Hailsham: Few will miss the irony

of his son replacing David Davis,

a genuine modern Tory ‘Big Beast’.

Watching last night’s rerun by the BBC of its election night coverage of the 1979 election (Oh happy days!) I was forcibly struck by three singular things. Firstly that our modern politicians are but pygmies in the forest compared to those of yore. Secondly that the notion that ideology is dead is false. Thirdly that the BBC was then a model, though not perfect, of rectitude when it came to balance.

When we talk, idly, today of the ‘Big Beasts’ of this or that party, one is tempted to laugh at the application of such a sobriquet to any of our current crop of politicians. Thirty years ago the BBC was able to parade some real ‘Big Beasts’ (whatever one’s political commitment). Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, may have been something of a maverick in his day, but he was able, in 1979, on the cusp of becoming Margaret Thatcher’s Lord Chancellor, to call upon experience of politics and elections going back to 1924. A Fellow of All Souls at the tender age of 24, he won a famous bye-election at Oxford in 1938 and remained in front line politics until he was eighty, having been, in 1963, a serious contender for his party’s leadership. A platoon commander in The Rifle Brigade in the Western Desert where he was badly wounded, he spent the rest of the war as a Staff Officer, giving him an excellent vantage point from which to view the world and consolidate his personal philosophy.

Denis Healey may not be to everyone’s taste: the harm he inflicted on the British military aviation industry as Harold Wilson’s defence minister was nothing short of criminal and as Chancellor he presided over the near bankruptcy of the nation that Labour and the Trades Unions had together managed to effect by 1979. He had been a Communist at Oxford but resigned over the Molotov-Robbentrop Pact after which he too had a decent war, seeing action as a Royal Engineer in North Africa, Sicily and at Anzio. Entering Parliament in 1952, he became, notwithstanding his own middle class upbringing, a fierce class warrior who once threatened anyone with the aspiration to work hard and make money that it would be a pointless exercise as he planned to “tax the rich until they squealed”: in other words, a quintessential ‘tax & spend’ Socialist. By the time he left office in 1979 could look back on forty years in politics. None would deny him the title of ‘Big Beast’.

With that thought in mind,one might own to letting Gordon brown call himself a ‘Big Beast’. Certainly he has the intellect and his occupation of Number Eleven Downing Street for so long provides a basis for his inclusion in their ranks. But Alistair Darling? Or Jacqui Smith? I think not.

Like so many vanished samples of our erstwhile megafauna, many more of similar stature passed across the screen. One was struck too by the way in which the politicians of the time spoke not in the jargonesque language of the policy wonk about the minutiae of this or that policy, but in a language which betokened a broad deep view of life that was readily accessible by any voter.

Which leads me on to this. It was quite extraordinary to hear how much the debate then mirrors so much the debate of today in this sense. Several Tories were asked about their political vision. Almost to a man they spoke of their desire for a stripping back of the State and reducing the State’s intervention in our lives so that the citizen might take control of his or her life and make his or her choices as how best to manage it. Labour politicians were, on the other hand, vigourously supporting the notion that by high taxation the State could better manage our lives for us. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Is that not exactly where we are at this very moment? It is as if the last thirty years had never been. Many of us thought that we had buried Labour’s 1970s dinosaur view of the world, yet here we are in much the same position as we were then. Every indication is that we are moving into a period when the electorate wants to throw off the shackles of the State and its spendthrift ways.

Healey: he would doubtless have sold

off his own grandmother but

it would
be wrong to say he

was anything other

a Labour ‘Big Beast’

That we find ourselves in such a position is evidence, I submit, of how little Labour has actually changed since the 1970s and how ‘New’ Labour has actually been, far from being ‘new’ in the least, a skilfull exercise in dressing mutton up as lamb, driven by that quintessential 1970s politician Gordon Brown and enthusiastically supported by the bulk of the Labour Party. Only now are the likes of Alan Milburn and others discovering the virtues of low tax and the small state when they sense political oblivion looming for those who would loot the hard-earned wages and savings of the people. It seems that we must slay this Socialist Dragon all over again.

Finally, I had forgotten how much intellectual rigour the likes of Robin Day and others brought to the business of the BBC. I looked carefully for any overt sign of the rampant anti-Tory bias with which we are now so familiar. On this programme at least it was indiscernible, though one remembers only too well that, taken as a whole, the BBC’s output (and I mean to include in this such things as ‘Play for Today’) still reflected an innate and instinctive left-liberal cast. It would have been impossible to determine the political leanings of any of the BBC’s presenters from that programme. Their modern counterparts are not so shy.

Which brings me back to a final thought. Many are today trying to paint David Davis as irresponsible and feckless, a loose cannon bucking all over the deck of HMS Cameron. I wonder. In many of the comment sections there seems to be a fair preponderance in favour of his stand. Might it be that people are heartily sick of the preference of our modern political elite for the politics of cynical calculation and instead admire someone who is prepared to take a stand on an issue can genuinely be described as one of high principle?

Of course it pays Labour to try and paint him thus: that way they can weasel out of putting up a candidate they know will be pulverised, along with their proto-Stasi policies. The truth is that under their gutless Leader they instinctively flinch at fighting any fight based on genuine principle and would much prefer the politics to be of the ‘tax, bribe, spend and bung’ variety. David Davis is to be applauded for his courage.

He has been a formidable campaigner against Socialism in and out of Parliament and can point to a well-rounded career outside politics. He is not merely a worthy entrant to The Huntsman’s Pantheon but might properly aspire to the sobriquet ‘Big Beast’.