Steve Richards: Is it just a coincidence that there is all this sudden interest in Harold Wilson?

While Wilson toiled for unity, Blair has often appeared happiest when taking on parts of his party
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Probably it is mere chance that the overdue examination takes place at a time when Tony Blair faces a potentially pivotal rebellion from Labour MPs over his schools Bill. Wilson knew a thing or two about insurrections. One way or another, he faced them most weeks of his leadership. He was doomed to lead his party at a time when divisions were far greater than they are now.

Indeed so deep were the divisions in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Wilson became neurotically obsessed by the need to maintain unity. Cabinet reshuffles were a nightmarishly complex balancing act. Policies were shaped partly by the need to retain the support of the left and right of the party.

There were not many laughs in such energy-draining pragmatism, and nor was it an especially glamorous form of leadership. In the early 1970s, Wilson told his ministerial ally Barbara Castle that he had "waded through shit keeping the party together over Europe". He could have applied the metaphor more widely. On most policy fronts, he found himself wading through shit.

Wilson was heavily criticised at the time and subsequently for his stifling pragmatism. On the whole, the critics ignore the nightmarishly limited options. Labour was divided between social democrats and left-wing socialists, with both sides fairly well represented at different levels of the party. Wilson's only real choice was to work with what he had or to allow a fatal schism to take place. Not surprisingly, Wilson opted for the former.

Nearly everyone fumed at the time, but later his disparaging colleagues on either side of Labour's ideological divide revised their views on the old schemer. In his memoirs, Roy Jenkins is fulsome in his revisionist praise for Wilson, a leader who gave him room to breathe politically. From the left, Tony Benn never loses the chance to praise Wilson for recognising that, like a bird, a political party needs two wings to fly.

Tony Blair's style of leadership is in some senses the opposite of Wilson's. I make the qualification because there are some echoes. Blair and Wilson share some similar conservative instincts, in their awe for supposedly successful business leaders and traditional institutions such as the monarchy. Wilson was also much nicer and more decently motivated than his public image. So is Blair. Wilson was portrayed by right-wing newspapers and the BBC as mendacious and corrupt. Blair has suffered from the same mis-reporting.

The big difference between them is in the way they regarded the Labour Party. While Wilson toiled for unity, Blair has often appeared happiest when taking on parts of his party, in alliance with some right-wing newspapers and with the support of the Conservatives. In both cases, there are dark ironies in the relationship between leader and party. Wilson sought unity when the divide was too great. Blair is content sometimes with internal turmoil when Labour is more united than it used to be.

According to a column in yesterday's Daily Telegraph by the well-informed Rachel Sylvester, close allies of Blair say he regards himself almost as the leader of a national government. He rationalises that the issues he faces are those that will divide parties and produce unusual coalitions. Blair has a knack of taking up a position and deciding that the epic sweep of history is on his side.

In this case, he appears to have decided that if he wins the vote tomorrow on his schools Bill as a result of support from the Conservatives there is no great significance. According to this apocalyptic narrative, issues blur the party boundaries as they do at times of war.

To an extraordinary extent, leaders are shaped by their pasts. Shortly before he died, Jim Callaghan told me that he and Wilson were defined by the 1930s, the decade in which unemployment soared and Labour was split by the decision of Ramsay MacDonald to form a national government. Callaghan said that, as a result of that torrid decade, he and Wilson took extreme action to avoid high unemployment and fatal divisions within their party. But Callaghan acknowledged that in the end their political upbringing prevented them from taking some of the measures necessary to modernise Labour. They became trapped by the past.

Blair was brought up politically on Labour's internal strife in the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher's style of dominant leadership. He saw Neil Kinnock pilloried for supposedly not being strong enough and Thatcher deified for her no-nonsense approach. He opted for "strong leadership". His style has led to successes electorally and, to some extent, in policy terms too. But like Wilson and Callaghan in the 1970s, he risks going too far. In his case, though, he heads in the opposite direction. From being a leader determined to change his party and to challenge its prejudices, he moves close to a point where perpetual battle is a form of vindication.

Inevitably with New Labour, nothing is quite what it seems. With Blair's backing, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has worked tirelessly to bring Labour's dissenters on board. She has been caught in the nightmare of Mr Blair's determination to implement his well-intentioned but flawed vision, and the need to compromise. Even so, she has navigated her way through the terrain and reassured some rebels without alienating Downing Street.

Indeed, the sensitive operation has revealed Labour's maturity rather than the opposite. Most dissenters have argued their case with a polite forcefulness, and Ms Kelly has acknowledged constructively the restrained manner of most rebels. Yet it was with an almost casual recklessness that Blair plunged his party into disarray, causing decent loyalists real agony as they felt compelled to speak out. Subsequently, he has described almost triumphantly this tightrope walk as if division was a sign of strong leadership in the same way as Wilson came to regard unity almost as an end in itself.

Coming from a different era and learning lessons from the 1970s, Blair has escaped from many of the constraints that made leadership a nightmare for Wilson. But if he wishes to follow Wilson in departing at a dignified time of his own choosing, he would be advised to acquire from his predecessor a new interest in unity and the boundaries between parties rather than those within them. Blair is trapped by his past too.