Sunday 27 September 2009

Labour Party Conference - What Changes?

The Party conference season has arrived, and the Info Entertainment programmes (aka News) are filled with heads talking rubbish between the human interest clips and sundry items dredged from the outer net. The Lib Dem’s staggered about in their customary indecisive way, as they have done ever since the days of Clement Davies. It is the Labour Conference this week, where the bad meets the worse. Then it will be the Tories, once the unspeakable chasing the uneatable, but now often behaving like the Senate of Rome in the run up to the Ides of March, 44 BC.

One conference I recall well is the Labour Conference of October 1967, held at The Spa in Scarborough, because I was around at the time and attended a couple of fringe meetings. Labour were a year into winning a clear majority in 1966 and Harold Wilson, PM, condescending with the satisfaction of power and authority, with at that time no EU to bother him but with an increasingly difficult economic situation, which he relentlessly blamed on the Tories. There had been a messy Cabinet reshuffle in August (cartoon by Illingworth above), and a bold front was needed. Wilson up to that time had been given an easy ride by the BBC whilst its minions had declared Open Season on Alec Douglas-Home in 1963-4 and more or less ignored Heath, his successor in revenge for the creation of ITV that had made the BBC the minor TV station. Wilson gave the BBC a second channel, much criticised as a unnecessary luxury for the middle classes, which opened as BBC2 in 1967.

Clement Attlee died on 8th October, which in its way marked the beginning of the end to Labour’s claim to be the party of moral virtue. On 19th November Harold Wilson announced the Devaluation of the pound by 14% roundly denouncing foreigner speculators, but really the USA and Commonwealth countries, dumping the pound sterling as fast as they could, and unofficial strikers. He made the error of telling us that it would not affect the pound in our pockets, which ended in a sentence the credibility he had striven so hard to create, puffing pipes in public when he favoured large Havana cigars.

There are two clips below, one of a Pathe item (below) setting the scene, featuring many of the well known political faces of the time. The other is something else. Around that time the “Futurist” at Scarborough ran variety shows, and one of the favourite turns was the Denny Willis “The Fox Has Left Its Lair” routine (below on Youtube).

Between them they take up to ten minutes. Which of the two is a statement of the human condition of the period and which is slapstick and which was closer to the realities of the time, make up your own mind.

The Pathe clip opens with the Wilson’s doing the important car bit, a quaint item now more often confined to female celebrities wanting free publicity by showing more than is conventional. It is a pity he is not wearing his trademark Gannex raincoat, manufactured by the later Lord Kagan, who was close to Wilson. His use of the coat did wonders for its sales, an early example of product placement. Lord Kagan was gaoled for tax evasion in 1980, shortly after the Conservatives regained power.

They are followed by Bessie Braddock, of Liverpool Exchange the dominatrix of Liverpool Corporation. It was the Braddocks and friends who tore up the dedicated tram network in Liverpool and allowed the closure of much of the network of rail lines that might have allowed fast transit systems of the future. They went completely over to buses and cars that contributed so much to the gridlocks of later. That all the Liverpool Corporation Transport Committee suddenly all obtained Rover Cars when the decision was taken was said to be purely a coincidence.

We then have Barbara Castle seen with Terry Pitt. She was the PM that never was, who might have beaten Margaret Thatcher to the role had she not had such virulent opposition amongst her colleagues. In comparison she might have made Margaret look like a nursery nurse. She was hated, not just because she was a woman, but because she had a sharp mind, and a sense of reality. Worse, she was often the only person in Cabinet to be left sober and coherent.

Then we have one of our National Treasure’s of today, the Queen Mum of Labour, Wedgie Benn himself, insufferably arrogant and bossy, furiously puffing a pipe to look plebeian. He was of course the son of a peer and married to an heiress, so living distinctly in his own comfort zone. He cost us all very dear with his notions on Technology. His commitment to the Concorde project, if only to defend his and other marginal constituencies in Bristol, was a classic elitist apparatchik scheme of the kind. The USA plane makers were building for the mass market, not for the small high spending political and business elite. It cost the UK its investment and future in space satellite technology, in the UK airframe industry, as well as the huge amounts desperately needed in health and education at the time.

Then there is George Brown, Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, who beats John Prescott on points. He was a soak who soaked the rich and filled his boots, and who in his cups was liable to declare war on anybody. As Secretary for the Department of Economic Affairs earlier, a joh arranged with Wilson in the back of a taxi, he had laid the foundations for the property crash of the early 1970's. James Callaghan follows with the familiar smirk. It was Callaghan who sabotaged Barbara Castle’s attempt to sort out relations with the unions on a more stable basis. Sunny Jim was buying into land at a time when subsidies to agriculture were booming. He was the Chancellor at the time of Devaluation, but had failed to carry the Cabinet earlier when the trouble was beginning.

There was a National Economic Plan, Prices and Wages Controls, and severe credit restrictions, but within Westminster and the government, private enterprise continued unabated. In 1964 The Bahamas had been given self rule, and would become independent in 1973. In the meantime it was being developed as a tourist attraction because Cuba had closed for business in 1961. To enable this inward investment was needed and The Treasury and other offices nurtured it as an off shore tax haven designed to attract the wealthy anxious to protect both their capital and incomes. The senior lawyers of government and others formed a close relationship with the newly established state that has continued to this day, regular visits and exchanges being made.

Anthony Greenwood follows, of Housing and Local Government. Because of the state of government finances much had been left to local government, and in the reliable hands of the likes of T. Dan Smith and John Poulson who both eventually went to gaol. Bill Carron and George Elvin follow, and then Michael Stewart. At this time he was First Secretary of State, but in 1964-1965 was Education Secretary. This period was one that needed urgent decisions about the structure and building requirements in the service. Secondary education had only just been achieved, but only by creating very many bodged and poor situations. Increasing numbers were going to set many major challenges, so in 1965 Labour fudged it and passed the buck to the local authorities to try to do it without much cash or guidance. We are still dealing with the consequences.

Some of the above reappear in a parade down to the Spa, and then inside there is the Conservative Lord Mayor, wishing he was somewhere else, Jenny Lee, the widow of Aneurin Bevan, and another woman PM who never was, subordinating her career to that of her husband, with a grinning Wedgie at the end trying to clap the loudest.

The first of the two fringe meetings I went to featured the recently elected Shirley Williams, another fervent or fervid academic, with her vision of the education to come. I like the rest of the audience left more confused than when I started. With children in primary school, this mattered if changes were going to happen. It was clear that Labour did not really know what it was doing or why, all the talk was just that, and they seemed to be adrift of what was going on out there somewhere.

The other was the Lord Chancellor, Gerald Lord Gardiner, Harrow, Magdalen, Coldstream Guards, and QC, one of Labour’s many “Toffs”. He was talking about law reform and the future in a gentle and abstract way. Behind me was a group of Irishmen muttering between them. I thought they had strayed in mistaking the room for a bar. One then asked a question about Labour’s intentions to review the North of Ireland Acts of the early 1920’s. It caught the Lord Chancellor on the hop, and the indecisive reply left little doubt that there was no intention of the Labour Government to look into or change anything in Ulster during that Parliament, which could last until 1971. The man who asked the question l learned later was Gerry Fitt of the SDLP, and this was not what he wanted to hear.

As they say the rest is history, and I had no idea that it was happening in the row behind me.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderfully observed and well written article - I really enjoyed it!