Sunday 20 October 2013

Harold Wilson, The Busted Flush

Last night, on the box there was a kind of political Antiques Roadshow on BBC Parliament with Jon Snow the elder hosting Bernard Donoughue, Shirley Williams and Douglas Hurd talking about Harold Wilson, the former Prime Minister and his era in the government of the UK.

There are substantial Wikipedia's and other articles on all these past stalwarts of politics and on Harold Wilson himself.  What interests me is certain aspects of all this which are small but interesting parts of the whole.

One relates to the effect of his childhood illness.  It was Typhoid which then was a killer which did not leave many survivors.  Those who did were lucky enough to be diagnosed early were then put into total isolation for weeks, not even the parents were allowed into the treatment room.

The other was his stratospheric rise at a young age in the world of Oxford Academia.  It may have been because his field was then a new one with only limited numbers active or it may have been his ability to grasp complicated matters.

A key to this is his abilities as a statistician.  These meant that his War was one in the back rooms grinding and examining the figures.  So that when he went into politics he was a very rare bird indeed.  Even in the Civil Service he would have been unusual, very few had much grasp of this science.

When he left power in 1976 there were not many more. I recall in the 1970's and even into the '80's coming across senior civil servants whose handling and understanding of figures was almost laughable were it not so serious.

So as a very bright chap, with the ability to communicate and argue his case, with a formidable memory, the will to study and absorb the details and being able to run and analyse the figures well beyond that of others he was a hard man to beat around the tables where issues and decisions were discussed.

Additionally, his personal background gave him the knowledge to argue almost as well when it appeared that moral or ethical issues were involved.  Politically, he may have been a very slippery customer and something of a shape changer but he could master and argue a brief against the best and win.

One TV clip from the past was interesting it was Robin Day, the BBC at its worst, interviewing him on becoming Prime Minister in 1964.  It like a very arrogant just commissioned subaltern questioning an old Sergeant of the Guard as to his duties.

In the interview he set out his stall.  The trouble was that despite his abilities he was wrong and could not see that he was wrong.  He talked about restoring the UK to being a great power and not pushed around by others.  Like so many of his generation in politics he could not accept the decline of the UK.

So it had to be put right, this would be done by state indicative planning coupled with elements of direction. The social agenda would be paid for by high taxation enabled by the growth that would be achieved by state planning especially in areas of key new technology.

This together with other social reforms would lead us to the bright new world with Britain as a born again great power heading up the Common Market, yet with a population where equality and cradle to grave state care and education would be available to all.

If you got the figures and the directives right and Wilson thought he was just the man to do it while he ran the other Labour grandees ragged around the Cabinet table the figures would come round and everything could be achieved.  While cutting back the forces at the same time he was committing them here and there.

But it was the devaluation of the pound and other things that came unstuck.  While politically as well as going forward, unluckily most of the major unions wanted to stay backward keeping all the old industries and infrastructure as they were in spite of it being evident that radical economic changes were in progress.

He lost the election of 1970 to Heath the Horrible who managed to botch almost everything he touched.  So Wilson who had taken over an economy in deep trouble in 1964 found himself doing the same in 1974, but this time with many of his own mistakes being part of the heart of the problem.

As for his resignation in 1976, it is likely that his health was a consideration.  But my view is that he was still good and expert enough to know in April 1976 that the game was up and lost.  It was in September under Callaghan that the IMF came in to sort out the mess of the UK finances.

This truly was the end of Empire, the real welfare state and the beginning of the end for many and much of the old industrial structure.  But his successors could still not let go.

1 comment:

  1. I never liked Wilson that much, but as you intimate, he was a patriot which is more than you can say for anybody at the top of any party these days.

    I heard that at some point he said something about going to school without footwear. McMillan supposedly responded: "Even in those days he must have been too big for his boots".

    But he was good with hecklers (we don't have those anymore, of course). His "Her Majesty's Government has no plans for expenditure in Vietnam" being a classic. I don't know if it's on Youtube somewhere.