Greasy Pole: Toadies And Rebels
Naughtier readers of the Guardian enjoy a weekly item which delights in exposing the sickening antics of the Top Toadies – New Labour MPs who unfailingly toe the Blairite line in the hopes of ensuring the continuity of their ambitions. To justify this behaviour, appalling as it is to anyone concerned to debate political solutions to society’s problems, grovelling Labour Members may refer to the experiences of two ex-MPs, both Tory, who died recently.
Anthony Meyer was known as a “natural” MP in the sense that he did not foresee, nor perhaps want, promotion – which made it easier to be a rebel. Of course it always helps in this to have a secure background. Meyer’s grandfather was a wealthy banker and his father vice-chairman of the De Beers diamond cartel. Meyer went to Eton and Oxford and after the war he joined the Foreign Office, posted to embassies in Paris and Moscow. In 1962 his career plans were changed when on the death of his mother he inherited the family wealth. His background made him an ideal Tory candidate and he was nominated to contest Eton and Slough in 1964 against Fenner Brockway, whose role in the Labour Party was to re-assure doubters that, in spite of everything their party did, it still had principles and a conscience which somehow, sometime, could be nurtured into flower.
A local Tory advised Meyer to flavour his election campaign with some discreet but unmistakable racism; he rejected this idea and went on to scrape home by a majority of eleven. He had had hardly any time to savour his victory when Harold Wilson cashed in on Labour’s popularity to call another election in 1996, where Meyer lost to Joan Lestor, who should have known better than to embark on a wretched career as a Labour politician. Adrift without a constituency, Meyer was not above using the Etonian connection to get himself selected for another, his old friend Nigel Birch’s seat at West Flintshire. Finally, he represented Clywd North West.
Soon after he arrived at Westminster Meyer clearly asserted that he did not regard toeing any party line as being essential to an MP. Aside from upsetting a lot of his fellow party members with his ardent support for British capitalism joining the European super market, he opposed the Conservative government over the Westland affair, the Poll Tax and Reagan’s bombing of Libya. In amongst a storm of jingoist hysteria, he stood out against the Falklands War, putting to shame Labour MPs, including their leader Michael Foot, who supported the war. This is not to say that Meyer was what is called a left-wing Tory; he opposed sanctions against the Smith regime in Rhodesia and after losing at Eton and Slough he subsidised and published Solon, a magazine for “intellectuals” on the Right.
But a consistent pre-occupation for him was his opposition to Thatcher. He found her performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, which so delighted the more slavish Tories in the Commons, “an increasingly sickening spectacle”. As the pressure on Thatcher built up Meyer was involved in the movement to challenge her leadership in an election. Thatcher described this group as “a range of back benchers who for various idiosyncratic reasons, or because they had been denied or removed from office, would be happy to line up against me”. In 1989 there were more likely candidates than Meyer but they would not stick their neck out at that stage so he got himself nominated. Predictably, he lost with only 33 votes but an ominous total of 60 Tory MPs did not vote for Thatcher and a year later she was persuaded to go after another election “victory” had left her mortally damaged. For his part in denting the apparent invincibility of the Iron Lady, Meyer was pronounced second only to Mikhail Gorbachev in a Man of the Year contest – which did not persuade the Tory party in Clywd to keep him as their candidate.
Meyer’s privileged upbringing was not available to Nicholas Scott who, without being one of the more obnoxious toadies, did show a certain readiness to adjust what he called his principles as the price of a place on the Tory Front Bench. He probably thought he was projecting the humane face of Conservative government — which in July 1974 ensured that Time magazine unwisely named him as a future world leader. He did not go to public school or university and his early career was in marketing and advertising. However when he was told that “all the prettiest girls are in the Young Conservatives” he felt an exciting new career beckoning. He rose through the ranks of the Young Tories and his local council to get into the Commons in 1966 for Paddington West. An early marker for him was his opposition to the Callaghan government restrictions on Asian immigrants from East Africa, which was a shamefully cynical reversal of Labour’s opposition to similar measures by the Tory government in 1962. (Scott himself also backtracked on this issue in 1972 when, as a Home Office Minister, he had to promote such limits.)
As a close supporter of Ted Heath, Scott held a variety of ministerial jobs until in February 1974 he lost his Paddington seat. In the general election of October that year Scott won easily in unwaveringly Tory Chelsea, although his reputation for extra-marital affairs did not go down well with all sections of the local party. ”Can a man who breaks his marriage vow be trusted as a politician?” snarled one of them, displaying the customary delusions about of the nature of both marriage and political parties. Now restored to the Commons, Scott held a succession of lower-rung posts, in some of which he both caused and endured a measure of embarrassment. During his time at the Northern Ireland Office, responsible for the prisons there, he had to answer for a mass IRA break-out from the Maze. Later, as a minister for the disabled, he chose to deceive the Commons about the government’s part in wrecking a private member’s Bill of Rights for the disabled. His discomfort was heightened when his daughter, who was a lobbyist for the disabled, denounced his trickery: “Professionally” she stormed “I think (for him to resign) would be the honourable thing to do. Professionally I am very angry. Personally I feel rather let down”. Caught bang to rights, Scott did as his daughter suggested.
As the storm clouds gathered over him, Scott began to look increasingly vulnerable. He did not help himself when he walked away from a road accident in which he shunted his car into another, trapping a pram holding a three-year-old child. Scott had to face three charges of drink driving. If he had been what is known as an ordinary member of the public he might have found himself in gaol; but as an extraordinary Member of Parliament he was merely fined and banned from driving. As if that was not enough, a short time later at the Tory conference in Bournemouth the police found him face down in the gutter and were not impressed by his excuse that two glasses of wine had not mixed happily with the pain killers he was taking for a bad back. The constituency activists in Chelsea decided they had had enough and he was de-selected. That was the end of the prospective world leader’s political career. “Well,” he said, “If you can’t take a joke you should not be in politics”.
While all this goes on capitalism, which is not a joke, continues to exert its misery and distress on its people. In this country the deputy prime minister’s office recently reported a seven per cent rise in homelessness last year. The charity Shelter said this represented 230,000 people without a proper home; the charity Crisis put this as high as 500,000. Abroad, as a normal event without the intervention of some great natural disaster, 30,000 people die every day of preventable causes; the effects of poverty kill a child every three seconds. In that perspective, what does it matter if capitalism’s leaders are toadies or rebels? Meyer and Scott were once hailed as future leaders of capitalism. Now they are properly footnotes in the system’s grisly history.