Monday, 12 October 2009

Fifty years ago, we never had it so good. Possibly.

It is just 50 years since Harold Macmillan's Tories were re-elected in the "You never had it so good" election. For my part, in October 1959 I was at school in Yorkshire and, for reasons I have long since forgotten, I found myself the Liberal candidate in my school's mock election. It was my first-ever political involvement and almost the only time I have ever won any kind of contest.

I suppose I chose to be a Liberal because my parents were. They were News Chronicle readers; the title folded the following year, whereupon they switched to the Guardian. I don't remember having anything you could really call a clear political stance at the time, except that I didn't like the Tories because I felt, more intuitively than intellectually, that they represented the wealthy, and looked down their noses at the less well-off. I remember having a vague feeling that they were snobby and that the world was all rather unfair, so it must have been their fault, since they had been in power for ever, as it seemed at the time. I suppose I must have unconsciously picked up these rather crude views from my parents.

I cannot have been very familiar with the campaign or the party leaders, because we didn't have a TV at the time so I would not have seen any of them in action. Gaitskell made no impression at all. Grimond, I think, came across as a very attractive character, though I may be saying that with hindsight.

It is rather paradoxical that I took against Macmillan's Conservatives so strongly in 1959, because in much later years I became secretly quite fond of him, or anyway of his no doubt somewhat artificially constructed persona -- Edwardian, languid and patrician, a one-nation type in stark contrast to Thatcher and her grasping, selfish, shrill, narrow, suburban estate agents and similar vulgar arrivistes.

In fact 20 years later I actually travelled some distance to hear Macmillan speak at a European election meeting. (The only Conservative election meeting I have ever attended, by the way.) He was well into his eighties, but he turned in an absolutely sparkling performance; astute and witty, and conjuring up an inspiring vision of the European future with Britain playing a key role. Sadly that was not to be.

Why did I win the mock election in 1959? It is a mystery. I doubt if there was any particularly strong support for Liberal ideology. I can only think that I must have run a livelier campaign. I do remember putting yellow fliers up (all laboriously hand-written) on lamp-posts and telegraph poles everywhere, and my mother insisting I go round and take them all down after it was over. I have no memory of any hustings meeting, though we must surely have been required by the headmaster to say something or other. I also can't remember who were my Tory and Labour opponents, or the size of my "majority".

This past weekend, BBC Parliament has been showing absolutely fascinating archive stuff from that election, including Richard Dimbleby presenting the results show from Lime Grove, with David Butler going on about percentage swing, and Bob Mackenzie at the swingometer; and several hustings programmes, involving the likes of Ian Mikardo, Barbara Castle, Jo Grimond and Julian Amery, and a really rather impressive Liberal called Baker that I have never heard of and who must I think have left politics shortly afterwards.

The PPBs were hilariously stilted, and absolutely everybody talked with an unimaginably plummy accent, even Mikardo; but much of the actual political debate seemed amazingly similar to now. The same arguments about fairness and tax; the same arguments about the role of the state vs. the role of the market; the same arguments about ill-considered foreign military adventures (then Suez, now Iraq). Truly there is almost nothing new under the sun.