Friday, 11 March 2016

Harold Wilson At 100

Today, 11th March is the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister in the 60's and 70's.  Wikipedia has a full article about him.  A bright Grammar School boy who went to Oxford and did well, becoming an academic close to major figures, then moving into Civil Service and then embracing politics.  After History and PPE he later took to statistics and these became almost, if not all, his credo.

This brief clear article from The Guardian puts the case for what he did do that many today regard as for the good and seeks to claim for him the status of a PM who did quite well and who may be wrongly written off as one of the losers of history.  To revert to figures, albeit not statistics, if a PM is involved in 250 major decisions, not all will be anathema to history and similarly he will not get them all right.

It is not just a numbers game.  It is the big decisions and those which will create major turning points of history that matter, rather than the shoal of many minor decisions and issues.  Then there is the degree to which he is involved and who was chiefly or critically the person or persons that mattered.

As it happens although I was only at the same time and place as Wilson barely a handful of times and did not know him, I did once work with a man who was his election agent for a few years and had a high regard for him personally.  So criticism does not arise out of personal dislike but of what he did or did not do.

The question of his "failing" as a PM another matter.  But in the period 1951 to 1979 it is arguable that all of them were failures.  Some were better able to shift the blame and get away with the deceits, some were not.  It is curious that those who were more decent as people  are often labelled the greatest failures.

In this period what was in the mindset of many of our leaders etc. was the experience of World War 2 and Wilson was at the heart of government.  We liked to think that we had won the war by virtue of joint national effort centrally directed, planned and organised.  If we could invade Europe and beat the Germans by these means, surely dealing with the economy and finance etc. was easy in comparison and only to be expected to achieve the goals.

Looking over the Wikipedia page however, two things are striking.  One is the scale, the complexity and the sheer weight of work in the critical problems across the whole field of government.  The other is that the Labour Party believed that Westminster could deal with it, control it, organise and run it.  The planning that was supposed to be "indicative" too often was meddling and intrusive.

We were said to have a "two party system" as though each party was coherent in its ideas and essential policies.  The reality was that each was a coalition of groups that were often seriously opposed.  Wilson, certainly spent as much, if not more time, fighting his internal battles than fighting the Conservatives.  The liability that Wilson had was that the Trade Unions were too often his enemies.  The Conservatives may have had that problem but that was part of their attraction for many voters.

In the Labour Party it is the convention that the Left elements of the day were of importance and so they were, but my view is the element that is forgotten and was at the centre of much of Labour government ought to be remembered for their damaging effect.  The Conservatives may have been the party of Empire, but Labour's elite and intellectuals had many of The Children of The Raj who believed in the rule of the wise elite of their time.

We were in Scarborough in 1967 and when the Labour Party held its conference there that year I went into some meetings.  One was a talk given by Lord Gardiner, Lord Chancellor, about the legal nature of constitutional issues.  During questions he was asked one about the North of Ireland and inadvertently blew the gaff on the lack of policy.  The rest of the conference I saw as people who lacked faith determined to convince the party faithful.

This brief Pathe clip sums up the overall media attention to the bean feast.  In the broadsheets there was a little more analysis and thought, but in general little about what we now know to be the things that mattered.  We were all being told what and how to think and how the way on offer was the only way.  Yet across the board and especially in the economy the changes in the world were radical and extensive.

What Wilson failed to do was what others failed to do and that was to realise and recognise how much the world had changed and how Britain had declined in relative status and what the realities were.  Whether they knew this but had to lie and pretend otherwise, I am not sure.  But in failing to understand they took on too much and created an economy and polity that was never going to be the real future.

Because in a sense they were trying to live in a past that had gone and had never really existed and trying to reward those of the past by taking from those who might have provided a better future.  Wilson may have been good with the figures, the pity is he did not realise that the figures were neither accurate nor reliable for future policy.

He was not a success but was not alone in that period.


  1. He was successful in one way - he stopped me voting Labour. I noted at the time that his "government" had made huge cuts in education and defence and remarked that as a result Brits soon be too thick to be worth defending.

    He also had a voice which would curdle milk.

  2. I don't think Wilson or his cabinets had any idea how incompetent governments can be and how difficult it is to admit mistakes and retrench once vested interests have been created.