My fond memories of Harold and the dread decade

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold

Related Topics
HE WAS, above all, a man of the people, his ever-present pipe a symbol of tranquillity in times of turmoil. Canny, witty and blessed with a sharp intelligence, he nevertheless managed to keep both feet firmly on the ground, impressing all those who knew him with the depth of his kindliness, the breadth of his vision, the width of his acuity, the radius of his measure, the perimeters of his circle and the hypotenuse of his square.

Over the course of last week I have been approached, as you may imagine, by a number of newspapers and broadcasting organisations to share my thoughts on Harold Wilson, that great and unjustly underrated Prime Minister. As the leading political commentator throughout the Wilson era, I was the obvious first choice. Those I refused were forced to "make do" with the likes of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Barbara Castle, Roy Hattersley and so forth, all of whom were crippled by their lack of real knowledge of Wilson, the Inner Man.

I was the first to spot Harold's particular genius for the cut-and-thrust of political debate way back in the late Fifties, when, still in Opposition, he would round on Peter Thorneycroft with his razor-sharp wit. "Harold Wilson," I wrote in the Daily Telegraph (17 September 1957) "possesses all the traditional socialist incompetence with nothing of its sincerity." And as early as 1958, I was tipping him as a future Prime Minister. "Of all the quislings and charlatans who now occupy the Labour front benches," I wrote in the Illustrated London News (12 June 1958), "none is more suspect than Mr Harold Wilson."

On a personal basis, we always got on famously. Our repartee is still quoted whenever politicians and journalists are in assemblance. "Mr Wilson," I once asked him at a press conference during the 1966 election, "what would you say to the majority of ordinary, decent Britons who believe you to be a traitor, a rapscallion and a smooth-talking upstart who has betrayed the trust of the British people?" The great man paused, and took a puff on his famous pipe before replying, "Next question please - Mr Day at the back - yes?" Needless to say, this exchange has entered all the Wilson anthologies, or most certainly would have done, had it been better remembered.

In my many and generous tributes to my old sparring partner, I have emphasised how his name became synonymous with the Sixties. My celebration of the era, Dread Decade (Deutsch 1972), paints a word-picture of the way in which Wilson came to symbolise that glittering firmament of talent. "The voyage from Elgar's Cello Concerto to Doo Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Doo singing Doo Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Doo in the space of 50 years constitutes a grim descent indeed. If ever a man was suited as a figurehead for the depravity of a barbaric decade then that man was most surely Harold Wilson."

Upon hearing of Harold's death last Wednesday, I thought of many things, not least among them myself. In my own mind, I began a necessary process of re-evaluation, placing my contribution to the political debate of the time on a substantially higher footing than I had previously acknowledged, while nevertheless paying warm-hearted tribute to Harold's own, more modest, contribution.

His Gannex mackintosh, his personal kindliness, his reputation as a man of the people, his mastery of the media and his homely pipe - all these became the hallmarks of the man, and should serve as his memorial. It is for these he will be remembered, rather than for his nondescript appearance, his ruthless scheming, his taste for luxury, his cynical manipulation of the press and that ghastly pipe. And at a time when leaders of all parties are happy to abandon principle in pursuit of party unity, it is well to remember a leader who held his party together through a brilliant process of conciliation.

Finally, may I clear away the truth behind one of the most vicious rumours concerning Harold? Ever since his swift retirement, an orchestrated whispering campaign has sought to besmirch him as a spy. I first uncovered these vile rumours in 1977 ("Official: Wilson a KGB Plant - Exclusive Three Part Serialisation by Wallace Arnold", Sunday Express, 19 May 1977) yet they have persisted ever since. Now that he is no longer with us, it is up to those of us who knew the man to vouch for his absolute integrity. Anything less would amount to the grossest hypocrisy.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
Andreas Lubitz runs the Airport Race half marathon in Hamburg on 13 September 2009  

Being sensitive to mental health need not lead us to downplay the horror of what Lubitz did

Will Gore
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing