Home's Last Stand

Brass Tacks

British politicians are moving down the Home stretch toward the general election that the Prime Minister has promised to call next October. That is the latest legal date, and in choosing it Sir Alec Douglas Home has given up the advantage of surprise that the party in power usually holds. But he has very good reason to do so: everyone concedes that the Tories would lose badly in June, the only other possible date. Sir Alec, now 60 years old, cannot afford to give up. He knows that while there will always be a Tory party, there will be no place for him as leader if Labour takes over.

Since he took office last October, Sir Alec has tried to weave together two political styles: a modern theme based on technological efficiency and planning, and the traditional belief that any amateur with a proper classical education and enought gritty pluck can govern.

The modern theme has done little to help the Conservatives' chances yet. The Government's bill against retail price fixing angered Tory shopkeepers and M.P.'s Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maulding's budget insures that the year-long wave of Tory prosperity will continue through the summer. But it may result in serious inflation and a blance of payments deficit, and it does nothing to reform Britain's archaic tax structure.

A lackluster record has not been the only factor weakening Sir Alec's modernization theme. The presence of the fourteenth Earl of Home ("an elegant anachronism" in the words of Labour's leader Harold Wilson) at the head of a government drawn largely from England's exclusive public schools does not inspire a belief in Conservative renovation.

Anyway, he finds the traditional Tory style more congenial. The Prime Minister at first seemed an undistinguished, amateurish compromise, a member for years of the dreary House of Lords who would wilt under the heat of Commons debate. His main advantage was his aloofness from Harold Macmillan's weaknesses: the Common Market fiasco, the Profumo affair, the Skybolt fizzle, the Vassall scandal. But Sir Alec has cut a surprisingly effective figure, even against Harold Wilson, one of the House's sharpest debaters.

As a staunch Tory, Sir Alec can always be counted on for sharp criticism of Labour's nationalization proposals and for somewhat softer attacks on its planning ideas--for the Tories have their plans too. As a former Foreign Minister Sir Alec has made foreign and defense policy his chief issue. He promises to retain an independent nuclear deterrent, even if it is only the U.S.'s Polaris submarines. And he would dearly like to bring about some kind of rapprochement between Russia and the United States, like the one that helped Macmillan so much in 1959. But popularity polls show little response to these appeals, and the summer promises to be a period of political doldrums after an 18-month uproar.

As October approaches, Labour's majorities are holding steady. Harold Wilson's Labour is no longer a class party. It has shed its working class prejudices enough to hire professional advertising men to project a scientific, efficient, anything but amateurish image. As for socialism, Labour plans only to renationalize steel and road transport, which were publicly owned for several months in 1951. Otherwise, Labour no longer seeks to control the commanding heights of the economy. Instead, it plans to plan. Wilson, personally cold, a former economics don, is the personification of a technically trained middle class, held down (as Labour pictures it) by old-school-tie Establishmentarians like Sir Alec Douglas Home.

The latest of the electorial victories that Labour has been chalking up since 1962 came in the elections to the new Greater London Council. At one time, Labourites complained that the Tories had gerrymandered the GLC against them. But two weeks ago Labour walked off with 64 of 100 seats. Labour strength held up solidly in all parts of Greater London. Even middle class suburbs moved strongly to the left. The seven percent swing from Conservative to Labour, if repeated in the general election, would give Labour a margin of more than one hundred seats in the next Parliament.

This Labour margin may be decreased by October, but there is little chance that the Tories can rub it out altogether. For all its modern and traditional appeals, Sir Alec's Conservative Party stands just as far below Labour in the polls as Harold Macmillan's did seven months ago. Labour's majorities are looking less like protests against Tory scandals and more like mandates for a Labour government.