BOOK REVIEW / A funny, forgotten prime minister: 'Harold Wilson' - Ben Pimlott: HarperCollins, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WHO WAS 'the most popular prime minister over a long period since the war'? Who was 'funny, clever, likeable, affable, approachable, brave, lacking in pomposity or side, and tortuously honest'? Who was 'the best television communicator in politics'?

It couldn't be . . . no . . . not Harold Wilson? Not the dismal- voiced, dough-faced and discredited twister pilloried for the past 15 years or so whenever his name has been mentioned? But yes, finally, the rehabilitation of Wilson has begun. And Ben Pimlott, the best British political biographer now writing, has made a hugely impressive job of it.

Lady Thatcher had a balanced and major biography while she was still in office. Lord Wilson, living out his twilight years in anonymity, has waited too long for this assessment. He has been like some faintly disreputable uncle of the nation, kept from view until, in his late old age, we can again bear to look at him once more - and discover he was never quite as bad as the family mythology made out.

Such interest as there has been in Wilson in recent years has been wildly off-centre. On the one hand, his career has been used as a morality tale by Thatcherites and socialists alike, an awful warning of the dire effects of fudge and prevarication. On the other hand, a small band of journalists and campaigners have been fascinated by the thought that he was the victim of secret service dirty tricks and smears - such as the smear that he was a Soviet spy. More central questions, such as what he really believed, why he behaved as he did, and to what extent he succeeded or failed, have been regarded incuriously, or even with indifference.

So the Pimlott account fills in one of the last great gaps in modern British political history. His narrative of the young Wilson, from sickly boy scout to academic pupil of the formidable William Beveridge, and then to chirpy junior minister is quite outstanding - clear, thoughtful and gripping.

This early part of the book is central to its larger achievement, since Pimlott shocks the reader out of basic anti-Wilson prejudice by demanding a human sympathy for him. The little, blinking, stubborn boy, hiding his hurt with cocky self-confidence, lives on as a permanent presence within the powerful politician. We feel, as well as read, his isolation from the snobby metropolitan elite (Labour Gaitskellite as much as Tory) which surrounded Wilson throughout his career and delivered its damning judgement on him afterwards.

The biographer makes much of qualities rarely associated with any politician, still less this one - dogged loyalty, integrity, decency. He achieves a powerful, and I think permanent, antidote to the chilly disdain of so many published memoirs, diaries and partisan attacks.

But Pimlott's lucidity when describing what clearly interested Wilson most - the tortuous plots and personal feuds of Labour in power - means a certain seediness and short-termism hangs over his subject, even so.

Today, the endless plotting and juggling of jobs to avoid a challenger emerging still seems faintly shocking. Whatever the excuses, prime ministers ought not to be that obsessed with internal cabinet politicking - and most of them are not. The strange thing is that the policies which caused Wilson most odium at the time - equivocal support for the Americans in Vietnam, and the attempts to reform industrial legislation - are the easiest to explain and understand now.

And the policies for which Wilson was most praised - the planning mania and his deep belief that the man in Whitehall knew best - today look the silliest.

Like many of his generation, Wilson really thought that Soviet planning would take the Communists far ahead of the West in economic growth. Pimlott shows where Wilson's planning cult came from - his academic work with Beveridge, his schooling in Whitehall when it was at its peak of wartime self-confidence, and even his own voracious appetite for hard abstract work. But this central aspect of Wilsonism failed Britain badly.

Some biographies enter the political discourse at once, thanks to their innate qualities and lucky timing. There are so many echoes of the Wilson years in the politics of today that this happy fate must surely belong to Pimlott's book.

Wilson's soured relationship with the press (and the terrible problems it caused for him) - the conflict within him between national leadership and good party management - even the growing debate about national decline - are all suggestive and worth lingering over. As, indeed, are almost all of these 734 well-researched and finely written pages.