06 January 2017

There is a crack in everything

Reading this review of a new biography of Margaret Thatcher connected a number of strains of thought that have been going through my mind in recent months. A bit of light came in through the crack. I realised, perhaps for the first time since the early eighties, perhaps for the first time ever, that the only effective opposition to Mrs Thatcher came from within the Conservative Party, both the Parliamentary party and the grassroots party. That's why I threw myself so single-mindedly into it.

I suppose that there was, proportionately, more opposition to her within the Parliamentary party than among the membership. I remember the excitement generated by the publication of the booklet (manifesto?) "Changing Gear" by the Blue Chip group of new MPs - I wonder where my copy is? - although that was only 14 MPs, a pretty small proportion even of the 1979 intake: and I notice with some surprise that it wasn't published until 1982, shortly before party conference, when (a) the fourteen were probably rather nervous about keeping their seats at the next election and (b) Ted Heath was about to become very outspoken. As for (a), General Galtieri solved that for them. As for (b), while it was great fun ("don't clap too loudly, it might annoy the person sitting next to you" the great man told party conference as he received a very warm welcome when called to speak in a debate on something or other) and of course he was entirely right, it made not a hap'th of difference. But in those times when the slogan of the day was TINA ("there is no alternative"), we optimistically wore badges bearing the alternative slogan TITAN ("there is Ted's alternative now") and thought the world was becoming a better place.

Actually the topics of the debates at party conference never mattered much. They were an opportunity for aspiring candidates to make their mark, or hangers and floggers to call for hanging and flogging, or party members to denounce or praise the European Communities (mostly denounce), or lobby groups to get their messages across (I found it ridiculously easy, in the course of my employment, to get the owner of a truck manufacturer called to speak in a debate about increasing vehicle weights). And the first time I spoke at the conference, in 1978, I put in a slip saying I wished to speak against some motion or other - basically to say that having millions of young people unemployed, and with no prospects and no stake in society, would lead to trouble. My area agent, Joan Reeve (shortly afterwards referred to invariably as "JR"), who ran the northern area central office in Newcastle, asked me whether I had put in to speak in the debate. I told her that I had, thinking (rightly, it turned out) that it was so early in the morning that there wouldn't be too many other people seeking to contribute. "For or against?" she asked. I told her that I'd thought I'd be more likely to be called to speak if I were opposing the motion. "Tut, tut. That's no way to get on in the Party. What do you intend to say?" I gave her a brief outline. "That's a speech in favour. Come on, we'll change it." So we recovered the speaker slip, which had already been selected, and made the change, so the normal alternation of speakers for and against turned into three consecutive speakers in favour of the motion. (And incidentally, finding that I could address an audience of a few thousand people, not to mention national television and radio, and make my point, and receive applause, set me on a career of public speaking of one sort or another.)

Modern party conferences are very different, and look like much less fun. Part of the enjoyment used to be that you could meet the "big beasts" around the conference hall, or at receptions and fringe meetings. The problem with politics these days is that there are no big beasts any more. The people who impress, for whatever reason, generally don't go into politics. If they did they would be pilloried for their salaries and expenses claims, often by journalists even more venal than the objects of their pillorying. I would have enjoyed being a Member of Parliament, more than being a solicitor for sure, but the pleasure would have worn off some years ago. But of course if I had followed that career route - had it even, really, been open to me - I would have been entitled to a decent pension by now, and would be able to sit back and watch the world of politics implode. Which isn't a pretty sight, wherever you watch it from.

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