Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

Westland – did the helicopter firm really bring Thatcher to the brink?

  From the perspective of hindsight, the middle term of the Thatcher government in 1983-87 may look like plain sailing. It did not seem like it at the time; it was the parliament of the ‘banana skin’ – a term then used to describe a number of unrelated mishaps which tripped up several ministers. The biggest, slipperiest banana skin of them all was the Westland Affair, the one that led Margaret Thatcher to speculate on 27 January 1986 that: I may not be Prime Minister by six o’clock tonight. How did the business arrangements of a helicopter manufacturing company in Yeovil bring Thatcher apparently so close to the edge? She even stepped back at one point after a long meeting between senior ministers and marvelled: Do you realise we have spent three hours of precious time discussing a company with a capitalisation of only £30 million? What is the world coming to? Westland was in financial trouble in 1985 and was looking for a commercial partner so that it could sort out its problems. There were two options: a tie-up with the US helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky (through its parent company United Technology Industries, UTC) or a European consortium. The Thatcher government was divided, in an increasingly public, embarrassing and vitriolic argument, on the best course of action. The main disruptive element was Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State for Defence, who actively supported the European option and worked hard for it, politically and commercially. Heseltine feared that Sikorsky was interested in Westland because it could be used to get a piece of the enormous Al-Yamamah arms deal agreed between Saudi Arabia and the UK in 1985, which allegedly mentioned an order of 80 helicopters. Defence procurement – the very word has a slight whiff of the illicit – has never been a simple or transparent industry and Westland was a cork bobbing on the surface above deeper currents. It should not have been a big political issue. The government professed neutrality, although Thatcher herself had sympathy for the US option. But it worked on fault lines that were already there. Although Heseltine had been a good Thatcherite in many ways, particularly in the 1983 election on defence, their personal styles clashed. Many suspected Heseltine was looking for a reason to have a ‘good resignation’ as part of a long term career plan. A confrontation about something was clearly in the air, and it coalesced around Westland. Heseltine grew frustrated in late 1985 that the future of Westland was not being discussed in Cabinet, and Thatcher felt that Heseltine was blatantly ignoring collective Cabinet responsibility. In retrospect Thatcher should have sacked Heseltine for insubordination in December 1985. She would have...

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Introducing the ‘Balfour gambit’ – when a government resigns for no apparent reason

Introducing the ‘Balfour gambit’ – when a government resigns for no apparent reason

    Last month I wrote about the events of 30 years ago – the Westland scandal that divided the Thatcher government and caused two Cabinet resignations in early 1986. I allowed another anniversary to pass by, namely 110 years since the last Liberal overall majority was elected in the landslide of 1906. It is just about feasible that the same individual may have been able to vote both in the 1906 election and in the 1987 election that followed Westland, in the latter case as a man aged 103 or so, but there are few other threads linking the two. The events of the 1906 campaign, and the broad shape of the results, are a familiar enough story. The Conservatives, tired, divided and beset by resignations after a long spell in government, stumbled into one of the worst defeats in their history. A chain of consequences was set in motion that led to the establishment of the welfare state, the rise of the Labour Party, Irish independence and the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords. It was quite an important election in historical perspective, but the coming of the 1906 election was the result of a rather strange manoeuvre that suggests that it was a bit of a game that got severely out of hand. We are accustomed to the expectation that a sitting government calls an election at the end of its parliamentary term, and if the election result is negative the Prime Minister then tenders the resignation of the government, or in some cases remains in office to explore the possibility of forming a coalition (1974, 2010) or face parliament to be formally defeated (1886, 1892, 1923-24). Occasionally, though, a novel variation could happen in that a government could resign and put the other side in before an election had taken place, even without suffering what would generally be regarded as a defeat on a vote of confidence. Gladstone and Rosebery did this in 1885 and 1895, essentially turning the keys of Downing Street over to Salisbury. It was therefore odd, but not unprecedented, for the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour to return them to the Liberals without a fight in December 1905. Party leaders and strategists are often not very good at assessing events and tendencies in the other party. They sometimes believe their own propaganda and either underestimate their opponents, or else endow them with imagined near-supernatural powers of political manipulation in order to find psychologically satisfying explanations for losing. This happened even in the clubland environment of Edwardian politics where despite the vicious intensity of party conflict the Liberal and Conservative elites were socially intertwined. The relative ease...

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The 1966 election – 50 years on

The 1966 election – 50 years on

  Fifty years ago this month, in March 1966, Britain went to the polls in a General Election. The 1966 election has not been remembered in history as one of the more interesting or important contests. It was seen as a foregone conclusion and the campaign was rather short of incident. It stands as rather an anomaly – the only decisive Labour majority elected between 1945 and 1997, and the only election between 1951 and 1987 in which the Labour vote, expressed as a share of the whole election, went up. It might have seemed at the time like the start of a long period of Labour ascendancy, but that future was cancelled. And the reason for that goes back, in part, to the campaign that was fought that optimistic March fifty years ago. The Labour government’s parliamentary position was precarious. Its majority was only five seats in October 1964, and that sank to three with the loss of Leyton in a by-election in January 1965. Several MPs were rebellious from the right (Woodrow Wyatt, Desmond Donnelly) or the left (William Warbey), and several others were in poor health; the death of Harry Solomons, who had gained the marginal seat of Hull North, caused a by-election at the end of January 1966. Labour’s popularity had been growing since October, and with the help of the promise of building the Humber Bridge a confident Tory campaign in Hull was heavily defeated. A month later, Wilson called the election for 31 March 1966. The 1966 election was probably the peak of politicians’ faith in opinion polls, which had been broadly correct in the previous few elections and had not yet misfired. Labour was well ahead, and this sucked a lot of the suspense out of the election campaign – and also contributed to the shock that was felt when polling failed in 1970. The year was a peak of scientific optimism – the National Plan to grow the economy was one reflection, and rationality and planning were apparent in the form and content of the 1966 election campaign. Both Labour and Conservative campaigns were disciplined and based on well-founded and researched strategies. Labour’s campaign centred around economic performance, general government competence and the popular figure of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The party’s principal slogan was ‘You know Labour government works’ – a shrewd assertion of the government’s competence and an invitation to electors who had hesitated in 1964 for fear of change to go Labour this time. It was in this election, rather than in 1964, that the description ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ was most used about the Conservative government of 1951-64, with the contrast drawn between modernisation under Wilson and the...

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From Parnell to Salmond: Nationalists at Westminster since 1874

From Parnell to Salmond: Nationalists at Westminster since 1874

Imagine a situation where support for the parties of government in the United Kingdom suddenly collapses in part of the UK and is replaced by a single, dominant nationalist party that has no interest in forming part of an administration back in London and votes in Westminster in accordance solely with its perception of the national interest of its particular part of the country. In the light of Lord Ashcroft’s long awaited Scottish constituency polling  this may well be the shape of politics in the United Kingdom for the rest of the life of that particular political construct. That might be a matter of two to five years, or we might have a ‘new normal’ in which the SNP controls a block of 40-50 Scottish seats at Westminster for decades. How would the political system cope? Let us look at some of the precedents, incomplete and inexact as they are. The most recent case of the politics of a component of the UK going off at a tangent is the collapse of mainland politics in Northern Ireland in the February 1974 election with the victory of Unionists opposed to the Conservative government’s power-sharing agreement. Because Northern Ireland’s representation is so small, and it is divided between different parties, it is rarely pivotal in Westminster politics. For this to happen, a government has to be on the threshold of majority status anyway, as in 1974-79 or at some points in 1992-97. And, with the exception of Sinn Féin who do not take their Westminster seats, the Northern Ireland MPs pay less attention to their ultimate ends than to pragmatic deal-making. As Ken Clarke remarked in 2010, “In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman.” Enoch Powell, then sitting as a Unionist MP, mordantly observed that the Callaghan government could have won its confidence vote in 1979 for some material concessions to Ulster: “a whiff of gas or a ha’p’orth of tar.” But now let us jump back a century, to 1874 and the last time a big block of nationalist MPs was injected into Westminster. On the face of it, the 1874 outcome in Ireland was staggering. In the 1868 election the Liberals had won 66 seats out of 103, to 37 Conservatives. But in 1874 the Liberals sank from 66 to 10, with the Conservatives suffering only a small loss (from 37 to 31; two small borough seats were abolished in 1870 for having particularly corrupt elections). The winners were a loosely-organised party standing for Irish Home Rule, which swept 60 Irish seats. The stated causes of this sudden landslide seem curiously inadequate. The secret ballot made intimidations by landlords more difficult; rural Ireland was...

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The Conservative story of support for election reform

The Conservative story of support for election reform

If one assumes that anything regarded as a timeless British tradition was invented at some point during the reign of Queen Victoria, one would not go far wrong. And so it is with our electoral system. It was invented in 1885 in a ruthless piece of practical politics by which the front benches of the Conservative and Liberal parties colluded on a ‘reform’ to cement a two party system in place. Before 1885, most constituencies in Britain (70 per cent) had two MPs and a handful had three – but an1885 Act sliced most of them up into single-member districts, creating subdivisions of boroughs for the first time. After 1885, multi-member constituencies were a rare breed (returning only eight per cent of MPs), and they finally became extinct in 1950. The option not taken then was to retain multi-member seats and build on a limited experiment that had started with Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867 of providing for minority representation within them – this time on a better thought-out basis through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR). Many of the earlier advocates of PR were Conservatives; the desire for minority representation accorded with Lord Salisbury’s scepticism about majoritarian rule. But the party professionals, then at the height of their power in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, preferred single member seats because they were easier to manage and control, while multi-member seats would make MPs less dependent on the party organisation and more inclined – the horror – to disagree with and compete with MPs in the same party. In 1882, Gilbert and Sullivan proclaimed, in Iolanthe: “That Nature always does contrive/ That every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!” But two-party politics was artificial rather than natural, and even in the high days of the Victorian two party system there were challenges and ambiguities. Gilbert’s Law (a much stronger version of Duverger’s Law, whose illustrious author died last month aged 97) certainly did not apply in Ireland, where Home Rule supporters had swept a majority of seats since 1874 and formed an influential nationalist parliamentary bloc that, when the parliamentary arithmetic permitted in 1885-86, could make the larger parties dance to their tune. Then there was Labour. The Liberals had, more or less, caged the Labour Party before 1914: several by-elections had demonstrated that causing three-way contests was a recipe for Labour candidates coming third and often throwing the seat to the Conservatives (see my July piece on this site here). The possibility that Labour might escape the uncomfortable embrace of the Liberal Party led to the consideration of an...

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