The crime that cost Coyne his job also condemned Selwyn Lloyd
The crime that cost Coyne his job also condemned Selwyn Lloyd
AT A COCKTAIL PARTY in London the other day two Canadians were talking politics when an English friend joined them. “I’ve been overhearing you,” he said, “but I can’t tell whether you’re talking about your own government or ours.” This may be the first time since Confederation, and it's certainly the first time since the 1920s, that such a remark could make sense, but it’s true the resemblances are striking enough to provide an amusing parlor game for political gossips.
Harold Macmillan was almost as all-conquering in the British election of 1959 as John Diefenbaker was in 1958, and the British Labor Party in even lower estate than the Canadian Liberals two years ago. But the decline of Macmillan has been as sudden and precipitous, and almost as clearly proven, as the decline of Diefenbaker. Nothing has happened, of course, to disturb the Conservative majority in the British House of Commons. But all the evidence indicates that the Macmillan government is in the same minority position, if not an even weaker one, in the country as the Diefenbaker government is in parliament. Sixteen U. K. byelections have given Conservative candidates 29 percent of the votes cast. This is, admittedly, a small and perhaps unrepresentative sample of the whole electorate, but it gives the Tories only slightly less prestige in the U. K. than the 33 percent that recent opinion polls give them. Diefenbaker had one quarter of his cabinet defeated: Macmillan dismissed one
third of his, apparently convinced that if he didn't the voters would seize the first opportunity to do it for him.
But it’s in the details of the Macmillan massacre and the supposed reasons behind it that the most interesting comparisons emerge. What happened in Britain in July was what almost happened, or what was supposed to
happen and didn’t, in Ottawa and Quebec City last Christmas, when the finance minister, Donald Fleming, was unsuccessfully nominated for oblivion. The Canadian cabinet shuffle quickly turned into farce. The British shuffle remained high drama, with the slaughtered exchancellor Selwyn Lloyd in the role of martyrhero.
Lloyd was condemned for the same crime that cost James E. Coyne his job as governor of the Bank of Canada, and almost did the same for Donald Fleming—he was the symbol and the spokesman of austerity. The British austerity program was a lot less sensational than the Canadian, because it was applied a year sooner and with much less fuss, but it seems to have been equally painful; and besides, it didn't work very well.
Just how and why Lloyd’s half-dozen fellow victims were chosen is not quite clear (some of the omissions from the slaughter are harder to understand than the inclusions) but the general objective is plain enough—an over-all impression of youth and vigor, freshness and resolution. Whether the objective has been reached, though, is still a fascinating question. There seems little doubt that when parliament adjourned Macmillan had lost ground with his own followers. The solid vote of confidence was a tribute to the Conservative Whips, not to the prime minister — in all the rather dreary succession of backbench speeches in that debate, nobody took the opportunity to proclaim his personal confidence in or approval of his party leader. As a demonstration of solidarity it was half-hearted, almost shamefaced. It made me think of Liberal interventions in the pipeline debate six years ago.
In the spate of classical quotations that attended closely on Macmillan’s purges, the bitterest came from Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life” — but the deadliest by far came from the Tory Gilbert Longden, who sardonically congratulated the prime minister for having “kept his head while all about him were losing theirs and blaming it on him.” Conservative no less than opposition newspapers quoted Macbeth with relish. One news report, of a meeting that was closed to the press, even put Macbeth’s words into Macmillan's own mouth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly.” If the prime minister really did use those words he must surely have forgotten they were Macbeth’s reflections on the intended murder of King Duncan.
Nobody actually used, though many clearly implied, the most lethal quotation of all from Macbeth—“I have lived long enough: my way of life is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf.” But as parliament rose, this was the popular speculation: Would the prime minister stay and ride the storm, or would he follow his own victims into retirement before the next general election? And aside from his personal preferences, which course would do the party more good? Opinion polls indicate that Macmillan’s personal stock with the average voter declined as a result of the July massacre. For the first time, a clear majority proclaimed themselves “dissatisfied” with him as prime minister. About the same percentage was “unimpressed” with his cabinet changes.
But this doesn't tell the whole story. A majority of all voters disapproved, but a much larger majority of Conservative voters applauded. A month before, only half of all Conservatives were content with Macmillan: after the shake-up, four out of five Tories said they were for him.
Meanwhile, Macmillan has one immense advantage that Diefenbaker no longer enjoys— for as much as two more years he has sole
power to decide whether or not to call an election. Only a little more time than that elapsed between the Eden collapse over Suez and the Macmillan triumph of 1959. It could be plenty of time for the Conservative fortunes to revive, especially as it could also be time for Labor troubles to multiply. (The Labor Party is still split down the middle on every important issue from nuclear weapons to the European Common Market.) If the Macmillan new look can get itself accepted as a new deal, it may yet survive to become the British new frontier.
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