The battle between the Conservative and Labour Parties during the last election was expressed almost exclusively in terms of menace. Which would the voters be more frightened of – loony Labour’s threat to Britain’s defence and personal prosperity or the hard-faced Conservatives’ dismemberment of health, education and welfare? ‘I wants to make your flesh creep,’ said the fat boy, and that is what the parties set out to do in 1987. As Rodney Tyler’s book shows, the key decision in the Conservative camp, on which all their three great warlords agreed – Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and Lord Young – as did their retinues of ad-men and advisers, was to run a campaign fuelled by fear, a re-run of ‘Don’t let Labour ruin it.’ Fear was a tune which the Prime Minister had practised assiduously over the years: fear of Scargill, fear of Galtieri, fear of inflation, fear of black and brown people. And in 1987, whatever the raggedness in the presentation of her own policies, she played it again to perfection.
In a book clearly designed to serve the interests of the Lord Young-Tim Bell faction in the intrigues around the Peacock Throne, the bathos of the story lies in the fact that no one actually disagreed that the old tune was the best. Faced with an agreeable opponent, attractively packaged together with his comely wife and presented to the public with thoroughly modern media skills, all the Tory professionals accepted that the correct response was to tear off the new Labour mask of humanistic pragmatism in order to reveal the familiar menace of ideological socialism which they believed they could show was still concealed behind it. A cynic might say there was nothing behind the media mask, but there is no doubt that the Tory task was made easier by the mistrust of Labour which had accumulated over a generation.
There is a debate among psephologists as to whether and why Labour is in long-term secular decline, as opposed to a bad patch. The 1987 result, which produced a minuscule revival for Labour from a low point in 1983, after a campaign which had looked easily the best of the three on television, seems to support the long-term decline theory. Some analysts attribute this to the demographic contraction of the traditional working-class base, some to the lack of appeal of collectivist and socialist values, and yet others to the apparent dominance of sectarian extremists in the Party, particularly in local government. Whatever the combination of reasons for Labour’s loss of appeal, the Tory campaign to incite fear of a Labour government fell on ready ears.
Yet the Prime Minister could hardly have been more helpful to Labour personally, in the way in which she seemed to seek out banana skins and leap upon them. In retrospect, it is more than a little ironic that Tory sources last spring were briefing lobby journalists to the effect that Mr Kinnock would crack under the pressure of a long campaign. As things turned out, it was the Iron Lady herself who showed repeated signs of metal fatigue.
From her initial promise to go ‘on and on’, to the bizarre press conference where she paraded her whole Cabinet jammed together side by side – in Hugo Young’s savage phrase, a row of ‘tight-assed men hoping to have a “good war” ’ – to her improvisation of an opt-out policy for state schools which was obviously new to her Secretary of State, to her spirited defence of her own right to have medical treatment where and when she chose to pay for it, to her final characterisation of caring and compassion as ‘drool and drivel’ – Mrs Thatcher was supremely herself. In the process of self-revelation, she managed to confirm every adverse stereotype of her style and values with which her opponents had hoped to make the electorate’s flesh creep.
Nevertheless, in the event, fear of Labour exceeded fear of Mrs Thatcher. The Tory tune drowned out that of its rival, and muffled the Alliance. It is tempting to attribute the Conservative victory to the fact that they could muster a larger and more expensive band to thump out their tune. ‘I’ve already cleared it with Alistair and we’ve got the money,’ to quote Mr Tyler quoting Lord Young. The jovial Lord MacAlpine, Tory Treasurer and Alistair to his friends in the City, signed a cheque for a more concentrated burst of press advertising than has ever been seen in British politics, with £2.5 million spent over the last week of the campaign.
This generous profusion was certainly good for the press – it may even have helped the Independent to turn the corner financially – but it is unlikely to have had much effect on the election result. A study of the 1983 General Election showed that, according to the voters themselves, press advertising was the form of communication which moved them least in making their choice between parties. The Conservative share in the polls in 1987 on the day Tim Bell rode into Downing Street on a white charger was 44 per cent. One week later, after the expenditure of all the serious money on advertising, their share of votes came out at ... 43 per cent. It wasn’t the media in 1987 which gave Mrs Thatcher her third historic victory. It was her megaphone message.
Such scenes of fear and loathing demand the pen of Hunter S. Thompson, Rolling Stone chronicler of the American campaign trail, for we are in his beloved ‘bat country’, where the dark shapes of power and prejudice swoop around the heads of the bemused voters. What would he have made of the Alliance, with its Pollyanna message of good will and reconciliation, as it picked its way through the slough of despond and denigration, like a Salvation Army girl in a noisy pub – and getting its own petticoat dirty too, as the smear on Labour’s Left as One Hundred and One Damnations demonstrated? In a racy account of the Alliance election campaign Des Wilson gives an excellent sense of what it must be like to be a hyperactive member of the crew of a plane which refuses to take off, waiting for the surge which never comes.
The final section of his book, which is an election diary, has the merit of immediacy, but fits somewhat uncomfortably with the earlier chapters, which represent a chronicle of the Alliance’s electoral recovery, step by step, from the debacle of the defence row in 1986 and the Liberal Eastbourne Assembly. One suspects that the author originally envisaged a triumphant ending, with the title ‘How I won the General Election’. As it was, the plot took the wrong twist and the title might more appropriately have become ‘The War Between the Generals’.
One of the principal problems of the warring generals was an inability to agree on strategy. At David Owen’s insistence, the Alliance’s election objectives were limited to achieving the balance of power. This had the apparent advantage of modest realism, but there were more substantial disadvantages. The first of these – as I can report by taking a leaf out of Des Wilson’s book and disclosing an observation made at an Alliance strategy meeting in 1985 – was well expressed by Roy Jenkins, who said that with the British electoral system a hung Parliament might be a statistical outcome, but that it could not be a political objective. The second was that the strategy immediately invited the question: ‘With whom would the Alliance coalesce?’ That was a difficult enough question for the average Parliamentary candidate to be even-handed about as instructed, but impossible when the two Davids answered it differently. The veiled terms in which David Steel indicated that he would find it if not impossible then inconceivable that he could work with Mrs Thatcher were more than matched by the vehemence with which David Owen indicated that Neil Kinnock was beyond the pale. The disunity of the two-headed Alliance was made manifest.
A further disadvantage was that for the Alliance merely to want to hold the balance suggested a fundamental lack of resolve, a weakness of purpose in meeting the challenge of a government-forming electoral system. Did the Alliance want power or did it not? The anthropology of the contest played out in democratic elections is a struggle for power, and the first requirement laid upon would-be leaders is that they should want to win.
Finally, if an election is as negative as 1987 proved to be, the danger for the man in the middle is that he ends up, not as everybody’s friend, restraining extremism left or right, but as everybody’s enemy. For those for whom fear of Mrs Thatcher was the dominant emotion, Dr Owen’s flirtation with the Right made him, and the Alliance, a hated extension of Thatcherism. That included residents on many of the council estates which second-placed Alliance candidates needed to ‘squeeze’ for success. Vice versa, some wavering Conservatives must have been frightened back to the Government by the mere possibility of the Alliance supporting a Labour government – which looked for a day or two in mid-campaign as if it might be a possibility. The Alliance, which, like the Liberal Party before it, had become a practised exponent of the by-election squeeze, found itself caught in a two-way bear hug, and with no late surge to help it escape.
Yet despite misjudged strategy, despite getting bogged down in questions of defence hardware for the whole of the vital second week of the campaign, and despite a surprisingly poor set of television broadcasts, the Alliance did not do at all badly. Over seven million votes marked a third party score which, at nearly a quarter of the popular vote, suggested that the mould was cracked, if not yet broken. Why then should the Alliance have plunged into an orgy of introspection about its own future, within days of 11 June?
The Alliance angst is partly the result of a knowledge of how much better the result in 1987 might have been. A respectable result could have been decisively good if the Alliance had used the second Thatcher Parliament to prove itself a coherent and cohesive alternative to the new Conservatism. Instead, in deference to David Owen’s edgy insistence on separatism, the Alliance turned its energies inwards for the first three years of the Parliament. No attempt at joint policy-making was attempted, for instance, until towards the end of 1985. Then, in May 1986, the conclusions of a joint commission on Defence and Disarmament were publicly rejected by the SDP leader in advance of publication.
Elections are won or lost over the years before, not during the campaign itself. Thus, at the very time when the electorate was casting round for an alternative, considering and rejecting Labour, who at their peak popularity could never breach 40 per cent support in Gallup, the Alliance, while prattling of partnership, was actually locked in bad-tempered negotiation, not least over the attitude which it should adopt to Thatcherism. David Owen, enamoured of the Lady’s conviction politics, simply refused to accept that the prospect of her removal was the only way in which Liberal and most SDP supporters could be brought to countenance the idea of a political pact with the Conservatives in the event of what the Alliance liked to call a balanced Parliament. Even after the spectacular by-election victories at Greenwich and Truro, the Alliance, which by then had donned the trappings of unity, was unable to follow through by asserting that it aimed to be the government.
Most of the tension inside the High Command did not communicate itself to the electorate, but it didn’t require very much of the unease to leak through the carapace of unity to confirm their main concern about the Alliance: which was, according to repeated opinion polls, that it was divided. Paradoxically, at grass-roots level, and particularly on local council groups, there was a genuine unity, born out of working together, which gave the lie to this impression. It was at the top that egos raged, creating increasing bitterness, not only within the Alliance, but on board that frail bark of the new politics itself, the SDP.
David Steel, a seasoned and skilful manipulator and a practised politician in the conventional sense, had spent a decade leading the Liberal Party from the mainstream of protest to the very brink of power. He saw the creation of the SDP and the formation of the Alliance as a gain in credibility for a third force which he had always understood would have to be more than the Liberal Party alone if it was to achieve his mentor Jo Grimond’s dream of becoming a radical non-socialist alternative to Conservatism. Steel is patient and extraordinarily equable – qualities which had stood him in good stead with an excitable party and which were to prove essential in dealing with Dr Owen.
David Owen’s ambitions are at once more complicated and more simple. He was one of a minority of founding Social Democrats who had not wanted to reach anything more than an electoral arrangement with the Liberals in 1981, and, with absolute consistency, he had opposed every specific proposal for closer links, first as a member of the Gang of Four and after 1983 as leader. He saw the SDP as an end in itself, as an instrument to break the glass of politics into a kaleidoscope with an attractive new pattern and with himself at the centre of it. In Kenneth Harris’s book of extended interviews with him, which must have been largely completed before the election and hastily updated since, Dr Owen lays emphasis on what he sees as two early betrayals of the SDP: the conversations which David Steel and I had with Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams at the Konigswinter Conference in April 1981 and the Llandudno fringe meeting at which Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams spoke on the same platform as Jo Grimond and David Steel. Both occasions were informed by genuine good will, but to David Owen they were ominous. In retrospect, he can be identified as a politician in flight from politics. The Hound of Heaven which has pursued him down the years is collective decision-making. He couldn’t stand it in the Labour Party, he wouldn’t stand it in the SDP, and he no longer has to stand it in the Alliance. He is by temperament much more like an American candidate for elective office, setting out to run by stamping some issues as his own, with policy positions impressively grasped and presented, by raising funds, at which he is good, by impressing the media, at which he is even better, and by wooing the electorate on television with a display of mettle. To no aspect of this process, as American candidates in modern times could testify, is a party strictly necessary. But Britain, with its parliamentary system, is not the United States, and that is Dr Owen’s tragedy. In Britain, the colleagues, the others, for whom he has always been ready to evince the most scathing contempt in private, and now increasingly in public, have to be carried along. The triumph of the will can only be realised through the pygmy arts of persuasion and conciliation. For a loner like Owen, hell is other people.
For him, problems, like people, are there to be confronted, to be grappled with and thrown to the ground, beneath his feet if possible. When things go wrong, he threatens the removal of his numinous presence. His current attempt to split the SDP by resigning, and trying to walk off with his reputation intact, and even enhanced by an appearance of fierce integrity, is part of a behaviour pattern established over twenty years. Since the formation of the SDP, he has threatened resignation on a number of occasions whenever he has appeared in the smallest danger of not getting his own way. His problem is that he appears to be a poor loser. The disciplines and delays of democracy are difficult for him. Rather than giving him cause to think twice, a lost ballot confirms him in a sense of his own rectitude.
John Buchan has an elderly cabinet minister say of Dominick Medina, a charismatic but deeply dangerous politician: ‘the point is has he a policy, something he wants to achieve, and has he the power of attaching a party to him?’ Has Dr Owen a policy? He has certainly made a great deal of Britain’s nuclear weapon capability, and of the social market, in order to justify his differences with his colleagues. Do either of them represent what ‘he wants to achieve’? Trident, as a piece of hardware, can scarcely be considered an end in itself. The end which nuclear weapons are supposed to serve is that of security, but despite his membership of the Palme Commission, he consistently seemed, like the Tories, more interested in national pretensions to independence than in the pursuit of a common security. As for the social market, his meaning has been imprecise, but in so far as he is in favour of a capitalism which operates successfully for the benefit of all, the majority of Liberals and Social Democrats, and probably the majority of Britain, would agree with him.
Dr Owen is not consumed by a great cause, such as Home Rule was for Gladstone, or rearmament for Churchill. Nor is he an original thinker, although he is quick and effective in the popular exploitation of issues. What drives him on is not policy, for all the frequency of his pronouncements, but impatience with other people. ‘I want to be quite clear about this,’ he will say ferociously, addressing not, as he well might, the problem of his own rambling style of discourse, but the ‘fudge and mudge’ he sees all around him. He seems to conceive of his role as that of a blowtorch aimed at the liberal establishment, burning with a hard gem-like flame to cut through their soggy consensus. ‘They’ are the soft centre, with their committees and careful calculation. He is the hard centre. In recent weeks he has broadened his attack to condemn even the ‘liberal-minded’, presumably because they are tender when he would be tough.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that Dr Owen always likes to talk a tough line. He quotes Dick Crossman’s advice to him as a young Member: ‘There are only two ways to get on in politics; you lick their arse or you kick ‘em in the balls.’ He belongs to the second school of career advancement. His style is what Roy Jenkins describes as macho – a word which the Chancellor of Oxford University pronounces as if it rhymed with ‘whacko’. Who knows what primal scene on the playing-fields of Bradfield engendered this constant need for young David Owen to play the hard man? It is probably best left as a secret between him and his housemaster, but he would do well to remember that for generations brought up on Buchan, let alone on Biggles, the sign of a really strong man is that he does not go on about it. Given his super-patriotism and ready populism, the effect of his stance is more like Bonapartism than anything which might qualify in Buchan’s sense as a ‘policy’. What he wants to achieve is his manifest destiny, and what he stands for is the inspired will of the leader, whatever that may be from one moment to another.
His ability ‘to attach a party to himself’ is impaired by the same self-absorption. He does not merely scorn the soft skills of acknowledging and praising the contribution of colleagues, he too often eschews civility itself. In this he is less like his heroine Mrs Thatcher – ‘I am so sorry Nigel didn’t get into Haileybury’ – than like Edward Heath. His leadership skills are confined, in fact, to the rather rudimentary ‘Follow me, men’ injunctions of the new subaltern. For those of a deferential and hero-worshipping temperament the invitation is no doubt attractive, but for the majority of those who have worked with him it seems to have been eminently resistible.
The notion that he could preside effectively over a Cabinet, as a wise judge of human nature able to get the best out of each of the twenty colleagues who are his peers, is difficult to grasp for those who have seen the solitary figure slumped scowling at meetings, except when moved to excoriate someone else’s ideas. In his constituency, it is true, he is said to be a different man, relaxed and affable. Perhaps it is because he sees his constituents, like the projected membership of his new splinter group, as ‘his people’ – as dependent on and respectful of his undoubted talents. Shades of the doctor’s surgery.
In a curious and rather charming image Des Wilson describes himself, with reference to his roles in the Liberal Party, first as ‘The Outsider’ and later, as he comes closer to the warring generals, as ‘The Insider’. This raises the question of whether Owen sees himself as Outsider or Insider. On the face of it, the question is absurd. Foreign Secretary at 39, former Party Leader and Cenotaph mourner, friend of Peter Jay – who could be a loftier and grander pillar of the Establishment? He is certainly always readier to respond to raison d’état than liberals might be. Yet he undoubtedly sees himself as a radical, pulling down the pillars and turning out the insiders from their places of power. In this he is like the Prime Minister, who, after eight years in office, is still liable to attack ‘the Government’ for not doing what should be done, and who is a zealous opponent of what’s left of the liberal establishment. Mrs Thatcher’s radicalism, however, is rooted in some simple but strongly-held ideas about the nature of society, drawn from those of 19th-century economists and from the precepts of Alderman Roberts. She represents a clear set of values. David Owen, the other Outsider of British politics, represents, by contrast, a sort of free-floating populism made up of anger against men and measures, combined with a regard for self and country. Shirley Williams once classified the two Davids as ‘little David’ and ‘angry David’. Sometimes it seems as if it is David Owen’s rage itself which sustains him. He has already damaged two parties, Labour and Liberal. He has divided and nearly destroyed a third, the SDP. It will be interesting to see what happens when this floating mine finally locks onto the Conservatives, as all unattached populists who talk of patriotism ultimately do.