Giving chase

James Prior

In North Dorset there is a corner of England known as Crichel Down. It was acquired in 1938 by the RAF as a bombing range. Little did anyone believe that this rabbit-infested sheep run would become a political cause célèbre. In 1938 the down had little value, and it took a war, and a revolution in agricultural practice, for the land, and many thousands of acres like it, to become the productive farms of today. After the war, in 1948, the range was no longer required. Having been gradually cleared of unexploded bombs, it was handed back in 1950 to the Ministry of Agriculture, who began to farm it seriously – and, with rationing still very tight, there was a full throttle for maximum production. The Ministry of Agriculture decided that the land – about 700 acres in all – should form a new farm, and began immediately to prepare a scheme for a farmhouse, cottages and buildings. Naturally, enquiries were made by local farmers, seeking a tenancy or to purchase the land. Although, as early as March 1950, an enquiry had been made by the Marten family, who owned the Crichel Estate and were former owners of about half the land, it was over two years later, and after a change of government, that they demanded the right as former owners to re-purchase the land. Thus was the scene set for one of the most intriguing and one of the serious rows of the first postwar Conservative Government.

One of the fascinations of politics is the enormous muddle into which government can be thrown by a small incident. In 1986 it was the Westland affair, with its allegations, counter-allegations, debates in Parliament, and finally the resignation of two senior cabinet ministers. In July 1954 it was Crichel Down, where, following months of Parliamentary agitation, endless cabinet committees and a full-blown public enquiry, the Minister of Agriculture, Sir Thomas Dugdale, during the course of the Commons debate, announced his resignation. If relatively small events can excite such interest in Parliamentary minds, it is not surprising that there are plenty of people prepared to rake over the coals, at an appropriate time, with a detailed analysis. Such a one is Mr I.F. Nicolson, whose Mystery of Crichel Down,[*] as so often with accounts of events long past, has some difficulty in catching the passions and atmosphere of the time, and in reflecting the pressures under which ministers operate, together with the precedents and prejudices of those in the Civil Service who were responsible for advising on policy and for carrying out the wishes of ministers.

The years that followed the war were a time of great agricultural expansion: the nation was short of food and short of money to buy it from overseas. There was a Labour government with a highly respected minister in Tom Williams, adorned with his stiff butterfly collar and bow-tie; and there was a very active bureaucracy, ably supported, as has always been normal, by much voluntary effort.

The drive to increase food production required high standards of husbandry, even to the extent of dispossessing farmers who farmed badly. The Ministry had a very firm grip on farmers, and in conjunction with the then Ministry of Food, offered fixed guaranteed prices for everything that was grown. Farmers were, as usual, in a schizophrenic mood: they liked the priorities and favours that went the way of agriculture, they liked their guaranteed prices, but they resented the intrusions into their personal liberty occasioned by the some-what bureaucratic system. They admired Tom Williams, but voted solidly for a change to a Conservative government, with its Churchillian slogan of ‘set the people free.’ Freedom meant an end to the system of fixed guaranteed prices which farmers preferred, but also an end to the bureaucracy by which decisions were made to keep land in the ownership of the state or to dispossess bad farmers.

Brought up in wartime as they were, and then with a Labour government, it was not surprising that officials liked the idea of making an entirely new farming unit out of Crichel Down. After all, there had been a revolution in farming practice since 1938 and even poor chalk downland could now be managed to produce a fairly good dairy and arable farm. It was very tempting for officials to think in terms of a new farm, and there would be many applicants very keen to get hold of it. Again, except for one small portion, the land here had been bought without compulsory powers, so there was no real obligation, or so it was thought, to offer it back to the original owners, one of whom was already a very big land-owner in any case. I have no doubt that this line of discussion was prevalent in the Department, and it was a perfectly reasonable position for officials to take. In no way does the story as it unfolds reflect unfavourably on the integrity of the civil servants in the case – which is no more than I would have expected. The Ministry of Agriculture has always enjoyed a high reputation for the quality of its officials and I am delighted that Mr Nicolson’s book reinforces that view. I dare say that in the Treasury or Foreign Office there are officials more fleet of foot who bend more readily to the whims of their political masters and who have their ears closer to the political ground. There is no doubt that Ministry of Agriculture officials failed to appreciate the wind of change that was blowing through Whitehall, and this was even more true of those officials who were operating far from London in the rural havens of Dorset. Their advice to Ministers was fair, but it certainly lacked finesse.

Later on, after the decision was taken that land had to be offered back to its original owners, the policy was rigorously enforced – to the point of creating bureaucratic nightmares when it came to trying to trace the owners of small seaside plots bought before the war in expectation of a seaside chalet, but forgotten about and amalgamated into some farming enterprise. Crichel Down was still a live and poignant factor when I was trying to reduce the Ministry’s holdings in the early Seventies, some sixteen years later.

If the bureaucrats were largely blameless, as undoubtedly they were, what about the politicians? After years of wartime and of socialist controls, a very strong anti-state current was running. Here was a subject on which the right-wing press could have a good go, and a less scrupulous minister than Tom Dugdale would have responded to it. He defended the propriety of the course of action pursued by his officials, and did so with the loyalty and understanding one would expect from a gentleman. He fell victim to Tory backbenchers who scented blood and enjoyed the chase, and were afterwards filled with remorse. Robert Crouch, as the constituency MP for North Dorset, was obviously the front runner, but as on so many such occasions there were more formidable politicians to raise the temperature and stir the pot. Crouch alone would not have stirred the 1922 Committee, but Lord Hinchingbrooke, among others, could and did. It was the hands behind the knife that wielded the power, not the man who planted it in Dugdale’s back. Typically, Crouch was left friendless after his speech in the debate.

Was Dugdale right to resign? I was faced with a similar problem when there was a mass escape of dangerous prisoners from the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. I consulted the Dugdale precedents with great care, and came to the conclusion that it would be wrong for me to resign, given that no policy decision of mine had directly led to the escape or made one more likely. Slackness and inefficiency there most certainly was, but that was a matter which enjoined the disciplining of those responsible, not the resignation of the minister. This did not prevent calls for my resignation, and an attempt to compare the honourable position of Tom Dugdale with my own dishonour. In the circumstances, I do not think he had much alternative. The backbenchers had to have their scalp: if it was not to be civil servants, then it had to be the minister. I imagine that by that time he had little inclination to fight on. If Parliament thought that since he was disciplining others, he, too, must be disciplined, they were wrong: but keeping to the facts is never easy in the fever of Parliamentary contests, and it is perhaps too easy to be critical of this thirty years on. I am told by old Parliamentary colleagues that not only should he not have resigned, but that there was no real call for it within the Party. Perhaps, if he had been a more determined politician, he would have survived: but thank heavens for men and women who have other dreams to fulfil and other work to do.

With hindsight, it was obviously wrong that no offer was made to sell back to the original owners, but it is equally the case that ministers and officials alike acted with integrity and honour. It was a nasty little clash which is the stuff of our democracy, warts and all. When Harold Macmillan elevated Tom Dugdale to the Peerage, he was telling the world that Parliament may have got the right answer, but that in doing justice they had blackened the name of a good man and that that had to be put right. The age of chivalry was not dead. Once again Harold Macmillan had lifted the veil and permitted us to understand why politics, and our political system, hold such fascination, not only for practitioners, but also historians like Mr Nicolson.

[*] The Mystery of Crichel Down by I.F. Nicolson, Oxford, 298 pp., £30, 13 November 1986, 0 19 827492 0.