Alan Watkins: Hanging on is an honorable tradition

The PM may have been the longest serving Chancellor, but in his new role he has embarked on a high-risk economic strategy
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The Independent Online

When did we last have a House of Commons where no party held an absolute majority? I dislike the term "hung parliament" because it was imported from the United States after the election of February 1974. It derived from the phrase "hung jury" in America. There were abundant precedents for that state of affairs in politics long before Edward Heath went to the country so disastrously. But the term caught on, so there it was, and it is profitless to complain.

The standard answer is usually given as the year 1974. Older spirits may nominate 1976, when Jim Callaghan lost his majority, or 1979, when he lost a vote of confidence in the House. The correct answer is 1997 when, at the dissolution, John Major was three seats short of a majority.

Sir John, as he later became, insisted on hanging on till the last moment, for reasons that seemed good to him at the time. Chief among them were that he had won unexpectedly in 1992, he was still prime minister, and something might turn up. Carrying on in No 10 almost certainly made the scale of the Conservative defeat worse, and Sir John promptly took himself off to the Oval cricket ground.

Callaghan did the same in 1978-79. I remain sceptical about whether Labour would have won in autumn 1978. At the time I thought Jim was being prudent to stay tucked up in Downing Street or, rather, at the flat in Kennington which was his resting place. What spoiled Callaghan's plans, such as they were, was not merely the chaos in the country's public sector unions. That was certainly worse than anyone had expected. Even so, he had committed himself to a five per cent pay norm.

What no one thought much about was the failure to reach the "threshold" in the referendum on Scottish Devolution. The government did not know what, if anything, to do next. The minority parties, or most of their MPs, withheld their support, and Callaghan lost the vote to Margaret Thatcher.

Michael Foot, as leader of the House, and, in effect, Callaghan's number two, came up with a wheeze to reverse the vote and to pass a second vote of confidence, which might or might not have worked. If it had, the election would have been held in October 1979. But by this stage, Callaghan was weary, had had enough. And who shall blame him?

Mr Gordon Brown, by contrast, has a new purpose in life. It is to save the world. He has been attracting marvellous notices for over three months now, chiefly from patrons in the most expensive seats. But nothing seems quite to work. His predecessor Callaghan was fond of quoting some lines of the South African poet Roy Campbell. You may not have known that Jim liked reciting poetry, but so it was. The lines were:

They use the snaffle and the curb all right,

But where's the bloody horse?

Campbell was writing about South African novelists of the 1930s. Callaghan was complaining about his advisers at the Treasury or No 10 – perhaps at both. It would not be surprising if Mr Brown were to echo these sentiments.

On the other hand, he was the longest-serving Chancellor of mod

ern times. Only David Lloyd George, with seven years to Mr Brown's 10, runs him close. Mr Brown, one might have thought, would have no need for additional advice.

Yet it seems to me obvious, if interest rates are so low, no one wants to lend anyone else any money, because the returns are not commensurate with the risks. Moreover, those who rely on interest to fund their expenditure – a large proportion of the poor and the elderly – will find their way of living affected more drastically still.

As I was thinking about Mr Brown, another predecessor as Chancellor came to mind: Roy Jenkins. He was judged a success at the Treasury, though several members of Harold Wilson's Cabinet (not including Wilson himself) blamed him for failing to fabricate a pre-election boom, so allegedly losing the 1970 election.

In the early years of her period of office, however, Mrs Thatcher considered Jenkins the best Chancellor since the war, which cannot have been wholly agreeable for her own Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe. But then, Mrs Thatcher was never one to appreciate Lord Howe's qualities as a great public servant.

Jenkins had similar qualities as well. After five years in Wilson's Cabinet of the 1960s he left Britain a friendlier, more tolerant and more civilised place in which to live. Mr Tony Blair was later to stigmatise this approach, as "libertarian nonsense". In fact Wilson, in whom the Nonconformist conscience was personified, did more for human happiness than a whole decade of Mr Blair, whose legacy is perpetual warfare, a pile of debt and constant interference in most aspects of our daily lives.

Would you believe that, in these straitened times, the Government is still planning to introduce identity cards, at colossal expense? I would not have believed it if I had not read about it in The Independent. There was a leading article on the subject, properly hostile to the Government in the paper on Friday.

In other areas of political action or, rather, of promised action, Mr Brown has been more fortunate in his press coverage. Indeed, it seems that the papers are making it up to Mr Brown as a penance for having been so beastly to the prime minister for a whole 12 months, from October 2007 onwards. The mood will change. It always does, if it has not changed already. Mr Brown has had two successes in political presentation; or he has enjoyed two aspects of the same success.

One is that the financial crisis was not his fault. The Conservative government had a comparable success in the early 1980s when the voters accepted that unemployment was not Mrs Thatcher's fault but had come about because of "world conditions", even though the Tories had deliberately created unemployment. Today, Mr Brown blames both the United States and the wicked old world – it is never entirely clear which – but it is certainly not himself.

The other aspect of Mr Brown's success is that the Conservatives have been depicted as the "do nothing" party. But what can Mr David Cameron do? He is only the leader of the Opposition, after all. He can, I suppose, demonstrated the consistency of his views, which so far he has failed to do. But then, Dr Vince Cable has been as consistent as anyone. Further, he has been right. Yet the Liberal Democrats do not seem to be benefiting in the polls.

My guess is that this is as good for Mr Brown as he going to get. But I think he will hang on all the same, just as James Callaghan did in 1978, and John Major later on.

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