Friday, 18 April 2008

High Speed Vass Gets Things Done

Private Eye's nickname for Sir Alec Douglas-Home was "Baillie Vass" owing to an early photographic mix up in a local newspaper(I think - it might just have been a lookalike*). It was savage to him from the beginning of his brief premiership (63-64) and blamed Macmillan for selecting him as a two fingers to the other candidates for the leadership after Mac's doctors told him to quit. In those days the Conservative Party took "soundings" - suggestions, informal votes, expressions of support - from senior members and the leader made his recommendation to HM The Queen. Ted Heath was the first Tory leader to be voted to the leadership. The Eye said of the Home selection: "...The Party wanted Butler. The People as a Whole Wanted Butler. Why Wasn't Butler Chosen?" and gives Mac a speech bubble replying: "Because I hate bloody Butler's guts". The Eye were particularly vicious towards Home, mainly on the basis of his lack of legitimacy as a leader (they sent Willie Rushton as a rival candidate when he had to fight for a Commons seat) but also because they felt that urgent action was needed to save Britain from a long drawn out decay, as well as from the odour of corruption and taint that had become such a marked aspect of the Macmillan premiership. There was also a sense that as a noble he was out of touch with both the people and political reality. The long needed action was eventually promised by Wilson, who won the 1964 election by 4 seats ( and thus provided a kind of retrospective justification for Macmillan's decision - it was much narrow than had been expected during '63). This close election frustrated Wilson's desire to forge a new Britain out of the heats of the technological revolution (though the Eye would also lampoon Anthony Wedgewood Benn and his enthusiasm for technology during this government). So Britain was not revolutionised: the Tories were less unelectable after Heath, Grammar School & no peerage, was more of a man of the people than either Mac or Home or Eden, even if his manner and lack of an apparent family did him few favours. The long period in office and the scandal and the failure really to kick-start the economy did not stop the Tories from unexpectedly winning in 1970.

Baillie Vass did more for the Conservatives by not doing much than Mac or Butler would probably have done (Mac was ok, it turned out). Wilson promised far more than he could deliver and so his government is remembered more for its social legislation than its extremely dodgy economic record and failure to address the increasing problem of union militancy (In Place of Strife got absolutely nowhere, facing too much opposition from within Labour) - hence it gets a much easier ride from modern commentators than it perhaps deserves. What did Vass do for the country? Not much, he didn't set out to - he set out to hold the political fort against Labour's fierce Commons operator Wilson and against the increasingly cynical public view of the Tories. Did he put party before country? Probably - show me a politician who doesn't and I'll show you a failed candidate. But he also struck a small blow against corruption and against the creed of "action" - the belief that it will all be fine if we sweep through and turn everything upside down; or that if we have a "vision", just a vision, that will somehow turn into competence or become inspiring to others. He struck, or rather, tapped out, a blow for reality, in its dullness.

He kind of succeeded. Quite an epitaph for any of us, I'm sure.

*Douglas-Home's wikipedia entry gives the story.


Crushed said...

He was also of course, one the best Foreign Secretaties the country ever had, which is why Heath kept him on in that position.

The Tin Drummer said...

Yes.. I imagine his fairly easygoing manner and patrician air helped him in that job..Heath, though he was passionate about EEC entry, was not easy to do deals with, by all accounts.