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Heath and Thatcher in Opposition


Eric Caines


London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Hardback. xiv+314 p. ISBN 978-1137602459. £63


Reviewed by Trevor Harris


Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)





In this highly readable account, Eric Caines discusses Heath and Thatcher as leaders of the Opposition – as well as the “contemporarily expressed views of the principal players” [xiii] over the period covered (1964-1979). But Caines also places Heath and Thatcher in opposition to each other and tracks their movement within the “spectrum […] from Butskellism to Thatcherism” [1]. Caines’ analysis of their tactics, strategy and policy choices, highlighting as it does a number of differences between the two politicians, underlines the very fluid and complex nature of Conservatism. Indeed, the book can perhaps best be seen as a study of the adaptations of British Conservatism during the period seen by many as corresponding to the breakdown of the post-war settlement. Caines, above all, has produced a chronicle of what has often been labelled the “nasty party”. He isolates its “instinct for pragmatism” [4], its desire to be “all things to all men”; a characteristic more flatteringly presented as a “comprehensive tolerance” [8]. “Butskellism was not Thatcherism,” he argues, “but both were indisputably Conservatism” [9].

The analysis of this Darwinian capacity to mutate efficiently in order to benefit from changes in the environment, is divided into thirteen clear, well-written chapters. Did the Tories, Caines asks himself, go back to abandoned roots in 1964 or 1974? Or did a new Conservatism emerge from the inevitable soul-searching which follows electoral defeat? One outcome seems very clear. Edward Heath’s drive to technocratic micromanagement led to his fairly prompt political demise. Margaret Thatcher, by contrast, having studiously avoided early commitment to a detailed programme, reaped the rewards of flexibility. Indeed, one of the most prominent dimensions of this book is that it places Thatcher back into a context which her long period in office and iron lady image have subsequently obscured. The folk hero of the right and hate-figure of the left was yet to be constructed and is here returned to the realms of the more human, even vulnerable circumstances during which she was required to prove herself. Caines emphasises her “instinctive caution” [255]: for example, with the concept of monetarism with which she came to be so closely associated; but also, initially, where the trade unions were concerned. In sum, Caines sees her at this point in her career not as a brazen or radical intellectual, but as a cautious, and instinctive politician [244].


The Tories, after thirteen consecutive years in power, found it difficult, in 1964, to get used to being in opposition again. Caines shows just how disorganised and poorly coordinated the party initially was. The “Wilson factor” [34] caused a major stir and set in train a period of reflection which from the outset had a number of conservatives worried: those who felt that Burke and Disraeli ought to be enough. There were many in the Party – Thatcher among them – who instinctively felt that too much preparation was not necessarily a good thing. How would an incoming Conservative government stick to multifarious promises if circumstances were to change? [43]: Caines quotes the example of Quintin Hogg reacting anxiously in respect of the work being done, under the new leadership of Heath, by Policy Group 20 (on industrial relations) which found itself working in the shadow of the Donovan Commission [45]. Caines argues that “Heath and his colleagues failed entirely to recognise the need to allow themselves sufficient flexibility to adapt their carefully worked-out policies to changing circumstances” [99].


If Wilson had enjoined Labour to forge a new Britain in the “white heat” of the technological revolution, Heath was equally set on hustling his Party into his own vision of planning for the future. PG20 was just one of a vast array of policy groups, each of which Heath had charged to come up with “a specific solution to a specific problem” [47]. It was an approach which threw a large pebble into the pond of traditionally untroubled waters of Conservative thought. Enoch Powell was to prove the most regular and redoubtable critic of Heath’s methods: Powell, the “seer”, the “poet”, against Heath – as John Biffen described him –, the “super management consultant / technocrat / administrator” [77]. The colossal agitation seemed all the more difficult to sanction inasmuch as policy still appeared to be less than perfectly coordinated by 1969 (and even, in some cases, by 1970). Caines makes Tory positioning and thinking seem very un-sure-footed. Yet Labour were not going away. They went on to win a second election in 1966 and now posed a serious threat: the effort to open up clear blue water between the Tories and Labour was becoming a pressing and more contested issue. Heath’s technocratic vision was not carrying all before it in the party. And, as Caines remarks, the distinctiveness of that vision was being eroded anyway: when looking at the policies on offer in the area of industrial relations, especially the Conservative document Fair Deal at Work (April 1968) and In Place of Strife (January 1969) were concerned, “The parallels […] are not difficult to discern” [83-84].


The Tory Party went on to win, of course, in June 1970. The policy work done in the lead-up to that unexpected success rankled, none the less, with many, appearing to be a very un-Tory way to behave. The European-inspired, technocratic planning and forecasting, soon unravelled and proved to be an elaborate, even earnest, exercise in painting oneself into a political corner. This was an essentially uncharacteristic and inherently contradictory approach for a party which boasted of its non-ideological credentials. Heath’s attempt to fashion what was, in effect, a contradiction in terms for many Tories, a sort of pro-active empiricism, ended in failure and a major political U-turn in government. Heath’s team certainly contained many talented individuals. But the essence of the unforeseeable is that one cannot see it coming. Planning for contingencies – or so the received wisdom went / goes – is, at best, a series of good guesses and gambles or, at worst, what amounts to a disturbing exercise in wishful thinking, even a form of rationalistic self-deception. Heath and his 1970-government were to be as flies to wanton boys to the changed circumstances. They had become “detached from reality” [101], and ended up spouting policy options described by one American journalist as “twaddle” [103].


The contrast with the behaviour of Thatcher is stark. According to Nigel Lawson, she in fact represented Conservative “continuity interrupted only by thirty years of post-war apostasy” [119]. Caines’ account then follows this post-1974 “fight for the soul of the Conservative Party” [126], a fight between what Thatcher came to call the “wets” and the “dries”. The latter set about unpicking “the concept of collectivism which had been shared by both parties for the previous thirty years” [126] and the “distortions” – as they saw it – this had produced. Paramount in this context was the role of Keith Joseph and his “crusade” in favour of a monetarist approach to Britain’s economic ills. Anyone who heard one of his speeches at the time would find it difficult to deny his missionary zeal. His overarching ideal of a wide-ranging embourgeoisement of the British population, his espousal of monetarism and a social market, and his willingness to address the trade union question head-on, mean that, for Caines, Joseph’s ideas already contained “the core ideological content of what came to be called ‘Thatcherism’ ” [143].


Keith Middlemas – whom Caines quotes a number of times – has argued that Heath’s attempt to stay in power following the February 1974 debacle was seen by his fellow Conservatives as attempting to strike “a corrupt bargain with the Liberal party” [153]. The attempt was botched and Heath became, to an even greater extent after the defeat in October 1974, a dead weight. And, having won the leadership ballot in February 1975, Thatcher eased herself slowly into the job and used a very different approach from Heath’s hands-on / top down method. Above all, policy preparation in too much detail was “an approach to which Thatcher and Joseph had not been sympathetic” [154]. Having been defeated on the theme of “who governs Britain”, the major policy nettles remained to be grasped; namely, those which had sunk the previous governments – inflation and industrial relations. But Thatcher would bide her time.


The implication – and an idea shared by many Conservatives – that they had lost the elections in 1964 and 1966 principally because no one really understood what they stood for, was accompanied by an even less palatable alternative explanation: that they had lost the election because people knew that they stood for something similar to Labour, or rather that they were intent on making the same mistakes as Labour. Where had the Conservative alternative gone? The Conservative Party was surely the alternative to doctrinaire, rigid, government-by-numbers. “Selsdon Man” – an attempt to set in stone a set of unwritten assumptions about, especially, economic management –  had been derided by Harold Wilson in the Commons, but was perhaps also the reason why Conservatives had failed at the ballot box.


Events, however, were soon to come to the Tories’ rescue. In 1979, the electorate would have the choice between a Labour Party which had apparently accepted the idea that in order to control inflation – and therefore unemployment – the money supply was key, and a Conservative Party which had reached the same conclusion. The daylight between the two would be visible in their industrial relations policy. Labour’s attempt to revive the British patient by administering more of the same medicine that already wasn’t working had given way to Callaghan’s speech to the 1976 Labour Conference, and his conviction that it was now impossible for any government to spend its way out of recession through the application of measures inspired by Keynesian demand management. Labour’s economic policy, following the IMF intervention in 1976, actually seemed to be working. Callaghan’s unwillingness to force the trade union question, however – Callaghan had cut his political teeth within the trade union movement and had been a staunch opponent of In Place of Strife – meant that this was to become a key part of the battleground for the next election. A Conservative change of direction in respect of industrial relations was prefigured in remarks such as that made by Norman Tebbit against the backdrop of the Grunwick dispute in 1977, during which he compared Jim Prior’s conciliatory attitude to “the morality of Laval and Petain” [220]. The vehemence – as well as the obvious historical absurdity – of Tebbit’s tirade was, as yet, unpalatable to a majority of voters and, Caines argues, to many in the Tory Party itself. The suspicion, indeed, the fear was still that, in order to be distinctive, a Tory government would have to be extremist in its approach to union power.


For Caines, it was Thatcher’s ability to gauge this sentiment, and to wait to see in what direction it would be possible for policy to go, which made her leadership bid successful. Right up to 1978, according to Caines, Thatcher “had a limited commitment to change” [217]: particularly where the unions were concerned he sees in her behaviour an “anxiety to avoid commitments” [224]. And Thatcher was certainly not unassailable in the early years of her leadership. Two things, however, would propel a tougher stance on the unions to the front of the Conservative policy queue: Callaghan’s decision to put off an election until 1979, and the Winter of Discontent. Labour’s change of economic clothes was apparently proving successful. But the unions and Britain’s embattled public sector were clearly not ready to adopt the same fashions. Labour may have seemed to steal Keith Joseph’s monetarist ideas in 1976, but the conversion was of limited use if the government would not also adopt union reform in order to make the application of monetarist policies stick. Once even Jim Prior himself had come round to the idea of reform, Joseph and his Centre for Policy Studies, which he set up in May 1974 to counter the over-consensual Conservative Research Department, then had a clear run. But Caines insists that this became possible by virtue of events, and that Thatcher moved with the latter much more readily than she moved with Joseph’s – or anyone else’s – ideas. Contrary to the received opinion handed down as a consequence of Thatcher’s time in power, Caines sees her as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, waiting for the opportunity to promote a decisive policy for which the country appeared to be ready.


Many will feel as they read Caines’ book that it amounts to an apology for Thatcherism. But there is no doubting his closeness to the political action during the years concerned. He provides genuine insights into Conservative bickering, the day-to-day manoeuvring, and jockeying for position within the party hierarchy as Heath struggled to impose himself and face down critics who had been present ever since his election to the leadership, and who re-emerged following the 1974 defeats. Caines’ argument that Thatcher displayed caution and only committed herself when she knew she had a good chance of winning seems plausible in the light of subsequent events. Its plausibility is enhanced by the fact that at the time of her leadership pitch her talents were still patently misunderstood by some of the more experienced politicians around her. Adding to the list of examples which illustrate that politicians can get things horribly wrong, even the most fundamental things, is perhaps a futile exercise. But in the context of Caines’ study nobody could be immune to the monumental misjudgement of an unnamed Labour minister, reported in the Economist in February 1975 on the eve of the final round of the Conservative leadership election who claimed that, if Thatcher was elected “Labour would be in power for twenty-five years” [239].



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