William V Shannon
William Shannon

Fellowship Title:

A Letter from Brighton – II: Conservatives

William Shannon
October 27, 1969

Fellowship Year

“Britain would be better off with the Conservatives” proclaimed the single, huge banner stretched across the wall above the platform in Brighton’s Top Rank Centre, as Conservatives gathered on October 8 for their annual party conference. In addition to the new banner and a helpful screen in one corner telling the delegates the number of the resolution under debate and the name of the speaker, the Conservatives had also rearranged the chairs on the floor to enlarge the seating because many more people attended their conference—about 4,500 — than do that of Labor—upwards of 2,000.

The increase is mainly made up of women. Working class and trade union wives leave politics to their menfolk, but in middle and upper class Conservative families, the women have the time and the inclination to do party work. Moreover, as at American political conventions, many Conservatives bring their wives and make their annual conference as much a social as a political function. The contrast in atmosphere with the preceding week could not have been sharper. Bowler hats and mink stoles made their appearance. Each night the Metropole and Grand Hotels were thronged with men in dinner jackets and women in evening gowns going to receptions and dinners. The hats and clothes which Conservative women wear to the annual conference have long been a subject of satirical comment. Some ladies did indeed wear those formidable hats, which the late Queen Mary made famous in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. But the great majority of the women were hatless, many were young, and many dressed in London high style.

Just as the delegates to Labor Party conferences tend to be more left-wing than their rank-and-file back home, so the “representatives,” as Conservative delegates are called, are more right-wing and more upper class than their following. The Conservatives would never win an election if they did not have the support of about one-third of the working class voters and many relatively poorly-paid members of the middle classes. Very few of these low-income Tories are actually present at party conference but they are much in the minds of party leaders and in the rhetoric of those who move the resolutions chosen for debate. There are many landlords and country gentlemen in the audience but the speeches dwell upon those in council houses, (i.e. public housing) and in slums. Everyone looks prosperous but speaker after speaker summons up the plight of the aged pensioner and the careworn widow. A generation ago, after Labor’s landslide victory in 1945, R.A.B. Butler and younger progressives re-cast Conservative Party orthodoxy to take account of the welfare state. Edward “Ted” Heath, the present leader of the Conservative Party, is in this progressive tradition. Determined to keep his party centrist and competitive, he makes the kind of speeches that Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits make in the United States.

But the Conservatives, out of power these past five years, are bedeviled by the same split between pragmatic centrists and right-wing “true believers” which rent the Republicans in the 1960’s. Enoch Powell is the Conservative Party’s Barry Goldwater, He does not command anywhere near a majority of the party, but he is the one Tory leader who arouses intense excitement, who appeals to working class voters across party lines, and who seems to have a potential for future power that is not calculable by normal political measurements. Powell achieved this audience and this potential because he was the only major politician in any party who articulated in respectable terms the passions and prejudices of those millions of whites who fear and resent Britain’s one million colored immigrants. Before he spoke out on race, Powell had been an MP and a cabinet minister for fifteen years without attracting any special attention. Now his every speech is news. “Powellism” and “Powellite” are terms, which have entered political discourse. The press and the rival politicians tend to polarize every issue from hanging to the Common Market in Powellite and anti-Powellite terms. It is misleading because Powell is a complex, intellectually sophisticated man. His opinions on various issues are not really reducible to a single common denominator. Misleading or not, the process is far advanced. Powell’s name was always good for a hostile roar at the Liberal and Labor Conferences, while the rank-and-file speaker at the Conservative Conference who shouted, “Don’t knock Enoch!” received sustained applause. Conservative Party officials gloomily speculate that if they lose another election under Heath’s leadership, Powell may smash the existing party alignment by forming a new party. The Heath centrists tread a wary line, making clear their disagreements with Powell but not attacking him head-on for fear of antagonizing the indeterminable number of Conservatives who have a greater or lesser degree of sympathy for his ideas. Powell spoke only once at the Conference and he sat quietly on the floor with other rank-and-file delegates. But the threat of his political appeal haunted his former colleagues on the platform at every session.

The conference opened on Wednesday morning with pedestrian debates on defense and housing. In contrast to Labor, which permits its cabinet ministers and other parliamentary stars to speak infrequently and on sufferance, the Tories make full use of their best-known figures. Since each debate is summed up by a member of the “shadow” cabinet, a Tory conference is a political showcase. Delegates and journalists pass judgment on the performances of each of the major speakers, making fine points about style and effectiveness and comparing each man’s speech to his efforts of previous years. In this special proving ground, the first two speakers did themselves no good. Geoffrey Rippon, the shadow defense minister is regarded as one of the party’s rising young stars, but in his speech he characterized one of the Government’s defense procurement decisions as “treason” which everyone agreed during the unofficial mid-morning “tea break” was a ridiculously excessive remark.

Reginald Maudling, the Deputy Leader of the Party, spoke on housing. A large, amiable, bespectacled man, Maudling was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s government in 1964, and runner-up to Heath for the party leadership four years ago. He is regarded as having the sharpest mind in the party leadership and is a highly successful financier in “the City,” but oratory bores him. Sophisticated and ironically self-aware, he gives the impression of looking upon the party conference with bemused indifference. His speech was characteristically low-keyed and his audience tepid. The consensus: “Well, that’s Reggie for you.”

The morning session ended with a speech by Anthony Barber, the party chairman. It was a “stem-winder” of much the same kind that party chairmen and keynote speakers deliver in the ‘United States. He pointed with pride to the party’s impressive gains: “The Socialists now control only 7 out of 89 County Councils in Britain, and only 56 out of 576 Boroughs. And since the last election, we have won 10 by-elections from Labor—a record way beyond anything ever previously achieved by an opposition.”

Then he warned against complacency, poked fun at Wilson and the Government, and exhorted the party. Of its kind, it was a good speech.

I arrived a moment or two late for the afternoon session. The Tories, as befits the party of the ruling class, take a longer lunch hour and do not begin their afternoon session until 2:30, but like their Liberal and Labor rivals, they start on time. The young man already at the rostrum was slim with black patent-leather hair, pale complexion, and a meticulous manner. He turned out to be the Hon. Adam Courtauld Butler, a son of “Rab” Butler, who was twice passed over by the Tories for the prime ministership and retired to a peerage in considerable disillusionment. In view of the melancholy conclusion to his father’s career, there is some surprise that his younger son is launching a career in politics as a prospective parliamentary candidate. An American observer is not the best judge of the personality needed to make a career in Conservative Party politics, but based on this ten-minute speech, I think Adam Butler has too cold a public personality ever to be a leader of men.

The resolution he had been chosen to present on the red-hot subject of industrial relations could not have been more moderate and conciliatory in its phrasing. It read:

“That this Conference agrees that the Trade Union Congress must play a major part in the control and disciplining of its members and welcomes the greater responsibility it is now shouldering, but nevertheless the Conference believes that a new legal framework for industrial relations is absolutely essential in order to reduce strife and to promote conditions for harmony.”

Predictably, three of the subsequent speakers deplored these kind words for the T.U.C. and argued for a strong crackdown on the unions. Just as predictably, however, Robert Carr, the shadow Minister of Labor, in his summing-up of the debate, reverted to Butler’s cautious line. Carr offered an eight-point program, which, to an American, sounded sensible, and fair. Several of his proposals have long been embodied in American law or in N.L.R.B. procedure. Heath, who is interested in trade union problems and economic issues generally and Carr have a double motive. As politicians who want to woo working-class votes, they do not want to be needlessly hostile and provocative to the unions. (They know that the people who hate unions are going to vote for them anyway.) As politicians who expect to win the next election, they realize that they cannot easily govern without some degree of cooperation from the T.U.C. But their specific proposals may not be much debated since Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon, and other T.U.C. leaders indulge in the same inflammatory rhetoric which George Meany used twenty years ago in denouncing the Taft-Hartley Act as “a slave labor law.”

Next on the agenda was a subject on which feelings run high and on which almost everyone regards himself as an expert—education. In the United States, the pattern of schooling is so variegated and control is diffused to so many local and state authorities that the issue of educational philosophy has never risen to the level of the two national parties. But anyone who has lived through the recent political campaigns revolving around education in the state of California can comprehend the intensity of emotion, which this question evokes in England.

Beginning with the Tory-sponsored Education Act of 1944 — one of Rab Butler’s several accomplishments—the British Government began softening the impact of class on education and improving and broadening the schooling available to the low-income majority. The Labor Government has tried to accelerate this trend. Many Conservative Parents and Conservative-controlled local governments are putting up stiff resistance. The controversy turns on “comprehensive” vs. “grammar” schools. A comprehensive school is roughly on the model of an American high school where students of every social background and on every intellectual level mingle. There may be “tracking” or, as the British call it, “streaming” (i.e., the grouping of students in a particular course according to levels of ability) but one school caters to all. By contrast, the grammar school is for the intellectual elite and admission is usually based on examination, but many more upper class and middle class boys make the grade proportionately than do working class boys.

Its curriculum is rigorously devoted to the traditional liberal arts and sciences. Issues of educational philosophy overlap issues of class. Socialists and progressives see comprehensive schools as more open, more flexible, and more suited to the needs of the broad range of British children—and also more democratic and egalitarian. Conservatives regard the grammar school as the last bastion of intellectual quality and believe its preservation is essential if the parent’s right of choice is to be preserved. The Socialists, they contend, are “leveling down” and are discriminating against the bright child.

There was really no debate among Conservatives on this issue. Speaker after speaker marched to the rostrum to denounce the Socialist Minister of Education and plead vehemently for the grammar school. The one exception was a timid young woman from Croyden, a working-class constituency on the south side of London. Shyly and almost pathetically but still with a measure of soft-voiced determination, she argued that all children should go to the same comprehensive school. Otherwise, she said, the bright children and the rich children go to their own schools, which attract the best teachers. The other schools become dumping grounds and the children follow two patterns—“they become your football hooligans and juvenile delinquents or they have no self-confidence and go through life thinking that everything important should be decided by somebody else, by somebody who went to those other schools and knows all about everything. These people never have a chance.” Some in the audience groaned at these unexpected sentiments, but the speaker was not assertive enough to evoke genuine anger. When she finished, the chairman for the only time during the conference cautioned the delegates to give every speaker a respectful hearing.

The education debate brought to the fore the man who, next to Enoch Powell, is perhaps the party’s most controversial figure—Sir Edward Boyle, the Shadow Minister for Education. A fortyish bachelor, with wisps of sandy hair, a reddish face, and a roly-poly body, Boyle is a favorite of the party liberals. True blue conservatives detest him because he resigned as a junior minister from the Eden Government over Suez and because they suspect, probably rightly, that he does not share their passion for the grammar schools. He is also in trouble with his constituency association because of his tolerant views on colored immigration.

Boyle made a shrewd, urbane, effective speech. He had an easy time of it because his opposite number in the Government proposes to bring in a bill making comprehensive schools compulsory. Sir Edward denounced this putative bill vigorously as a denial of freedom of choice to parents and local authorities, and promised flatly that the next Conservative Government should repeal such a bill. This pleased even his most suspicious listeners and earned him hearty applause. Then he moved on to remind the more severe traditionalists that many young Conservative parents have moved with the times, want a more varied curriculum for their children, and prefer less emphasis on examination and on the rigorous weeding out of the intellectually unfit. He closed with a plea to keep the best of the old but open one’s mind to the best of the new. It was a beautiful demonstration of how Conservative politicians since the days of Disraeli have been smuggling subversive ideas into the minds of Tory voters and into the programs of Tory governments. Boyle gently reminded the traditionalists that he is himself a classical scholar. He invoked the name of Dr. Johnson: “In opposing doctrinaire Socialist proposals, let us not ourselves become cranky and peevish. Let us recall Dr. Johnson who was always robust in his common sense, sometimes splendidly reactionary, but never peevish or shrill.” Sir Edward even managed to work in a quote from a poem by D. H. Lawrence in an off-hand way, a daring move before an audience many of whom regard that sex-preoccupied genius as little better than a professional pornographer. Sir Edward sat down to most satisfactory applause and the mild resolution for which he spoke passed easily on a show of hands. (A week after the conference ended, Boyle’s decision to leave politics for a university post aroused widespread regret in the press and in all parties.)

The climax of the day was the debate on Ulster. The leadership had not been eager to bring up this topic. Conservatives have long been allied with the dominant Unionist Party in Ulster, but Mr. Heath’s modern-minded men have no desire to identify themselves with the fossilized reactionaries in Stormont. However, the Bow Group, the party’s young progressive intellectuals, had scheduled a public meeting that evening to protest this omission. At the last moment, it was decided that a debate had to be held. It was a rushed affair with only two speakers on each side – if the murky resolution could be said to have two sides. With several persons still shouting for more rank-and-file speakers to be heard, the chair introduced Quentin Hogg, the Shadow Home Secretary. He had flown in that morning from several days in Ulster.

Hogg, who was Viscount Hailsham until he renounced his title to return to the House of Commons, is stocky and of medium height. His jawline and the pugnacious set of his face give him a resemblance to Churchill’s bulldog look. The day following his speech he observed his 62nd birthday. He was a contender for the party leadership when Harold Macmillan retired in 1963, and has long been a favorite at party conferences where his thumping, partisan oratory used to delight the loyalists. But as Shadow Home Secretary, he has taken a consistently progressive line on the issues which are in his domain—hanging, race relations, Ulster—and for that reason, he has been drawing heavily upon his reservoir of popularity. Today was to be no exception, but it was a bravura performance brought off with such style and force that dissent was overwhelmed.

In forty minutes, Hogg took his listeners on a tour of the Ulster problem in all its complexity. He made them his vicarious companions as he walked the Catholic Bogside alone – “not knowing what I might encounter and what I met with were chicken sandwiches and cups of tea,” as he dined at Stormont with Major Chichester Clark, the Northern Ireland prime minister “and his delightful wife,” and as he attended another meeting at which he heard the British troops on duty in Ulster criticized, and where he replied: “These troops are our troops and if you call yourselves loyal, you will support our troops. I am an officer, I hold Her Majesty’s Commission,”—adding, to his Brighton listeners’ delight, “in some derelict reserve not likely ever to be called.” He described the opposing walls in Belfast where one wall is defaced with “graffiti saying unspeakable things about the Queen and the wall across the road makes equally unmentionable—and I might add—impossible suggestions about the Pope.”

Essentially, Hogg used the most revered symbols of Conservatism—the flag, the Queen, the Army—to bring his listeners around to see the justice of the Catholic minority’s cause and the necessity for reform. He did not speak of “law and order” which has come to mean repression but of “the Queen’s writ” which means justice. Pounding the rostrum, he thundered: “There can be no justification at all for any discrimination whatsoever on grounds of religion in our United Kingdom.” He extended firm bipartisan support to the Government and to the policies of James Callaghan, his opposite number. Referring to the painful pre-World I history when the Conservatives used Ulster Unionism as a stick to beat a Liberal Government, he declared “I pondered where my duty lay and I early concluded that quite the silliest and worst thing I could do wou1d be to try to recreate a 1912 situation.

His peroration invoked St. Paul’s Epistle, which urges “faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity.” A message so familiar might well have brought the speech collapsing into banality, but Hogg’s masterful delivery moving the full range from explosive vehemence to the hushed whisper of his final sentence carried all before it. He sat down amidst a great wave of applause. I have not heard as good a speech in politics since Eugene McCarthy nominated Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic Convention or, going further back, since Stevenson accepted his first nomination at the 1952 convention. British journalists compared it, in emotional force though not in style, to Huge Gaitskell’s great speech at the Labour Party conference of 1960, when, facing defeat on the Unilateral nuclear disarmament issue, he cried out, “There are some of us who will fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love.”

Thursday morning’s session provided proof that politicians, like wine, change character in a transatlantic crossing. After a desultory debate on health and social security, the party moved to taxes and economic policy. Here the principal speech was offered by Mr. Iain Macleod, the Shadow Chanceller of the Exchequer. I heard Mr. Macleod speak at the National Press Club in Washington in 1963. He is a short, bald man somewhat incapacitated physically by an arthritic-like condition. He spoke at the Press Club in a calm, almost gentle voice. I went away favorably impressed with him as a kindly gentleman but vaguely wondering how he had ever made his way to the top of British politics. Hearing him on his home ground cleared the mystery. In Britain, Macleod is a powerful partisan orator with a gift for savage invective and cold, sardonic deprecation. In harsh, ringing tones, he described the Wilson Government as “a story of deceit, deflation, devaluation and debt. That is what we are going to ram home in every constituency.”

He made the single fiercest personal attack on the Prime Minister during the entire week in a passage, which ended by describing Wilson as a man who “has stepped down into the gutters of public life. There–where better?–we can leave him.”

Most of Macleod’s speech was devoted to a detailed and sophisticated exposition of the Value Added Tax, which the Conservatives contemplate substituting for some of Britain’s present taxes. This was an intellectually impressive performance but I went away from hearing my second Macleod speech with a quite different question in my mind that I had after hearing his first six years ago. Does not a public man inevitably weaken his own credibility by essaying the role of party hatchtman? It begets applause, but applause dies and bitterness lingers.

The Conservatives engage in what British journalists call  “ovation politics.” It is a deferential party and almost every major figure is sure of a standing ovation at some point in the conference, from sheer politeness if nothing else. (Only Reginald Maudling failed to obtain one at this conference.) But the really popular figures get frequent and longer ovations. The most popular man in the party is Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the party’s last prime minister, who since his deposition as leader in 1965, has evolved into a kind of Eisenhower figure, above faction and beyond reproach. Knowing this to be true, the party managers brought Sir Alec on to the platform midway through the economic debate just as Enoch Powell was recognized to speak. As planned, Sir Alec’s prolonged ovation easily overshadowed the subsequent applause, which greeted Powell when he appeared at the rostrum a moment later.

Aside from this bit of one-upmanship, Powell in making an impact on the conference had to contend against the complexity of his own position on economic affairs. He favors a “floating pound” in which the money markets operating freely would determine the value of the pound rather than the pound convertible at a fixed rate of exchange which is supported by the Government’s financial reserves. It is an entirely respectable viewpoint, which he shares with the Liberal Party and with many leading economists. It also demonstrates that Powell cannot be classified as a political primitive like Joe McCarthy or George C. Wallace. But in a debate, the floating pound is not easy to elucidate and it goes against the psychological grain of most people, especially Conservatives who instinctively feel happier with a fixed value for their currency. Mr. Powell received considerably less applause when he concluded than when he began.

The surprise was that Powell did not speak in the emotionally charged afternoon debate on the Common Market. He has recently shifted from a supporter to an opponent of Britain’s entry into the Common Market, and public opinion polls show that a majority of the British people also oppose entry. Powell kept his own counsel, but two reasons were advanced for his refusal to enter that debate. First, Duncan Sandys, a frequent ally of Powell’s on other issues but a passionate pro-Common Marketeer, intended to speak for entry. If Powell had opposed him, the next day’s papers might have embarrassing headlines: “Powell Faction Split on Market.” A second and more powerful reason is that Sir Alec Douglas-Home as Shadow Foreign Secretary was to sum up the case for entry. For Powell to oppose him would mean opposing the party’s most popular man. Many rank-and-file Conservatives would vote for almost anything Sir Alec recommended. Moreover, since Sir Alec is a strong believer in reconciling all party factions, he is Powell’s only conceivable bridge to rejoining the Shadow Cabinet if Powell should decide at some later date to call off his rebellion against the party establishment.

As everyone expected, the party did endorse Sir Alec ‘s recommendation that Britain go ahead with its Common Market application and did so by a better than three-to-one margin. Sir Alec adopted exactly the same fudging tactic that George Brown had used a week earlier, that is, he stressed that Britain would go in only if the terms proved satisfactory and that this was, therefore, a vote on beginning the negotiations and not a decisive yes-or-no vote on going into Europe. That vote would be reached only a year or two in the future when the negotiation was completed and the Government submitted the result to parliament. If his mollifying tactic was the same, Sir Alec’s style provided a wonderful contrast to Brown’s robust, hearty manner.  Sir Alec is excruciatingly thin (he suffered in his youth from tuberculosis). He wears half-glasses over which he peers from time to time like a firm but kindly headmaster. “I have deliberately avoided emotion in his presentation,” he said, implausibly suggesting that passionate oratory was his usual style. His voice is almost uninflected, proving again that the monotone can be a most serviceable political mode.

Before reaching the Common Market late Thursday afternoon, the Conference first disposed of the inflated, highly charged issue of hanging. Parliament in 1964 banned capital punishment for a five-year trial period. The Labor Government is expected this winter to make the ban permanent. Heath personally unenthusiastic about hanging and politically eager to alter the image of the Conservatives as the party of hanging, flogging and corporal punishment has constructed a double escape hatch. He urges the appointment of a three-man commission to evaluate every murder case and set forth the facts on which it might be possible to -determine whether the absence of capital punishment removed a useful deterrent to murder. He further intends that when the issue is decided in Parliament it shall be a “free vote” on which there will be no party line since it is a matter of individual conscience and not of party politics.

In the debate, his supporters put forward these perfectly reasonable propositions. But the majority of delegates had no taste for them. To them, murder is a moral issue and the only morally acceptable answer is that murderers must be hanged. The arguments advanced were exactly the same as those deployed in the United States and any American would be familiar with the allusions to “moral flabbiness” and “the rising crime rate.” A substitute motion to restore the death penalty narrowly carried 1,117 to 958.

Friday, October 10th, the last day of the Conference, began with a debate on another highly emotional issue—immigration and race relations. In American terms, the race problem scarcely exists in Britain. Colored immigrants from Pakistan, India, Africa, and the West Indies number upwards of a million people—about two percent of a population of fifty million. The law on immigration is already drastically restrictive. Only the wives and close blood relatives of existing immigrants can enter the country. All others are admissible only if they have been requested for a specific job by a specific employer.

The Heath position on immigration would alter existing policy only marginally. Admissible immigrants would be restricted slightly further to include only wives and minor children (not parents, etc.) and would provide voluntary repatriation payments to encourage immigrants to return to their original home. The leadership-supported resolution merely said: “That this Conference is convinced that the Conservative Party’s policy on immigration and race relations is the only solution likely to be successful, and should be implemented at the earliest opportunity.”

But Britain’s colored immigrants (as impoverished immigrants usually do in any country) have concentrated in the poorer neighborhoods of a few large cities and have become identified with slums, welfarism, and rising crime rates. Enoch Powell and others have suggested, contrary to most of the statistical evidence, that colored immigrants will breed at such a fantastic rate that there may be eight or ten million of them by the end of the century and they will overwhelm the available schools and social services. As a result, several Conservative constituency associations submitted resolutions proposing a five-year moratorium or an outright ban on further immigration. Others urged the repeal of the Race Relations Act, Britain’s equivalent to America’s civil rights legislation of recent years.

Mr. Robert Apps, the mover of the mild official resolution, is a schoolmaster. He made an earnest plea for tolerance and for coping with racial issues in the wider context of improving schools, housing, and hospitals for everyone. Opposing speakers responded with angry, vehement speeches depicting exigent evils. (“Does the previous speaker know what it is to live next door to a house with sixteen Pakistanis? I do.”) In effect, they were saying, We face a condition and not a theory. Nothing ugly was said, but the speakers were touching a live nerve. As each concluded, the applause leaped higher.

Quentin Hogg, as Shadow Home Secretary, made his second appearance to respond to this debate. It was too much to hope that he could make a second brilliant speech two days after his stirring plea on Ulster. He began with a few witticisms, which evoked laughter and served to lower the emotional temperature of the crowd. But he did not then either envelop his opponents emotionally as he had on the Ulster issue nor offer a sober recital of the facts and the actual policy. Instead, he ridiculed a few of the arguments of the speakers against resolution and then abruptly tried to transform the matter into a vote of confidence in the party leadership and specifically in Mr. Heath. The Tories are a deferential party, but this was a shade too autocratic. Hogg had unfortunately communicated—perhaps accurately—the impression that he did not take their complaints seriously or else was bored with them. The dissidents demanded a record vote. The official resolution carried but only by 1,349 to 954, not a defeat but an embarrassment for the leadership.

The rest of the day dwindled into amiable inconsequence as the Conference plodded through Regional Development, Women and the Law, and Local Government. A debate under the promising title, “Government and Parliament” turned out to be an inchoate discussion of Tory beliefs that the country is over-governed, the Civil Service bureaucracy is too big, and Prime Minister Wilson’s cynicism is destroying faith in Parliamentary government.

The conference concluded on Saturday morning with the traditional speech by Mr. Heath, the party leader. In the past, the Conservative leader never attended the conference and showed up only for the closing rally. This was to underscore the point that the leader is ultimately responsible for party policy and is not bound, whether in Government or in opposition, by the resolutions of the annual conference. A.J. Balfour, a Conservative Prime Minister of the early 1900’s, once said, “I would as soon ask the advice of my valet as ask that of an annual Conference.” But this absolute independence has, like other absolutisms of late, crumbled. Ted Heath has adopted the practice of the leaders of the Liberal and Labor Parties of regularly attending every session of the annual conference. But for the sake of his prestige, he prefaced his prepared speech by a reassertion of his own views on hanging and on immigration making it clear that the defeat of the official resolution on the former issue and the near-defeat on the latter would not sway him.

The main body of his speech was a mirror image of the first of the two speeches that Prime Minister Wilson delivered to his party’s conference. Heath scored Labor’s record of higher debt, higher unemployment, and higher interest rates. He moved his audience to cheers and laughter by juxtaposing the Government’s record alongside of Wilson’s earlier promises. It was the kind of speech that any experienced politician can make to a partisan audience and be sure of receiving enthusiastic reception. Near the end of his remarks, Heath staked out the claim to be the party of compassion. He promised to bring help to the ill-housed, to the 125,000 men and women over 80 who receive no pensions, to individuals burdened by the care of a totally disabled parent, and to the 250,000 children in families below the poverty line.

His peroration struck a suitable noble theme: Looking back upon the loss of the empire, he said there is “a danger far greater than the loss of military power and possessions, and that is (the loss of) the ability to think and behave as a great people. There is the danger of looking inward and being consumed with our own grudges and petty grievances. There is the danger of always fearing the worst and letting apathy sap our energies. It is this sad meanness of our spirit, which I see growing at the heart of our present discontent.

“The task of the Conservative Party is to give back to the British people that habit of thinking and acting as a great people. To give them not merely the power, but the vision, as Wordsworth said, ‘The glory and the dream’.”

Heath is a self-contained, matter-of-fact kind of man. He cannot make such a passage sing or genuinely lift an audience. But delegates were satisfied with his workmanlike effort. They stood applauding for five minutes and even sang a chorus of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” In the game of ovation politics, he had held his own against real and putative rivals.

Many journalists and politicians left the Conference dubious that Heath is the man to lead the Conservatives to victory. Although the polls show the party still holding a four-point lead over Labor, they also show Mr. Wilson almost twice as popular personally as Mr. Heath. Is Heath’s problem one of personal image because he is dull or one of program, as the Powellite right-wingers insist, because his platform is not sufficiently distinctive from that of Labor?

This American observer departed Brighton after three party conferences with no answer to those conundrums, but preoccupied with the much older question of the relationship in a free country between the leaders and the led. The leaders of the Liberal Party had resisted the temptation to make immediate political gains by reversing course on Europe and championing the anti-Common Market sentiment in the country. At the Labor Conference, Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins had spelled out at least some of the facts of economic life and George Brown had down the same on the Common Market. At the Conservative Conference, Sir Edward Boyle on education, Quentin Hogg on Ulster, Robert Carr on industrial relations, Sir Alec Douglas-Home on the Common Market, and Ted Heath himself on hanging and on immigration had steered the delegates toward centrist positions, sometimes persuading adverse opinion, sometimes skillfully deflecting that opinion, and sometimes simply overriding it. Democracy lives by the continual dialogue between the leaders and the led. On the record of these weeks in Brighton, it did not seem as if Britain is being badly served by its political leaders.

Received in New York on October 27, 1969.

Mr. Shannon is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from The New York Times. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Shannon, The New York Times, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

© 1969 William Shannon