by Norman St. John Stevas
THE surprise result of the election has now been absorbed and we are able to look both forward and back. The scale of the Conservative victory has been astonishing: to dislodge a Government with sudh a large majority at one election has been a major electoral achievement and one has to go back to 1906 to find a parallel.
I am naturally delighted at the outcome and at my own return for Chelmsford with a majority of over 13,000. We have not had a majority of that size since 1935 in a Chelmsford which was a totally different place then from the modern industrialised town of today. To any constituents who read this column (and who voted for me) I tender my grateful thanks.
Why did this result come about? One thing it had' very little to do with was the low poll. From an examination of the constituency results one can see that in many constituencies with a high poll the swine against the Government was higher than in those with a low one. The causes of the Labour defeat go deeper.
First, the electorate had formed a deep distrust of Mr. Wilson and clearly did not believe him when he maintained that all was right with the economy. In these circumstances his insistence on fighting a personal presidential campaign proved a major error.
Second, the electorate perceived (as Mr. Crossman has since confirmed) that the Labour party had run out of ideas and that there were no policies for the future.
Third, Mr. Heath in the closing week of the campaign managed to put himself and his policies across in a remarkably positive way and this led to a swing towards the Conservatives which accelerated as the campaign drew to a close. I cannot say that I expected the result, but it was clear to me on polling day that it was going to be very close. My fear was that the Conservative recovery would not reach its climax until shortly after polling day.
The election has been a personal Iriumnh for Mr. Heath. Those of us who know him well and have been able to see his qualities at close range have never doubted that he had the makings of a great Prime Minister. but the question-mark over his future was whether he could get himself over to the electorate. The election result has shown that he succeeded in this and is at the beginning of an upward ascent which will establish him fairly in the regard of the people.
No one will ever forget the inner strength he showed in the closing part of the campaign when written off by the polls. the commentators and virtually every newspaper in the country, he maintained his principles, his confidence and his dignity. This will stand him in good stead in the future.
As far as Mr. Heath personally is concerned the election result was a great act of justice. He refused to be deflected from his strategy of painstakingly and rationally putting the issues before the people and in the end they supported him.
The Conservative victory has also had the effect of containing if not disposing of Powellism about whose erowth my colleague, Mr. Ian Waller, was so concerned last week. Had the Tory party lost by a sizeable majority there would have been an attempt by some to take over the party and move it to the right. 1 do not believe that it would have succeeded, but the party would have been so weakened by internal strife that it would have been out of office for a generation.
Some daunting challenges
Mr. Powell is still a force to be reckoned with: he will go on stirring the immigration pot: he will emerge as the leader of the anti-Common Market forces in Britain, but his own personal position has been greatly weakened by the Tory victory. To be fair to him he must have known this when he threw such influence as he has behind the national party at the end of the campaign. He is a remarkable and complex man and we have not heard the last of him.
The Tory Government faces some daunting challenges. Mr. Heath is pledged to get taxation down at a time when the position of the economy is not strong but precarious. He has to succeed in getting a high rate of economic growth without throwing the balance of payments into deficit. He has to reshape the social services so that the new poor are helped rather than the new rich.
Here 1 have the greatest confidence in the Prime Minister. He is a much more compassionate man than the electorate has yet grasped. His concern for efficiency is in the tradition of Pitt and Peel, but he also has a concern for the less well off which makes him the successor of Shaftesbury and Disraeli. He has furthermore, unlike them, experienced the ill effects of poverty' at first hand. Unlike some who have risen high he has not become callous in the process.
If he wants a more efficient and competitive society it is because he sees that this is the only form of society that can meet the demands that will be placed upon it in the future—the need, for a higher quality of life for the majority.
As to our foreign policy he is much more likely to succeed in making Britain an integral part of Europe than his predecessor and without a Trade Union Trojan horse inside the parliamentary party, he also stands a good chance of creating a better system of industrial relations. Altogether I think the Conservative Government of 1970 is going to be the most exciting we have had since the Labour Government of 1945.
As to Mr. Wilson, he will continue as Leader of the Labour Party, and I do not see any serious challenge emerging to his authority. Once he has got over the shock of defeat he will bounce back and make a formidably effective Leader of the Opposition. He will face a challenge from the Left, but he will contain it without much difficulty.
His own roots, despite the metamorphosis in government, are in the Left of the party not the Right. He accepted his defeat with dignity and goodwill, and even at that dark moment managed to show some sparks of the old virtuosity.
Democracy is a great leveller. The sight of the green removal vans moving down Downing Street within hours of the. election result being known was a symbol that it is the decision of the people which is final. Yet in politics there is always hope which is an intrinsic part of its fascination. There is only one irretrievable mistake and that is to die. Then you really are finished (as far as politics are concerned), but until then the struggle goes on and victory goes to the strong, the resourceful and the resilient.
Mr. Wilson is likely to be around for a considerable time to come.