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Tory Leaders We Have Known: Harold Macmillan (part one)

Harold_Macmillan_number_10_officialHarold Macmillan remains one of the more elusive of the leading politicians of his age. In part, that was an elusiveness of his own making: the great actor-manager was possessed of a natural gift, what Hailsham called his ‘beautiful acting’.

What was that act? It was the air of insouciance; things were either ‘fun’ or ‘a bore’. He gave the impression of being a prime minster that was not going to drown in a sea of papers of work himself into the ground. That impression was added to by his great wit. Both elements might be neatly summed up in his one liner about ‘going to bed with a Trollope’ or his remark about Mrs Thatcher in her pomp: ‘I do wish she would read’. The Macmillan of the grouse moor, ‘the government of chaps’, offered stability in a changing world. And, in his career, he had (until the last years of his government) a good deal of luck: not only had Britain ‘never had it so good’, but when the mud flew (notably from Suez), it never seemed to stick to Supermac.

macmillian2Macmillan was both a more complex man, and a more interesting one, than the persona let on. He was one of four prime ministers to have fought in the Great War, and one of two to be seriously wounded (the other was Attlee). A phrase current in the Guards was ‘nearly as brave as Mr Macmillan’. He was, in fact, wounded twice: the wound to the hip at the Somme nearly killed him, and ended his war. His wounds left permanent marks on Macmillan, giving him a limp handshake, leaving him in frequent pain and giving him the somewhat shambling gait that became a part of the Macmillan persona. Famously, he claimed to have passed the time whilst spending an entire day wounded in his shell hole reading Aeschylus’ Prometheus, in the Greek, which he just happened to have with him. Yet, the impression of calm assurance should not be overdone. Once helped back behind the lines, he had to make his own way to the dressing station in a blind panic. His recovery was slow, painful and left him prone to bouts of introspection and melancholy. As well showing his courage, the war gave him compassion, a depth of character and a regard for the ordinary man that was to mark his politics.

On the face of it, his background was conventional enough for a Tory politician: Eton, and Oxford. In fact, he left Eton after three years, being dogged by ill health. That, and his near death in 1916, would leave him prone to hypochondria. He flourished at Oxford, where he made many lifelong friendships. Of the 28 Balliol men who went to war, only two came back: for Macmillan, Oxford was henceforth a ‘city of ghosts’.

After the war, Macmillan spent a happy ten months as ADC to the governor-general of Canada, the Duke of Devonshire. There, he wooed and married Devonshire’s daughter, Lady Dorothy Cavendish. Politically, it was a very good match. Devonshire was colonial secretary under Bonar Law, and the families Tory connections were second to none. Not only did the marriage give him access to that network, it also gave him his entre into politics. He was now a part of high society, though never quite fully part. He often found himself somewhat patronised by her family, and the Macmillan of the grouse moor was always, like so much about Macmillan, something of an act (though he taught himself to be a good shot).

macmillan weddingMost poignantly, it was not a happy marriage. Macmillan always maintained his love for her, but it was not reciprocated. In 1929, Dorothy Macmillan began a long running and tempestuous affair with Bob Boothby, a fellow Tory MP. She made the running; for Boothby it may even have been a good cover for his bisexuality. Later, Dorothy claimed that the Macmillan’s last child, Sarah, was Boothby’s. Macmillan did contemplate divorce, but in 1930 that was tantamount to political suicide; furthermore, his love for her was genuine, as was his Christian faith. Thus, Macmillan became a celibate husband, his love henceforth unrequited. That it troubled him always, there can be no doubt.

BB1237Macmillan entered the family publishing business. He was unusually well read for a politician. At Macmillan and Sons, he personally handled the likes of Kipling, Hardy, Yeats, Hugh Walpole and Sean O’Casey. He had discernment too. Years later he would compare O’Casey to Hardy: both wrote a lot, perhaps too much, but what they wrote ‘came from a deep sincerity’. As prime minister he would famously quip that he liked to wake up to a Jane Austen and ‘go to be with a Trollope’. Nor were his publishing interests merely literary. He brought economists such as Lionel Robbins on board, likewise the historian Lewis Namier.

Those tastes might give us something of Macmillan’s politics. Namier’s history of the 18th century politics saw politics as an elite contest framed by patronage, the greasy pole and sharp elbows. Whatever one might say of Macmillan in his pomp, he certainly did not lack an interest in the political dark arts. Interestingly, though, the Macmillan of the inter-war years was more of an ideas man. He set out his stall as a reformist, leftist Conservative, attracted to Keynesianism (his brother was a close friend of Keynes).

His outlook was also framed by his admiration for the ordinary working class men he had known in the trenches, and then by his time as MP for Stockton-on-Tees. Most importantly, as MP for Stockton, he saw the impact of industrial decline and unemployment close up. He was also the MP for a marginal seat. In 1923, when he failed to win the first time he stood, he lost to a Liberal: the seat had been Liberal since 1910 (it was one of the industrial seats that, in 1910, saw the Liberal vote go up; it had been Conservative in 1906). In 1929, he lost it to Labour, as he did again in 1945. The three occasions he won were all when a One Nation Conservatism that clearly identified Labour as socialist, and beat them.

middle wayNot that Macmillan, unlike Butler, could be described as Baldwinian. After entering parliament, he wrote a great deal. He was one of the co-authors of Industry and the State, which argued for a partnership between government and both sides of industry. He was also sympathetic to the proto-Keynesianism of Lloyd George’s Yellow Book. Nor was he without influence. The government’s de-rating measures were in part his idea, and he worked on them closely with the chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill. A series of pamphlets and books followed, culminating in the publication of The Middle Way, in 1938. Years later, Clement Attlee would describe the inter-war Macmillan as ‘a real left wing radical’ and believed that Macmillan had seriously considered crossing the floor and that, if he had, he would have led Labour at some point.

There were question marks from some over Macmillan’s loyalty to his party. He had shown some interests in Mosley’s economic thinking, both when he was in Labour and even at the time of the New Party. Between 1935 and 1937, he was strongly associated with the Next Five Years group, a cross party body with connections to the likes of Lloyd George. He voted against the government over the Unemployed Insured Bill. He stayed loyal to the Conservatives, though, in part thanks to political instinct and in part out of unfulfilled ambition.

What brought Macmillan into open conflict with his own government was appeasement. He openly opposed the Hoare-Laval Pact, and criticised the government’s lack of response to Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland. He voted against the government in 1936 over Abyssinia, as resigned the Conservative whip. Though he took the whip again in 1937, though he momentarily wavered over Munich a year later, he became one of Chamberlain’s most active and outspoken critics. He grew closer to Churchill, more so to Eden. He voted against the government again in November 1938, and at the same time was talking to Labour’s Hugh Dalton about a ‘1931 in reverse’: dissident Conservatives joining with Labour to form an anti-appeasement national government.

It was never going to work, but it identified him as a coming man. When Churchill became prime minister, Macmillan became PPS to Herbert Morrison, the minister of supply. He would take the same role under Beaverbrook. This gave him a greater role in the House of Commons, as Beaverbrook was in the Lords. His careful handling of Beaverbrook paid political dividends too. They were by no means political soul mates, but years later Macmillan always got something of an easy ride from Beaverbrook’s newspapers.

Macmillan was then sent to North Africa, in an ill-defined role and minister resident in Algiers. Over the next few years Macmillan’s role broadened. At first, he was dealing with Vichy France. He then became the effective go between for Britain, the Free French and the Americans. By 1944, he was in charge of British affairs in the wider Mediterranean and, most of all, in Italy and the Balkans. This was, to say the least, a complicated business, and potentially combustible. Macmillan handled it with considerable aplomb, especially the potentially explosive relationship between Tito’s Yugoslavia and Italy. Below, he is with Eisenhower and Alexander, among others.


It had one particularly unfortunate outcome. Macmillan, as Allied Control Commissioner, was also called upon to advise the military commander, General Keightley. One of Keightley’s most pressing problems was prisoners of war. There were some 40,000 Yugoslav prisoners, as well as Ustachi (Croatian supporters of Nazi rule) and Chetniks (Serb opponents of Tito) on the run. There were also some 400,000 Germans who had surrendered, or were about to. Among them, were some 40,000 who were, in fact, Soviet citizens, mostly Cossacks and White Russians (anti-communists who had fled the revolution). The Red Army was on the Yugoslav border, and demanded that they be handed over. They were. Years later, Count Nikolai Tolstoy would accuse Macmillan of a war crime. In truth, as far as Macmillan saw it, he took a hurried decision to repatriate what were, in effect, Nazi forces.

Certainly, Macmillan was now well schooled in the arts of statesmanship, in what had proved to be an extremely difficult and delicate situation. He returned to domestic politics, to the Air Ministry in Churchill’s caretaker government. He lost his Stockton seat in the face of Labour’s 1945 landslide, but that defeat came with a considerable silver lining. Such was his status now, that he was given the ultra-safe seat of Bromley. The Conservative opposition did not have shadow cabinet posts as such. Thus, over the next six years Macmillan spoke from the opposition front bench on a range of topics. He had lacked a domestic profile: this gave him one. He was also closely involved, with Rab Butler, in the Industrial Charter, which redefined Tory policy largely in line with Macmillan’s own Middle Way. Macmillan was also closely involved in Churchill’s encouragement of moves towards greater European integration, notably in the creation of the United European Movement. This also saw Macmillan side with Churchill more than Eden, who was sceptical.

Macmillan had made himself a significant figure in the Tory front rank, but he was some way down the pecking order from Eden, or even Butler. Whilst older than both, he had the air of a young man in a hurry. His true position could be seen in the cabinet post Churchill gave him in 1951 (one he had to wait a week to find out about): Macmillan was now minister of housing and local government. Labour’s grand designs had ended in something of disappointment: shortages of labour, raw materials and cash had constrained the house-building programme. It was in a direct response to Labour’s perceived failure that, in 1951, Lord Woolton had settled on the figure of 300,000 houses per year (topping Labour’s previous promise of 200,000). Macmillan’s job was to deliver. The problem was that he had no direct control over house building, whether private or public. What he did do was take the lessons he had learned at the wartime ministry of supply and apply them to the peace: he even called the process ‘modified Beaverbrookism’. With the energetic help of his junior minister, Ernest Marples, and much political cajoling, it worked (you can read more here). Macmillan (seen inspecting a new house in 1953) had proved to be a successful minister of a major spending department.

mac housing

It was to be his only long spell in any ministry. When Churchill reshuffled in 1954, Macmillan got the Ministry of Defence. From it, he became firmly convinced of two things. One was that Britain needed not only its own nuclear deterrent, but a modern one, which by 1954 meant a hydrogen bomb. The other thing he became sure of was the need for Churchill to name the date of his departure, and was pretty blunt in in so doing. When Eden became prime minister, Macmillan got the Foreign Office. It was a job he was pre-eminently qualified for, and wanted: he had always claimed it to be the ‘summit of my ambitions’. It was not, however, a happy experience. Just as Churchill had regarded defence policy as his personal remit, Eden regarded foreign affairs. You can read more about Macmillan’s brief interlude in the Foreign Office here (to come).

In any event, politics conspired to see Macmillan moved on very quickly. Having delivered a pre-election budget designed to help ensure a Tory victory in the 1955 election, Butler was forced to reverse almost all his tax giveaways in the autumn. Eden was faced with a damaged chancellor. He was also faced with a damaged rival, and sought to take advantage of the fact. His solution was to move Macmillan to the Treasury. Macmillan didn’t want to go, but in the end had no choice. You can read more about Macmillan’s time at the Treasury here (to come).

Macmillan may not have wanted to go, but in doing so he got lucky. In his short time there he was well regarded, which helped, but what really mattered was the he was not foreign secretary as the Suez Crisis erupted in 1956. Macmillan was intimately involved. When Nasser seized the Suez Canal, Macmillan was a member of the Suez Committee. He strongly supported the planned invasion: he was seen as a hawk, looking not merely to take the canal, but overthrow Nasser. Like Eden, he saw Nasser as an Egyptian Hitler or Mussolini. The appeasement analogy led both down a lethal political dead end.

When that dead end became all too apparent, especially Britain came under immense American pressure, Macmillan reversed his view completely. Thus, by the time the Anglo-French invasion was launched, Macmillan was already turning against it. There are several ways of interpreting Macmillan’s actions. One is that in changing his view, he was doing his job as chancellor, defending sterling. Another is that he allowed the sterling crisis to ferment without telling the cabinet the full truth, thus allowing Eden to dig himself in so deep he could not get out. Another is that by seeming to support Eden, until he appeared to have no choice but to advise withdrawal, he differentiated himself from Butler, whose duplicity was supposed. The famous Harold Wilson line about Macmillan’s Suez rings true: ‘first in, first out.’ Whatever, it was Eden that was holed below the waterline, and Butler was damaged too; meanwhile, Macmillan survived seemingly intact. And with that would come his chance.

Another way of looking at Macmillan’s conduct was that he had been far quicker than Eden to face reality. As such, he was far better equipped for the top job. Similarly, Butler was never fully trusted by his colleagues. Macmillan was hardly less clever or witty than Butler, and he was certainly more devious, but his persona hid it better. Butler’s sharp impatience with lesser men was not so well hidden. When it came to the dark arts of political manoeuvre, Macmillan was the sharper operator; again, he hid it well.

Looking back, Eden’s departure had the air of inevitability about it. It didn’t seem to at the time. Thus, when Eden resigned, the process of arriving at his successor was hurried. As it was, it was simple enough. The process involved the lord chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, and Lord Salisbury, Bobbetty Cecil to his friends, consulting leading Tories. As Kilmuir famously put it later on, Cecil asking, with his lisp: ‘well, is Wab or Hawold?’

For all bar three, it was Harold. Thus, Macmillan kissed hands. The great actor manager now had the top job.


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Left Wing Labour Leaders We Have Known: Michael Foot, George Lansbury, Keir Hardie and, yes, Jeremy Corbyn

Seems appropriate to remind some folk of this…

RGS History

Corbyn-Benn-650This is a slightly updated version revised during the Labour conference, 2017. After the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, the example of Michael Foot was much remarked upon. Jeremy Corbyn is not a Michael Foot. Corbyn has, until then, had been nothing but an outsider, a maverick rebel. In his younger days, Michael Foot was every inch the rebel, but by the time he was elected Labour leader, he was very much an insider, having been Minster of Employment, Leader of the House of Lords and Deputy Leader of the party. Indeed, Corbyn’s spiritual father, Tony Benn, at that point in the process of reinventing himself as the people’s Tony, had in fact been even more of an insider: Postmaster General, Minister of Technology, Minister of Industry and then Energy. By contrast, Corbyn has never held office of any sort. Furthermore, Foot was elected leader as the…

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Snap Elections We Have Known: 1923, 1931, 1951, 1966 and 1974 (October)… Oh yes, and 2017


I don’t suppose I’m alone in believing that Theresa May’s stated reasons for calling a snap election were both paper thin and transparently disingenuous. That is not necessarily intended as a condemnation. This is politics after all, and May has proved pretty effective at the dark arts.

Immediately after yesterday’s announcement of a 2017 general election (the joys, the joys), an old student mine (take a bow Jacob Baxter) immediately tipped a hat to 1923. And that got me thinking, what about snap general elections we have known?


And there we begin. All the elections outlined above were called at a moment of the then prime minister’s choosing, more or less. True, in 1931, it was really Baldwin rather than MacDonald who sought the ‘doctor’s mandate’, but MacDonald obeyed His Master’s Voice and went to the country. Attlee’s (mistaken) choice of October 1951 was constrained by George VI’s imminent departure on a royal tour, but it was his call. If we were to count the first 1974 election (and I’m not really inclined to, that was a gamble taken, again mistakenly by a much buffeted figure). In short, each of the were all the PM’s call, just as this one in May’s call.

In all but one case, they all have something else in common. May has gone to the country for one reason above all others: she believes that her wafer thin majority will be transformed into a comfortable majority (and quite possibly a landslide). Here, the election she might have in mind is 1966. After 13 years in opposition, Harold Wilson had got Labour across the line with a majority of just four. The 44% of the popular vote Labour won in 1964 was pretty much the same as they had won in 1959, which had seen Macmillan’s Tories win a 100 seat majority. Wilson won in 1964 primarily thanks to a Liberal resurgence and a commensurate fall in the Conservative vote. No less important was the fact that Labour won 20 seats thanks to a Liberal standing in 1964 where none had stood in 1959 (a full analysis can be read here).

A majority of four was not viable, and in March 1966 Wilson took the plunge. A small fall in the Liberal vote and a slightly larger fall in the Tory vote allowed the British electoral system to do its work and gave Wilson a majority of 96.


Wilson tried the same trick in October 1974. The February election (read about it here) had been, in effect, a score draw and Labour got the toss of the electoral system coin and were four seats ahead of the Conservatives, but short of an overall majority. Thus it was Wilson went in the October, hoping to turn that into an overall majority. He succeeded, but it was a pyrrhic victory, giving Labour a majority of just three with some extremely choppy waters ahead.

At least Wilson won. In 1950, Attlee’s Labour had seen their 1945 landslide wiped out, and (despite polling more votes than in 1945) won a majority of just five seats. Seeing this as unworkable, Attlee went to the country again in October 1951, hoping to increase that majority. 1951 is one of those textbook first-past-the –post elections (you can read about the elections of 1950 and 1951 here, and here). Attlee succeeded in one sense: Labour won 48.8% of the popular vote (the highest share in its history). However, a resurgent Conservative party won 48% (up by 5.6%), in large part thanks to a collapse in the liberal vote. That Liberal collapse, and their failure to field candidates in a number of Labour-Conservative marginals, gave Churchill his victory. Attlee had gambled, and lost.


In 1923, Baldwin gambled. And Baldwin lost. He had not gone to the country for need of a more comfortable majority, as he already had a very comfortable one. Losing 86 seats, he then lost office.

Baldwin lost two elections. However, he is unique in modern British political history, winning three landslides. And the mother of all landslides was the snap election of 1931. As I always tell my students, the 1931 election is unique in all sorts of ways. Whatever else we might say about it (and I will shortly), there was no little party politics and calculation about Baldwin’s decision to force an election on MacDonald in 1931. It would, he knew, deliver a de facto Conservative landslide.

At least there was a genuine national emergency of sorts in 1931. The Great Depression was bad enough, but a lethal combination of the end of the Gold Standard and an unbalanced budget requiring sharp cuts in spending at least gave MacDonald a pretty convincing excuse for it. In truth (with the possible exception of February 1974, and I’m not counting that), there was no compelling national emergency requiring electoral endorsement at any other time.

Jacob Baxter’s point was that 1923 was, in effect, a single-issue election, just as some are coming to see 2017. Baldwin’s reasons for calling that election remain elusive (I will advance, even if not necessarily believing them, a few other explanations below). There is, I think, quite a lot to say for taking him at face value. Baldwin called an election in 1923 over the issue of tariffs. Ever since Joseph Chamberlain had first put the idea forward 20 years before, tariff reform had split the Conservatives down the middle. When the ‘peasant’s revolt’ at the Carlton Club ended the Lloyd George coalition and defenestrated Austen Chamberlain, Andrew Bonar Law had made a spectacular political comeback. He capped that with a comfortable victory in the subsequent general election. In that campaign, the characteristically cautious Bonar Law had tried to take the steam out of the tariff issue, which had hurt the Conservatives electorally so badly in 1906, but again in the two elections of 1910: all three of which they had lost. In short, he promised that there would be no move by a Conservative government towards the systematic implementation of tariffs without recourse to the electorate. Baldwin believed in tariffs. Thus Baldwin went to the country.

He lost. One reading of Baldwin’s 1923 decision was an over-confidence borne of the state of the opposition. First and foremost, the Liberals were bitterly divided between the Lloyd George Liberals and the ‘Squiffites (ironically, the 1923 election saw them reunite after a fashion). Then, the new Labour party further divided that opposition. Thus it was, in 1922, that the Conservatives had a comfortable majority of 72 whilst only commanding 38.5% of the vote (they only fielded 482 candidates).

Baldwin’s gamble failed, primarily because the Liberals, who hastily reunited around the classic Liberal issue of free trade, polled just under 30% and won 158 seats. Labour polled just over 30%, and won 191 seats. The opposition were in far better fettle than Baldwin envisaged.


Baldwin’s next snap election had a very different outcome. This time, the opposition parties were in anything but fine fettle. The Liberals were in something very like their death throes. The general election of 1924 had reduced them to 40 seats. A Liberal recovery of sorts, allied to Labour winning 37% of the popular vote in 1929 had been enough to see the Conservatives lose 152 seats and leave Labour as the largest party and into (minority) government. However, by 1931, that Labour government had collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald and a few followers had formed a National Government with the Conservatives and a Liberal part now divided into the Samuelites and the Simonites. Bar Lloyd George’s family, Labour was the only opposition to the National juggernaut. And it was an opposition shorn of its credibility in the crisis that had engulfed it. As a parliamentary force, Labour was all but obliterated, reduced to 52 seats.

That had been Baldwin’s intention. The Conservatives, dressed up in National clothing, were set to be in power in what must have looked like perpetuity. In 1935, Labour almost equaled the 8 million votes they won in 1929, but this time in only winning 154 seats. Had there been a 1939 or 1940 election, the government would surely have won comfortably again.

In the era bookended by Attlee and Blair’s landslides, the Conservatives were in power more often than not. In that era, Labour won five elections: 1950, 1964, 1966 and two in 1974. Only one of those gave Labour anything like a workable majority. The elections of 1951, 1966 and October 1974 were all aimed at winning a workable majority. However, in 1951 and 1974, this can hardly be seen as cynical opportunism. Rather, both look rather like a somewhat desperate roll of the dice. In 1951 the Conservatives were in pretty good nick; in 1974, neither Labour nor the Tories were strong.

Wilson pulled it off in 1966, and that election was undoubtedly a classic moment of Wilsonian opportunism (and Harold Wilson was very good at opportunism). It was, however, taking advantage of a wrong footed rather than failing opposition. It was a majority of 96, but one actually won by narrow margins, as 1970 would show.

There is another context to some of these elections that might seem similar to the position faced by Theresa May. 1966 is a classic example. Coming into government in 1964, Wilson faced a looming economic crisis. A combination of a long-term underperforming economy and an overvalued pound had been made far worse by Reginald Maudling’s cynical ‘dash for growth’. With a sterling crisis looming, Wilson went for it.


Similarly, one might feel that the October 1974 election was similar pre-emptive strike.

In both cases Wilson faced another problem: opposition within his own party, and even cabinet. Wilson’s governments were famously fractious. That made leading his first government hard enough. By 1974, however, Labour’s divisions, especially over Europe and between right and left, threatened to split the party (as it would in 1981). A working majority might have made Wilson’s task a little easier (though his 1966-70 government was hardly a paragon of unity; neither was Attlee’s second government, while we’re at it).

Even his most bitter opponent (by whom I mean Churchill) had to admit that Baldwin was a political operator par excellence (a means by which Churchill’s history writing would condemn him). One explanation for Baldwin’s decision in 1923 is that it was to forestall an attempt to rebuild a coalition with Lloyd George (who was rumoured to be toying with tariffs to that very purpose). What is certainly true is that Baldwin did not have the unalloyed support of the party’s grandees, most of who had been coalitionists and had not served under Bonar Law (hence the government’s nickname of the 2nd XI). One interpretation of 1923 sees Baldwin going for tariff reform as means of securing his control over his party.

If that was his intention, losing office hardly strengthened his position. However, after his defeat in 1929 he certainly was vulnerable. The attack came form within the broad Conservative tent over India and, once again tariffs. It was second issue that saw the immediate threat to Baldwin’s position. Baldwin had never had much time for his own Conservative press barons: in particular, for the owners the Mail and the Express. And Hell, or rather Conservative politics, had no fury like press barons scorned. In the end, Baldwin saw off the threat from their Empire Crusade, and with it that of his own right.

In that he was surely helped by the obvious failing’s of MacDonald’s Labour government. In forming a National Government, and then by winning in 1931, Baldwin had plenty of Conservatives who owed their seats and the prospect of keeping them to their leader. That majority also enabled Baldwin to isolate his own enemies within. Thus the likes of Churchill were confined to ranting on about India, Edward VIII and appeasement; the wilder shores of the right could play with Mosley or become fellow travellers of Hitler and Mussolini. Baldwin had routed them.

And, lastly, those snap elections sometimes had outcomes that were perhaps unexpected. Labour’s win in 1974 hardly had a happy outcome for them and, arguably, enabled the coming of Thatcherism. 1951 ushered in 13 years of Conservative rule. The immediate outcome of the 1923 election was the first Labour government. I suspect many Tories expected the 1931 landslide to give them a more robustly right-wing government; they got something very different.

I suspect that many Conservatives are now dreaming of a 1931-lite, and they may well get one in the form of a thumping majority offering them the opportunity to secure another long run in government, like those of the Thatcher, Macmillan and Baldwin eras. It would also give May the equivalent of MacDonald’s ‘doctor’s mandate’ (a Brexiteer’s mandate, we might call it); it would certainly give the decision to leave the European Union true democratic legitimacy having now been agreed by both parliament and by its inclusion in a general election manifesto. The issue is then how would she use it? She might use it to secure the so-called Hard Brexit some seem to so desire.

It is pretty early to judge May as a prime minister, or to make certain comparisons with Tory leaders before her (though I’m putting a few bob on some comparisons with Ted Heath, but a Ted Heath with no opposition of any worth). But, if in nothing else, she already resembles Baldwin in one way: her ability to best her enemy within and use those oh so sharp elbows (just ask the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Gove; there are, I’m sure, more to come). It is perhaps possible that she might resemble Baldwin in another sense and use the dominance a big win would secure to enable her to do what an orderly and negotiated Brexit might require, even the dreaded transitional arrangements and compromise?

Who knows? But what snap elections of yore show us is that they don’t always work, and when they do they sometimes have unexpected outcomes.


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