Every write-up of Sir Peter Tapsell’s decision to step down at the next election mentions the very different world in which he was first elected (including our own). The music, the movies, the newspapers and even the basic structure of the economy was very different.
An interview with the outgoing Father of the House in today’s Telegraph reminds us how different the politics was, too. He tells Peter Oborne of his only, brief stint on the front bench in the late 1970s:
‘Mrs Thatcher persuaded Sir Peter to join her Treasury team in opposition. He explained to her that he was a Keynesian who disagreed with her monetary views. Mrs Thatcher told him it didn’t matter. And so “very such to my regret, the single biggest mistake I made in politics in my life, I agreed”.
He recalls how miserable he felt at private meetings with Thatcherites like Sir Keith Joseph, Geoffrey Howe, Nick Ridley and Nigel Lawson, where he argued that monetarism would have terrible consequences. “My father was unemployed in the 1930s. He couldn’t go to work and I can remember standing in a queue with him, when he was unemployed, and my mother crying in the kitchen because we didn’t have money for the rent and all that.”
It was not long before he quietly resigned. Two years later, in the famous Budget of 1981, Sir Peter Tapsell became the first Conservative since Harold Macmillan in the 1930s to vote against a Budget…
I put it to Sir Peter that monetarism had worked and that Mrs Thatcher’s tough medicine had saved the economy. He refuses to accept this. “It destroyed British industry.”‘
Plenty of modern Tories would concede that Mrs Thatcher was wrong on one thing or another (personally, the failure to seek new industries to replace the mines, and a misguided extension of central power over local government spring to mind), but how many Conservatives today would call themselves Keynesians? How many would argue her reforms were, overall, a failure?
The past is not just another country; ideologically it is another planet.
Just as his Keynesianism jars with the modern concept of conservatism, his euroscepticism is rarely shared by modern Keynesians (Tony Benn aside):
‘What is Sir Peter, married to his second wife, Gabrielle Mahieu, for 40 years, most proud of? ”My opposition to the Maastricht Treaty. Because everything that has gone wrong in Britain dates from us joining the European Union. One of the reasons the House of Commons has lost its prestige is because people feel we are no longer in charge of a country. So much of the legislation that affects them is imposed by Brussels.’’ He is in favour of leaving the European Union. ”If we had a referendum and the country votes to stay in then we’re finished as a country because we will just be gobbled up into the German Empire.’’’
It’s a glimpse into a lost political ecosystem – Tory critics of monetarism were Keynesians, where now they are supporters of Austrian economics like Steve Baker MP; Enoch Powell was considered a One Nation Tory (having co-authored the pamphlet One Nation in 1950), a world away from the modern use of the term; the grassroots in 1959, when Sir Peter was first elected, were huge with great power over candidate selection but no say at all in the party leadership.
It’s easy for us now to forget that this world ever existed – exploring it can be reassuring as to how much we have gained (shaking off the dogma of Keynes is a great if unfinished achievement), or profoundly depressing as to what we have lost (the scale of Conservative membership in the ’50s is almost unimaginable), depending on your interests.