The man who meant something

Ben Pimlott, biographer, assesses the legacy of the grammar school boy who presided over a nation in flux
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The Independent Online
THAT the death of Harold Wilson should be treated as a moment for national reflection, is a fascinating comment on our changing times. Until recently, the notion of doing much more than express personal condolences would have seemed absurd. Yet last week there was an instinctive feeling of solemnity: Wilson, people seemed to think, stood for something that mattered.

Wherever he is now, he must be enjoying a wry chuckle. Who would have thought it? Perhaps the point about the People's Harold is that in his good and bad features - his inventiveness, his ideals, his Pooterish aspirations, his optimism, his vanity and his resilience - we can now see him, philosophically, as an appropriate symbol of what Britishness has actually become. But there is also another element to the nostalgia: a memory of a better time. Older people recall that for all the mishaps of the Sixties and Seventies, fewer people were out of work, employment was more secure, and a welfare state aimed at caring for the needy was at the top of the government's priorities.

Unmentioned in the tributes is the extent of the vicious, indignant hatred Wilson used to arouse. Possibly the thing people most disliked about him was his all-too-visible ambition. There was always something calculating about him: from the start, he was a planner. As a schoolboy, he told his future wife that he would become Prime Minister. It was easy to see him as an eternal boy scout, a proficiency-badge Peter Pan for whom the world of politics was a ladder to preferment.

There was truth in the accusation: Wilson was excited by his own success, and liked to muse on how far he had risen. Socially, he was a new type of leader, the first since the Thirties not from the top drawer. His seven predecessors as Prime Minister had been educated at Harrow, Rugby, Harrow, Haileybury, Eton, Eton and Eton respectively. Wilson, the grammar school boy, broke this line - and not just for himself. A third of a century later, none of his successors has been educated at a public school. The change is not an accident. The populist success of Wilson's personal style undoubtedly helped to create a more open society, paving the way not only for Edward Heath, but also for Margaret Thatcher.

Baroness Thatcher's background, however, differs from Wilson's in one significant respect: Margaret's petit-bourgeois father survived and even thrived in the Depression, Harold's was a victim of it. The difference was important. Family insecurity not only contributed to his desire to succeed - it nurtured an interest in the problems of unemployment and inequality, and the means needed to eradicate them. Wilson's first job was as research assistant to Sir William Beveridge, who set him the task of finding out "why there are so many thousands of unemployed in all the prosperous parts of the country". The quest lasted Wilson a lifetime. It was a bedrock assumption of the Labour Party in Wilson's time that full employment took precedence over other aims.

THE best available instrument for mitigating poverty, Wilson soon decided, was central government. In 1940, he entered the Home Civil Service, and discovered with excitement the potential for change offered by the vast, expanding, official machine. In 1945 he entered Parliament, and his extraordinary ascent began: in 1947 he joined the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. For the next three and a half years the dapper, moustachio-ed Harold Wilson appeared frequently on the newsreels in order to lecture the nation's housewives about the virtue of keeping their skirts short, to save material.

In 1951, Wilson flabbergasted contemporaries by resigning with Aneurin Bevan over health charges and defence spending. What did it mean? Most saw it as a chess move, aimed at some long-term advantage. Whatever the true motive, the Fifties became an uncomfortable decade for the "Bevanite" Wilson - who found he had much more in common with the thinking of the Labour right. His future did not look rosy, until Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963 and he was the only acceptable successor.

Wilson made an immediate impact, and set the style of politics for a generation. During 18 months of campaigning, he showed himself the most effective Leader of the Opposition in British democratic history. At Scarborough in October 1963, he aroused the enthusiasm of people far beyond Labour circles with a speech that spoke of re-forging Britain "in the white heat of the technological revolution". A year later, he was Prime Minister.

"England is risen," wrote Edward Carpenter in a socialist hymn, "and the day is here." So it felt on the morrow: yet the first Wilson government began with a negative decision - not to devalue the pound. Arguably, it was the most momentously disastrous one he ever made. After years in which Labour leaders had sworn eternal loyalty to the existing parity, it would have been difficult to change tack within hours of taking office. Nevertheless, there is a moral for the Blair (or any other) incoming administration: make the unpalatable choices early. Wilson didn't, and it cast a shadow over the rest of his career.

The consequences were not immediately appreciated, and for a while Harold Wilson enjoyed an extraordinary dominance in British politics. It was a time of excitement, energy, iconoclasm and promise. Press and colleagues alike congratulated the Prime Minister on his deft political balancing act, despite a tiny majority, and on the clever timing of the March 1966 general election.

"I hope nobody is going to bring sterling into this election," Wilson said publicly during the campaign, "sterling should be above politics." The election had no sooner been won than a sterling crisis ended the Wilson salad days once and for all. Faced with the choice of a devaluation or a cruel deflation, Wilson chose the second. It was the end of a brave idea. "Planning", though never really attempted, soon came to be seen as a panacea that had been tried and found wanting. Some important interventions were made - for example in the computing industry. But planning no longer held sway in an overriding strategy; and Labour never recovered its reputation for superior economic wisdom.

July 1966 was the dividing line for Wilson himself. Thereafter, he was under political siege. The press, which had once adored him, turned on him with contempt. Wilson infuriated a growing protest movement by giving moral (never military) support to the United States in Vietnam. Then, in November 1967, the government was forced to devalue sterling anyway. Degradation seemed complete. For the next two and a half years, Wilson moved restlessly from panacea to panacea - industrial relations reform, the Common Market - gaining enemies, but no tangible results.

Must these years be dismissed as a failure? It is easy to see why people should say so: in 1963-64 and again in 1966, Wilson had won by encouraging people to expect more of a Labour government than it was able to deliver. Yet following the forced devaluation, the economy got better: Wilson's claim after the 1970 election to have bequeathed to Heath "the strongest economic position any prime minister has taken over in living memory", was more or less true. And there was much else on the credit side.

By 1970, Britain had become a very different country, and Wilson's Labour government had had much to do with the change. Capital punishment had been abolished. Legislation on censorship, divorce, abortion and homosexual acts - buttressed by race relations and equal pay laws - had produced the biggest advance in individual liberty since the introduction of universal suffrage. The gap between rich and poor had been narrowed, higher education had been expanded, Britain's East of Suez posturings had ended, and the way had been prepared for British entry into the European Community. If it was not an episode of unqualified success, it certainly compares well with the preceding six years, or the Heath years of industrial confrontation.

Had Wilson won in 1970, he would probably have taken Britain into the Common Market. Instead, defeat traumatised him, highlighting his flaws - including a streak of paranoia that could make his office seem like a bunker, and an inability to inspire many of his ministerial colleagues.

This particular problem was, and remained, serious. Wilson was funny, sharp, brave, lacking in pomposity. But he found relationships with equals and rivals difficult. None of his most powerful lieutenants trusted him, or would have shed a single tear at his departure. Partly for this reason, and partly because of the rift that rapidly opened in the Labour Party over Europe, his second phase as Opposition Leader was the most bruising episode of his career. Had he failed to win again, he would have resigned. His victory in February 1974, consolidated in a second election, enabled him to bring off a culminating coup.

Wilson had no strongly held views on Europe - a fact which pros and antis alike seized on as proof of his shallowness. The practical advantage, however, was considerable. It meant that, having altered course at least five times, he was eventually able to bring the ship safely to harbour, with the "yes" vote in the 1975 referendum. After that, he was unassailable. Hence his decision to resign on his 60th birthday took everybody by surprise, except those closest to him, who knew about it well in advance.

If Wilson had hoped that an orderly departure would preserve his reputation he was mistaken. A grubby honours list did not help. The biggest factor in his speedy decline from favour, however, was a rapidly changing political climate. Nobody wished for the mantle of Harold: even the Oxford college where he had once been a don rejected him as a candidate for Master, and picked his solicitor, Arnold Goodman, instead. As the free-market hurricane gathered strength on the right, and a strange Marxian miasma overtook Labour, Wilsonian pragmatic dirigisme was the one recipe everybody sought to avoid.

This was still the mood when I started to write a book about Harold Wilson at the end of the decade. Friends were puzzled and thought my topic perverse: what could there possibly be worth saying about such a man? It is interesting how far the view has shifted, following the Tories' own forced devaluation of 1992 - under far more humiliating circumstances than Wilson's; and with the realisation that the trumpeted "economic miracle" of the Eighties was scarcely an improvement on Wilson's "economic failure", and arguably much worse: Wilson, after all, maintained full employment and protected the welfare state.

Slowly, progressive opinion has begun to re-embrace the Wilson years, and salvage what was best from them. The modernising rhetoric and policy plans of new Labour contain many echoes of Wilson's "white heat". There are differences: new Labour avoids raising unreal expectations and there is no equivalent of the visionary doctrine of economic planning, with its heroic role for the state. Yet it is notable that the tributes by Blair and Brown extolled the Wilson years unreservedly as a time of advance. It is unlikely that Kinnock, or even John Smith, would have gone so far.

IS BLAIR Wilson mark II? Wilson had a past: as a powerful Cabinet minister, and party rebel. Blair, by contrast, may be the first Prime Minister since Ramsay MacDonald never to have held ministerial office; and in party terms, he has beat an orthodox path. Yet he is remarkably free from the constraints that party doctrine and the trade unions placed on Wilson.

What Wilson faced and Blair now has is an exceptional opportunity, created by the combination of a weary government and a newly energised opposition - Wilson seized it and Blair is following suit. It would be surprising if Blair has not himself been making the comparison: or if, in the run-up to the election, he does not reflect on Wilson's one undeniable skill, his ability to be a winner.