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My fond memories of Harold and the dread decade

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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.