Lessons of the Wilson years

An appreciation by Tony Blair of his predecessor who gave Labour 11 years in power; A new era was dawning. Culturally, the Beatles captured that spirit. In political terms Wilson did That he escaped the plots against him was down to the fact that he remained popular with the public
Click to follow
The Independent Online
History will be required to make its own judgement of Harold Wilson, denied the benefit of reflections, late in life, from the man himself. One has only to recall the voice, the sharp wit, and indeed the pipe, to imagine the added spice and significance he would have given to films and books and television documentaries about the four decades during which he was so active in public life.

He had a photographic memory - a huge asset to any politician, but particularly one required constantly to meet and greet people - so it was especially tragic and poignant that the illness which struck him a few years ago first eroded and later destroyed his powers of memory. It is a loss to history, and a loss to public life, that this long and debilitating illness prevented him from giving his own reflective account, and his own analysis, of an extraordinary career and a hugely important period in British history. His contribution to that period was immense.

The body of achievement to his name may not compare directly with, say, Clement Attlee's, but the scale of the challenges they faced was not the same. That they both rose to the challenges before them, however, is beyond dispute. Although the power of Tory propaganda and the images of the winter of discontent are strong, they should not lead people to forget the long periods of economic success and stability under Wilson in the years before that. He had a good record on inflation and on employment. He did much to rebuild our industrial base.

He probably saw his own greatest achievement as the extension of educational opportunity. His was the first government to spend more on education than on defence. He was immensely proud of the Open University, which was his idea and which he drove through with verve and energy. He was proud, too, that during his premiership Britain for the first time went through a whole year without losing a soldier on active service. He was passionately committed to overseas development, first as a founder of War on Want and in government creating the Ministry of Overseas Development. He created the posts of Minister for Sport and Secretary of State for Wales. He set up the National Consumer Council. His period in office saw the passing of important laws on abortion, homosexuality and equal pay. He started the planning of child benefit. And he brought Britain back from a three- day week and from the precipice of industrial strife and ungovernability and the Opec energy crisis, through the Social Contract.

Though historical comparisons should never be overdone, clearly there are similarities between today and the Wilson years. He came to power after a long period of Tory rule had ended in failure and disintegration. The pace of economic and industrial change was quickening. A new era was dawning and the British people were looking for leadership in a spirit of hope and optimism. In cultural terms, the Beatles captured that spirit. In political terms Harold Wilson did.

The questioning in some of the interviews I did yesterday in tribute to Wilson suggested a certain distaste at his political skills and at his electoral record, as though he would be remembered only for party management and winning elections. I do not share that view. Nor do I decry politicians who seek to win elections and who keep public opinion in mind when devising strategy and action. Though party management is only a part of a political leader's job, it is an important part, and Wilson kept together two wings of a party more fractious and less disciplined than it is now. He had enormous personality clashes to contend with, and he did that with great skill. And he never lost sight either of the people who had sent him to Parliament, or of the fact that an election was always just a few years, months or weeks away. We should learn from his electoral and political skills, not condemn them. He was the first political leader to master the art of communication through the mass media. That, too, is to his credit. Communicating with the people, and speaking up for them in public, is a vital part of the politician's role.

If he was a man of his times, he was also a man of his people. His love of Yorkshire cricket and Huddersfield Town was no affectation, but a genuine enthusiasm shared with the people with whom he grew up. He carried in his wallet an old photo of the Huddersfield team that had dominated the game in his teens. He watched Coronation Street. He did not look down on his electors, he mixed with them. He did not forget them as he climbed the educational ladder - as high as it was possible to climb, if exam results are the judge - and he grew more determined that the opportunities granted to him should be afforded to others.

Speaking to his friends and former colleagues yesterday, I was struck by how many said he was conspiracy-minded. Then again, people often were conspiring against him. The Tories disliked him because he kept beating them. The left did not trust him because he was cleverer than they were. And the right never took to him fully because he succeeded where Hugh Gaitskell had failed. That he escaped the plots against him was largely down to the fact that he remained popular with the public. He won four elections - which equals all other Labour leaders combined. Before me, there have been 14 leaders of the Labour Party, which has enjoyed something over 20 years in power. Wilson's election victories were responsible for 11 of those years.

Like others who have devalued, he was badly damaged by the devaluation of 1967, and later by his failure to implement trade union reforms. As I said in the Mais lecture on Monday night, had he been allowed to implement In Place of Strife, the recent history of our country would have been hugely different. But he wasn't, and there are many of his colleagues and his enemies alike who must share the blame for that.

Recent studies of Wilson have led to the rehabilitation of an unfair and negative reputation which was beginning to develop and become accepted as conventional wisdom among the chattering classes (for whom, incidentally, he had very little time). I welcome the effect those biographies have had. It is important that people remember the good that he did. It is important, too, as the 50th anniversary of the Attlee government nears, that the generation brought up under Thatcher and Major governments should learn about Labour in government, and what Labour in government achieved. There is a lot to learn, and the chapter on Harold Wilson will be a long one.