Political Commentary: Why young Tony should keep his winning smile

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The Independent Online
IT HAS taken just over 30 years for Keir Hardie's Comet - an unpopular name these days, but that is what I still call it - to reappear in our skies. Its movements cannot be predicted with complete accuracy, even with the aid of all those computers which have been purchased with the workers' pennies and installed in the Walworth Road. Before its last appearance, in 1963-4, it had been glimpsed briefly in 1945. It brings in its train a general feeling that a Labour government is not only inevitable but positively to be welcomed.

Oddly enough, it did not appear in the skies when such an administration was last put into office, in 1974. On that occasion his re-election was as much a surprise to Lord Wilson as it was to the opinion polls. No, the time we are looking at comprises his first period as Leader of the Opposition. It was Harold's finest hour. He was the only leader of either party to make a success of the job.

Whether we should be saying this today if he had gone on to lose the 1964 election (as he very nearly did) is another question. We might instead be lamenting that his wit, his discovery of Science and Socialism, his parliamentary victories, his ingenious, interminable speeches - who now remembers his Strabismus-like scheme for two-tier interest rates? - had all come to nothing.

In the end, as we know, that is what they did come to, or very little. It was the Labour government's deflationary package of 1966 rather than the oil crisis of 1973 which truly marked the end of the post-war Keynesian settlement. But, for a time, Wilson worked.

Are there any lessons for Mr Tony Blair? Mr Neil Kinnock always refused to recognise that his predecessor had anything to teach him, not because he was arrogant, but because he associated Lord Wilson with an ambivalent style which he found antipathetic. In particular he was, as a young man, shocked by the Labour government's support for the United States in Vietnam.

But Mr Kinnock could still have adopted Lord Wilson's wit without embracing his duplicity. He would have had the advantage that in him the wit would have been natural rather than acquired through long exertion and midnight oil. Alas] Mr Kinnock was forced into premature statesmanship, like a rugby footballer coached against his instincts to kick for position rather than to run. The rest of the story we know.

Mr Blair does not perhaps have such a natural wit as Mr Kinnock. Instead he seems to wear a perpetual smile. This annoys some people, but I have every sympathy with him. When I was at school I was forever being told:

'Take that impertinent grin off your face, Watkins.'

'But that's the way I look,' I would reply, which rarely seemed to give complete satisfaction.

Likewise, that is the way Mr Blair looks. I would advise him not to try to modify his happy expression, however strongly he may be urged to do so by the spin doctors - though they are more spin paramedics - of the People's Party.

Here it may be worth recalling a story about Mr John Prescott. A few years ago he met Mr Huw Thomas, one of the first and the best of the television newscasters, now an independent consultant. Mr Thomas said that he would give Mr Prescott some advice for which he would normally charge a fee. Stop scowling and start smiling: that was Mr Thomas's advice. Mr Prescott replied that he would look silly if he smiled all the time. People would laugh at him. Not a bit of it, Mr Thomas said. Smiling was the key to success in television. You could not do too much of it.

I believe Mr Prescott took this advice. He certainly looks pleasanter than he used to. And he will give Mrs Margaret Beckett a good run for the deputy leadership.

Lord Wilson established his pre-eminence at Prime Minister's Questions. At that time it had been going for only a few years, having been set up by Harold Macmillan after the 1959 election. Hugh Gaitskell opposite him tended to be prim and tetchy. Macmillan was so polite that you knew it was an elaborate joke. In the course of a lengthy question he was once rebuked for promoting his brother-in-law. 'Whose brother in law?' he replied innocently, and brought the House down.

Macmillan and Lord Wilson always skirmished with the guarded respect which they held for each other. The change came in autumn 1963, when Lord Home became Prime Minister. Lord Wilson thought he could make him look foolish and partly succeeded, but at a price. The price was that Prime Minister's Questions increasingly became a shouting match, sustained by questions asked by sycophantic backbenchers and framed by the Whips (still aided by civil servants, despite the theoretical prohibition of the practice following a scandal in Sir Edward Heath's time).

Mr John Major has announced that he too wants to reform PM's Questions. Mr Dennis Skinner says that he is doing this only because he is frightened. This persuades me that Mr Major is disinterested. Being the kind of Prime Minister he is, however, he will either do nothing or make a mess of it. Mr Blair can do it instead and gain credit thereby.

He should make no attempt to imitate the style which was inaugurated by Lord Wilson and had as its greatest beneficiary Lady Thatcher, who saw no point in trying to be funny when you could scream your head off instead. Rather, Mr Blair should continue to appear before our admiring eyes as the reasonable, good-humoured person who appeals so much to the voters.

Nor is this a question merely of manner - or manners. He can make substantive changes too. The rules are not made up by Mr Major or the Procedure Committee. Mr Blair does not have to appear automatically twice a week if he does not want to, like a character in a children's pop-up book. Let him keep them guessing, as Prime Ministers themselves used to before 1960. Neither does Mr Blair have to produce some tricky question over which the spin paramedics have laboured throughout the morning. A specific question of which prior notice has been given may well cause the Prime Minister more anxiety and the government machine more research.

A few days before Lord Wilson's great speech on science at Scarborough in 1963, I remember Iain Macleod telling me that it could not possibly work. Well, it did - for a time. Mr Blair has his own idea, which is perfectly serviceable as these things go. Indeed, it has the advantage, if it is an advantage, that it is closer to what the Labour Party is supposed to be about than Lord Wilson's aluminium smelters ever were.

It is, of course, Community. It is not very far from Fraternity, which has always been less discussed in theoretical circles than either Liberty or Equality. It is not far removed from my own suggestion to Mr Kinnock some 10 years ago that Labour should attack Lady Thatcher's Squalid Society. Unhappily for him, young Neil paid no attention. I wish young Tony better luck today.

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