‘They were serious men on a serious mission in a dangerous world… the contrast with 50 years later is seriously sobering’

Our columnist Agromones tells a 'seriously sobering' tale of life in government from a different, yet not so distant era.

It was a dark, cold night and the lights in No 10 were blazing. The nation was in crisis and its civil servants were still at their desks. Only one set of windows was different: no bright lights, only a diffused glow — the Prime Minister’s Political Office. The strict distinction between party politics and national decision making was being fully observed. For this was ‘the three-day week’ and the key civil-service personnel were classed as essential, whereas party-political workers were clearly not.

The door of No 10 opened to one of the Prime Minister’s political secretaries carrying a large Army and Navy bag. It was filled with camping-gas cylinders to recharge the lamps by which his team continued to work. Diaries still had to be updated and correspondence answered. In an age before emails, letters had to be sent. Nevertheless, no one suggested that the team should bunch up with the civil servants, still less that they would ignore the restrictions.

This was a Prime Minister schooled in war. One of our youngest brigadiers, grammar-school educated and an organ scholar at Oxford, Ted Heath would never have countenanced treating his staff differently from what he asked of the population as a whole. After all, when he was at the Front, his monarch had the line around his bath to ensure that he used no more hot water than was allowed to his subjects. It was called ‘leadership’ and it suffused the attitudes of a generation for whom One Nation ideals had been burnished in the fire of war. These were officers who didn’t forget the men with whom they served and the responsibilities that peacetime recovery involved.

“All had a real vision for the nation and the world they wanted and each was in politics to try to achieve it”

Of course, they had their faults and their blind spots. Britain then was much less accepting of difference, much more universally prejudiced about race and sexual orientation, the privileges of birth much more obvious and the establishment very clearly in control. The Swinging Sixties were still a revolt, not a transformation. Knowing how to behave had its cruel downsides, especially when it came to judging those who behaved differently.

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To today’s generation, Harold Macmillan and Heath seem uptight, buttoned-up individuals, neither of them at home in the pub; neither could possibly be considered a ‘bit of a wag’, nor would either be seen in public with a hair out of place. They were, however, serious men on a serious mission in a dangerous world — as were their political opponents, Harold Wilson, Hugh Gaitskell, Jim Callaghan — all struggling with the realities of immense industrial change in a post-war world. None of them would easily electrify or entertain an audience, but all had a real vision for the nation and the world they wanted and each was in politics to try to achieve it.

Both sides led parties that were respectful of Parliament and the rule of law. Their members were connected directly with the real world. Few had been professional politicians and most expected to have other jobs as well. Almost all had done things outside politics and their outside interests, whether it was in the City, the courts or in the Trade Union movement, gave them current knowledge of life as it was being lived. Almost exclusively male, involved only in the most essential of constituency issues, often distant from constituents, these were by no means paragons.

However, they fought to maintain Parliamentary control over the executive; they recognised the role of the Opposition in controlling the Parliamentary timetable, limited guillotines to the absolute minimum and debated bills line by line in committee instead of leaving revision to the House of Lords. Parliament in 1973–74 wasn’t by any means perfect, but the contrast with 50 years later is seriously sobering.