Hero or villain, it was Wilson who usually made the news

Twenty years after his last election victory, it is easy to forget that, for more than a decade, Harold Wilson dominated British politics.

By the time of the still mysterious resignation he was no longer a rough- edged icon - the working-class boy made good who seemed to typify the spirit of the brashly mobile Sixties. Qualities which had once been exalted as virtues were excoriated as vices. His abiding wish to heal the wounds of civil war and hold the party together was represented as an obsession to hang on to power. In truth, he was never the cross between Houdini, Machiavelli and Isaac Newton that the journalists invented when he led Labour back to government. Nor was he the cynical failure that the newspapers described when, at the age of 60, he turned his back on power and office for ever. But, hero or villain, it was Harold Wilson who usually made the news.

The handicap, from which he never quite recovered, was the circumstances in which he became Labour leader. He had been "disloyal" to Hugh Gaitskell, his predecessor, by challenging for the leadership when it seemed that disagreements over unilateral nuclear disarmament might destroy the party for ever. He lost. But within three years Gaitskell was dead and Wilson led the Opposition. Worse still in the eyes of some of the Gaitskellites, he won the general election and sat behind the despatch box in Gaitskell's place. Wilson appointed some of his most irreconcilable critics to the Cabinet and they served with great distinction. But they never forgave him and he never trusted them.

We will never know if a Labour Party led by Gaitskell would have won a greater victory in 1964 than Wilson managed to achieve. But certainly during the campaign he looked and sounded like the man of the moment. At the dawn of the space age he promised to harness "the white heat" of technological revolution. And he told an increasingly self- confident nation that Alec Douglas-Home had "emerged as Tory champion because of the establishment's instinct for deference. At a time when even the MCC has abolished the distinction between professionals and amateurs, the Conservatives have chosen to be led by a gentleman not a player."

The government which he formed in 1964 was cursed by the liability of a barely workable majority and, in consequence, the need to live from day to day. Even with room to manoeuvre after 1966, he still slid away from too many hard decisions. Devaluation was postponed and the essential withdrawal from East of Suez was delayed for far too long. But on the great issues Wilson was on the right side. He fought the neutralists, gradually moved the party towards acceptance of the Common Market, and supported to the end Barbara Castle's trade-union reforms - proposals which now seem so reasonable that it is hard to believe that they once aroused such passions.

Labour's defeat in 1970 caused almost as much surprise as its re-election in 1974. That third narrow victory was Wilson's vindication. In 1976 he failed significantly to increase his majority. But he had scored four wins out of five. And even though he seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for government, he managed - with a combination of his old tactical skill and instinct for compromise - to avoid Labour's leading Britain out of Europe. His sudden abdication caused a sensation which he undoubtedly found immensely gratifying.

To the end of his political career, Harold Wilson remained deeply suspicious of his colleagues and constantly on guard against a palace revolution. He failed in his ambition to make Labour "the natural party of government", even though he was always prepared to play the ace that he kept up his sleeve if he thought it was the only way of winning the game. But he held together a warring coalition and led his country for eight turbulent years. And, until he retired, he chose to make the waves rather than flow along with the tide. He was a much better Prime Minister, and a much better man, than many of us thought at the time.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - An outstanding senior opportunity for...

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower