BOOK REVIEW / Devious leader who never messed with Marcia: 'Wilson: The Authorised Life' - Philip Ziegler: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 20 pounds

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THERE was a thinly disguised phrase used by attendants at the court of King Harold. 'NMM,' I heard them whisper as some poor unfortunate was hauled over the coals by the Labour leader's uniquely powerful political secretary, now Lady Falkender. The key to a quiet life was 'Never Mess with Marcia'. She was, as Ziegler says, 'formidable in her ferocity', and Wilson, like his staff, was 'frightened of her'.

Ziegler was given exclusive access to Lord Wilson's papers but the content of the resulting book was to be 'entirely at your (Ziegler's) discretion'. The former prime minister had no objection to the finished product. Unsurprisingly, Marcia Williams did. She feels that his portrait of her is 'in many ways unfair'. Ziegler records that he is 'painfully aware' that she disagrees with much in this biography. NMM.

But Ziegler's is an ultimately sympathetic analysis of the complex relationship between Harold and Marcia. 'It was,' he writes perceptively, 'those very threats and insults which enhanced her value in his eyes.' Ziegler does not accept the view - peddled by those she bested - that in political matters Marcia's power was exercised in a capricious, self-indulgent or destructive manner. Moreover, he recognises that Wilson valued her loyalty and dedication to his personal cause, and her astonishingly accurate feel for what party activists and the mass of voters would swallow.

Although Ziegler's book is a serious political history, Ben Pimlott's Harold remains the fullest and most sympathetic academic account of Wilson the politician. But Ziegler's particular strength lies in his understanding of the complex character, psychology and lifestyle of James Harold Wilson. As a labour and political correspondent, I covered Wilson in Government and Opposition. This admirable and entertaining study captures the feel of Wilson and his entourage far better than any other I have read.

The rather priggish lower middle class young Wilson was a Liberal and a Christian pacifist by inclination. He went up to Oxford and proved to be one of the most brilliant economists of his generation. Then he abandoned potentially glittering careers in academia and the Civil Service to become a Labour politician, to the amazement of his friends and the obvious distress of his retiring wife, Mary. In retirement, Harold and Mary slipped back into a cosy and touching domesticity.

Ziegler records that the two adjectives most commonly employed by politicians and journalists - as well as 'the secretaries, the chauffeurs, the detectives' - to describe Wilson are 'devious' and 'kindly'. He does not succeed in reconciling the two images, but neither has anybody else.

Wilson was genuinely wedded to social justice, to the removal of class barriers, to promoting the cause of the poor and the underprivileged and to allowing people to fulfil their potential. He was in this limited sense a moderniser and a meritocrat. He was patriotic in a rather conventional manner ('I am a Queen and Commonwealth man', he told me in a broadcast seven years ago) and a believer in blurring political controversy to keep his country and his party together. He once complained bitterly that 'to bridge a deep political chasm without splitting a party or provoking dramatic ministerial resignations is sometimes regarded as something approaching political chicanery'. Wilson saw it as 'the highest aim of leadership'.

Such rulers are necessary, the author argues. If nations are to be run efficiently and without constant turmoil, periods of pragmatic governance are essential.

The problem is that once or twice in a political lifetime comes a problem which brooks no compromise. Wilson, to his credit, recognised unreformed union power as such an issue. With courage he forced change on to the agenda of his Government, his party and the TUC.

He then fiddled and fixed and finally produced a meaningless compromise to retain the unity of the Labour movement. It cost him his job in the 1970 election and led to the Winter of Discontent and the election of Margaret Thatcher.

When it came to the defining moment, for all his genuine niceness, Wilson could no more face down his party than he could face down his political secretary.