Open Eye: How Harold's pet project became his monument

Joe Haines recalls how Harold Wilson fought off all the critics to create Britain's largest university
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The Independent Online
It is given to few Prime Ministers to create their own everlasting memorial... Earl Grey had a tea named in his honour, Gladstone a bag and Anthony Eden a trilby hat, but they were the tributes of others. An ancestor of the Lord Derby who became Prime Minster gave the family's name to the world's most famous horse race and Neville Chamberlain did more for the sale of umbrellas than any rainstorm ever did.

James Callaghan's proudest act was to introduce the millions of cats' eyes that run down the centre of thousands of miles of British roadways, but they were not his own work; it fell to him to be responsible for them when a junior transport minister in the Attlee Government. They will still be in place when he and his Winter of Discontent are forgotten.

But only two of the 23 Prime Ministers of the last 120 years have their names indelibly linked with turning points in our history: Winston Churchill, who will be ever revered by older British citizens for winning the war and for making speeches unequalled by any of his peers; and Harold Wilson for promoting the single greatest step in the history of higher education, the creation of the Open University.

Tony Blair has pledged his reputation to achieving success in his chosen priority: education, education, education. Harold Wilson made it his priority, too, if less dramatically and in substantial part succeeded. Whatever his failings in other areas of policy, in that he was triumphant.

He, too, saw education as the pathway to national success and prosperity. He passionately believed in the value of learning for its own sake, not just a means to an end, but an end in itself. But he also saw it as the way out of the drudgery and poverty, physical and mental, of unemployment, homelessness, and the hopeless dead-end of unskilled manual labour. Like others, he may have believed in education as a panacea more powerful than, in fact, it was and is. For his part, he never doubted its importance.

He once told me that his proudest moment as Prime Minister came in the year during his 1964-70 Government when Britain, for the first time in its history, spent more upon education than upon defence. Part of that spending was on preparation for the Open University.

The creation of the University of the Air, as it was first known, was essentially all Wilson's own work - "my brain child", as he called it. Variations of the idea originally had several parents. But it needed a powerful sponsor to give it life, to transform a little discussed theory into hard fact.

Wilson, in 1963 the youngest potential Prime Minister of the century, bursting with energy and bubbling with ideas, became that sponsor. The University was an integral part of his grand plan outlined at Scarborough in October, 1963, for "the white heat of technological revolution" to transform British society, British culture and the British economy. Much of that ambition was to dissolve into disappointment in Government, but the new university remained. It was the untouchable, the one spending commitment whose abolition he refused to contemplate.

Wilson had to overcome enormous difficulties to turn the proposal he had first outlined in Glasgow, a month before the Scarborough conference speech, into a living and thriving reality.

Not all of his colleagues in Cabinet were in favour of it. There was an air of disapproving elitism about the way some of his Oxbridge ministers referred to "Harold's pet scheme", a belief that a degree not gained amid dreaming spires and peaceful cloisters was not really a degree; that, in modern parlance, the Open University would be a dumbing down of the ancient universities' standards.

The Department of Education, like so many Whitehall departments, resented outside interference and feared it would lose money otherwise destined for its established policies.

Not surprisingly, Wilson was to describe it to Jennie Lee as "the most reactionary department in the Government".

The Treasury, which hates expenditure which it hasn't initiated, put obstacles in the way, especially under Roy Jenkins, who, much later in life, became Chancellor of Oxford University.

Wilson did not put forward his scheme for inclusion in the 1964 election manifesto - though it was in the 1966 one - for fear it might be rejected. Iain Macleod, in his day Cabinet Minister and chairman of the Conservative party and a man who combined a sharp mind with blunt speech, dismissed the idea of the Open University as "blithering nonsense".

The Times wondered whether there was a demand for it, and, even after the first degrees were awarded, Who's Who queried the BA Hons (Open) which the Bishop of Dulwich included in his entry.

Wilson, whose record at Oxford shone brighter than any of his snobbish contemporaries (the only triple honours graduate, he claimed, between the two world wars) would not abandon his "pet", even in the worst of economic and financial crises.

He never doubted that the demand was there. He appointed Aneurin Bevan's widow, Jennie Lee, to bring his idea to life and supported her through thick and thin, as she supported him.

In 1965 during a Labour party conference, I decided to seek an interview with Jennie about the University of the Air, as it was still being called. She called me up to her hotel room where she lay on her bed resting, shatteringly tired after a typically tumultuous conference day. But as she enthused about the future of "Harold's pet", she glowed. She was a fiercely determined women - also a graduate, though her husband had little education - acting on behalf of a fiercely determined Prime Minister. The combination was irresistible.

Just as Aneurin Bevan, under Attlee's authority, created the National Health Service, so she, under Wilson's protection, became the midwife and guardian of the Open University.

Jennie Lee did more than put flesh on the bones of an idea. She reshaped and redefined Wilson's broad outline into a practical proposition.

She disposed of the University of the Air tag because the press had written about "sitting in front of the telly to get a degree", though today, in the age of the computer, no one would question that.

More fundamentally, she insisted that if it were to be a "university" it had to be one in the fullest sense of the word, independent and with its degrees of a standard which would bear comparison with any others. And by Open, she meant open to all. I doubt if she would be happy today at the fees charged to students.

Just as her husband ended his career as a Cabinet Minister on the issue of charges for a "free" health service, so, I'm sure, would Jennie Lee have fought to the point of resignation the Budget cuts and increases in fees which called full "openness" into question.

Twentyfour years after Iain Macleod derided the Open University, a Conservative Education minister, Baroness Blatch, said it was "synonymous with quality" whileNigel Forman, the Higher Education Minister, called it "a jewel in the crown of higher education".

The Independent on Sunday praised the Open Business School, whose "meteoric ascent rests on the formidable reputation of its parent institution, the Open University".

Wilson, who received scant praise or support from the press in the early years of the University proposal would have appreciated that - while acidly pointing out that meteors are meteors because they fall, not ascend.

Wilson defined the role of the Open University as being "to widen the opportunities for higher education by giving a second chance to those who can profit from it, but who have been, for one reason or another, unable to go to a University or College on leaving school".

He might have added, "There but for the grace of God go I," because had his father's unemployment continued in the 1930s, Oxford, even on a scholarship, would have been impossible.

Was the demand there, as The Times suspected it wasn't? Wilson never had any doubts, but, nevertheless, he was taken aback by it.

Even the most self-confident of politicians is likely to be astonished at the consequences of what begins as an idea, a scribbled outline on a piece of scrap paper, mutates into a policy and then becomes a reality.

Forty thousand applicants for the 25,000 places on offer in the University's first academic year in 1971 was more than he had ever expected. The fact that by 1994 the University would be the largest single educational institution in Britain, teaching more than 200,000 students and envied all over the world was beyond his wildest dreams.

Sadly, by the time that milestone was reached, his once brilliant mind was ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, but in the last conversation I had with him, when his memory had substantially deteriorated but much remained, he went over incidents in the past which he could remember and the Open University formed a large part of our final words together.

Wilson could not have created the Open University alone. He had the passion and hard work of Jennie Lee to thank, the enthusiasm of first-sceptical academics, the willingness of broadcasters to do what their masters were reluctant to undertake, and the devoted labour of the tutors.

Above all, he had the students themselves, whose eagerness to improve their learning and to gain a degree shamed and surprised the doubters among the professional politicians.

But it is equally true that without Harold Wilson there would have been no Open University to start its courses on January 1, 1971. Nor, perhaps, in 1981. Nor even in 1991.

He picked up the idea, moulded it, breathed life into it, put the right minister in charge and then defended it against all-comers.

When future biographers research the good that Wilson did, they could do far worse than start with the Open University. It truly is his monument.

Joe Haines, former political correspondent, was Chief Press Secretary to Harold Wilson from 1969 to 1976.