Harry Phibbs: Alastair Burnet's prescient comparison at the 1975 Conservative Conference of Margaret Thatcher and Ogden Nash's Isabel
By Harry Phibbs
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The 1975 Conservative Party Conference, held in Blackpool, was an important one for the Party, providing the debut for our new leader, Margaret Thatcher.
However. there were lots of other speakers as well, not only in the main hall, but at fringe meetings. The Conservative Political Centre hosted a meeting with the then editor of the Daily Express, Alastair Burnet. When he was a newsreader for ITN a few years later, it was pretty hard to guess his allegiances. That professionalism is in sharp contrast to, for example, Jon Snow. However, reading Mr Burnet's speech, entitled Is Britain governable?, his Conservative allegiances come through rather clearly.
Mr Burnet, as he then was, lamented the "anarchists, fascists, Maoists, Marxists, Socialist Workers, student revolutionaries, Trotskysists - the whole over-excited caboodle committed to bringing revolutionary change into our lives whether most of us want it or not." They were good at "techniques, demos, to capture television news and the big circulation newspapers which depend on forceful impressions every day for their popularity." These extremists were countered by CBI and TUC spokesmen who had "developed the techniques of non-activity and non-decision, presented in a language stunningly soporific."
Not that the TUC were entirely dull. They had "accepted the militants' view of history: that the Shrewsbury pickets were found guilty only of conspiracy (a different point in law) whereas they were guilty of violence, as the judge said - just as the campaign for them has callously ignored the injuries of the trade union victims of union violence."
There was a swipe at Professor JK Galbraith's "anti-growth radicalism" which had led him to praise the direction Britain was taking - although "the good professor, whenever he exiled himself from the United States, invariably took up Switzerland, a country not given to Socialism or the new, anti-growth radicalism."
The message of pessimism in Mr Burnet was strong - albeit excusable in context. Our "growing sense of being ungovernable" is "so chronic that it is hard to think it is other than a psychological disorder."
Michael Foot's policies were increasing unemployment and the resulting impact "on a generation of school-leavers, especially coloured school-leavers in our big cities, is not going to endear our society to them, or them to us when they start taking their alienation and boredom out on others."
There was "political surrender" to "flying pickets" and the "bomb-chucking kind of Welsh Nationalists." We had "crisis mini-budgets and more taxes and hire purchase agreements and hire-purchase controls, all the paraphernalia of a Treasury at its wit's end."
The Conservatives were hesitant over new ideas, such as Peter Walker's idea for "giving council tenants their houses" and "this lack of daring has been very dangerous." Yet in despair Mr Burnet felt that coalition, perhaps conceding electoral reform, was necessary. That being ideological was a "snag." That "no modern government can succeed unless it has clout in the unions."
Thankfully the ending of the speech was upbeat. He quoted the following from Ogden Nash's poem Adventures of Isabel:
Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn't care;
The bear was hungry, the bear was ravenous,
The bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous.
The bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you,
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you!
Isabel, Isabel, didn't worry.
Isabel didn't scream or scurry.
She washed her hands and she straightened her hair up,
Then Isabel quietly ate the bear up.
Since the Conservative Party is the only one led by a woman we may take some comfort from that.