In March 1977, Prime Minister James Callaghan invited David Steel to 10 Downing Street to discuss a parliamentary pact. How did that ball start rolling? Who made the first call? Eagle-eyed students will have noted a subtle difference between the excerpt from Steel's biography and the the excerpt from Steel's own book, A House Divided.
In the biography, we read that Callaghan's colleague, William Rodgers, called Steel for an exploratory conversation, a "fishing expedition to find out what terms Steel would demand." From the biography we also learn that Steel had already had at least one conversation with another leading Labour member, namely Cledwyn Hughes, days before the call from William Rodgers. "A friendly talk," is how the biography describes the conversation between Steel and Cledwyn Hughes.
How did it come about that Cledwyn Hughes, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (the legislative caucus) had reason to have a friendly talk with David Steel, leader of the Liberal Party, in the first place? Here the biography is silent. It tells us that the conversation happened, but not who initiated it.
By turning to A House Divided we can start to fill in the blanks. One of Steel's Liberal colleagues, Cyril Smith (pictured), used to be a member of the Labour Party. Steel tells us that, in early March, Cyril Smith "proposed [to Steel] that we should explore the possibility of securing some agreement with the government in return for our support." Steel says that he gave the go-ahead to Cyril Smith's idea of writing to Prime Minister Callaghan, but let's examine the words he uses to describe that decision:
"I was not over-keen on such a brazen approach but agreed that Cyril should do this off his own bat and entirely unofficially."My first question for you has to do with that early stage of the story of the negotiations, prior to the inter-party discussions getting under way. Assuming that Steel's memory is reliable and that those were, in fact, the conditions that he gave Cyril Smith, what purpose could the deniability serve?
Now let's think about what happened next. Cyril Smith wrote to Callaghan. Callaghan responded. Smith was "very cross" about the nature of Callaghan's response and, according to Steel, leaked news of their correspondence to a newspaper. Not just any newspaper, by the way, but the Daily Mirror, the paper of choice for Labour's core working class supporters. We can imagine how Mirror readers might have felt when they found out that the leader of their party, in desperate need of parliamentary support, had just alienated the Liberals.
At this point, it is easy to imagine the story ending very differently, with no inter-party negotiations and no pact. So what was it that triggered Cyril Smith's anger and nearly derailed the train before it even left the station?
In reply to Smith's note, Callaghan had suggested that Smith might want to talk to Cledwyn Hughes. Smith took this as a rebuff. From Steel's account we can infer that Cyril Smith felt that he had lost face.
I want us to pause for a moment and think about Beyond Reason. Using the lens of the five core concerns to look at the interaction between Cyril Smith and Prime Minister James Callaghan, what do we see? That is my second question.
Picking up the story again, Steel writes that when Callaghan read the newspaper version of his exchange of letters with Cyril Smith he (Callaghan) talked with his colleague Cledwyn Hughes who then called Steel. Callaghan's message to Steel, through Cledwyn Hughes, was that Callaghan had not intended to snub the Liberals. Steel writes that "Cledwyn telephoned me to say that no such snub was intended and I seized the opportunity to invite him round to my room for a chat."
This brings us to my final questions. Was Cyril Smith really angry or just faking? And did Cyril Smith leak alone, or did he have an accomplice?
From the outset, I have asked you to think skeptically about what you read. One of the phrases I tend to use in this context is "kick the tires," and I hope I have made clear that there is a difference between kicking the tires and taking a sledgehammer to the windshield. By this I mean that you should not read with utter credulity, but nor should you dismiss everything out of hand. Differentiate between claims and evidence; that's what I'm asking.
Approaching Steel's account of the pre-negotiation gamesmanship with skepticism, we can learn something, I believe. To engage in this line of skeptical inquiry, I recommend assuming a role while you think, the role of Prime Minister James Callaghan.
Put yourself in Callaghan's shoes in March 1977. Your party is about to fall from office and face a general election unless it can negotiate a deal with a smaller party, and the most likely partner is the Liberal Party. Cyril Smith, one of the handful of Liberals in the House of Commons, approaches you. Maybe you feel relieved. Smith's overture must mean that the Liberals are as worried about facing the electorate as you are. That, in turn, means they won't be demanding much in the way of concessions.
But then you open the Daily Mirror and get the impression that the Liberals are about to walk off in a huff. You were already feeling the heat and now somebody has gone and dialed it up.
By leaking to the press -- to the Daily Mirror, in particular -- Cyril Smith has upped the ante. After reading the Mirror, Callaghan not only reaches out to the Liberals but also has to start with an apology. Callaghan may still suspect that the Liberals will support his government even without Labour giving them anything of substance in return, but he can't be sure. Small in numbers they may be, but the Liberals have just scored two points.
Perhaps Cyril Smith was genuinely ticked off and vented to the press out of personal frustration, without clearing his actions with his party leader. But from what you have read so far, about negotiating in general and the Lib-Lab Pact in particular, does this exercise in negotiation-via-press-release have somebody else's fingerprints all over it?