The cautionary tale of Labour's last moderniser

Blair should constantly ask himself why Harold Wilson, a popular and energetic leader, became so unpopular and cut off, so quickly
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Newness and energy. Daily surprises. Political chic, and a bit of political cheek as well. The first hectic month of the new government has been heartening and invigorating. We have known nothing quite like it before.

Except that we have. Labour's repetitive and passionate rhetoric of newness discourages any looking back, certainly to old Labour history. Yet if there are ghosts in Downing Street, surely the shadow of a youngish man in shirt-sleeves, podgily dapper and full of energy, is hovering there now. What would Harold Wilson have made of recent weeks?

For there are some striking parallels with the last time Labour ended a long period of Conservative rule, in 1964. Like Blair now, Wilson was then the youngest Prime Minister of the century, brimming with the rhetoric of renewal and modernity. His moral-patriotic rhetoric wasn't so far from Blair's: ''No-one should be in a political party unless he believes that party represents his own highest religious and moral ideas."

He started in office with a great gust of goodwill from voters, the media and his own party. He began well: Paul Foot's account, written shortly after the first 1964-66 administration, says that the vast majority of Labour people and commentators thought Wilson's first 17 months ''had been almost impeccable''. Scepticism was confined to ''satirists and sectarians''. Above all, the young Prime Minister was fizzing with enthusiasm and optimism.

Here is Sir Derek Mitchell, Wilson's principal private secretary, describing the new PM's first hours: ''Within minutes he got down to it. He didn't even bother to meet the civil servants before preparing the list [of ministers]. He showed no sign of tiredness: more of demonic energy, excitement, fulfilment.'' Familiar?

Journalists who covered Wilson's first few months recall brilliant, relentless, news management - ''a splash a day''. In government, Wilson used his knowledge of the Press players to great effect. Spin-doctoring was a well understood art in the Downing Street of 1964. Like Blair, Wilson introduced a team of policy wonks (as they then weren't called), fixers and personal political allies into Downing Street. Instead of Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Powell and the rest, he had Marcia Williams, George Wigg, Gerald Kaufman, and Thomas Balogh.

The new Prime Ministerial team meant friction with senior civil servants - the disagreement between the Cabinet Secretary and Blair over Powell's role today can be compared with Marcia Williams's fight for official status in 1964 - but also injected adrenalin into government. As Ben Pimlott puts it in his biography of Wilson: ''The contrast between the hectic pace of the new administration, compared with the relaxed atmosphere of the old one, was the most marked feature of the change.''

Wilson's power in Downing Street was circumscribed a little by his wary respect for a few other ministers with big Labour Party constituencies. George Brown, as the working-class man with an unconventional image and big ideas about industrial regeneration, would be played now by John Prescott, though Prescott has no drinking problem - it is hard to imagine him sauntering down the steps of his plane in a foreign capital and ''kissing each wife in the formal embassy reception party ardently on the lips".

Roy Jenkins, who wasn't in that first cabinet, and Jim Callaghan, might be played by Gordon Brown and Robin Cook, who also have big alternative bases in the party and only a very modest store of mutual admiration.

Finally, Wilson, too, took big decisions early on: within days he ruled out devaluation as a way of coping with the huge balance of payments deficit, so committing his government to painful and highly unpopular austerity measures.

Blair hasn't done anything quite on that scale - in today's terms, it would be rather like committing us to membership of the first wave of EMU. But as a reorganisation of government, Gordon Brown's change to the status of the Bank of England can be compared in bigness to his namesake's 1964 creation of a Department of Economic Affairs (DEA).

The DEA and National Plan should also remind us that the Blair government's co-option of people from Barclays, BP and British Airways to help in government isn't new either. As he explained in his memoirs, George Brown brought in a whole range of Conservative City types and industrialists from companies like Courtaulds, Unilever and Shell, and even a sitting Tory MP as head of the Prices and Incomes Board.

The best retort to all this history is that there were three huge differences between 1964 and 1997. First, Wilson inherited an economic crisis, while Blair inherits merely problems. Second, Wilson had a majority of four, not 179. Third, he was in hock to a union-dominated party, as Blair isn't.

These are rather formidable distinctions. Yet though Wilson was struggling with much tougher economic and international conditions than Blair, his experience is similar enough to be worthwhile remembering.

Above all, Blair should constantly ask himself why such a popular, energetic and liked leader became so unpopular and cut off, so quickly. Downing Street does things to people - to Thatcher and Major, too, though Wilson remains the best example. He shut up the doors, stuck with what eventually became a paranoid circle of allies, obsessed with the treachery of colleagues. He didn't spend enough time with the half-dozen or so senior ministers who really mattered. He worked too hard. He lost his sense of proportion, and then of fun.

I wonder what an older, wiser, ghost of Wilson would say to Tony Blair today? ''Well done'', of course. He'd be awed by, and jealous of, the Commons majority, and admiring of Blair's party reforms. But he would also say:

"Relax. Don't fret over newspaper stories about about ambitious colleagues, or allow courtiers to involve you in plotting. Spend time with family and utterly non-political friends. Don't make a fetish of frantic activity. A few months of good headlines are a great achievement for any Labour politician in this country. But keeping sane for years ahead - that is a herculean task, which very few of your predecessors have managed.

''And - oh yes, one other thing. Don't confuse patriotism with Sterling. A strong pound is a very mixed blessing.''

Comments