BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

OVERSEAS REPORT

Euromart showdown: who’s against whom in Britain these days

BLAIR FRASER November 3 1962
BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

OVERSEAS REPORT

Euromart showdown: who’s against whom in Britain these days

BLAIR FRASER November 3 1962

OVERSEAS REPORT

Euromart showdown: who’s against whom in Britain these days

BLAIR FRASER

FIVE BY-ELECTIONS between now and Christmas will give a partial answer to the question on which the Macmillan government’s future depends: did Hugh Gaitskell do the Labor party good or harm by coming out against British entry into the Common Market?

Mere arithmetic is all on Macmillan’s side. The massive decline in Conservative support since 1959 has not gone to Labor but to the reviving Liberal party which gathered in everyone who became dissatisfied with the government for any reason. Labor moved into a winning position mainly by holding its own. But this was during a time when the Common Market had not become a party issue — Liberals and Conservatives were both in favor of it and Labor, though divided, had not decided against it. Opposition was confined to Conservative rebels and the left wing of Labor.

HUMILIATION FOR THE ANTI-MARKETEERS

Gaitskell’s speech at the Labor party conference altered this situation radically. Suddenly it was the pro-Marketeers who were the dissident minority, and the handful of proMarket speakers showed that they knew it — they looked and sounded like beaten men. The final humiliation came when chairman Harold Wilson, himself a left-winger and anti-Marketeer, unctuously interrupted them to beg a hostile audience to give them a courteous hearing.

Logically this should stop the Liberal revival in its tracks. Discontented Tories who are in favor of the Common Market will now not dare to vote Liberal for fear of permitting an anti-Market Labor government to win. True, Liberals might replenish their strength by picking up pro-Labor votes, but this would not be much comfort to anyone but the Tories. Liberals have not yet captured or even threatened a Labor seat. All their new gains have been at the Tories’ expense.

As for the diehard anti-Marketeers in the Conservative party, they are mostly men of the far right, old-fashioned true-blue Empire men who are against joining up with a pack of dirty foreigners but who would sooner vote for Satan than for socialism. They will probably resolve their emotional dilemma by staying home on election day, and this the Conservatives should be able to survive.

On paper, therefore, it looks as if Gaitskell has come to Macmillan’s rescue. But nobody who heard his superb oratorical performance at

Brighton could think the question as simple as that. It’s commonplace to say that the Tory propaganda machine in favor of the Market has not yet gone into action, but Gaitskell’s speech was a reminder that the anti-Market case hasn’t yet been massively propagated either. Many people to whom the shrill overstatements of the Beaverbrook press sound merely silly, and the complaints of Commonwealth prime ministers embarrassingly petty and small-minded, would be impressed by Gaitskell’s moderate yet moving words — he spoke for an hour and a half without ever losing the attention of his audience for a moment, and won an ovation never equaled in his whole career in politics.

Listening to Gaitskell you realized that all the accessible emotional strings, the easy and conventional ways of rousing a British audience, are at the disposal of the anti-Market side. People who are stirred by the pro-Market case, whose hearts leap up at the idea of fulfilling the dream of Aristide Briand for a United States of Europe and restoring the ancient unity of Christendom, these tend to be the Top People who Take The Times. They don’t refer to Frenchmen and Germans as Frogs and Huns or even Frenchies and Jerries, and they don’t have to be reminded to say Commonwealth instead of Empire. The task of rousing the enthusiasm and engaging the emotions of the average man, and more especially of the average woman, has not yet even been started by the pro-Market side in any party except the Liberal (who are a minority anyway).

And among the emotions now engaged on the anti-Market side, to a small but ominous extent, is the powerful emotion of fear. Not fear of Prussian domination or fear of the cold war, but fear of losing a job. Several things have lately reminded Britons that the modernization and the improved efficiency which are supposed to be among the benefits of joining the Common Market consist very largely in the elimination of superfluous labor and obsolete plants.

It was a coincidence but a significant one that Hugh Gaitskell made his great speech on the day of Britain’s one-day rail strike. Railwaymen were striking in protest against the government’s decision to close a large number of railway workshops and, later, a lot of money-losing branch lines. If the government was counting on the strike to inspire public indignation against the railwaymen it was disappointed—perhaps because the one-day strike turned into a one-day unscheduled holiday; with gorgeous sunshine to make up for the miserable weather of Bank Holiday, it was treated by the general public as great fun. Even the Conservative press has since been treating the railwaymen indulgently and the government rather harshly, for not taking enough care to keep unemployment at a minimum in its new efficiency program. One reason might be that British management as well as British labor is beginning to grasp the implications of all-out competition.

So the five by-elections this autumn take on a very special interest. All have been Tory seats, and even the most hopeful of the Tories' enemies wouldn’t count on capturing more than two. If the Conservatives hold all five with undiminished majorities it will be a fairly clear sign that Gaitskell stepped backward instead of forward when he made up his mind on the Common Market. But if they lose two or even one, and suffer a heavy decrease of majorities in the rest, the Macmillan government will know it is in deep trouble.

LABOR HASN’T WON YET

Even then defeat will not be a forgone conclusion. Once a reporter asked the late Aneurin Bevan what would happen if an election were held tomorrow. “Labor would win by a hundred seats,” said Nye, “but the trouble is we're not going to have an election tomorrow.”

Macmillan does not need to go to the country for almost two more years. He does not need to hold an election before entering the Common Market. Gaitskell has been very careful not to say that if Macmillan does sign the Treaty of Rome a Gaitskell government would repudiate it. There are many ways whereby a British government in office, especially a Conservative government that has the support of British industry, can manufacture prosperity in an election year. If entry into the Common Market is a fait accompli and the prosperity can be exhibited as a result of it, all the interim hostility may well disappear and the Labor party be left without a platform.

But so far, this is just a Tory daydream. Labor’s daydream is that Macmillan might be forced into an election now. The five by-elections are the next best thing, and a very exciting spectacle to watch.