A day in the counties with unflappable Mac: don’t count him out

BLAIR FRASER January 26 1963

A day in the counties with unflappable Mac: don’t count him out

BLAIR FRASER January 26 1963

A day in the counties with unflappable Mac: don’t count him out




IT’S A TRUISM of British politics that by-elections and public opinion polls don’t mean much. A government can do very badly for two or three or even four years by these measurements and still win the general election as handsomely as ever. Of the many reasons for this, only one strikes the Canadian observer as peculiar to Britain: in this country the full impact of the government leader, his personal strength, is scarcely felt between general election campaigns.

The British electorate is not accustomed to prime ministers who never stop campaigning. The PM’s political appearances are limited to

the annual big speech at the party conference in October, and maybe half a dozen party rallies in counties carefully chosen long in advance by the central organization. To attend one of these is an eye-opening experience for anyone who normally sees the Right Hon. Harold Macmillan only at question time in a rather disgruntled and unruly House of Commons, and reads about him in the sophisticated, querulous, and predominately hostile London press. In Canada the government, any government, tends to look stronger in Ottawa than it does in the rest of the country. On the strength of one Macmillan meeting I would say the opposite is true in Britain.


Preparation for these party assemblies, which may begin as long as two or three years before the appointed date (the hall is often booked a full year ahead), is mostly invisible. The British are very scrupulous about separating party activity and its various expenses from official business. The PM’s political speeches and other party documents are typed by a stenographer who works in his office at Admiralty House but who is paid by the Conservative Central Office. More senior executive duties are handled by his parliamentary private secretary, a fellow MP who isn't paid at all except for the small indemnity that every member of parliament gets. The incumbent is a London barrister, Knox Cunningham, QC, who gave up a thriving practice to take on this unsalaried, full-time job. He is the man who travels with the PM on political expeditions and supervises all the details of the journey and the program.

But since the party leader is also the head of a still-imperial government, some of the preparations are official. In the days before the meeting a team of technicians will install in the hotel suite the PM will occupy, a “scrambler” telephone on which secret conversations with Whitehall or Washington or wherever can be carried on securely. The theory is that the prime minister must never for a moment be out of touch with affairs of state.

However, the theory is not extended to include travel time. Party finances in this coun-

try are adequate but not lavish, and they do not run to private cars for itinerant party leaders. The prime minister travels to political meetings in an ordinary first-class railway carriage, differing from humbler travelers only in the fact that he and his parliamentary secretary have a reserved compartment to themselves. No whistlest op appearances are included. The prime minister has the rare privilege of sitting and reading a book for the duration of the journey, in this case about six hours, blessedly out of reach of the telephone.

Even on arrival he demands and gets more mercy than is normally given a political leader in North America. Platform routines of greeting are brief, handshaking strictly limited. Almost before the last passenger is off the train the PM has shaken off the local welcoming delegation and is on his way to the hotel suite where he may have one or two interviews (on this trip he recorded two short items for television) but otherwise is left alone until it's time to start for the meeting.


For ordinary run-of-minc politicians British voters do not turn out in large numbers. In byelection campaigns even quite important ministers of the crown or members of the Labor Party’s shadow cabinet sometimes find themselves at meetings where there are as many people at the press table as in the audience — in one recent case a meeting had to be canceled because nobody at all turned up. But this nonchalance or apathy disappears when the prime minister is the guest of honor. Three quarters of the seats in the county’s largest hall arc reserved for ticket holders, and the tickets have all been taken up da} x before. The remaining seats, left free for the general public, are all filled and the back of the hall packed with standees before the speakers march in on the dot of seven-thirty and the chairman opens the meeting.

The Harold Macmillan whom these devoted Tories see is the very image of unflappable Mac. He has a text but he seems hardly to glance at it — the tone is casual, the voice audible but quiet and relaxed, the quips and local references apparently spontaneous. On this occasion he was speaking on the morrow of five calamitous by-elections, of which the Tories had lost two and held the others by shatteringly narrow margins, but to hear Macmillan you’d think these incidents were trivial.

Actually this image of almost lethargic calm is quite false. Even from as far away as the press table Macmillan looks tense as a bowstring, his deathly white face glistening with a visible effort as he turns the pages of his manuscript. Aides cheerfully confirm that this short-range impression is the true one. Even after forty years of public life, they say, he takes a big meeting very seriously and finds it a great strain. The seemingly casual speeches are prepared with elaborate care (“I remember one draft number twelve,” said one staff member, “and four or five drafts are commonplace.”) When it’s over he’s tired to the point of exhaustion, and unfeignedly glad to get the whisky and soda he carries into the inevitable reception for the local Conservative workers.


But in this case the image matters more than the reality. There is no mistaking the electric current of symp?fhy instantly set up between speaker and audience. The applause is not artificial but it always comes at the right time. So does the laughter. The periods of silence are not apathetic, merely attentive. The speaker can play on his audience as if on a welltempered clavichord.

Whether this ability, this galvanic personal leadership, can have enough effect to sway the course of a brief election campaign is another matter. There is no shadow of doubt that at this moment the British Tories are in venpoor shape. Public opinion polls vary, but all give the Labor Party a substantial lead over the Conservative. Moreover, the results of the five most recent by-elections showed that the rival polls were alike at least in one thing — they overestimated Tory strength and underestimated Labor and Liberal in every constituency but one.

The Tory troubles seem to have two quite different sources. To the average voter the important issues are economic — rising unemployment all over Britain, and especially the harsh and growing contrast between the relatively prosperous southeast and the blighted areas in north and northwest England and in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

But what may prove to be even more important to a government a dozen years in office is the low morale among Conservative workers and backbench MPs, which proceeds from quite different causes. These are the people who are humiliated by the American decision to scrap the airborne missile Skybolt and thus emasculate Britain’s Bomber Command. They are equally distressed by the attempt and the seeming failure to take Britain into the European Common Market. There’s little evidence that the British man in the street cares much about these matters, but the men who do take them seriously are the men who take politics seriously, and without the help of such men no party can win an election.

At this moment, therefore, it's as nearly certain as anything can be in politics that the Macmillan government would be defeated if an election were held. But the odds against it are winter-book odds. Before the votes arc actually cast there'll be a period when the prime minister will put aside statesmanship for politics, and when the county meeting I attended will be duplicated seven or eight times a week. Until that change has taken place, no election bets arc safe.