Diary

Peter Clarke

True or false?

1. Winston Churchill sent in troops against striking miners at Tonypandy.

2. Stanley Baldwin confessed with ‘appalling frankness’ that he did not rearm because he would have lost the 1935 General Election.

3. Ernest Bevin said of the Labour Party’s relations with the Soviet Union: ‘Left can speak to Left.’

4. Nye Bevan called Hugh Gaitskell ‘a desiccated calculating-machine’.

5. Rab Butler said: ‘Sir Anthony Eden is the best prime minister we have.’

6. Harold Macmillan campaigned in the 1959 Election on the slogan: ‘You’ve never had it so good.’

7. Edward Heath gave his word to ‘cut rising prices at a stroke’.

8. Shirley Williams joined Arthur Scargill on a mass picket at Grunwicks.

9. James Callaghan said: ‘Crisis? What crisis?’

10. An experienced cabinet minister said in an interview: ‘I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might just as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.’

Here are some of the most persistently embarrassing political tableaux of the 20th century: the sort of emblematic incidents which opponents pounce upon as too good to be true. Far too good, in most cases. Only one of these notorious statements is fully authentic. But the fact that the rest of them are canards did not prevent them from growing into chickens coming home to roost or even, in one or two cases, fully-fledged albatrosses. If Churchill was the victim of the first – a composite lie assiduously put about by the Labour Party – he was the perpetrator of the second. Numbers 3 and 4 originated in a mixture of genuine misconception and malice. It can be argued that there was a poetic truth in the sixth, and a formal (though not personal) responsibility for the seventh. Number 8 is the obverse of 1 – a composite lie assiduously put about by the Conservative Party. This leaves 5, 9 and 10 as instances where the intervention of a journalist was crucial to getting the story off the ground. When Butler’s weary assent to words which had been put in his mouth was reported as a direct quote, the byline was obviously that of ace reporter Ben Trovato; and, having been promoted to sub-editor in the meantime, he was on the job again when Callaghan touched down at Heathrow during the Winter of Discontent. One’s first thought, therefore, must be whether our Ben is now editing the Spectator under an assumed name.

Yet there have been no serious efforts from the Ridley camp to claim that their man was misquoted or that any breach of professional ethics took place. Not only is this the sort of thing he says: he must have supposed that it was opportune, or at least safe, to say it while the tape-recorder rolled. This is what immediately made Dominic Lawson’s ears prick up. ‘The point is,’ he rightly insisted, ‘Mr Ridley’s confidence in expressing his views on the German threat must owe a little something to the knowledge that they are not significantly different from those of the Prime Minister, who originally opposed German reunification, even though in public she is required not to be so indelicate as to draw comparisons between Herren Kohl and Hitler.’ Admittedly, the confidence of a minister who claimed, ‘I’m not done yet,’ quickly turned out to have been misplaced. It is possible to argue over whether he miscalculated the public mood, which instant opinion-polling suggested was rather less xenophobic than his: but a scenario which postulates a cunning factional ploy can probably be ruled out. After all, in the same interview, Ridley explicitly affirmed that he would not talk about differences of view within the Government. Trovato: ‘Why not?’ Ridley: ‘Because it would weaken the Government.’ Trovato: ‘It might help strengthen the Government.’ Ridley: ‘Yes, but I’ll do that in my own way, not your way.’

In fact, Ridley simply showed a recklessness of the consequences and an incapacity to conceal a smoking gun which marked him as not so much an adroit apprentice to Thatcher as a faithful disciple of Powell – Enoch Powell, that is. For the second extraordinary record of Government thinking which this affair has released again bears the label, His Master’s Voice. When that dispassionately discreet civil servant Charles Powell wrote his report of the seminar held at Chequers on 24 March 1990, he showed a lack of insight into the minds of the academic experts around the table, as they have subsequently made clear. He behaved like the Express journalist who was asked, in the good old days of Beaverbrook, what sort of reader he had in mind, and replied: ‘One little old reader.’

‘We started by talking about the Germans themselves and their characteristics.’ And what did we think? What skeletons did we rattle out of the closet? What crude, anthropomorphic stereotypes did we dredge up? What ‘even less flattering attributes’ did we put on the agenda so that we would not forget them? Let’s start with angst, ma’am, even though it’s supposed to be alphabetical, because aggressiveness you can take for granted, along with assertiveness and bullying. What next? How tactful to omit culpable criminality and domineering dictatorship. Egotism, of course – that too frequent use of the first person singular, which we certainly don’t suffer from – not to mention (though we must) their inferiority complex and their sentimentality. Anyone can see what this adds up to – psycho-monetarism. ‘The Deutschmark is always going to be the strongest currency, because of their habits.’ Now who said that? Was it Professor Fritz Stern, with a streetwise perspective which made it worth flying him in from JFK? Was it Professor Gordon Craig, proving yet again that you can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him much? Was it the measured judgment of Lord Dacre? Was it an impish vulgarisation ventured by Professor Norman Stone? Well, no, it was Nicholas Ridley, of course, nailing back another fag, the better to concentrate his thoughts for the readers of the Spectator. His level of analysis, however, for all the difference of tone, is on the same wavelength as that of Powell’s agenda for Chequers. If the Prime Minister’s most trusted adviser on foreign affairs and her most steadfast political ally in the Cabinet both put things in these terms, what conclusion about her own attitudes is it reasonable to infer? We are not faced with some sudden aberration, some excusable indiscretion, or some temporary lapse. What the Ridley Affair has done is to expose the raw nerve of Thatcherism by demonstrating the Government’s long-standing inability to cope with the implications of its ostensible European policy. Now that the economic miracle has gone bust, Thatcherite triumphalism no longer serves to keep the realities of the late 20th century at bay. We are at a dangerous corner.

We have been here before, as it happens. I remember an article in the London Review at the time of the 1983 Election, arguing that ‘Thatcher is one of those people – we meet them every day – who never imagine that they might be to blame. If the responsibility for failure can be transferred from oneself to a malignant world, there is no cause for personal reproach or loss of self-esteem.’ Let me admit that I only remember this because I wrote it: but the observation that ‘she has readily descended to the platitudes of economic chauvinism when co-operation with foreign governments has been on the agenda’ brings a disconcerting sense déjà vu. At the time, Thatcher’s own prestige was buoyed up by her famous coup over the Falklands. But how paltry that looks in the perspective of the Eighties as a whole! While Kohl (whom we all underestimated) was alert to his opportunity for remaking the map of Europe, Thatcher turned her back on it. She might as well have spent the decade in her hammock, eight thousand miles away.

The fact is that Thatcherism is beset with its own internal contradictions over Europe, yet it is part of Thatcher’s magnificent run of luck to have escaped this dilemma for so long. The Government was able to square the circle in its early years by noisily fighting its corner for a better deal over the Community’s finances. It was not difficult, compared with a Labour Party which threatened to pull out of the Community altogether, to appear moderate, even though staying in with a bad grace had its limitations. But the hard-core Thatcherites, like Nicholas Ridley, took their cue, not from Edward Heath, who had led Britain into Europe in 1972, but from Enoch Powell, whose opposition had gone to the length of voting Labour in 1974. It took subsequent developments to reveal that there remained a deep-seated emotional hostility to closer integration with Europe.

How else can one make sense of the curiously consistent sub-text to so many of this government’s recurrent crises? Lucky in so many other ways, it has been accident-prone whenever its policies entailed a European dimension. The Westland Affair, in 1986, is otherwise incomprehensible. It was baffling on so many levels. How could the fate of a provincial helicopter company, which has since slipped back into obscurity, have threatened the continued existence of the British Government? Why did Thatcher exert herself so unbecomingly to thwart Heseltine? Who can now remember – and who could ever master – the cut and thrust of the labyrinthine inter-departmental vendettas, coming undone so messily in public, which marked the process by which Sir Leon Brittan ultimately became one of those ‘unelected reject politicians’ of whom Ridley now warns? What was it all about? The short answer which sufficed at the time was that it was a storm in a teacup. The short answer which has stood the test of time is that Europe provided, if not the thread of conspiracy running through the Westland crisis, then the emotional ground to the plot. For, in 1989, the Lawson Affair showed us, from another angle, much the same picture. Temperamental difficulties, personal rivalries and momentary pique may again have played their part, and the sheer complexity of the policies made them even more arcane. Though the logic of the situation was that Lawson had to go because of the Prime Minister’s intractable hostility to his strategy for monetary integration with the European Community, the precise issue at stake could again be dissimulated. Few may have believed her pained protestations that she did not know why the Chancellor had resigned, but even fewer could have put their finger on the facts with which to refute her.

With the Ridley Affair, however, the cat is out of the bag. His resignation may not mark an immediate crisis for the policy of the Government (though it will influence its long-term development), but it presents that underlying issue in terms which nobody has any difficulty in getting hold of. After Ridley, one might say, the smoke has cleared. True, European monetary policy poses formidably difficult technical problems, with more than one side to most of the arguments. The gut issue, however, is surely whether we have the will to commit ourselves to taking part in building Europe from the inside – in a way that suits us, identifying ourselves with the prospect of a common future in a united Europe instead of with the increasingly tatty heritage park of Fortress Britain.

A new book by Richard Mayne and John Pinder shows that the history of the federal idea remains instructive.[*] For when the Schuman Plan turned Monnet’s ideas about European federation into a proposal for a coal and steel community, Britain kept out of it. When the European Defence Community took up Churchill’s own notion of a European army, Churchill’s own government repudiated it. Above all, when the six Members of the Coal and Steel Community relaunched the European idea at Messina in 1955, the British turned down the invitation to participate, confident that nothing would come of it without them. Instead, Britain calculated on stalling the impetus of the Six – now the in-group – through a limited free trade arrangement with an out-group of Seven. While the sort of irrational bloody-mindedness which served us so well in 1940 can be extenuated in old dogs like Churchill or Bevin, who were now incapable of learning new tricks, it becomes merely ludicrous when exhumed and exhibited today. Yet Thatcher’s splendid isolation, in a minority of one (in the Commonwealth, as in Nato, as in Europe), manifests the same mindset, imperishably captured in her remark that she just felt sorry for the rest. Low’s cartoon is re-enacted as farce: ‘Very well, alone!’

With the object lesson before us of what happened while we were busily ignoring Europe during so much of the post-war period, we might be wary of letting it all happen again without us. Talk of a two-tier Europe, with Germany naturally in the top tier and Britain naturally in the bottom, them in the fast lane and us in the slow, rings so many bells, most of them tolling for us as a country which has missed so many chances. ‘It is almost unbelievable that the Government is about to make the same mistake the fourth time running,’ writes Roy Jenkins in his foreword to the book. ‘It is quite extraordinary that a nation should be so incapable of learning.’ His tone of exasperation is understandable. The Ridley Affair shows what we are up against: not least those unflattering aspects of our national character which may again hold us back (angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness etc). If only as a ghastly warning, Ridley’s remarks deserve to claim a place in the canon and to enter the folk memory, albeit in an ungarbled form, since they hardly leave room for improvement. It would be perverse if such an incident were forgotten simply because, for once, it happened to be true.

[*] Federated Union: The Pioneers, edited by Richard Mayne, John Pinder and John Roberts. Macmillan, 278 pp., £35, 26 July, 0 333 419952.