What Wilson thought of Marx

Observations on Prime Ministers at 50

A rash of "Tony Blair is 50" articles sent me back to my cuttings, in search of a 50th-birthday interview I conducted with Harold Wilson during the 1966 general election campaign. A Guardian sub-editor, in his headline, committed the first known use of the word "pragmatic" in this context: "The pragmatic side of 50". A modern equivalent of "pragmatic", I suppose, is "focus group politics".

One of Harold's endearing qualities was that he enjoyed his own cleverness. When I met him, he was crowing with delight over a recent phone call to the then director-general of the BBC, Hugh Greene. The prime minister's political secretary, Marcia Williams, leafing through the Radio Times, had noted with horror that Steptoe and Son, then the most popular television programme, went out on election night.

The received wisdom was that Labour supporters, many of them still working in factories, came out in droves between 6.30pm and 10pm. What if they stayed at home to watch Steptoe? Wilson explained to Greene that he wasn't just worried about Labour voters: Tories liked Steptoe as well. Surely the BBC would not wish to subvert the democratic process? The DG asked drily for an alternative. "Classical drama, preferably in the original Greek," Wilson offered. The BBC did not take up that idea, but Steptoe was shifted.

When we got to the substance, Wilson explained that he was a pragmatist because all government was pragmatic. The idea of a proletariat was nonsense. Karl Marx had not understood people; did not know about them as individuals, only in the mass. Wilson said that he had given up on Das Kapital when he found, on an early page, a footnote longer than the text.

Wilson was a master in self-mockery. He had an alpha-plus in economic theory at Oxford but, he said, either the examiner was very kind or he did not understand economic theory, either. He hoped the public valued him not as a theoretician but for his good management. He suggested that they thought of him sitting, like a good family doctor, above the surgery, looking after the politics of Britain, while they got on with more interesting things, such as going to the cinema, church or pub.

Wilson ended the interview with another happy crow, this time at his comparative youth - the youngest prime minister since Rosebery. Ted Heath was much the same age, so the rivalry between them, he thought, would go on longer than any since Gladstone and Disraeli. He puffed his pipe and said: "If you don't fancy the prospect, John, you'd better emigrate." Yet, within a decade, both men were out of front-line politics.

The parallel between Blair and Wilson which sticks out is that both took office after long periods of Conservative rule, in Wilson's case after what he called "13 wasted years". But whereas Wilson's 1964 government was determined to change direction at once - in taxes, social service spending and public ownership - the Blairite ministers in 1997, scarred by five extra years in the wilderness, preferred caution. Since Wilson won four elections out of five - and Blair has so far won just the two he has fought - the jury is still out on which was the wiser course.