1964 - Childe Harold

To know a Prime Minister, if not intimately then at least no longer from afar, is a new experience that takes some getting used to. I think I first met Harold Wilson in 1954, when he was then, among other things, the honorary president of the Oxford University Labour Club. Though we all appreciated the help he gave us - and certainly that night I first met him we were enormously grateful to him for having brought Nye Bevan down - I do not believe it occurred to any of us that one day he would be Prime Minister. Indeed, if the truth be told, when his own name used to crop up as a possible visiting speaker there was usually a marked lack of enthusiasm. He was competent and capable - but my goodness (as he himself was to confess this year) in those days he was dull.

Perhaps, however, we were blind. For even then we should probably have noticed one striking aspect of his political equipment - his total conscientiousness and application. Every term, he would write and congratulate each of the Oxford Labour Club's newly elected officers; nothing that we asked him to do was too much trouble; and that Bevan meeting in itself represented a triumph for his own negotiating skill. I still have the correspondence in which he describes how he overcame Nye's point-blank refusal to come, and if he ever wishes to vary the record on his 1947 negotiating triumphs over Mikoyan, he could do worse than to recall (in minor key) that early model victory over Bevan.

One of the difficulties, however, in writing about Harold Wilson is that he never does vary the record. It is almost as if he had decided what part of him shall be in the public domain and ensures that it is stuck to by the simple expedient of repeating the same stories about himself over and over again. Wilson is quite deliberately the great pedlar of his own legend, from that weary photograph of Huddersfield Town in 1922 to his relentlessly reiterated description of Freddie Trueman as "the greatest living Yorkshireman". This sporting touch is undoubtedly part of the story: Wilson is in essence a very ordinary man who happens to possess extraordinary gifts. Yet no one should ever forget where these gifts lie. Behind the friendly, cosy figure lurks a politician of almost Rooseveltian toughness.

Once, at an off-the-record lunch a year ago, I conducted a bantering crosstalk act with him over who would be in his cabinet. As our present Lord Chancellor, Home Secretary, Minister of Housing and even Attorney-General were each guessed correctly, he (although giving nothing away) was all amused amiability, but as the party broke up he asked me whether I'd like a lift and, the second we were alone, his demeanour changed. "I warn you that if you include any cabinet list in your piece I'll denounce you first of all as an irresponsible journalist and then I'll go on to say that you've been guilty of a gross breach of confidence." Mischievously I demurred. "You can't do both," I said. He refused to smile: "Never mind about that - it's the result you've got to worry about. Not the method."

Strangely, though, combined with this streak of ruthlessness is a marked shyness. Some months before he became leader of the Labour Party I asked him whether it was true he had been a King's Scout in his youth. He shot me one of his wary glances, said "Yes" and inquired why it was relevant. Later on, when he became leader, this particular fragment was put very firmly on the counter for the public gaze. Perhaps all he had been frightened of was that superior, cynical people might laugh at him.

Wilson has never been a good judge of his own PR. What, for example, would the gossip columnists have given to know that the first thing he did after his triumph at Scarborough last October was to drive his son, Robin, to Oxford for the beginning of term? And who has ever made much of the fact that the normal start to his day has until recently been to drive his other son, Giles, to school in Hampstead?

If Wilson has strong ideas about public intrusion into private life, he has paid a heavy price for them. The theory, for example, of the heartless schemer could have collapsed long ago in the light of the knowledge that one Tuesday in 1963 the then Leader of the Opposition was at Westminster Hospital as early as 8am comforting the wife of a Labour MP who was dying. And one of the few times that I have ever seen him less than sober was when, arriving late at a party, he apologised by quietly explaining that he'd just spent two hours "drinking whisky-for-whisky" with a close friend's wife whose husband had died suddenly in America.

The decision to give nothing away at this level is clearly part of the Calvinist inheritance, and Wilson is one of nature's Puritans. I have never heard him use any more colourful language than to say that somebody is "a bloody fool", and the only time, as far as I am aware, he has ever openly lost control of himself was when, in February 1963, he confronted a Labour MP and accused him of spreading scandalous sexual stories about him. The trouble about being a puritan is that it often makes one a philistine too. One of Wilson's most effective pre-election television appearances came last spring when the BBC put out a programme of his presentation of awards at the Variety Club of Great Britain. Watching it - and admiring the aplomb which he brought to his role - I was struck by the feeling that this was probably his natural cultural habitat. When he announced that Margaret Rutherford was "the greatest British actress on stage or screen" I have no doubt that he believed it. His idea of theatre or cinema is as firmly lodged in the world of the Victoria Palace and the Ealing comedy as his reading is in the realm of detective novels and those long, boring books about "trouble at t'mill".

Is he, then, outside politics basically a dull man? A man with a driving central belief can never be wholly dull - and Wilson has just that. It is difficult, admittedly, to pin it down; but perhaps he himself gave the best clue when during an interview he suddenly brandished that morning's Daily Express. "The London Season is over," its Hickey column was braying. "The last champagne glass has been smashed, the last gate-crasher has been repelled, the last escort has roared away in his sports car down the dawn streets." Furiously Wilson tore into it - even denouncing it as "repugnant" (the adjective he reserves for his most lethal verbal assaults).

A few days later the Hickey column counter-attacked, announcing that "some wealthy men had actually been discovered to be members of the Labour Party", but Beaverbrook and his minions had missed the point. The grain of sand that makes the Wilson oyster is not a fundamentalist's objection to wealth: it is a dissenter's protest against the "tinsel" world that money and privilege have these past 13 years been allowed to create. If he is dedicated to one ideal, it is to overthrow a class system in which some people are required to live their lives vicariously by stargazing at others.

Party politics have been the chosen vehicle of his protest; and in that sense he has certainly courted the charge of being a hack politician. Yet even so he would be one with a difference. Who else could possibly have thought of the phrase with which Wilson finally saw off the then Lord Home for his notorious anti-UN speech a year or two ago? He had noticed, he declared, that the noble lord eventually conceded that there might, after all, be something to be said for certain aspects of the UN's work - "but then even a master-butcher addressing a vegetarian gathering would surely at the end of his speech have found time to say a few words in praise of lettuce". Derision and wit on that scale go far beyond the strict frontiers of politics.

In any case there is the private world that no one is ever allowed to penetrate. There has been in the past few days enormous publicity for that snap of our new Prime Minister at the age of eight, standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. Far more revealing than the actual picture is how Wilson himself regarded it. Until his wallet was stolen some years back the photograph was never out of his breast pocket. Somewhere beneath the tough politician there still lives a small boy.