Greasy Pole: The Death and Life of Selsdon Man

It was early in 1970 and Harold Wilson’s government, which less than four years before had been returned with an emphatically increased majority, was sinking deeper and deeper into unpopularity. The Conservative opposition’s leader, Edward Heath, was very different from his predecessors Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, with their image of long days slaughtering on the grouse moors. In keeping with this, the Tories went out to persuade the voters that they were a party of radical change. Some months were devoted to labouring over policy reviews and draft manifestos and in February 1970 the leaders met at the Selsdon Park Hotel to draw it all together into a programme designed to win them the next election.

The discussions at Selsdon were driven by Heath’s desire to get into Number Ten with a more or less clean sheet, as a leader who was reacting against the past. This meant against the confused and erratic blundering of Wilson’s government, which the prime minister liked to describe as pragmatism but which others might call a triumph of opportunism over principle. In fact, in electoral terms there was something to be said for the “clean sheet” because there had been several examples of stunning victories after the promise to be a purgative change from a dismal, discredited past. This was the case when Labour won in 1945 and again in 1964 and since then it has happened with Thatcher in 1979 and Blair in 1997.

The decisions taken at Selsdon Park were centred on a concern about tax cuts, a more vigorous programme of law enforcement (both of them voter-attractive) and a more selective access to social services and state benefits (which have become more popular in recent times). “After the 1964 and 1966 defeats,” wrote Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs The Downing Street Years (apparently forgetting that a few other people were also involved), “I joined with Ted Heath in a rethinking of party policy which seemed to foreshadow much of what we later came to call Thatcherism”. Selsdon was treated to an overdose of media interest, partly because of a panicky response when an unprepared Heath was required to face a band of reporters on the Saturday and was advised that it would be most useful to emphasise a tougher policy on law and order. It was thus no surprise when a strident communiqué came out of the conference, promising the electorate an invigorating dose of market-driven economic liberalism as an alternative to Labour’s hopeless blunders.

Heath began to talk about a “new style of government” which would abolish the policies of wage restraint which previous governments (including Conservative) had seen as so essential to the prosperity of British capitalism. “We have always been opposed to compulsory wage control,” he informed us soon after Selsdon, “We opposed it in the House when the Bill was going through, and we are opposed to it and we will not introduce it”. At the same time, there would be no more government investment to rescue failing companies; “lame duck” firms would have to “stand on their own two feet” or expire. The market, left to itself without any interference from the government, would operate to ensure that only the strong and useful—the profitable—would survive, which would be to the benefit of everyone.

The first reactions to Selsdon were that it was a boon to the Labour Party and a terrible mistake by the Tories. Wilson made the most of it; he was then at the top of his form as a political con-artist and came up with the name of Selsdon Man for those responsible for spawning such primitive, brutish ideas, as against Labour’s model as a party standing for a modern, civilised, caring society. Selsdon Man, a political cave-dweller, was assumed to have lost the next election for the Tories.

In fact there is some reason to think that Wilson got it wrong, that Selsdon was not so much out of tune with the times. In his biography of Iain Macleod, Robert Shepherd states that the discussions were not as fervent as most people imagined; it was more a matter of sorting out policies which would distinguish them from the Labour Party. Heath described the event as “quite unspectacular” and grumbled about the “fuss” in the press: “I can think of no major new departure which emerged”. Robert Blake, the historian of the Conservative Party, thought that Selsdon did the party more good than harm and John Ramsden, in his history of the party—An Appetite For Power—considered that, in contrast to Labour’s obvious disarray, a co-ordinated policy which looked as if it might endure would be a vote winner.

And so it turned out, as Heath won the election in June 1970 and the voters waited to see whether he would live up to the brave declaration in his preface to the Tory manifesto: “Nothing has done Britain more harm in the world than the endless backing and filling which we have seen in recent years. Once a policy has been established, the prime minister and his colleagues should have the courage to stick with it.”

The voters did not have long to wait. In July that year the news came that Rolls Royce was in deep trouble, largely through losing massive amounts of money over the design and production of an aero-engine for Lockheed. This, clearly, was a “lame duck” company which should be left to die because it could not “stand on its own two feet”. But instead of having “the courage to stick with” their declared policy and allowing Rolls Royce to go under the Cabinet, after trying to persuade some banks to put up the necessary money, unanimously decided that the state would have to step in with a virtual nationalisation of the firm. “Ministers had been forced to consider,” Heath excused himself afterwards, “whether we should allow our political reservations about state aid to outweigh considerations of the unemployment effects which would result if we let such a great concern go to the wall.” He did not say so, but the effects on votes was also on their minds. Pragmatism, in other words, ruled OK.

It ruled again, a couple of years later, when the affairs of the long-ailing Upper Clyde Shipbuilders reached crisis point. A 1969 memorandum written by the mad marketeer Nicholas Ridley had advocated a complete government withdrawal from UCS but this kind of ideological approach was, even after Selsdon, in reality unacceptable. Pragmatism—a concern for the effects on employment and therefore on votes—demanded that, first, the Yarrow yard should be separated from UCS, with a sweetener in the form of a large government loan. Then, in February 1972, during a debate on unemployment, the decision was announced to bail out this latest “lame duck” with state aid.

By that time the Selsdon policy of non-intervention in wage bargaining had also gone by the board. In April 1971 Heath was “encouraged” when the secretary of the TUC, Vic Feather, offered to negotiate over an incomes policy, wrongly described as not only “voluntary” but also “new”. If Heath had stuck by the Selsdon policies he would not have been encouraged, but outraged, by Feather’s offer. By the autumn of 1972 we were back with an attempted government freeze on wage rises, through various stages of severity, policed by something called the Wages Board.

So Selsdon Man did not live long after the election which he had so generously helped the Tories to win. There are still attempts to bring him back to life; the wretched Trade Minister Stephen Byers was once an ardent advocate of the beneficial effectiveness of the market but—like those before him who were confronted with a similar problem—he had to stop his attempts at resuscitation when he met the crisis at Rover cars. Selsdon Man may have seemed to be before his time but he did achieve one thing—to expose how ready are politicians to abandon the plans which, they have solemnly assured us, are the one sure way of dealing with capitalism’s problems.


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