Harold wasn't pushed, he'd wanted to jump for years

Political Commentary
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The Independent Online
The 20th anniversary of Harold Wilson's resignation in March 1976 passed without much fuss or comment. Last Thursday, however, Channel 4 broadcast an alleged "documentary" about the event. It contrived to muddle Wilson's resignation with the undoubtedly febrile political atmosphere of 1974-76, which itself derived from the various disasters of Sir Edward Heath's administration. In fact there was no connection between the two. Wilson's resignation was "mysterious" largely because of our modern belief that no one ever voluntarily resigns from anything.

He had wanted to resign for a long time. On 13 May 1970 he told Lord Jenkins that, though he would be well short of 60, he was determined to hand over the premiership in the next Parliament. He said there were two possible dates: the Labour Party conference in October 1972, or just before midsummer 1973. On 14 June of that year he would have been in office for a day longer than H H Asquith and accordingly (in that pre-Thatcher era) the longest serving prime minister of the century.

On 21 August 1970 I wrote in the New Statesman that, if he had won the June election, it was his intention to resign in two years or so. In these circumstances his successor would probably have been Lord Jenkins. The information in this article was neither denied nor the occasion for much surprise. It came not, as some quite reasonably supposed, from the newly appointed editor of the paper, R H S Crossman, but from the then more junior figure in the People's Party, Mr Roy Hattersley. Later, in opposition in 1972, Wilson told Lord Healey that he did not intend to serve another full term as prime minister.

In February 1974 Labour won the election called by Sir Edward. In March Wilson formed his third administration, for the first time as a minority government. He decided that he would not continue in office for more than two years, even if he won the second election which was inevitable. When Lord Donoughue joined his staff in March 1974, he told him to arrange two years' leave from his academic post at the London School of Economics. He intended to retire in spring 1976 on reaching his 60th birthday. He said to Lord Donoughue: "I have been round this racetrack so often that I cannot generate any more enthusiasm for jumping any more hurdles."

Soon after the election of October 1974, Wilson approached Dr Thomas Stuttaford in the Athenaeum. Dr Stuttaford, Conservative member for Norwich South from 1970 to February 1974, had just fought Ely unsuccessfully and been readopted as candidate. Wilson wished him good luck in any future contest, 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.

Mr Joe Haines, a member of Wilson's entourage, tells us that one of the reasons was that he wanted people to ask "Why did he go?" rather than "Why did he stay?" Early in 1975 it became increasingly clear to him that Wilson was determined to proceed with what Mr Haines describes as "his oft-expressed ambition" to resign. In March 1975 Wilson's political secretary, Lady Falkender, asked Mr Haines and other familiars whether they realised that he intended to resign within a few months. She asked further what they "were going to do about it": presumably with a view to persuading Wilson to stay in office longer rather than to finding a congenial successor. But answer came there none.

Mr Haines, for his part, thought it right for Wilson to resign for his health's sake: he was certainly drinking brandy heavily. In Mr Haines's account he makes no reference to senility as such but writes that Wilson's strength was no longer inexhaustible.

At this stage Sir Edward had just been dislodged from the Conservative leadership. As Leader of the Opposition he had enjoyed the use of an official car. He had inaugurated this practice when, as the new prime minister, he had given Wilson a car. Wilson had repaid the courtesy in 1974, when he had become prime minister for the second time round.

Now Wilson made a ruling that all former prime ministers should have a car. He foisted one on Lord Home, who did not want one, and on Lord Avon, who had no need of one. The drivers of the Government Car Service concluded that the reason he had done this was that he himself was shortly to retire. Mr Tony Benn put this story to him during one of his numerous farewell dinners in March 1976. Wilson maintained that the change had been made "for security reasons". Lady Falkender, however, confirmed Mr Benn's version, describing him as "a naughty man" for having brought it out. Wilson had by now changed his mind. He wanted the party conference of October 1975 rather than his 60th birthday on 11 March 1976 as his retirement date. Lady Falkender was opposed to this because she wanted him to stay and because the resignation of Harold Macmillan during the Conservative conference of 1963 was not a happy precedent (though Macmillan had resigned at the very start of the conference, so throwing the event into the utmost confusion).

Wilson's first hurdle was the European negotiation followed by the referendum. This was successfully surmounted in June 1975. But his plans were put out by the balance of payments crisis in the following month. It nevertheless became apparent to Lady Falkender that he really was going to resign near his 60th birthday, "as he had said all those years ago". In summer 1975 he discussed details with Sir Kenneth Stowe at No 10 and with Mr Haines, who compiled a detailed "resignation timetable" - in the event disrupted by Princess Margaret's divorce.

In September 1975 at Balmoral he informed the Queen's Private Secretary that he intended to submit his resignation six months later. Lord Tonypandy as Speaker spent the first weekend of October at Chequers: Wilson told him too. On 9 December 1975 he informed the Queen at his weekly audience that 11 March 1976 "or thereabouts" would be the date.

The course of events is neither surprising nor mysterious. All the salient facts can be established with a little diligence. The programme's solitary virtue was its confirmation of what was already known about Wilson's fear of senility. The rest of it was a farrago of half-truths, distortions, evasions and what we can only assume were deliberate attempts at obfuscation. Three of those who appeared in it - Lord Donoughue, Mr Haines and Mr Geoffrey Goodman - are friendly acquaintances of mine and witnesses of truth. Indeed, the first two contributed substantially to the account I have just given. I wonder what they made of the finished product. To me, it was an utter disgrace.

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