1990s >> 1990 >> no-1026-february-1990

Caught in the Act: Also rans


Just in case, in this eleventh year of Thatcher rule, there is any misunderstanding: there is only one Prime Minister. But there is no restriction on the number of those who regard themselves as admirably suited for the job and who plot their future accordingly. Indeed, when a new leader takes over it is often fascinating to learn how, from the humblest beginnings, they nurtured the hope to make it to the top of the greasy pole of politics, no matter how many necks they trod in the process. Nervous readers will have seen one implication of this: that lowly MPs like Harry Greenway and Terry Dicks cannot be counted out as future occupants of Number Ten, and they may hope that the best such publicity-crazed Members can hope for is to go down in history as what have been known, since a TV serial of the [same] name some years ago, as Nearly Men.

One of the most prominent of the Nearly Men of the Tory Party (whose ranks are thick with them) is Willie Whitelaw, whose removal from the running was so deliberately serpentine as to be notably less traumatic than that of most of his deposed colleagues. Whitelaw traded on his reputation for unflinching loyalty to his leader—although his recently published memoirs reveal an admiration for Thatcher which is, to say the least, qualified. He also depended for his survival on always trying to appear slightly less intelligent than he actually is, another way of saying that his image as the bluff, cheerful, kindly Teddy-bear of politics was a deception, a front behind which he carefully assessed his chances and plotted his moves.

But when his big chance came the Teddy-bear was shackled by that image; in the 1975 election for the Tory leadership Whitelaw did not stand in the first ballot because, it was said, it would have been disloyal to do so. In fact he was counting on Thatcher making a poor showing on the ballot and so promoting him as the front runner on the second ballot. But Thatcher’s campaign had been too well organised and by the time Whitelaw entered the contest her bandwagon was unstoppable. So he didn’t get to be Tory leader and all he had to console him was his loyalty to a new leader, his riches, his stately home, his estates and his cunning.

Whitelaw is a past master at the old trick of pretending that all his possessions are not really his but held in trust for the rest of us. This may cause him to give his servants and other employees a rather easier time than they might get from a less guileful employer; doubtless his retainers are well looked after in their old age—not thrown out into the Cumbrian snow when their working life is done, that sort of thing. But it is also a contribution to one of the most widespread and pernicious deceptions of capitalism: that private property does not exist, nor does class division, nor privilege, nor inequality. Whitelaw could practise that deception more successfully than most, perhaps because those he deceived really did believe that he was less intelligent than he really is.


There is a Nearly Man in the Labour Party who is as cuddly as Whitelaw but who has a different reputation. Denis Healey ends his political career as a genial, wisecracking thug, an ex-member of the Communist Party (when it was the smart thing to be) turned into the scourge of Labour’s leftwing (now that it is the even smarter thing to be). In his tireless defence of the interests of the British capitalist class—of their possession of the most destructive available military force, of their need on occasion to depress working class living standards—Healey was adept at getting himself in the news by encapsulating his ideas in punchy, gutter-press phrases. Defending his policies as Chancellor of the Exchequer against leftwingers who were, as usual, dismayed that capitalism cannot be run in a way contrary to its nature, Healey told his critics that they were “out of their tiny Chinese minds”. He had clearly forgotten that, as newly-appointed Chancellor, he had himself stimulated those leftwingers with his promise to squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked.

However, when Labour lost the 1979 election it was apparent that, far from their pips being squeezed, the rich had actually increased their share of wealth; which meant that the poor’s share had decreased. Towards the end of that government Healey laid down the policy that pay rises were to be no higher than 5 percent, which proved to be the last straw for the unions, and so conceived the Winter of Discontent. His programme of cuts in government expenditure made him the forerunner of Thatcher’s Chancellors. At that time, Healey’s famous sense of humour did not desert him; his Chief Secretary. Joel Barnett, later recalled how he would ask his underlings to think up “ripping wheezes” which were his name for disguised cuts in spending, measures designed to make it seem that the cuts were not happening. A year or so after Labour lost the election Healey, still in joking form, refused to cross a picket line, quipping that he did not believe in strike-breaking. It dod not seem to bother him that his government had used troops and Green Goddesses to break the fire service strike in 1977 and that his Prime Minister Callaghan had openly urged workers to cross picket lines whenever they felt like doing a bit of individual strike-breaking.

In spite of Healey’s shabby record it is arguable that when Callaghan resigned the leadership after the 1979 election the Labour Party would have been well advised, by the gruesome standards of capitalist politics which say that the best leader is the one who, whatever the methods, wins the most elections, to have made Healey leader instead of Michael Foot. As it was, Healey was left as a Nearly Man, raking over his wretched memories, watching in probable irritation as Foot blundered into his party’s worst defeat for fifty years.


At this point Caught in the Act would like to indulge in a little forecasting about a possible future member of the Tory Nearly Men. Kenneth Clarke was put in charge of the Department of Health after what were acknowledged as some crude public relations blunders by his predecessors, notably the unlamented John Moore. Clarke, of the overweight, cigar-puffing nonchalance, had the reputation of a supremely accomplished communicator, just the man to convince us that it is not what the government does which damages us but the fact that the damage is made to sound attractive and restorative. At his great moment of opportunity Clarke’s moon face beamed out from every newspaper as the man of the future, the next Prime Minister but one.

All that was changed by his handling of the dispute with the ambulance crews, which, as ambulance workers piled up an overwhelming public support, exposed Clarke as desperately inept at the crafty game of political deception. Memories were revived of Selwyn Lloyd’s ill-advised battle with the nurses and what then happened to him in the Night of the Long Knives. Clarke’s colleagues in the Cabinet—his rivals for the top job—were positively underwhelming in their support for him. Not for the first time, to be spoken of as a rising Tory was like being told that you have a terminal illness. We therefore nominate Kenneth Clarke, who has so grievously disappointed his admirers through his lack of guile, as the first Nearly man of the 1990s.

Nearly Men (so far there has been only one Nearly Woman—Barbara Castle when she was in charge of the Department of Employment and composed Labour’s union-hobbling proposals in In Place of Strife) are nurtured on the assumption that things would have been different—better—if they had been the one to reach the top of the Greasy Pole. There is no evidence to sustain that for it is not personalties which count but the basis on which those personalities try to realise their ambitions. That is why all leaders fail to solve the problems characteristic of capitalism and why there are so many Nearly Men to trouble history with their piquant grumbles about What If and If Only.