At the beginning of February 19701, however, it was back to serious politics. The Shadow Cabinet met at Selsdon Park Hotel, near Croydon, to co-ordinate the results of our policy reviews and discuss an early draft of our manifesto.
Edward Heath, The Course of My Life (1988)
At the start of 1970, the Labour Party had been in government for almost six years, but having won a ringing endorsement from the electorate with a large majority in the 1966 General Election they had consistently been trailing behind in the opinion polls ever since. Towards the end of 1969 however the polls were beginning to show Labour back in the lead and it was expected that the Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Harold Wilson would call an election sometime in 1970 to capitalise on this change in mood.
As leader of the opposition Conservative Party Heath arranged for a meeting of the shadow cabinet, supposedly a brainstorming session where it was intended that they would knock into shape the platform for the coming General Election. As it happens, the meeting at the Selsdon Park Hotel was largely inconclusive. The only truly radical idea floated at the meeting was made by Maurice Macmillan, who suggested that the National Health Service should only meet 80% of treatment costs, with individuals taking our insurance to meet the other 20%. This idea was rejected by Ian Macleod as being too expensive for the ordinary working man. Nothing much else was decided and everyone might simply have gone home were it not for the fact that most of Fleet Street had turned up expecting some exciting developments.
As a result Macleod persuaded those present that even though they hadn't decided anything, they should at least give the impression of being decisive and he therefore drafted a statement that expressed general support for law and order, trade union reform, tougher immigration controls and the free market. Since it proved to be a slack week for news, the Selsdon Park conference turned out to be a big public relations success as the press devoted substantial column inches to the meeting which they chose to interpret as evidence that the Conservative Party had swung to the right.
As it happens this was a view that Harold Wilson of the Labour Party was only too willing to endorse for his own purposes2. It was he that came up with the term 'Selsdon Man', with its allusion to some kind of Paleolithic discovery, to describe what he chose to portray as the Conservative Party as wishing to take the country back to a less civilised age, and announced that;
Selsdon Man is not just a lurch to the right. It is an atavistic desire to reverse the course of twenty-five years of social revolution. What they are planning is a wanton, calculated and deliberate return to greater inequality.
It is unlikely that Heath himself regarded the meeting at Selsdon as signifying the adoption of any kind of new political philosophy, since the truth was that Heath had little time for political philosophies in the first place and took the view that policy considerations were entirely secondary to overall economic goals and that if one set of policies failed they could simply replaced by another without too much trouble. On the other hand he did little to contradict the impression given since it served his purposes at the time to be seen to offering something new to the British electorate.
Thus the Conservative Party fought and won the 1970 General Election on a manifesto that promised cuts in both public expenditure and taxation, as well as an absolute rejection of any notions of statutory wage control or any further nationalisation. But Selsdon Man, if he ever existed, died an early death when Heath performed his infamous U-turn, abandoned his manifesto commitments and proceeded to adopt policies that were the exact opposite to those on which he had been elected.
Irrespective of what Heath thought and felt on the matter there were many in the Conservative Party whose views were not that dissimilar to those of the mythical Selsdon Man. Both the Institute of Economic Affairs and Enoch Powell had been banging the drum in favour of the free market for many years, and whilst not many had listened, those that had were passionate in their commitment and saw Selsdon Man as a promise betrayed. One group of bankbench MPs led by Nicholas Ridley returned to the Selsdon Park Hotel in September 1973 and symbolically issued the Selsdon Declaration, announcing their intention to uphold and promote the free market policies that they believed had won the Conservative Party the 1970 General Election, but had later been cravenly abandoned. Naturally known as the Selsdon Group3 were to form the nucleus of the support that mustered behind the figure of Margaret Thatcher when she emerged as the somewhat unlikely candidate to supplant Edward Heath.
1 Sources appear to differ as to when the meeting took place; some say January others say February. One can only presume that Heath knew which month was which.
2 It seems that at the time Wilson believed that Heath was "on the run in terms of policy" and simply "following Mr Powell's line with a delay of three or four months", an assessment that was very likely mistaken.
3 The Selsdon Group still exists to promote the case for free market policies within the Conservative Party.
- Roy Hattersley, Fifty Years on (Little Brown and Company, 1997)
- John Ramsden, An Appetite for Power (Harper Collins, 1999)
- See also http://www.selsdongroup.co.uk/aboutus.htm