Ours is an age in which the elites have lost their self-confidence. Terrified by the thought of attempting to justify their status, they try to survive by sucking up to the mob. Alan Watkins sits like patience on a monument, smiling at this folly but refusing to demean himself by joining in. Reading him is a pleasure and a reminder of how things used to be before postmodern irony decreed that nobody must take their work seriously.
Watkins has written another damned thick, square book about power, in this case how politicians become leaders of their party. As it contains no references to Madonna, or the Spice Girls, it hardly qualifies as modern political analysis and the reader has to make do with scholarship and sound judgement. Of this there is an abundance and Watkins explains with his distinctive mixture of lucidity and good sense a number of episodes that I have found puzzling. He has not tried to sweeten his offering with a racy account of the more interesting portions of the lives of contenders for leadership, starting with their struggles at their mother’s knee and pursuing them through numerous boudoirs until finally they kiss the royal hand. Nor does he produce any revelations. Nobody is branded a sexual deviant, or exposed as a Communist spy. This is elitist political history, written by an expert for a readership he assumes has intelligence.
The only major criticism I have is of the way Watkins has chosen to organise his material. To take account of changes in the way the parties elect their leaders and to accommodate the royal prerogative, which theoretically allows the Monarch discretion in appointing a Prime Minister, he has split the book into three sections. I found the device clumsy and would have preferred a straightforward chronological account. Since George V, the royal prerogative has had no significance, because that is the way the Palace wants matters arranged. Being at the head of all the elites, the Monarchy is even more eager than the rest to divest itself of any meaningful function, lest it attract criticism. Watkins says the royal prerogative may have some importance in a House of Commons in which no party holds an absolute majority, but I do not believe this and I am surprised that he does. Some way will be found to surrender any choice that has to be made to politicians.
All the power struggles in the book have been written about in earlier works, but never analysed with such force. For instance, in 1923 the choice of Tory Prime Minister lay between Stanley Baldwin and Lord Curzon. George V, after taking advice, chose Baldwin and told Curzon that there were circumstances in which it was undesirable that a peer should be Prime Minister. I have never understood this reasoning, because as late as 1940 Lord Halifax was a serious candidate for the premiership although in the House of Lords. Foolishly seeking complexity, I have groped about in memoirs to solve this puzzle. Watkins disposes of it in a few terse sentences with a brilliant suggestion. George V was trying to soften the blow for Lord Curzon. The Tories did not want him and would not have wanted him even if he had been Mr Curzon. Rather than say so bluntly, it was kinder to imply that the peerage was the problem.
Watkins discusses every party leader from Bonar Law to Hague and the effect of revisiting them is to be reminded of what a pack of dull dogs most of them were. The British prefer to be governed by mediocrities, but there is another factor at work. Success at the top political level owes much to luck or accident. Prior to John Major’s retirement to Kennington Oval his likeliest successor seemed to be either Michael Heseltine or Michael Portillo. The former’s health let him down and the latter lost his seat. These political misadventures happen all the time, so that rarely is the leader indisputably the cream of the party crop.
Like the other elites, politicians no longer have any confidence in their role and the selection of leaders has been, and will go on being, surrendered piece by piece to the party membership. Watkins offers us some guidance as to what that will mean. It is sure to drive another nail into the coffin of the House of Commons, because party members gain their impression of leading politicians from the press and television. Strangely enough, mass democracy will tend to be a force for the worst sort of stability, because party members in the country are usually on the side of the incumbent leader, no matter how poor the record. This is particularly true of Tories, who wanted to keep Home, Heath, Thatcher and Major, whatever the sentiment among MPs. No doubt Neville Chamberlain would have received a resounding vote of confidence in 1940 if party members had been consulted. How much longer parliamentary democracy, in the old sense, will survive in Britain might form the subject of Alan Watkins’s next book. One by one the props holding it up are collapsing.