On the Sunday morning, Mr Heath suggested to Mr Maudling, Sir Keith, Sir Alec, Lord Jellicoe, Mr Barber et al that, Mr Macleod having said a few words about East of Suez policy, they should return to discussing the manifesto for the next general election. It was Sunday the 1st February 1970, and, having dealt with economic policy and industrial relations the previous day, the gathering turned its thoughts to manpower and retraining, industry and trade. A Mrs Thatcher was present too.
The setting for this weekend conference of the top brass of the opposition Conservative Party more than half a century ago was the Selsdon Park Hotel at the southern fringe of the London Borough of Croydon. Selsdon was, and still is, a prosperous suburban area, noted for its art deco housing and also for that imposing hotel, a 1925 conversion of the mansion house of the Seldson Park Estate, where many pheasants met their end.
There was a Selsdon railway station, which closed in 1983 when, Hidden London tells us, it was still lit by gas lamps. But the station was some distance from the hotel, and we can probably assume that the senior Tories arrived by motor car. We might also assume that those champions of private enterprise would have approved of the endeavours of hotel manager John Aust, who, since 1960, had been making improvements and adding extra rooms – in short, turning the Selsdon Park Hotel into a facility befitting the leaders of an aspiring government-in-waiting.
The document that emerged from the deliberations of Edward Heath, the Conservative leader, and his colleagues was called A Better Tomorrow. It declared: “We want people to achieve the security and independence of personal ownership greater freedom of opportunity, greater freedom of choice, greater freedom from government regulation and interference. A responsible democracy based on honest government and respect for the law.”
The manifesto was regarded by observers as the most ideologically pro-free market blueprint for British government since the war, and was derided by the then Prime Minister, Labour’s Harold Wilson, as primitive. He mocked it as the work of Selsdon Man. The programme’s fortunes were mixed: Heath’s Conservatives won the general election that June, but soon abandoned many of their policies in the wake of concerted opposition. Dismayed by this retreat, in 1973 a Selsdon Group was formed to keep the spirit of that Croydon weekend alive. It still exists. The spectacular arrival of Prime Minister Truss has been noted in those quarters with interest.
As for the Selsdon Park Hotel, it kept on growing. A leisure complex was added in 1985 and new Cambridge Wing in 1988. The entire estate, by then called the De Vere Selsdon Estate, was purchased by the Principal Hotel Company in 1997, leading to a big refurbishment. A further one has been undertaken in recent years, upgrading the public areas, meetings rooms and all 150 bedrooms.
Earlier this year it was revealed that the hotel is “to become the second location for lifestyle hotel concept Birch” with the grounds undergoing “significant renovation”. The new version of the hotel is “slated to open its doors in 2023,” we learned. The old Selsdon Hotel is fading. But Selsdon Man lives on, albeit in a female form.
John Vane writes word sketches of London and bits about its past. Sometimes he makes things up. Follow John on Twitter.
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