THE electoral gloves are now officially off and we must steel ourselves against a month-long bombardment of political gimmickry and party propaganda, some of it inevitably puerile. This may well obscure the fact that behind the panoply of persuasion there are two flesh and blood contenders for the Premiership not unworthy of a constructive national contest.
The Prime M;nis,.er, more cautious and conservative after six years in office, is in a mood for retrenchment and consolidation. Edward Heath, more radical than he was after five years in opposition, is going all out for "restructuring" and modernisation.
Harold Wilson, in fact, has retained a strong whiff of that Gladstonian liberalism which he has always admired. And his dictum that the Labour party "is a moral crusade or it is nothing" is further reminiscent of the Victorian reformer, the secret of whose power lay largely (as it does with the present Prime Minister) in a sensitive feel for the pulse of the nation at various times.
The Leader of the Opposition, on the other hand, has more in common with Disraeli, who set the Tories along a new path of progress and enlightenment a century ago. Edward Heath, the first elected Conservative leader, is determined to bring his party and country fully up to date. He is no respecter of vested interests (as his campaign against retail price maintenance showed) in his desire to see Britain more competitive at home and more effective as a trading power in the world. It is sometimes forgotten that religion and moral training have played decisive parts in the formative years of both leaders. The strong Congregationalist influence of Harold Wilson's early life, and that of his wife Mary, is still apparent to the discerning observer. In the case of Edward Heath, devotion to Anglicanism has been, since childhood, a notable feature in his personality. It has, ever since, been expressed, among other things, by service to the Church through his considerable musical talents.
Votes and integrity
It is a pity, in fact, that we do not know or hear more of this side of each man's nature. There are grounds for believing that integrity, as opposed to ruthlessness, is an element in politicians' make-up which is far from despised by the public. One has only to think of Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
The coming campaign provides the ideal opportunity for two well-trained political technocrats to show that they are also fully human beings. A resort to dubious tactics, moreover (as the Prime Minister himself has said), is likely to attract nothing but contempt from the electorate.
We thus hope, probably in vain, for a clean fight in which the politicians show that they mean it when they claim, as they do incessantly, that people and issues really count.
Heaven knows the issues that worry people are there all right : abortion, poverty, racism, immigration, housing, social security, unemployment, pension rates to mention but a few. It is depressing to hear, instead, so much about alleged broken promises, disingenuous solutions, and supposed "wage explosions" because politicians think that such subjects provide the best propaganda ammunition.
Though you may fool some of the people some of the time, it is possible in a close election fight, that the more credible team in terms of compassion as well as efficiency will be the one that finally wins the day.