Political elite celebrates man of the people

Ministers and MPs gather in honour of Lord Wilson. Will Bennett reports
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The Independent Online
The congregation list in Westminster Abbey yesterday read like the index of a political history of Britain since the 1960s.

Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, the former Labour prime minister, who died aged 79 in May after a long illness, would have smiled at such a gathering, for traditionally it is always easier for politicians to achieve unity in death than it is in life.

John Major sat only a few feet away from Tony Blair at the memorial service and both read lessons. Baroness Thatcher attended as did Lord Callaghan, the man she ousted from 10 Downing Street, and Sir Edward Heath, who lost three general elections to Lord Wilson.

The 1,300 people in the Abbey included half the Cabinet, all the Shadow Cabinet, more than 100 MPs and almost 170 of Lord Wilson's fellow members of the House of Lords. Almost all surviving senior figures of the Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s attended.

Baroness Castle was ushered to a seat labelled as being reserved for a representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who may well have been busy elsewhere, and Lords Healey, Mason and Jenkins came to remember the only man ever to make Labour a natural party of government.

The skills which enabled Lord Wilson to win four elections and spend eight years as Prime Minister and the common touch that ensured everyone remembers him as Harold, were recalled by Lord Callaghan, who succeeded him as Labour leader.

He said the 1975 referendum ensuring Britain stayed in the European Community was "a triumph of party management", adding: "Some pour scorn on such black arts. But there is nothing wrong with party management - it is how well you do it that matters. Harold Wilson was a master tactician." At this a smile flickered across the face of Mr Major, a leader all too familiar with problems of party management, who was sitting next to Michael Heseltine, the new Deputy Prime Minister.

Lord Callaghan said that Lord Wilson was brought up in the North when unemployment was high, and his father was out of a job for two years. "Harold grew up with this and understood the full effects of unemployment killing hopes, undermining respect, destroying skills.

"So whenever economic policy decisions had to be taken, you could be sure that in the forefront of his mind would be the question: 'How is it going to affect the people who might become unemployed?' His concern was to protect the weakest and poorest and promote those whose prospects were smallest and whose handicaps were largest. The British people sensed this. They saw him as a humane and kindly man. And they were right."

Lady Wilson, who never liked the political limelight, sat a row in front of Lady Falkender, his often controversial secretary and confidante, who relished it. They listened as Lord Wilson's twin granddaughters, Catherine and Jennifer Wilson, 20, both music students, sang Richard Deering's anthem "In heaven the souls of the saints rejoice". Outside a crowd waited to see a rare political gathering leave.