Lord Vaizey sees the light

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • In Breach of Promise by John Vaizey
    Weidenfeld, 150 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78288 6

Vaizey has no doubt at all. ‘They were the best.’ Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod, Richard Titmuss, Anthony Crosland and Edward Boyle. They were all ‘clever, honest, admirable and honourable’. They were all, except Boyle, who was at school at the time, affected by the slump. They were all excited by the political changes and administrative advances of the war. Four of them entered the Commons soon after. They were all convinced that with Keynes, Beveridge, most of Whitehall, Transport House and even Smith Square behind them, they could do something towards a more decent society. They did not, of course, all always agree. ‘Crap merchant,’ said Crosland to Titmuss at Vaizey’s own wedding. But they were all radicals, and they were all, in Vaizey’s view, wrong. They ‘lacked the power to rethink fundamentally’. That would have required them, ‘perhaps’, ‘to approach questions from the right and not’, as they all did, ‘from the left’.

Perhaps. For what is among many other things unclear in this shoddy little book is exactly where the right is. Vaizey gestures, of course, at the market. He points to something called ‘High Toryism’, from which he thinks Macleod was seduced by craven conciliators at the Ministry of Labour. He alludes to schools, to the virtues of Eton and to the vices of others, like Winchester, which reproduced in Gaitskell its ‘upper-servant mentality’. He even approvingly quotes Oakeshott, on whose ‘boundless and bottomless’ (and exceedingly banal) ‘sea there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting place nor appointed destination’: the object can only be to whistle familiar ditties and stay afloat. This is plainly mish-mash, scarcely a position. We might wish for a little more than well-schooled rulers spitting and whistling while the crew line up to hew and draw water. But who were these five men? What did they believe? What did they manage to do? And if they had done it better, or done something else, would we now be where we are, in the place in which by the last common consent we would rather not be?

They could scarcely have been more different. Macleod was an organised romantic. He made a profession of cards, fought in France, and used a leave on Lewis to create a constituency association to nominate him for the Western Isles. He eventually reached the House from western Enfield, and when Churchill heard him beat Bevan on the floor with facts, was at once propelled into Health. The two Labour men were disorderly puritans. Gaitskell taught economics at University College in the 1930s, went into the Ministry of Economic Warfare in 1939, followed Hugh Dalton to the Board of Trade, and came out to win South Leeds. He succeeded Attlee and with passionate bad judgment proceeded to divide the party and lose two elections. His delight was to dance to Victor Sylvester. Crosland fought in the Mediterranean, decided to be the new Eduard Bernstein, returned to Oxford to finish his degree, taught economics too for a time and was elected from South Gloucestershire in 1950. He published The Future of Socialism in 1956, was elected from Grimsby in 1959, and worked an increasingly rebarbative and lonely way through Education, Trade and Local Government. In 1974 he was given Environment and, later, the Foreign Office. His delights were more racy than Gaitskell’s. But he kept them more effectively apart from his politics.

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