Four decades back, the defeat of Edward Heath's Conservative Party in two elections in 1974 prompted talk of a change in leadership. There was an obvious candidate, but it turned out he couldn't take the heat. The following account is extracted from my book Crisis? What Crisis?:
And then he threw it away. His first post-election speech was in Edgbaston, not far from the site of the ‘rivers of blood’, and it proved almost as significant as its predecessor in the outrage it provoked.
Joseph had long been concerned with what he referred to as ‘cycles of deprivation’, the way in which the stratum of society that would later be termed the underclass was becoming self-perpetuating, dependent on state benefits for generation after generation. ‘A high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up,’ he now declared. ‘Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness, which are more important than riches.’
And, in the phrase that damned him, he warned that ‘the balance of our population, our human stock, is threatened’. It was that ‘human stock’ that provided his enemies with the rope with which to hang him.
Was this not, they asked, a call for eugenics, redolent of the policies of Nazi Germany? Not only that, but his argument was unashamedly based on class. He talked of problems in the socio-economic groups four and five, prompting Labour MP Renee Short to leap to the defence of their impugned honour, claiming that ‘it is not those in the fourth and fifth groups who patronize call girls’, a remark that perhaps revealed more about her knowledge of society than about society itself.
Stripped of its emotive phrasing, Joseph’s Edgbaston speech identified an issue that was to become of ever greater significance to policy-makers over the coming decades. But his message was lost amidst the noise, partly at least because he had nothing to offer those on the right, who might otherwise support him, save remedies that they distrusted.
‘The trouble was,’ wrote Margaret Thatcher, his closest ally in the shadow cabinet, ‘that the only short-term answer suggested by Keith for the social problems he outlined was making contraceptives more widely available – and that tended to drive away those who might have been attracted by his larger moral message.’ The birth control pill was still then seen as a totem of the permissive society of the 1960s, and Joseph’s pragmatic endorsement of it (he had made it available nationally on the NHS) failed to resonate with his natural constituency.
Caught between the pill and the pillory, he was assailed on all sides. ‘It’s great fun to see somebody else getting into hot water over a speech,’ chuckled Enoch Powell. ‘I almost wondered if the River Tiber was beginning to roll again.’
But unlike Powell, Joseph was ill-equipped for the media onslaught that ensued. ‘Ever since I made that speech the press have been outside the house,’ he told Thatcher. ‘They have been merciless.’ And, he added, he was no longer prepared to challenge Heath for the leadership of the party; he felt unable to put himself and his family under that kind of pressure permanently.