three-party politics in Britain

The Liberals have come back from the dead to lead a young man's modest revolt against the British class system

Blair Fraser October 6 1962

three-party politics in Britain

The Liberals have come back from the dead to lead a young man's modest revolt against the British class system

Blair Fraser October 6 1962

three-party politics in Britain

Blair Fraser

The Liberals have come back from the dead to lead a young man's modest revolt against the British class system

ROUGHLY THREE OUT OF FIVE British voters expect the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan to be beaten when it goes to the polls next year, and be replaced by a Labor government under Hugh Gaitskell. If they're right, then the outlook for Britain, for Canada and for the western alliance is full of question marks.

Britain's Labor party is split on every major policy issue, for and against the common market, for and against nuclear disarmament, for and against some kind of central policy on wages, even for and against commercial TV. Britain's future therefore may depend not only on which party wins but which faction; on which individuals within the parties come out on top. It's even harder than usual to guess who or what these will be.

One reason is that the Labor Party, even if bound for victory, is not gaining popular support—it’s losing. Whatever party takes power will almost certainly have less than a clear majority in the country, and perhaps less than a majority in the House of Commons.

The cause of this confusion lies outside the two major parties altogether. British politics are in a state of eruption because a third force has risen from the dead. The Liberals, forty years out of power and regarded as totally defunct for thirty of them, are now one of the fastest growing political parties in the world.

In twelve by-elections this year they have won two, placed second in five and got approximately a third of all the votes cast. In 1959 the Liberals ran twice as many candidates, and got more than twice as many votes, as in 1955. Next year they will double the candidate slate once more, to about four hundred and fifty, and expect to multiply their vote four or five times over. They're raising money in amounts and with an ease that makes oldtimers rub their eyes—a recent fund-raising dinner drew about sixty well-heeled diners at fifty pounds, not dollars, a plate. Alone of all the politicians in the United Kingdom this year, the Liberals talk of the future with zest, confidence and (so far) solid unity of opinion.


None of this means the Liberals will win the next general election, or come within a mile of it. They have only seven members in the present parliament, and the highest prophecy I heard from anyone was that they might have seventy-five next time, in a House of six hundred and thirty. Twenty-five h a commoner guess, and I suspect a more realistic one.

Nevertheless, the Liberal revival is the most important fact in British politics today, and not only because it might defeat the Conservative government. (Liberals themselves rather

hope it won't, for their own strategic and tactical reasons.) It's important because it's one outward sign of an inward change that has been going on in Britain for years, but that lately seems to have changed its direction and perhaps its nature. I mean the quiet revolt against the British class system — not just against the ruling class, as once it was, but against the class system itself.

“The Tories can’t be anti-Establishment— hell, they are The Establishment,” a Liberal candidate explained. “Like it or not, they're indelibly labeled as the party of the bosses. Labor is at the other extreme. The Labor Party's image is the old British working class, the man in cloth cap and muffler. Nobody sees himself in that image nowadays.”


The speaker was a self-made member of the so-called “middle” class, but I have heard the same sort of thing from both sides. Fred Williams, who was the Liberal candidate’s agent in the Leicester by-election last July, was thirty years a member and fourteen years a full-time organizer of the Labor Party until he joined the Liberals three years ago. He used to organize the dockers of Mersey Side, Liverpool, and he speaks in the h-less accents of the British working class.

“Both the big parties are vested interests,” Williams said. “Labor’s no less a class party than the Tories, tied to the trade unions. Without trade union money they'd be worse oil than we are.

“And so they’re shackled in dogma and doctrine, nationalization and the class war and all that, and people are fed up with it. People are sick to death of both the big party machines. They want freedom from a party tyranny and iron discipline that tries to tell them what they are to think. Those are the people we Liberals arc looking for—the great uncommitted. And we're finding them, too."

The Leicester result didn’t quite bear out Williams’ boast. Labor got a reduced majority but still held the scat with ease; it was the Conservatives, who'd got nearly half the votes in 1959, who were humiliated by an ignominious third place with their vote cut in half. Liberals have yet to capture a Labor seat (they take two votes away from the Tories for every one they take from Labor) and they know this is their biggest single weakness. But they also argue, with a rather chilling realism, that time is on their side.

“The Labor Party is literally dying off,” said Peter Bcssell, a forty-one-year-old real estate man who’s favored to win a west country riding next year. “Labor's old folk are not being replaced. Three



continued from page 26

The new Liberals: self-made scholarship boys who didn’t go to the “right” universities

million people died in this country during the nineteen fifties, and about five million came up to voting age. Those young people are not going to Labor, they're going either Tory or Liberal—and lately, it's been Liberal.”

There is independent evidence to support this view. After the upset Liberal victory last March in Orpington, Kent, fourteen miles southeast of London, a seat that had been Tory for generations, pollsters descended on the town like vultures on a battlefield. Some of the answers they got confirm Peter Bcssell's point.

One girl in her twenties, daughter of a working-class family, said: “I've always followed my father, he's always told me about the Conservatives, but 1 think a lot of the things he told me don't happen any more. He told me about the unemployment queues. He always stuck up for the unions, too. 1 think he’s right in a way, you’ve got to have trade unions, only I think now some of them go a bit too far. Well, all these strikes about nothing.”

Actually that girl voted Labor— father's authority was too strong. But another of the same age and class, who'd voted Labor in 1959, switched to the Liberals in the by-election.

“Labor's got nothing to offer any more,” she said. “Even my father, he's a docker and always been a strong socialist, said it would be a good thing if the Liberal got in. I was surprised when I talked to him, I thought he'd blow up when I said I was voting Liberal this time, but 1 think he's like a lot of socialists, they’ve gone right off the Labor Party now.”

But so far these arc not typical voices. Today the typical Liberal, insofar as it's possible to define one at all, is someone quite different. He is a man of good education, but he got it at a state grammar school, not a “public” school like Eton or Winchester, and at a technical college or a “redbrick” university (as the British call almost all their universities that are neither Oxford nor Cambridge). In the content of what they teach there may be little to choose, but in the prestige and privilege they confer, the contrast between “Oxbridge“ and “redbrick,” public school and grammar school, is colossal.

Anthony Sampson, in his book The Anatomy of Britain, notes that among seventy-eight ambassadors and senior Foreign Office officials, sixty-three had been to public school—and of those who hadn't, all but one were in minor embassies. Fifty-nine of the ambassadors went to Oxbridge, seven to the relatively respectable University of London, and none to any other English university.

Even in the present Macmillan Cabinet as rejuvenated last July, ten out of the twenty-one ministers are Old Etonians. Sixteen went to Oxford or to Cambridge. Only two attended state schools.

The upper echelons of industry, commerce and finance have a less rigid but similar pattern. Sixty-five

percent of all public school graduates do not go on to university at all. They can no longer get into Oxford or Cambridge in these days of stiff entrance requirements, they disdain “redbrick” degrees, and so they go straight to work—and straight into good jobs, in most cases. Better jobs, as a rule, than can be got by the better-educated men who spent more time learning, but spent it in the wrong places.

These last are men who have all the qualifications of members of The Establishment except the essential one — membership. They are men who for years have been saying to their wives and to themselves “What has that fellow got that I haven't got?” — and never getting other than the one answer. They are men who since the war have been pouring out of the good new grammar schools and the good new redbrick colleges, or even out of “Oxbridge" on hard-won scholarships. and finding what seems to be a rigged market for their skills. They are the new “meritocracy,” the selfmade scholarship boys. And they are, or seem to be, the new Liberals—not so much the new voters as the new party workers, the new donors, and the new candidates.

At first glance the Liberal Party's chief men appear to contradict this. On paper, they too look like sons of The Establishment.

The old school tie disappears

Joseph Grimond, the party leader, is a product of Eton and Ball iol college, Oxford. His brother-in-law and strong right arm, Mark Bonham Carter, is also a Ball iol man though he went to Winchester, not Eton. (Bonham Carter is not now in parliament, but he was the victor in the first Liberal gain in forty years in the by-election at Torrington in 1958. He was defeated in the general election the next year — he got as many votes as before, but this time the Tories turned out in full strength — but unless the current Liberal revival is entirely a mirage, he will win Torrington again next time.) Bonham Carter is a grandson, Grimond a grandsonin-law, of the first Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who as Herbert Asquith was the last British prime minister to head a Liberal cabinet. Two of the seven Liberal MPs went to Eton, three to other public schools and all five of these public school graduates went on to Oxford or Cambridge. Only two Liberal MPs went to other schools and other universities.

But when you talk to these men, the Old School Tie image soon disappears. To a man, they are intensely and convincingly opposed to the class system. They feel a certain resentment of their own privileges, which in some cases leads to outright rejection of them. They w'ant to alter the status quo fundamentally, and soon, in the direction of equality at home and abroad. Before World War II, young men of this type were mainly socialists and became the intellectuals of the British Labor Party—Hugh Gaitskell is one such, Christopher Mayhew another. Nowadays, the young Liberals look on the Labor Party as rather conservative and stuffy.

But nowadays in Britain, as in Canada, a party’s policy means less than its “image”—the kind of man, the kind

of idea that’s linked with the party in the public mind. And increasingly, with the rise of TV, it’s important what a party looks like physically, whether its spokesmen are young and handsome or old and fat.

Pollsters in Orpington found that although all three local candidates were young men (actually the Labor man was the youngest by several years) the Liberals were almost unanimously identified as the parly of youth, a party of and for young people. They found little or no difference among the ages of those who voted for each of the three parties, but everybody, friend and foe, tended to describe the Liberals as a young man’s group.

The party spokesmen look young. Jo Grimond is actually forty-nine, but people still refer to him as boyish— he looks at least five years younger than his age in the flesh, and ten years younger on TV.

Arthur Holt, the soft-voiced engineer who is the party’s usual spokesman on economic affairs in the House, is another of the same physical type —forty-eight years old but strikingly handsome, and looks as if he hadn’t gained five pounds in the past thirty years. Most of the other Liberals who are seen by the public really are young •—Mark Bonham Carter is forty; Jeremy Thorpe is thirty-three and so is Eric Lubbock; Emlyn Hooson, w'ho lately won ex-leader Clement Davies’ old seat in Montgomeryshire, Wales, at thirty-six is the youngest Q.C. in the kingdom.

Their professed “anxiety for fundamental change” is not easily documented from Liberal policy statements. The commonest of all jibes against the British Liberals is that they “have no policy,” that they “don’t stand for anything.”

The charge is not true. Liberals have a quite coherent policy, carefully thought out and elaborated in a stack of pamphlets a foot high. The trouble is that Liberal policy could all be accepted, honestly and in good conscience, by a Conservative candidate. It could also with equal ease be accepted by a moderate Labor candidate.

But this is not as withering a criticism as it sounds. The time is past in Britain, as it long has been in Canada, when differences between parties could be clearly defined in terms of policy. The big issues tend to fall within the big parties, not between them.

On the issue of Britain's entry into the Common Market, for instance, both the major parties are split. Liberals are unanimously and unreservedly in favor of it. They are not afraid either of industrial competition or of a dilution of sovereignty.

On nuclear arms, Labor is divided and the Conservatives are uncertain. Liberals are flatly against a British nuclear weapon, flatly in favor of the Americans retaining theirs.

On the peculiarly thorny issue of “incomes policy” — i.e., wage and profit control — all three parties are pretty fuzzy, but Liberals say they could handle it best because they’re not identified with either unions or bosses.

This array of youth and good looks is all the more help to the Liberals because the bigger parties are not so

well endowed. Prime Minister Macmillan grows to look more and more an Edwardian caricature, and his lieutenants — R. A. Butler with his large, fat, pale face, lain Macleod with the lank locks of hair brushed across his bald spot — somehow manage to look faintly sinister. Labor is no better off. Hugh Gaitskell on television suggests a rather cross bureaucrat, and his deputy leader, George Brown, looks like a spiv.

But an election is not a beauty contest, especially in Britain, and none of these Liberal assets will prevent both the major parties coming back next year with more seats apiece than the Liberals will have. What then do the Liberals hope to accomplish, with no more than twenty to fifty seats of their own?

Certainly not to hold the balance of power in the sense that their group w'ould keep a minority government in office. They’ve done that tw'ice before, in 1924 and 1929, and both times the results were disastrous for the party. They’d do it again if they had to (“the Queen's government has to go on”) but for them it’s not a hope, it's a nightmare.

They would like to hold the balance of power in another sense — the power to help or to hold any government, of either major party, to the policy line they think to be right. If, for example, the Macmillan government right now had a majority of less than thirty-six, it could not take Britain into the European Common Market — at least that many of its own backbenchers would vote against it, and the Labor Party, though its majority seems to be in favor of it, would hardly resist the opportunity to turn the Tories out. In such a case a Liberal group of fifty would save the day for the Common Market, and incidentally save the Conservatives too. A new Labor Cabinet might have the same kind of trouble with nuclear weapons, or with NATO policy in general.

One Liberal strategist summed it up: “We’d hope to be able to protect either party from its own lunatic fringe.” ★