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Two Sword Lengths
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Thursday, 18 November, 1999, 11:05 GMT
Two sword lengths
Winston Churchill took a rather relaxed attitude to being out of power

Political commentator Anthony Howard examines the ups and downs of life leading the opposition in the first episode of a new three part series for Radio 4.

The distance between the government and opposition benches is precisely two sword lengths - but in the exercise of power the gulf is far wider.

Clement Attlee set up a more workman like system of opposition
On the government bench power, authority and responsibility; facing it only the sound of criticism, protest and complaint.

The art of opposition did not spring fully formed from the head of British parliamentary system.

Instead even in modern British politics - where an opposition increasingly likes to be seen as an alternative government - it slowly and painfully emerged.

Even as recently as 1945 opposition was an amateur and ad-hoc affair.

Lunching through the opposition years

Churchill had nothing as formal as a shadow government only a once-a-week lunch at the Savoy with his old government colleagues.

But even this was infrequent in the aftermath of Labour landslide he took the view that the electorate were clearly tired of the Tories and he thought it best to lie low for a few years until they were ready to listen - a luxury William Hague must do without.

When Churchill did throw himself back into fray he found his colleagues had been forming policy without him.

One-man team

During the debate on the India Bill he found himself alone opposing the government.

His spokesman on India, Oliver Stanley, the scion of the Derby family, had decided to support the bill and even arrived late for the debate.

The former Prime Minister, Lord Callaghan, then on the government backbenches remembers Winston's repeated attempts to try and goad Stanley into speaking.

Each was met with a firm "No" until Churchill finally exclaimed "You're like all the Derbys, you arrive late on the battlefield and when you get there you won't fight."

Policies, what policies?

Apart from his stand on India, Churchill chose mostly to steer clear of making firm policies. He regarded them as hostages to fortune.

The 1951 manifesto was so flimsy that a BBC interviewer had the temerity of accusing the Conservatives of having no policies.

Churchill replied, "What rubbish we have a firm belief in the British Constitution." The manifesto of course got him elected and the Tories stayed in power for 13 years.

A professional opposition

The Labour leaders during this period, Attlee and Gaitskell, started the process of formalising opposition.

A shadow cabinet was set-up and members had to restrict themselves to speaking only on their own policy areas.

This structure did not, however, breakdown the old ties of the wartime coalition.

Ministers still called their opposite numbers in for a chat over a whisky to give them advance notice of policy decisions.

But this friendly relationship on the part of ministers did not extend to Hugh Gaitskell.

During the Suez crisis his criticism of Eden and his calls for the overthrow of the government were seen as unpatriotic.

It is a lesson those who have followed him as leader of the opposition have all learnt - there are somethings that you cannot oppose.

Episode one is broadcast on Thursday on BBC Radio 4 at 2000 GMT
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