IF A Prime Minister leaves office other than by losing a General Election, it is usually not for the best reasons. Mrs Thatcher was, in effect, betrayed by a Europhile cabal who seemed worryingly casual about joining the single currency. But then Mrs Thatcher was one of the last of a generation of MPs who were able to understand Germany’s position in Europe from a lived experience. Her much younger colleagues could see Germany only as a divided and emasculated country. They did not realise that the division and impotence had been imposed from outside, and that once removed, it would become Business As Usual. Harold Wilson left office suddenly, provoking rumours. But he chose his time to quit rather like Tony Blair did, when both must have known that a national economic crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions was just around the corner. Thus Blair missed the Banking Crisis, as Wilson missed the IMF Loan Humiliation. Harold Macmillan was not a young man when he resigned. Perceived infirmity, spy and sex scandals on his watch, and a French veto of his application to join the EEC combined to damage him. Eden was humbled by Suez. No one dared topple Churchill, who retired only when he was good and ready.
Which all brings me to Mrs May. She has joined that tradition, but unsurprisingly not in a Churchillian way. More unkind words are being written than sympathetic. The cause of her departure is, like with far too many Conservative Prime Ministers, Europe. It is an indication of the supine nature of Labour PMs that they left office mid-term for other reasons.
But there has to be a limit to the unkindness. If Europe is taken out of the mix, was Mrs May’s premiership all that bad?
Brexit has paralysed the government. But only Brexit has paralysed the government. Brexit is just the renegotiation of our regulatory arrangements with Europe. Outside Brexit and governmental paralysis, the private sector is doing rather well. Remainers would tell us we have entered a social and economic holocaust, but the hard fact is that the bad news pounced on by the Remainers as evidence of disaster is actually the normal back-and-forth of the economy. Steelworks closing down are a consequence of a lack of global competitiveness, and the punitive level of environmentalist taxation. Car plants are in jeopardy owing to the shift away from the internal combustion engine, again driven by an environmentalist agenda. Demand for diesel-engined vehicles has fallen over the fraudulent behaviour of European motor companies over emissions.
The EU has politicised private enterprise, by demanding losses of national sovereignty in return for smoothing commerce and travel. It may come as a shock to younger readers, but it was possible to make an international telephone call, to post letters to overseas destinations, to travel by aeroplane or boat to the Continent and to export and import goods and services for decades before the existence of the EU. All that has changed is that practices were in some areas standardised, such as the the development and sale of medicines.
The regulation of pharmaceuticals or a smooth passport control has nothing to do with ‘ever closer union’. In fact the institutional obduracy recalls other unions, British trades unions, whose political agenda for the creation of a socialist one-party republic were the driving factor behind wildcat strikes called by radical shop stewards and works conveners for ostensibly other reasons.
And this brings me to the premierships by which Mrs May should be measured, the real stinker administrations between 1964 and 1979. This was an era of powerless government. The best excuse given by our political and bureaucratic rulers was that they were managing national decline. Governments were impotent in the face of the rising domestic threat of Marxism. There was a permanent air of crisis. Inflation was rampant and statutory wage and price control stimulated a persistent and growing culture of labour unrest.
A person’s job depended on membership of a union and the shop steward had as much say over work practices as the management. The much-vaunted ‘white heat of technology’ was doused by the cold refusal of unions to use new devices without a special rate for the job. Demarcation promoted idleness. Manning levels were dictated not by economics but by union diktat, underemployment concealing the true rate of unemployment. The government was not protecting the people from the union intimidation at the workplace or in the streets. It was a time of three-day weeks, power cuts, rail strikes, mass spontaneous factory walkouts, violent picket line confrontations, votes for industrial action taken by a show of hands in a car park. Wilson and Callaghan surrendered the country to the Marxist bullies. Heath was defeated after being gulled into playing the unions’ game of direct confrontation. For a decade and a half, we were governed by politicians who were an absolute shower.
And it is by this absolute shower that Mrs May should be properly compared. True, she and her immediate predecessors enjoyed the stability imposed by Mrs Thatcher, but this is a gift from the ages that Mrs May could have thrown away. It might be to damn with faint praise to say that the May ministries were not entirely horrendous. On the whole, there was relatively good governance. History should not place Mrs May into the same category as Chamberlain, Wilson, Heath and Callaghan as a stinker. Things could have been and have been much, much worse.