A Question of Leadership; & Power, Competition and the State

Simon Crine | Published in History Today
  • A Question Of Leadership: Gladstone To Thatcher
    Peter Clarke - Hamish Hamilton, 1991 - 323 pp. - £17.99
  • Power, Competition And The State, Volume 3, The End Of The Post-War Era Britain Since 1974
    Keith Middlemas – Macmillan, 1991 - 487 pp. - £60

In his introduction to A Question of Leadership, Peter Clarke describes two different kinds of history: 'structural history', or the schematic, causal approach to the explanation of past events, and 'contingent history', which tries to understand events and why they happened in the way they did. His collection of essays on British political leaders from Gladstone to Mrs Thatcher is the perfect example of the second category. Keith Middlemas' portentious trilogy on modern Britain, of which The End of the Post-War Era is the final instalment, is an example of the former.

A Question of Leadership is a tour de force by an historian at ease with himself, his literary as well as his intellectual abilities. Clarke covers ten Prime Ministers, four leading politicians who dominated the politics of their day without ever leading governments – Joe Chamberlain, Dalton, Bevan and Gaitskell and one economist and scribbler who wanted influence rather than power – John Maynard Keynes. 'Life and times' do not come much better than this and serve as a reminder that biography is an art form which at its best can tell us far more about the past than any amount of political 'science'.

One of the enlightening contrasts painted by Clarke is that between Lord Salisbury, Conservative prime minister for fourteen years and leader for 20 years, and Mrs Thatcher, the longest serving premier since then. Salisbury is in many ways the benchmark Conservative, the man to measure modern Conservatives by. For him, there was no nonsense about Tory democracy or Disraeli's one nation. Knowing that self-interest is the mainspring of human motivations and fearing the growing power of the masses, particularly those enfranchised by successive Reform Acts, his object was to bind the classes which believed in the status quo and consolidation and who were conservative by nature. Thus the patrician from Hatfield, the umpteenth Cecil, became the champion of villa Toryism.

Mrs Thatcher was also a champion of villa Tories (and the newly prosperous C2s) but there the resemblance ends. Where Salisbury offered 'a quiet life to the possessing classes at the price of renouncing strident ideological appeals', she led a moral crusade for private property and market forces. Aided by the divisions in the opposition in her early years, Mrs Thatcher was able to launch on a program- me of trade union reform, privatisation and the monetarist experiment with the economy. Although she made relatively little impact on the structure of the welfare state in general and the health service in particular, she could still claim to have dragged the political consensus to the right.

But, in the end, the permanent revolution frightened even her own supporters: the Poll Tax, divisions on the future shape of the European Community and the recurrent problems of an under-performing economy led to 'a fall... staggeringly sudden and complete, precipitated by an overt withdrawal of confidence on the backbenches'.

Keith Middlemas' contention is that the post-War consensus had been breaking down since the early 70s and Mrs Thatcher simply administered the last rites. In keeping with his corporatist view of the world, he manages to make Mrs Thatcher sound like the creature of every vested interest except her own, the Conservative Party or the 40% plus of the electorate who voted for her. She is blown about by stronger, deeper forces, rarely if ever defined.

Indeed, the extraordinary thing about this book is that, although forever looking for deeper explanations of change, the vast majority of it is taken up with mind-numbing detail about the doings of ministers, permanent secretaries, bankers and businessmen. He may want to divine Kuznet's cycles or Kondratieff’s waves (whatever they are) in history but he is actually fascinated by the arcane details of high politics in Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London.

None of this adds up to a general theory about Britain since the War. Professor Middlemas is always struggling to fit the facts, figures, events and personalities into a pattern but the problem is that he cannot decide what the pattern is. He ties himself into meaningless knots:

The problem in recent British history can he expressed as a question: can the actual state (the government of the day and the state machinery put, temporarily, at its partial disposal by the last election) live up to what is expected of the formal or conceptual state – whose duty it is to declare and uphold the values and norms of behaviour in society.

He provides unintended light entertainment for the reader: 'The tenor of Members' (MPs) small talk changed profoundly in the late 1970s, from gossip largely about post imperial foreign policy issues, to a more informed preoccupation with economic managements. So that's what MPs talk about in the tea-room. Speaking of the post-War consensus, he says profoundly: 'what was no longer desirable ceased to be desired'. Really?

Middlemas uses words to not to describe, analyse or to elucidate but to bludgeon the loyal reader into intellectual submission (or sleep). What he needs is a good university teacher to show him how to sort the wheat of argument and evidence from the chaff of wholly irrelevant detail. Professors ought to know better.

  • Simon Crine is the General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
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