Brighton

(This is the first of a series of articles on aspects of British politics.)

When Iain Macleod rose at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton to report for the last time as Colonial Secretary, and when he affirmed his belief in the brotherhood of man, he was warmly applauded, because he had been promoted, because he is popular, and because the delegates knew that he had served radically but well. It was not until that afternoon that the vague notes of faint discord that were to characterize the rest of the conference first made themselves heard.

For in the afternoon rose R. A. Butler, who far from speaking of the brotherhood of man proposed instead that the Government abandon a tradition of long standing--its policy of allowing unrestricted immigration from the Commonwealth nations. He talked for some time, and when he was through it became clear that West Indians might be a problem, but not nearly so large a problem as Mr. Butler's proposal poses to a party actively engaged in a sleek refashioning of its popular image. The party organizers had hoped to use Brighton to present Conservatism to the electorate as viable politics for the years ahead, but more than anything else there ran through the proceedings the strains of inconsistency and puzzled indecision.

The discords sounded again and again. For the first time in its postwar history the conference refused to grant the Government's educational policy a ritual vote of approval. Yet the defeat seemed neither passionate nor even interested; it was, as the Guardian put it, "a defeat by somnolence." The delegates officially disapproved of flogging in the schools. But when Mr. Butler had to comment on what he as Home Secretary thought of flogging, he said only that much as he would like corporal punishment, he could not see how the Government could sanction it.

In other words, for the Tory radicals who managed to rout the opposition to Britain's entry into the Common Market, Brighton was a strangely unsatisfactory victory. Progressives who wanted reassurance that they were at last in charge never got it from the delegates. Nor, if they looked to their basilisk Prime Minister and his cryptic Cabinet changes, could they find it there either.

Mr. Macleod, who conceded inevitable accessions to the colonies gracefully and with some flair, has thrown off his heavy departmental burden for the offices of Chairman of the Party and Leader of the House. But now bereft of the solidarity of departmental backing, his position as heir apparent to the Prime Ministry is by no means secure. And his replacement in the Colonial Office is the ambitious and unpredictable Reginald Maulding, who is likely to follow a new progressive line in his administration only if he is sure there is one to follow.

The state of the Treasury is equally undecided. Henry Brooke, an economist, has been made Chief Secretary, and it is assumed that he will be responsible for executing modern ideas of economic planning. But as the Economist (which has a strong technocratic bias) lately pointed out, it is difficult to trust either the efficiency or the usefulness of the planning apparatus as now conceived, because authority over it may well be given to an amorphous body of temporary experts rather than to a permanent commission of technicians.

The man responsible for the present apparatus is of course not Mr. Brooke, who probably agrees with the Economist, but his boss, Selwyn Lloyd. And the Chancellor is a special problem in himself, because he has become a political liability. His approach to planning, his clufsy attempts to impose a wage pause and to throw cold water on arbitration agreements have all drained vital support from his party, the sort of support that even a competent administrator like Mr. Brooke cannot easily restore. Voters at the next election will scrutinize the Exchequer hardest.

Finally, Mr. Butler has been appointed to lead Britain's negotiations with the Common Market, which is a job made enormously difficult not only because the Home Secretaryship (which he keeps) is a harshly demanding post, but because the Government's attitude toward the negotiations is still hopelessly undefined. Nothing that Harold Macmillan said at Brighton made it any clearer; he believed that "this is the dawn and not the dusk," that "our purpose is by evolution to create a new Commonwealth structure which will avoid the decline and fall which till now has been the fate of every empire." He implied that Britain was to balance itself neatly between Europe and the Commonwealth, a curious program that will complicate Mr. Butler's task immeasurably. For Britain has to make a choice.

The delegates to Brighton did their best to look bright and chipper as new Tories should, but they must have sensed that something was lacking from the top. The Prime Minister has reshuffled his cabinet, but he remains deliberately inscrutable to a party that wants to win a general election, and to a Government that must settle the unfamiliar and uncomfortable question of the Common Market. Uneasy and uncertain as it is, the new Conservative team must wait for Mr. Macmillan to make up his mind.