Putting on the style
Fashion, in its very nature, must constantly be changing. At times, praise be to Georgie Best and Jean Shrimpton, it changes more violently. There is more to it than whim or the inspired flash of a struggling courturier. The gaudy boutiques may try to hide a fact so sordid and worldly but there is much money to be made in “fashion” and changes can bring such rich dividends that change can be represented as a virtue in itself.
Naturally, politicians have seen the possibilities in this. Not that Wilson or Heath has yet come out in flared trousers and a tie-dyed shirt. But they seem to agree that style is important and changes of style vital.
That was why at the last election Heath promised us a new style of government. The details of this were suitably cloudy but we were given to understand that it was all something to do with taxes and integrity and giving business men more say in the running of British capitalism from Whitehall and getting rid of the Wilson gimmicks which have been such an entertainment over the past six years.
This was all very well — many people were fed up with Wilson and he had lost his glamour for the voters — but it took no account of the fact that Labour had themselves come to power on the same sort of promise. It is almost like a history lesson, now, to look back on those days when Wilson, as soon as he had taken over the Labour leadership, launched out on his promises of a new style of government.
Then we were told that we needed to throw out the men who held their power as the result of friendly deals over a glass of old port or during a day out on the grouse moors and replace them with thrusting, ambitious technologists. We needed a plan — in fact a National Plan, no less — which would take care of absolutely everything. And of course we were going to get a new method of collecting taxes, because every political party should make some sort of gesture to the frustrations of the workers who sigh each week when they check the deductions on their pay slip.
This Labour propaganda is now so stale and discredited that it seems incredible that it was ever tried and even more that it came off. And now the Tories are trying the same trick although their new style seems to be that, while Wilson started off with a bang, threatening to devour us all in the white heat of his energy. Heath has projected an image of self-effacement and inactivity.
As the day-by-day problems and crises of capitalism blow up, the government seem determined to give the impression that they are allowing the ship to drift before every wind and current. They have been in no hurry to get out one of those emergency budgets with the object of telling the working class that they have been living too high and must reduce their standards. Problems like Ulster remain sore and festering; a crisis like the skyjackings, which was a great chance for Heath to emerge as a strong man who could be relied on to teach the lesser breeds where they stood, was let pass. The Heath government seems to be sunk in lethargy.
Perhaps this will turn out a successful (in the sense of a vote-winning) style of government. But the people who vote for capitalism usually do so within the assumptions which are necessary to the system and one of these is the assumption that leadership is indispensable. There are few experiences more threatening to the supporter of capitalism than the feeling that his leader, voted into power with such high hopes and confidence, is impotent. Nothing is more comforting than the feeling that the leader is strong, capable, honest . . .
Whatever the mass of the voters are thinking about Heath’s image of inactivity, we can expect the Conservative Party to become restive, perhaps even rebellious, under such stress. There was a similar situation soon after Eden took over as Premier, when the frustrations of the Tories eventually spilled over in the famous “smack of firm government’’ article in the Daily Telegraph. Eden, it was said, was quite unhinged by this attack (he was never famous for his patience and in any case at that time was a very sick man) and conducted much of his subsequent policy in that same angry, impulsive mood.
Perhaps Heath would not lose his composure under such an attack; we do not yet know whether he has the nerve needed by a Prime Minister. Previous Tory Premiers who have affected an air of indolence were figures of comfort to the working class, who showed their gratitude by voting them into power again and again. There was Baldwin, who sucked his pipe and gazed at his pigs and who came over as the humane father figure who would keep us all safe from harm. There was Macmillan, who would not (at least for a long time) allow himself to be flapped and who seemed to have persuaded millions of workers, with their council schooling and in their council houses, that they were as prosperous as he with his Eton background and his sumptuous home in Sussex.
Beneath the lazy, courteous exteriors of these men there was a ruthless, calculating concern to win and keep power. They were both very clever at this; perhaps too clever, because their exposure was quick and cruel and those who had found them once such assuring father figures turned on them with the wrath of betrayed sons. (There is a theme here for a Freudian essay — the Oedipai factor in politics). Baldwin in the end wondered why they hated him so; Macmillan confessed tremblingly to being out of step with the times.