullness of time the Garter and an earldom rewarded him for the years of non-endeavour on his country’s behalf. It was not to be. Eden came to grief because of a fatal itch to do something about Nasser; Macmillan because of an equally fatal propensity to do nothing about Profumo. The Suez Canal, Lady Eden bitterly complained, had flowed through her drawing-room at Number 10; the flood of rumour and innuendo about ministerial improprieties, it would seem, flowed everywhere else in the kingdom except through Number 10. Eden had to go because he tried, inappropriately and belatedly, to behave like a Kipling short story; Macmillan because be confused trollops with Trollope.

[See also: From the NS archive: Winston Churchill’s illness means more to the government than the loss of its brightest star]

After Suez, the Conservatives were bewildered and in disarray; after the Profumo affair, angry and embittered. In the choosing of a new leader, the pushing and shoving to get to the front took place for once on stage instead of, as is the usual procedure in the wings. It was not an edifying spectacle, and the resultant choice – a disclaiming 14th earl (truly today whoever would keep his earldom must lose it) – was scarcely calculated to restore morale and win an election.

Yet perhaps the Conservatives chose more wisely than they knew in preferring Home to Butler; Bertie Wooster to Jeeves. As in a game of strip-poker, they have shed everything, down to the jockstrap – empire gone, and Kenyatta and Nkrumah necessarily preferred to Dr Verwoerd and Mr Ian Smith; Britannia no longer ruling the waves, or even Holy Loch; admirals without ships, and missiles from over the water; Conservative freedom too circumscribed to be even mentioned. Better, in such circumstances a 14th earl who thinks he is fully clothed than wily old Rab prancing about in the nude.

The real harm of this 13 years of Conservative government has been that it has offered the country no sort of purpose, not even a misguided one. It has been a time of political, economic and moral free-wheeling with the encouragement of every sort of soft indulgence, from betting and bingo to the Beatles. Nothing was said or done by those in authority which could possibly seem worthy of remembering hereafter; they all things common did and mean on that unmemorable scene. The records set up have been in road accidents, hire-purchase, juvenile delinquency and telly-viewing. It is the politics of the trough, into which we, the electorate, are invited to bury our snouts for another five years.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).