Monetarism and History

Ian Gilmour

Soon after they have ensnared their young victims, the Moonies brainwash them, I am told, into hating their parents and families. Other Californian cults may do the same. The British Conservative Party is a long way from California, and it is still some way from being a cult: yet in recent years odd things have been happening to the Conservative Party. Conservatives have been asked to believe that virtually everything done by post-war Conservative governments was profoundly mistaken and a serious deviation from the path of true Conservatism.

This rewriting of history was occasioned by the monetarist revolution which took place in the Conservative Party from 1974-5 onwards. The shaky economic edifice of monetarism needed to be shored up by some political and historical masonry. Ideally, perhaps, this could best have been achieved by a bell, book and candle condemnation of the Heath Government alone. The snag was that some of the leading monetarists had served without demur in that government. The trail of heresy had, therefore, to be extended back to the 13 Conservative years of 1951 to 1964. The new ideological fervour would in any case probably have demanded the commination of all post-war Conservative governments. Indeed, even poor Disraeli, because he has been rightly identified as a moderate, has recently come in for a good deal of right-wing contempt. If this goes on, Conservatives will soon have to choose their heroes from a short list of Montague Norman, Lord Eldon, Judge Jeffreys and (possibly) Bonar Law.

We are now enjoying the fruits of the monetarist revolution, and the sans-culottes of monetarism seek to deflect criticism by denouncing the alleged follies of the Ancien Régime. So what took place during that régime is not merely of academic interest. Mr Selden’s new book on Churchill’s post-war government provides an excellent starting-point for examining the monetarist charges.[*] The Cabinet documents not yet being available, Mr Selden has chiefly relied on oral history and has interviewed a large number of people. Reginald Basset in his classic 1931 showed that the recollections of those involved in that crisis bore no relation to what they had actually said or done at the time. But Mr Selden seems to have avoided most of the pitfalls of oral history. His book is a work of prodigious industry and will remain of great value to students of the period even when all the documents have appeared. In particular, his method reveals the importance and influence of senior civil servants without giving any credence to Bennite fantasies about Whitehall conspiracies to thwart the objectives of the elected government.

Mr Selden also leaves no doubt about the importance of Churchill himself. Despite ill health and some decline in his powers and energy, despite the fact that some of his ideas and interests were decidedly out of date, Churchill was still highly effective as Prime Minister, and he led what was probably the best government this country has had since the war. Less constrained by party considerations than other premiers, and often stressing those things which united the country rather than those which divided it, he was, in Mr Selden’s words, ‘the man of vision who gave the lead’. He was above all else a national leader, and it was that which made him an outstanding prime minister in peace as well as war.

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[*] Churchill’s Indian Summer: The Conservative Government 1951-55 by Anthony Selden. Hodder, 667 pp., £14.95, 26 October 1981, 0 340 25456 4.