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.

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