When the means became the end

The death of Harold Wilson after so many twilight years ought to touch us all, however gently. His story is part of the story of post- war Britain. This small, rounded, shrewd-eyed man dominated our public life for over a decade. The visions he conjured, the hopes he dashed, entered the country's imagination. And his failure was our national failure too.

Politics can be sentimental, and there was genuine sentiment - a good thing, not a bad thing - about ''Harold'' in the Commons. He was skilful and kind, and a great wit, and a brilliant parliamentarian, and all the things they said he was. He won four general elections, which is three (or four) more than most Labour leaders are allowed. He led this country through a time when it was often chirpier and happier about itself than usual - when to be British seemed to be modern and stylish. But no one listening carefully would have left Westminster thinking they had heard full-throated orations to a giant. There was something missing. And that reticence was just. His central failure was that his political style, which should be secondary, cancelled out his political vision, which should always come first. Tactics overwhelmed strategy. Staying in the saddle mattered more than the direction the horse was heading.

Everyone attests to the energy and cynical brilliance with which Wilson played the political game: his skill in elections; his patient handling of a cast of impossible characters - the drunks, the egomaniacs, the disloyalists; his wriggling free from tight corners.

But he could have been much more. He understood the enormous task of modernisation facing the British economy in the Sixties - out-of-control trade unionism, managerial complacency, snobbery. He recognised post-war Britain was failing, and required radical treatment.

Yet it was treatment he failed to give us. Energy was expended without result; the brilliant mind exhausted itself in a sterile game of political survival; the reforms were misconceived (like Tony Crosland's determination to ''destroy every fucking grammar school in England'') or ran into the sand, like the anti-strike measures of In Place of Strife. The statist, Whitehall-knows-best-thinking Wilson had committed himself to from the war years onwards was already outdated by the time he arrived in power to try it again.

This does not mean that there were no achievements. It may be the greatest ones were negative. For instance, he kept Britain out of the Vietnam war - a horror which a Tory prime minister might well have embroiled us in. His own most-boasted success was the Open University

Which was, and is, a fine thing. But given that Wilson arrived promising to transform the country, it is not enough. Over time, office politics, media vendettas, inappropriate friendships, showbiz stunts and paranoid conspiracy theories sloshed round and finally overwhelmed any serious purpose.

When he left, Britain was glad to see him go and, a couple of years later, rejected Labourism for Margaret Thatcher. This does not add up to success.

Yet Wilson matters today because he represents one of two models of political leadership which dominate modern British politics. He was the fixer, the man who elevated party unity above everything. The alternative model is, of course, Thatcher, who didn't bother about balancing the factions, but led from the front at full hurtle. Their endings in power are instructive: Wilson resigned suddenly, having run out of options and failed to reshape Britain as he wanted to; she crashed, but had transformed the country by the time she did.

The great irony is that John Major's premiership has uncanny echoes of the Wilson years, while it is Labour's leader, Tony Blair, who has plumped for the Thatcher example.

Blair was lavish about Wilson yesterday, as a Labour leader must be. His rhetoric is strikingly similar to Wilson's 30 years ago. But Blair's behaviour as a party manager suggests that he regards the Wilson years more as a warning than an inspiration. With all due respect to a warm and patriotic Yorkshireman - let's hope so.