Political history is a strange business. In the past week alone I have read that the late John Profumo was an Etonian; was a member of the Cabinet; was thought to be a possible Tory leader; and brought down the Macmillan government. Every single one of these statements is false.
In fact Profumo was a Harrovian; was a middle-ranking minister outside the Cabinet; was considered lucky to have progressed as far as he had; and resigned from a government which, so far from being brought down by anybody, went merrily on its way under Harold Macmillan till autumn 1963 and then under Alec Douglas-Home, who very nearly won the 1964 election.
If we cannot get the 1960s right, what chance is there for the 1970s? For some reason, not apparent to me, the television companies have all started to broadcast programmes about Harold Wilson. One of them, on Thursday evening on BBC2, showed a Conservative Cabinet purportedly of 1974, with a sprightly Iain Macleod and a youthful-looking Reginald Maudling. But Maudling had resigned in 1972; Macleod had been in his grave for four years.
The programme moved confusingly between the Cecil King-Mountbatten plot of the 1960s and the retired officers-Mountbatten plot of the early 1970s. It is possible that the programme-makers were in a thorough muddle of their own by this stage of the proceedings.
On Tuesday there is to be a second instalment of another, different programme, shown on ITV. This promises to deal with Wilson's resignation in 1976, which has been the cause of more misleading and, indeed, crazed speculation than any other political event of modern times, the staple fare of saloon-bar savants up and down the land.
The best evidence (apart from that of Mr Joe Haines, strangely absent from recent productions) comes from the prolific medical journalist Dr Tom Stuttaford. Soon after the general election of October 1974, Wilson approached Dr Stuttaford in the Athenaeum. He had been the Conservative member for Norwich South from 1970 to February 1974, had just fought the Isle of Ely unsuccessfully and had been readopted as the candidate there.
Wilson wished Dr Stuttaford good luck in his future contest (which, as it turned out, he failed to win), adding that he would not be in the House to welcome him, as he planned to retire in two years. Dr Stuttaford asked him why. Wilson replied that there were several reasons, but the best was that his late mother had started to suffer from senility at about the age he would attain in 1976, which was 60.
The circumstances of Wilson's resignation, which have provided the staple diet of every conspiracy-maniac in the country for many years, have become confused with the question of his resignation honours list. But there is no connection. How could there be?
The resignation was a wholly legitimate exercise of personal choice which had been planned for a long time. The honours list consisted of a curious galère largely put together by Marcia, Lady Falkender, and made up of assorted crooks, entertainers and persons whose affinity to the Labour cause was by no means self-evident, such as Sir James Goldsmith. But compared to Mr Tony Blair's more recent exercises in patronage, it was almost childlike in its innocence; the symptom of a simpler age; corruption for kids.
There are, however, several respects in which Mr Blair resembles Wilson; is almost a continuation of Wilson by other means. Both are given to complaining that they have a hard job to do and go unappreciated on that account. Wilson used to say that his reputation for deviousness derived from his duty to keep the Labour party together in difficult times.
Mr Blair would never make that claim. Indeed, he goes on about "reform", which is shorthand for measures that would have been considered on the extreme side by Margaret Thatcher. If he is to carry through all the reforms he was hinting at in his constituency on Thursday evening, Mr Gordon Brown will have to be kept waiting for a very long time.
But his general line is that his yoke is onerous and his burden heavy. This was certainly his approach at his press conference earlier on the same day. Raising money, he said, was a terrible business, almost more than flesh and blood could stand. But it had to be done. However, he wanted to make one thing clear: the rules must be the same for all political sides.
This was a master-stroke, of which Wilson himself would have been proud. For no one was suggesting that the rules should be different - that there should be one set of particularly stringent regulations for Mr Blair and his chums, and another set, almost laughable in its leniency, for Mr David Cameron, Sir Menzies Campbell and their chums.
There is, obviously, the slight difficulty that Mr Blair is head of a government and hence possesses powers of patronage denied to Mr Cameron and Sir Menzies, even though, according to the principles of our old constitution, they have one or two which are graciously granted to them by the Government.
Wilson used to emit clouds, literally, of tobacco smoke and, metaphorically, of octopus ink. Mr Blair does not have the first dialectical device at his disposal but more than makes up for its absence with his capacity to darken the waters. On Thursday he tried to divert attention from the wrongful, even if strictly legal, practice of soliciting political loans through the offer of honours. He announced a whole White Paper of changes not only to the honours system but to the position of ministers generally.
The Cabinet Secretary would have to recommend certain honours but would no longer be asked to undertake inquiries into ministers' conduct: that would be left to another official, who would also advise on conflicts of interest. The House of Lords would be reformed; and there was much else besides. Mr Blair declined to answer the question: if Mr Jack Dromey did not know about it, what precisely has happened to all the money? Where did it go?
Meanwhile, tick-tock goes the clock. Anthony Eden had a year and nine months as Prime Minister; Douglas-Home a year; Bonar Law seven months. Mr Brown will feel cheated if he cannot manage much more than any of these. Unlike Law, he will not go down as the unknown Prime Minister. But it is still possible that he will turn out to be one of the shortest lived in history.Reuse content