Monday, April 21, 2008

Amongst maligned British political figures of the past hundred years, one has always stood affectionately out for me. Happily for someone who likes contrarians, my praising him managed to send the head of the government legal service into a bit of a spin at a Middle temple do last year, even though the man of whom I speak has been dead for nearly three decades, and was nothing of a contrarian except by the reaction he invoked in the humourless.

I mean, of course, that great Middle Templar Sir Reginald Maudling. 'Reggie', as he was known to one and all, was the propagator, if not the inventor of what he called the 'well balanced lunch'--something generous accompanied by a bottle of red and a bottle of white, with a friend. He knew his cigars like the back of his hand, and was of the political generation that was myopically condemned for managing the decline of empire and being worried about unemployment instead of making Keynesianism work in a traumatised post-war economy full of shockingly bad management.

Reggie Maudling was also profoundly lazy, not because he actually was lazy in any mental or spiritual sense but because he had no time for the appearance of effort and the expenditure of life's resources on petty aims. As a conservative, he thought that there always needed to be a balance in society; as a politician, he thought that ideas and occasional action were more important than spin and short-term needs.

Unfortunately, Reggie tended to put all this across in the sort of humorous fashion that upsets the permanently humourless, of whom there are plenty in the world. When introduced to one of the first computers in the sixties, for instance, he refused to be awed by geek-babble and instead expressed wonderment that anyone should want to do such complicated sums, or so many.
Ironically, though associated with a 'dash for growth', which he messed up, Reggie Maudling was a believer in limits. I thought of him this morning when reading two specific stories.

One was that, as a panicked response to global price rises, airline companies are bringing back turboprop and propellor aeroplanes. When the Prime Minister put Reggie in charge of the British aircraft industry in the fifties, he made exactly the same decision. He was condemned for silliness, for 'not being with it' and for a 'mad decision'. Forty years later, with the oil running out, how silly does he seem?

The other thing that made me think of Reggie Maudling was the way that all those who confidently assailed him as a drunk who couldn't manage the British economy because he wasn't thrusting and Thatcherite, or even Heathite, are now after an extra £50 billions of public money for the banks. This is on top of a £10 billion rights issue by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and some £80 billions overall as a conservative estimate for Northern Rock. Policies on the part of those who condemned Maudling since 1979, Tory and Labour, have divided British society and delivered growth rates below those he achieved; and the national debt and credit dependence has ballooned.

Reggie Maudling made many mistakes. One was Northern Ireland, where his behaviour caused Bernadette Devlin to slap him in the House of Commons. Another was allowing himself to be beaten by the awful Ted Heath in the Tory elections of 1964, which shouldn't have happened, and which was bad for Britain. A third was his association with shady middle eastern businessmen, which inevitably ended his career under a welter of suspicion even though he was personally very honest.

Reggie's final mistake, of course, was to allow Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath to drive him into the arms of the international wine-tasting societies he got himself elected to, which increased his predisposition to alcoholism and led to his death.

Poor Reggie. Still, at least he was right on many things that mattered, and especially on how to be human. I for one am glad to think of him this morning. Here are some reggie sources, if you want them, including articles detailing the sad death of his son of heroin in 1999.

1 comment:

Liberals for Linda said...

Apparently, Reggie has been sighted posting in Canada!!