London Letter


Beverley Baxter July 1 1952
London Letter


Beverley Baxter July 1 1952


London Letter

Beverley Baxter

HARD POUNDING gentlemen,” said Wellington as the rival guns at Waterloo thundered and spat fire. “We shall see who can pound the longest.” I would not be surprised if Churchill says much the same thing to his ministers as the two sides at Westminster hurl salvo after salvo of fierce argument while the dark night gives way to a grisly dawn.

Whatever you may have thought of the socialists in government I can assure you that they are an extremely vigorous Opposition. It must be remembered that a party in power has a great advantage when it is defeated and forms an Opposition—in colloquial terms, it knows where the body is buried in every ministry.

The Tories have taken a certain amount of drubbing in their first nine months of office. Take, for example, the case of Capt. Crookshank, who was appointed Leader of the House and Minister of Health when Churchill formed his Government. Karrv Crookshank served with the Guards in the First War and won distinction for bravery in the face of the enemy', but he looks like a sardonic poet and his voice can be blandly cutting. An opponent once described him as a wasp without a sting, but that is wrong: the

sting is there and it hurts.

The leadership of the House requires tact, good humor, a genius for detail and ~ calm demeanor.

Although i minister of the government ke must, in arranging what is called “the business of the day,” protect the rights of the minorities and maintain good relations with the Opposition. In the war Sir Stafford Cripps was a hopeless leader of the House because he lectured us as if we were rather backward adolescents. By contrast Eden was a success at the job because he was conciliatory' and recognized the rights of the Opposition, and even of the crackpots who are always putting down resolutions and demanding a debate. In fact Eden nearly always had his own way by' being so courteous that the others thought they' were getting something.

But now comes the astonishing psy'chological blunder in Crookshank’s case. The leader of the House must hold some other ministerial post that makes him a member of the cabinet and, for some reason that no one can explain, Churchill decided to make Harry Crookshank Minister of Health.

As you are aware. Chancellor Butler decided to introduce charges in the National Health Service, the charges being such contentious measures as a pound for dental service, three pounds toward the cost of surgical boots and a shilling per prescription. These alterations required a new Health Bill which Crookshank not only had to prepare but steer through the

Imagine the roar of fury' that came from Aneurin Bevan and his followers. Here was blasphemy— for w-ere not the Conservatives tinkering with the monument that Bevan had raised to himself when he was occupying that ministerial office?

\\ ith a whoop of joy and simulated fury' the socialists forgot their own differences and mobilized for attack. Think how it would sound in the industrial districts in the north: "The Tories are giving incometax concessions to the rich and, to make up for it, they are taxing the cripples and children’s teeth, and the poor old sick people who need medicine!”

At four o clock in the afternoon Harry Crookshank, as Leader of the House, would be detailing the next week’s business or explaining why such and such a motion could not be discussed, and an hour later as Minister of Health he would be standing in the ring toe to toe with his opponents, exchanging punches that drew blood. He conceded nothing.

Personally' I never liked the bill for the simple reason that the amount of money saved to the treasury would not balance the resentment which the Opposition would stir up. I agree there must be some charges in the health service to keep its cost within limits and, like the other Tories, I supported the Continued on page 34

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bill—but we wished that the cripples had not been singled out.

There were furious scenes in some of the late sittings and Crookshank never stopped punching no matter how hard Bevan hit back. Finally the Government announced it would use the guillotine to get the bill through and the socialists worked themselves up to a great fury. The last debate ended at fifteen minutes past six in the morning.

After the hubbub had died down Crookshank was replaced as Minister of Health by thirty-eight-year-old Iain Macleod. but retained leadership of the House. Macleod. who has been in parliament only two years, won some renown in the early spring when he bested Nye Bevan in a heated debate on socialized medicine.

There have been other blunders. As a party the Conservatives have a historic distrust of publicity, preferring to air their views in parliament and on the public platform and leaving the Press to deal with their speeches as it sees fit. This is admirable up to a point, but, unfortunately, the study of public relations has become an intensive development in a modem society.

So we move to blunder No. 2—the increase in London transport fares. Under the Labour Government, in its progress toward the ideal civilization, rail and road transport was nationalized. With a mixture of wisdom and an instinct for survival the socialists then decreed that there should be a board of management to run each nationalized industry and that parliament would not interfere with the dayto-day running. Also, if the workers demanded increased pay, the matter would be referred to a tribunal. Thus did the socialists wash their hands of direct responsibility.

While they were still in power the London transport workers and the workers on the national railways asked for more pay. and the matter was referred to the two appropriate tribunals. Churchill’s Government subsequently came to power and in the month of March fhere were the important county-council elections in which the people would have the first chance to vote since the general election. Needless to say the political parties

regard the county elections as supremely important, not merely from an executive point of view but as propaganda.

A week before this election the appropriate tribunal announced an allround increase for the London transport workers and a corresponding increase in fares. Clerks, factory workers, typists, civil servants, shop assistants, charwomen, schoolteachers and all the teeming millions who use the bus or underground trains of London were confronted with a startling rise in the price of tickets.

With an utter lack of logic the storm centred on the Government. So this was Tory misrule again! Here was the nation once more under a "soak-thepoor” administration. As an MP for a London seat I «as engulfed with protests from my hurt and puzzled constituents. No one doubted that the increase had been ordered by the Tory Minister of Transport, and the socialists did nothing to enlighten the people.

But curiously enough neither did the Tories do any enlightening. Not until four days had elapsed did the Minister of Transport declare in the House that the whole matter was outside his control, and that the system had been established by the socialists.

It was too late. The minister might as well have told a hurricane to turn back. The country went to the polls and threw the Tory county councils out in all directions. ~i was much pleased that in my own constituency the voters stood firm against the advancing tide, but then Southgate is a peculiarly enlightened constituency.

But the county-council election was not the end. Hardly had the Government picked itself up from the floor when the other tribunal announced increased railway fares right across the country. This time the minister explained at once that the Government was not responsible, an announcement which merely brought a shout of “WTiy not?”

And why not.' There is no reason why we should regard the legislation perpetrated by the Labour Government as Holy Writ. They had scuttled from the responsibility of running the nationalized industries but that was no reason for the Conservatives to do the

This idea obviously struck Churchill who suddenly ordered a standstill in the London and national cases. It was

a dramatic thing to do, and was in keeping with his genius for going to the heart of a problem. But a standstill is not a solution and the candles burned late at No. 10 as Churchill and his colleagues grappled with this inherited problem. Nor was the situation made easier by the nervous breakdown of Jack Maclay, the Minister of Transport. Maclav’s resignation followed and Churchill replaced him with the former colonial minister, Lennox-Boyd.

Meantime the rank and file of the Conservative Party was becoming very critical. There was no disloyalty to Churchill but we thought it was time something was done about that matter of public relations. So Churchill came to a secret conference with the private members and there was a lot of plain speaking.

As a result Churchill decided to create a super-publicity chief, a man in close touch with the cabinet, someone who had held high office in previous governments and would understand just what could and could not be revealed. As a liaison officer between the Government and the Press he would watch the temperature chart of public opinion and supply items of news that would act as a tonic or a soporific according to what the patient needed. And who was the genius chosen for this task? The sixty-eight-year-old Lord Swinton, a man of much elegance, some shrewdness, and the holder of important ministerial posts in past governments.

We wish Swinton well but how can a man of sixty-eight become a publicity expert overnight? What does he know of the personalities, from the proprietors and editors downward, who control Britain’s newspapers? He may confound the doubters and prove once more that Churchill’s flair is as great as of old, but I cannot shed my lifelong belief that if you want to win the

Derby you do not put up a jockey who has never been over the course.

I have written all this with complete frankness and with the knowledge that my words may be held against me but the success or failure of Britain's Conservative Government concerns more people than those who live in these islands.

In foreign affairs, in the restoration of the value of the sterling, in lessening the dollar gap this government of Churchill’s is making splendid progress. Churchill himself is supreme master of the House of Commons where his mind flashes like the rays of the noonday sun. The world is richer and safer because destiny has given him these extra years. But we badly need a Herbert Morrison on our side, a man who knows what the dumb are thinking, who can read the meaning of a misty moon and understand the exasperation, yearnings and frustration of the backbenchers and the man on the

If necessary I would (regretfully of course) swap Lord Swinton for Herbert Morrison. Swinton would give tradition to a party that needs it and Morrison would teach the Tories about psychology, timing, showmianship and publicity—four subjects about which the Conservatives maintain a deep suspicion.

But since Morrison is not available and. the moment, Sw-inton is unassailable we must go on from day to day in the belief that deeds are more important than words and that our virtues will eventually triumph over our vacillations.

We are a good government. The only trouble is, if I mav borrow the language of Schnozzle Durante who is visiting London, that we don’t look so good.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is important. ★