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19 April 2022

From the NS archive: Profile of a parliament

31 July 1964: Of the 81-strong post-election government, just seven ministers today hold the same job as in 1959.

By Gerald Kaufman

By July 1964 only one member of the Conservative cabinet formed by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1959 remained in the post to which he had originally been assigned. In this exacting profile of the government Gerald Kaufman, the future Labour MP, assessed the changing state of government ahead of the October 1964 general election, and following Macmillan’s resignation the previous October, after the Profumo affair. The Conservative losses were stark, but “it is on Labour that the most devastating blows have been visited”, Kaufman asserted. The party would enter the election with neither the leader or deputy leader with which it had fought the previous one. More remarkable was that in spite of this, it had emerged “stronger and more united”, Kaufman wrote. Alec Douglas-Home would stand as Tory leader in the October election, making it the fourth successive general election in which the Conservatives had been led by a different leader.

The 42nd parliament of the United Kingdom has at last expired. It will reassemble briefly to be formally dissolved but, with this week’s adjournment for the summer recess, it has ceased to function as a legislative body. In the debate on the first Queen’s Speech after the general election, Macmillan noted the changes in the composition of the House of Commons brought about by the vicissitudes of the polls and mused: “Time can also inflict its wounds, as well as the electors.” The passage of four-and-three quarter years has strikingly confirmed the validity of this characteristically sententious reflection. Of the cabinet formed by Macmillan after his 1959 victory, only one member – the adhesive Mr Marples – remains in the post to which he was then assigned. Nine of the remaining 18 have moved to other departments, while another nine (including not only Macmillan but also – established in Gower Street instead of the hoped-for Downing Street – Macleod) are out.

Of the 81-strong post-election government as a whole, just seven ministers today hold the same job as in 1959. More than half the total (41) are gone altogether. But, however glaring the gaps may be on the Tory front bench – and even these shade into insignificance when put alongside the first seat below the gangway, which will no longer be occupied by Sir Winston in the next parliament – it is on Labour that the most devastating blows have been visited. For a party to suffer the loss both of its leader and deputy leader within the space of one parliament is surely only less extraordinary than its unexpected ability not just to absorb and almost forget these bereavements, but to emerge from them stronger and more united. Nor were Hugh Gaitskell and Nye Bevan the only prominent victims of the inexplicably high death rate which has afflicted the party since the war (in the current parliament 6.2 per cent of Labour MPs have died, compared with 3 per cent of the Tories). Among other notable entries in the casualty list were such ex-ministers as John Strachey and John Dugdale.

As with people, so with events. Many of the spasms which racked the Labour Party as recently as four years ago seem already to have receded into a remote political prehistory. The entire agonising Clause Four imbroglio – from Gaitskell’s attack in November 1959 against “waving the banners of a bygone age” to the laconic announcement in July 1960 that “the National Executive Committee resolves not to proceed with any amendment or addition to Clause Four of the Constitution” – might never have taken place. And of the “tumultuous 12 months” (Gaitskell’s phrase again) during which the party nestled uncomfortably in the chaste embrace of CND, the only residue today is the minicab-load of MPs who were organised into by-election vacancies by the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, the body set up to reverse the unilateralist decision of 1960.

Indeed, at this far from distant remove, some of the Labour Party’s hectic comings and goings seem like faded clips from a jerkily-projected film montage. Dick Crossman vanishes from the front bench, his qualifications as pensions spokesman impaired by his views on defence. Controversy over Gaitskell’s hegemony caused Tony Wedgwood Benn to walk off the National Executive, Tony Greenwood to leave the Shadow Cabinet, Wilson to oppose Gaitskell for the leadership. Later – can all this really have happened? – Greenwood himself stood for the leadership, with Barbara Castle contending against George Brown as deputy leader and Ben Parkin making a bid for the post of chief whip.

Against this seething background of Socialist Sturm und Drang, the Conservatives proceeded comfortably on their way, their electoral position so apparently unassailable that Crossman was led resignedly to propose that the Labour leadership “should hold itself in reserve” for the “creeping crisis of the 1960s and 1970s.” To the more pugnacious Woodrow Wyatt a preferable nostrum was a pact with the Liberals; but the question at that time was not so much whether Labour would consider making an approach, but whether the Liberals would deign to entertain one. For the Liberal revival, which had been gathering momentum ever since the Inverness by-election of 1954, burst into full flower with, for one incredible spell in March 1962, a 4.7 per cent lead in the National Opinion Poll. But the bloom quickly faded. By March 1963 (the Colne Valley by-election) the revival had been contained. By December it had withered entirely: another of the feverish ephemera which have been a feature of this strange parliament.

However, responsibility for the full burgeoning of the revival must be assigned not so much to Jo Grimond (who, at the moment of incipient breakthrough, displayed a doubtless admirable but nevertheless perplexing Jack of political opportunism) as to a former Liberal candidate for Macclesfield, Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd. Lloyd’s 1961-62 pay-pause can now be seen as one of two catalytic events whose combined effects almost brought the government down in 1963, and left the Conservative Party in a state of internal trauma from which it has yet to recover. By driving white-collar voters into a passionate but finally unconsummated liaison with the Liberals, the pay-pause led directly to the by-election disasters of 1962 (which provided for connoisseurs the spectacle of Macmillan hastening up to his Teesside Marienbad of Stockton in a desperate bid to stave off humiliation for his candidate).

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It was the prospect of a particularly damaging set-back at Leicester that caused Macmillan to sack a third of his cabinet in a reshuffle, whose manner and timing forever divested him of his reputation for unflappability. Chief sacrificial offering was the Chancellor himself, his departure heartlessly summed-up by the brisk headline in one German-language newspaper: “Selwyn Lloyd ausgebootet (Selwyn Lloyd booted out).” This loss of nerve was a significant factor in the Prime Minister’s mishandling of the second crucial event – the 1962 Vassall spy scandal. His error in accepting the resignation of Galbraith, an Under-Secretary for Scotland whom unfounded rumours had scurrilously linked with the homosexual Vassall, set up in Macmillan’s mind a prophylactic block which prevented him paying due regard to much more serious rumours concerning Profumo.

In its external impact the Profumo affair was short-lived. But inside the Conservative Party the effect was decisive. The actual cause of Macmillan’s departure was genuinely medical; but it was his lack of touch in handling the scandal that, by destroying the basis of confidence which had underpinned his premiership, made his resignation inevitable.

At his zenith Macmillan had led his backbenchers in good order through the trickiest situations. But, once bereft of his mana, he was unable to prevent the Common Market from developing into the most divisive issue within the Tory Party since Churchill campaigned against Baldwin’s India policy in the Thirties. And, after Sir Alec Douglas-Home took over the leadership, the deep-seated nature of the malaise was illustrated by the resale price maintenance rebellion, conducted largely by a petit bourgeois section of MPs who, a couple of years before, would have known their place and respectfully kept it.

Quite apart from the controversy it aroused, the Resale Prices Bill was notable as one of the few legislative measures of any import introduced by the Tories in this parliament. The first bill brought in after the election – the Sea Fish Industry Bill – set the pattern for a stream of routine or trivial legislation. And, of the handful of exceptions, two resulted not from government initiative but from pressure by back-bench members. To Sir Cyril Osborne’s grubby persistence must be credited the Commonwealth Immigrants Act; while Sir Alec (who in 1960 had become amid furore the first Foreign Secretary in the Lords for 20 years) owed his premiership to the Peerage Act, forced on the cabinet by Wedgwood Benn’s campaign to divest himself of the Stansgate viscountcy.

This will be the fourth successive general election in which the Conservatives have been led by a different leader. If he pulls off the fourth Conservative victory in a row, Sir Alec will be breaking all 20th-century precedents. Even if he loses, he will still merit a small niche in political reference books by becoming – at the age of 61 – the youngest leader of a Tory opposition for 40 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).

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