Britain Before the Elections

London-born and a graduate of Oxford, TERENCE PRITTIEwas a prisoner of war in Germany from 1940 to 1945. Following his release, he joined the staff of the MANCHESTER GUARDIAN and served as its correspondent in Germany for the past sixteen years. Now back in London, he takes a discerning look at the changes he finds in his native country.

WHAT is an effective yardstick for measuring national insecurity of mind? One could search for a lifetime and not find a certain answer. Or one could select a yardstick almost at random, which is what I shall do, at the outset of analyzing the broader question of what is the matter with Britain today. For, clearly, a great deal is the matter.

During my sixteen years as a newspaperman in Germany, a tour of duty which I recently completed, I was told time after time that in order to know the Germans one should study their motoring manners. German arrogance, sense of insufficiency, desire to do the other man down and lose not a single minute of overvalued time combine, so I was told, to make the German the most dangerous and unpleasant motorist in Europe. A drive down any autobahn suggested there was much to support this view; the accident rate confirmed it.

British road manners used to be the best of any thickly populated country in Europe. This is no longer the case. Britain’s cities have become maelstroms of desperate effort to get in, out, and, above all, on. London taxi drivers, hitherto as faultlessly mannered a breed as the Afghan hound, are today cranky, crotchety, and jealous on the road. To them there arc only two important rules: keep moving fast, in order to earn as much as possible; and observe a minimum degree of politeness toward passengers, in order to secure a decent tip — largely untaxed, and therefore all the more profitable.

London bus drivers are impelled by a furious impatience over the sheer technical difficulties of maneuvering their heavy craft through crammed and narrow streets and by the need to make up time on the clock and give themselves longer breaks in which to drink their endless cups of tea. London truck drivers are genuinely distracted by the difficulties of unloading their vehicles. The automobile owner is at odds with the rest of society because he can never find room to park his car. He is penalized by lack of space and by the spirit of oafish bureaucracy which is taking an ever firmer grip on British life. What is true of the city is true of the country too. The villages of England, once havens of quiet, are often jammed with motor traffic on weekends. The bypasses which have been built around small towns have in many cases become obsolete. Fifteen-mile-long traffic jams build up on the Exeter bypass, for instance, during the summer months. Bumper-to-bumper progress has become the dominant feature of the life of the English motorist, and it is not surprising that his patience is wearing very thin.

Ill temper, frustration, and a growing sense of impotence have become features of the national mood. This is something which a great many Britons instinctively recognize, however annoyed they may have become when Dean Acheson coined his phrase about Britain’s losing an empire and not yet finding a new role in the world. The phrase caused additional irritation because it was used by a foreigner; an age-old British insularity was deeply offended.

IT MAY be presumptuous to try to analyze the reasons for this national mood of frustration and futility. One can point out some of its signs, but whether it is transient or part of a continuing process of deterioration is any man’s guess. Among these signs has been the ambiguity of British foreign, or world, policies. This ambiguity prompted a young Englishman, John Mander, to write a book, Great BritainLittle England. The book, a big success in terms of the interest it aroused, painted the picture of a Britain no longer sure of itself on the world stage, no longer sure of its role, a Britain going nowhere.

In his book Mander recapped Britain’s worst setback of 1963. In January, General de Gaulle closed the road to Europe against Britain, after the minority of thinking people in the country had come, by way of agonizing reappraisal, to the just conclusion that entry into the Common Market was logical and inevitable. What was the Tory government to do about this setback? Continue to stand, cap in hand, at the door which had been literally slammed in the face of the president of the Board of Trade, Edward Heath, by De Gaulle’s yes-man Foreign Minister, Couve de Murville? Or should the Tory government have protested, raged, sulked?

In the event, it did nothing, accepting defeat with a good grace and a fair display ol dignity. Incongruously, this retreat to passive good manners earned the Tory government as much sympathy inside the country as outside it, where Germans, Italians, Dutchmen, and Belgians all wanted Britain in the Common Market as a makeweight against De Gaulle’s domineering ambition.

It would seem unfair to blame the British government for failure to enter the Common Market, until one recalls that Britain’s efforts to do so began halfheartedly and late. There was a failure to face facts in time. The new role which Mr. Acheson, for instance, might have wanted for Britain could have been that of a firm and enduring bridge between the old world and the new. Britain would have given the Common Market Six increased stability and the benefit of Britain’s own pragmatic and rational processes of thought. As a trading nation. Britain would have ensured close links with the United States, and with Britain in the Common Market there would not today be such a question mark attached to the Kennedy Round tariff talks. To all this, De Gaulle was unalterably opposed.

For Britain, entry into the Common Market would have opened up broader horizons which are now denied. There is some consolation to Britons in whatever remains of the special relationship with the United States, built out of a common language, Anglo-Saxon heritage, and a common way of life. But the Commonwealth, in the past an immense outlet for British energy and initiative, continues to contract. Englishmen may go to the Asian fragments of their former empire to earn, advise, administer, but they go there on sufferance. Britain’s former African domains are on the way to becoming black reserves. Its white partners in the Commonwealth — Canada, Australia, New Zealand — have ceased to be pioneering countries and ready absorbers of immigrants. They have built up increasingly cozy welfare states of their own, and their internal flow of population is all to the big cities, in search of comfort, security, and a high standard ol living. What Canada and the rest want most from Britain is capital and top-grade technicians, which Britain can least afford to spare.

No wonder exclusion from the Common Market was a profound shock to most Britons who had given serious thought to these matters. And it was not surprising to find John Mander advocating, at the end of his book, Britain’s wholehearted entry into Europe as the sole alternative to slow decay into “Little England.” But Mr. Mander’s proposal was — and remains, alas — naïve and unreal. For General de Gaulle continues to bar the way into Europe.

Exclusion from Europe, the contraction of the Commonwealth, the slight waning ol the special relationship with the United States — these factors have combined to induce a mood ol growing claustrophobia in the desperately overcrowded British Isles. This mood has had a twofold effect on British foreign policy. Britain has tended to become the soft partner in the Western alliance’s confrontation of the Communist bloc, and its diplomacy has tended to become increasingly passive. Softness vis-a-vis the Communist bloc has been illustrated by lack of enthusiasm for the embargo on strategic exports to Communist countries, by a certain hesitancy over the crucial Berlin issue, and by a too credulous acceptance of a real thaw in the cold war.

It was typical of an influential section of the British press that it greeted the opening of the chink in the Berlin Wall, when West Berliners were allowed across into East Berlin during the Christmas season, as the sensational beginning of the end of the cold war. One leading British newspaper wrote that the road was now open for mutual recognition of one another by the two German states, lor the inception of some sort of “Confederation between them, and for a special “United Nations status” for West Berlin. These arc precisely the objectives which the Soviet Union has set itself in Germany.

Some West Germans have begun to talk of the “English disease” in the field of foreign policy. Its primary symptom, they say, is the alleged desire of the people of Britain — rather than their government — for a new kind of appeasement, aimed at a compromise over Germany with the Communist bloc which would rob the Berlin issue of its explosive character and so reduce the risk of World War III breaking out in Central Europe. The protagonists of this new appeasement, the new “men of Munich,” are the Beaverbrook Press and the leftwing Laborites, who raise on every possible occasion their stale war chant against the “militarists” and former Nazis in power in Bonn. These are the people who want to perpetuate the division of Germany, little realizing that its division commits the Soviet Union permanently to a policy of political and psychological pressure in Central Europe.

The new British Foreign Secretary, R. A. Butler, confidently announced before Christmas that he was prepared to carry on what had hitherto been the American task of probing Soviet intentions, and that he wanted to meet the Soviet Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, at the earliest possible moment. Was this a sign of a new readiness for action, a new incisiveness in British foreign policy? One must doubt it. Butler is an active and ambitious man. American preoccupation with its own domestic affairs in an election year could encourage him to act as front-runner for the Western alliance. But perhaps the most compelling reason for his announcement was that the Tory Party must somehow chalk up a major success before the stopgap government of Sir Alec Douglas-Home faces a general election and the immensely powerful challenge of a Labor Party which has been twelve years out of office.

IT IS most improbable that the challenge will fail this time. There could be good reasons for a change of government; the mood of national claustrophobia will ensure that it takes place. And a powerful contributory factor will be the uncertainties within the Tory ranks. Their schisms were highlighted by the frenzied debate which followed Harold Macmillan’s announcement of his impending resignation. But they had existed long before that.

The internal Tory plot to remove Macmillan was hatched well before the Profumo scandal. The man who was to have succeeded Macmillan was, of course, Butler, although he was not the originator of the plot. Its moving spirits were men who sat beneath Lord Poole, the figurehead party chairman in the Tory central office. They wanted to put Butler into Macmillan’s place because they believed that the Tories could win the coming election only if they were led by a “man of the center” — in fact, by a left-wing Tory who could gain the support of a large section of the floating vote. Butler was such a man; Macmillan, who had withdrawn increasingly into a pseudo-aristocratic shell, was not.

Paradoxically, the plotters had to postpone their plans when the Profumo scandal broke. This was because they knew that all Tories had to pull together until the manifestly untrue charge of complicity in high places with Profumo had been rebutted. The man to rebut the charges was the Prime Minister. Macmillan was given a breather, in which he began to plan his own campaign to lead the Tories to victory in the 1964 election.

Once again paradoxically, Macmillan’s illness and operation in October checkmated the plotters, They would have sent him a deputation whose members would have made it crystal clear that he ought to resign in favor of Butler. But Macmillan in the hospital and out of reach was a more formidable adversary than Macmillan in his office on Downing Street. For he became totally inaccessible to anyone whom he did not want to see, and once the stream of Cabinet and junior ministers began to flow to his sickbed, it was clear that the next Prime Minister would be the man of his choice. It could not be Butler, whom Macmillan has distrusted ever since the 1938 Munich Agreement, when Butler was an appeaser. It could have been Hailsham or Heath. It turned out to be Home.

The maneuverings of the last few days before Home was chosen have been described by Randolph Churchill in a book and by Ian Macleod in the Spectator. Their versions differ, but the truth would seem to have been as follows:

At the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool the Lord Chancellor, Lord Dilhorne, took a poll of Cabinet ministers at Macmillan’s request in order to determine the best candidate for the post of Prime Minister. The poll, as a result of Lord Dilhorne’s asking an additional, loaded question (roughly, “What is your opinion of Alec Home?”), showed a small majority for Home. At least two ministers, Macleod and Maudling, answered that Home was an excellent person who would be a good Prime Minister if he were not in the House of Lords. Dilhorne took this to mean their approval of Home as Prime Minister if he renounced his title. The two ministers maintain that they meant simply that his title ruled him out.

At Blackpool, too, Major John Morrison, a senior backbencher, conducted a survey of members of Parliament. This also showed a small majority for Home, whom many members preferred as “compromise candidate” to the controversial Hailsham or Butler. Back in London, the party whips organized a third poll in both houses of Parliament. Again Home just led the poll; once more this was because Tory minds were turning increasingly toward a compromise candidate and were influenced by Macmillan’s known aversion to Butler. Home was, indeed, chosen by a democratic process of a sort, but the controversy over his choice has left a rift in the party ranks and a weight of bitterness, which has found expression in Macleod’s trenchant but biased article in the Spectator and the rejoinders of former party colleagues who disapproved of his action.

Home has been proving himself an excellent stopgap Prime Minister, but he has little hope o( capturing the imagination of the British electorate before the elections. Forty years ago, when their popularity seemed to be waning, just as it is today, the Tories chose Stanley Baldwin as their leader. Mundane and prosaic, slow of thought and triumphantly British, Baldwin seemed to be the emblem of middle-class mediocrity. Butler is a man of greater talent and less personality. His appeal would have been considerable to the middlc-of-theroad voter. One leading Tory told me that the choice of Home instead of Butler would “turn a small Tory majority at the next election into a Labor majority of twenty.” He is an optimist; the Labor majority is likely to be nearer eighty.

People deserve the government which they elect. In a few months the British electorate will be returning a Labor government short of talent and experience, lamentably unclear about its policies, and inimical to foreign partners, who distrust its instinct for appeasement and its blatantly expressed insularity. Will this be the government that the people of Britain deserve? It is an invidious task, as an Englishman, to have to try to answer this question.

NATIONAL dissatisfaction is expressed not merely by the deterioration of road manners and the increase of deaths on the road. It is expressed in a score of other ways, some of them incidental. The Profumo and Vassall cases (Vassall, it may be recalled, was a government clerk who gave away secrets to the Russians) have created something of a national complex about sex and security. But these cases were exceptional, and on the whole the British public showed a commendable determination not to be hysterical about them. National dissatisfaction is perhaps more significant when it shows itself in ordinary, day-to-day life.

The big stores, for instance, are adopting a “take it or leave it” tone with their customers, and their accountancy departments are often miracles of inefficiency. Small firms of contractors fight a losing battle with their labor forces, which are capricious, undependable, and often slothful. If a firm undertakes, say, a one-month building job, it can safely be assumed that it will take twice that time to complete it. British workmen under contract have made a fine art of spinning out their normal working hours with tea breaks and then offering their services at overtime pay rates. They see nothing dishonest about this; it has become habit.

Large industrial firms merely lengthen their delivery dates, and so deprive themselves of badly needed export markets. British shipbuilders have begun to order steel from abroad; British shipowners send their ships to German and Dutch harbors for repairs. Public services, like the railways, run at a huge loss, or, like the telephone service, forfeit efficiency. The overloaded London telephone exchange, for instance, has become a laughingstock. Its automatic dialing system can produce crossed lines and wrong numbers without end. Its telephone directories are often out of date. Its operators are overworked. What used to be the best telephone network in Europe is becoming one of the most unpredictable.

National dissatisfaction seeks one outlet through the Trade Unions, which long ago developed into a state within the state — vast corporate organizations which admit responsibility to their members and none to the community. They have refused to accept the general principle that wages should be linked, approximately, with productivity, and by their unending demands for progressive wage claims they have induced inflation, which is jogtrotting at the moment but which periodically breaks into a gallop. The principle which the unions have encouraged is that of higher pay for less work. In the second place, they have instituted the nefarious system of the closed shop, under which all workers in their different groups must join a union or accept discrimination and pressure. One particular union habitually terrorizes typists, office boys, and messengers into becoming members and paying their dues.

National dissatisfaction was expressed more forcibly than ever last year by the wave of sick satire which swept over Britain. Viciousness and vulgarity have become the weapons used to ridicule ordinary as well as leading members of society. A new Grub Street era has begun, and every public figure of the future can expect to be mercilessly lampooned and even defamed. Almost every week the law courts have to deal with cases of libel, and the damages paid out are handsomely covered by the profits made from the retailing of defamatory stories to a scandal-hungry public.

Defamation is one of the weapons of those angry young men who often do not know why they are angry but who arc the victims of the apathy and aimlessness which afflict Britain as a whole. British youth, urged on by a handful of hoary pacifists and fellow travelers, produced the. Committee of 100 which periodically marched to the nuclear-research station at Aldermaston or brought traffic to a standstill in Trafalgar Square. British youth, it must be admitted, has also organized the nationwide Oxfam movement for famine relief. But British youth generally, growing up in an age of lear, is unsure of itself, limited in its ideals and practical aims, and disillusioned with the older generation. It is alarmingly more exhibitionist than the youth of other European countries, affecting outlandish clothes and hairdos, easily provoked to violence, and indulging in mass displays of hysteria (present object of it, the pop-singing Beatles) which put all the past performances of bobby-soxers in the shade.

The effect of all this on the older generation can be curious. Thus a Cabinet minister, Sir Edward Boyle, recently refused to repudiate an official who said that it was “not necessarily unchaste” for a couple to indulge in premarital sexual intercourse. It is highly improbable that Sir Edward practiced anything of the kind himself. It was much more likely that he wanted to be “with it,” a phrase and a way of thought which has helped to create much of the futility of present-day life.

The older generation in Britain remains as richly varied in character as ever. But it is suffering increasingly from the creation of too much spare time with too little to do in it. This difficulty has probably helped to boost liquor sales to record ievcls and raise tobacco consumption despite warnings from government, press, and radio about the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. It has certainly contributed to the craze for bingo, the continuing success of the football pools, and the flourishing success of the betting shops legalized by the Tory government’s ill-conceived Betting Act.

These betting shops can be among the most depressing places in the world, often unheated, chill, airless, and stale with cigarette smoke, thronged with cheerless gamblers who wait in silence for the result of the next race. The “at home” occupation of those who play the football pools is well known. These people waste endless hours evolving mathematical combinations which owe nothing to knowledge or love of the game. In the summer months these millions of pools players are reduced to tipping the results of football matches played according to Australian rules — a game which they have never even seen played. More futile still were the “sham results” organized by the pools promoters in the early months of 1963, when no football was played during a long period of frost. A panel of experts judged what the results would have been had the matches been played. At the expense of all reason, the pools were kept going, and money continued to flow from a gullible public into the pockets of the promoters.

In Britain’s public houses today you w ill find most people drinking too fast to enjoy it, and the talk will be largely of getting out of the congested motherland to Majorca for a holiday, to Paris for a weekend, to Brussels for a business trip, to anywhere. Britons in no way reject their country. But it has become as stale and airless as the betting shops.

A few years after the war, the Beaverbrook Press, so often wrong in its predictions, foretold a new Elizabethan age, evidently for no better reason than that another Elizabeth had mounted the throne, and started on a series of personality sketches of the “new Elizabethans.” One would have to hunt very hard for new Elizabethans today, and ail that one might dig out would be pop singers, sellers of hire purchase and washing machines, and a few writers of blood-and-thunder fiction. The vision of a genuine new Elizabethan age has faded with the furtive haste of a dream.

One must leaf back through a great many pages of British history before one finds another age so apathetic and apologetic as the present. For well over two hundred years the red thread of imperial tradition — red was the color of everything British on the map — ran through Britain’s history. Perhaps the nearest parallel to the present was the Britain of 1715 to 1745, when peace was precariously maintained, men were left free to line their pockets, and Britain first began to acquire the characteristics of a nation of shopkeepers. The long era of expanding empire which followed made Britain rich and forced it to build an unbeatable navy to protect its wealth. Let no man scoff unduly at this; it was because Britain was a trading and seafaring nation that it was able to help save Europe from the domination of Napoleon, the Kaiser, and Hitler.

Just over two hundred years ago. in 1759, Britain had a “year of victories” on land and sea. But 1963 was a year of overall drabness, although there were some compensations arising from instinctive moderation and common sense. Like a faded gentlewoman, Britain warded oil the stigma of the Profumo scandal. It won more sympathy from its Common Market defeat than it had ever gained by trying to become one with the Europeans. It struggled through a difficult economic year with fair success. At the end of the year, its Foreign Minister was even talking of a foreign-policy revival.

The British have shown immense resilience in the past. But this has usually been because of overseas obligations, Britain’s rank as a world power, and reserves of wealth and technical skills. Today’s enemy of claustrophobia is more dangerous than any faced in the past, for to a once great nation there is no more oppressive feeling than having horizons close in. By June we may see Labor in power and an electorate passively waiting to be wet-nursed by the welfare state. Is Britain moving toward a new Dead Sea level of mediocrity? It looks uncommonly likely to be the case.