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15 September 2022

What Harold Wilson can teach Keir Starmer

A new biography shows how one of Labour’s most successful leaders kept the party united at all costs.

By Peter Wilby

This biography of Harold Wilson, by a senior member of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet, sometimes comes close to hagiography. But that, perhaps, is no bad thing. Leaving aside the sainted Clement Attlee, Labour has little time for past leaders, regarding them as either failures or sell-outs. Wilson contested five general elections and won four. With him at the helm, Labour lost an election but returned to office in 1974 after a single Tory term of less than four years. The Tories’ Reginald Maudling once observed that Britain was “a Conservative country that sometimes votes Labour”. Briefly, it seemed that Wilson had reversed that trend. Surely he has something to teach today’s leadership, struggling to prevent the Tories from sailing yet again towards almost two full decades in government.

“All bloody facts; no bloody vision,” was how Aneurin Bevan described Wilson. He entered parliament in 1945, aged 29, festooned with prizes from a brilliant academic career at Oxford and with a reputation, from his work in the wartime civil service, for formidable organisational skills and mastery of detail. In the Mines Department of the Board of Trade, his boss noted his “gift for forecasting, with quite uncanny accuracy” the country’s monthly coal output. He acquired, according to Nick Thomas-Symonds, “a unique insight into how the government machine operated”. He “not only had the ability to analyse information put before him, he also had a keen sense of the data he required”. How unlike our own recently departed prime minister. The young Wilson was not someone anyone would invite on to a TV panel show.

With that background, his early speeches as a Labour candidate and minister – he was appointed a parliamentary secretary within three weeks of being elected and was in the cabinet barely two years later – were as pedestrian as you might expect. If he later became celebrated for his wit in parliament, his folksy demeanour on the campaign trail and his easy manner on television, which in retirement earned him a short-lived chat show, it was, reckoned the political journalist Alan Watkins, only after “years of hard endeavour”.

But it is not quite true that Wilson lacked a vision. He outlined it in his first speech as leader at the 1963 Labour conference in Scarborough. Labour, he said, would forge “a new Britain” from the “white heat” of technological advance. The “conscious, planned, purposive use of scientific progress” would “provide undreamed of living standards and… leisure ultimately on an unbelievable scale”. Left to the free market, Wilson argued, technological change would lead to “high profits for a few” and mass redundancies. “If there had never been a case for socialism before, automation would have created it.” The speech provided Labour with a narrative that took it through the 1964 general election campaign, 17 months with a narrow majority and the 1966 campaign that won a landslide.

[See also: Catherine Lacey’s biography that isn’t]

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Wilson’s vision was abandoned within months of the 1966 triumph when Britain faced a run on sterling. Rather than devalue the currency – which he had to do anyway the following year – he deflated the economy and slashed public investment. The “July cuts”, as they became known, killed off the expansionist “National Plan”, the embodiment of Wilson’s vision published the previous year. Wilson had lost his nerve. It was another decade before he left Downing Street for the second and last time but, after 1966, it was downhill all the way.

Thomas-Symonds makes a big call and, for Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, perhaps a significant one. He argues that Attlee’s government, for all its other achievements, had one big failure: unlike its French counterpart, it didn’t establish national economic planning, setting targets for industry and ensuring access to the capital needed to meet them. If Wilson had made good that omission, “he could have stood alongside Attlee” as Labour’s greatest leader.

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Nevertheless, the Wilson governments had substantial achievements. By 1979, when Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, lost a general election to Margaret Thatcher, income inequality in the UK was lower than it has ever been before or since. The Open University would survive and flourish despite one leading Tory calling it “a blithering nonsense”. Racial discrimination in housing and employment was outlawed. The 11-plus examination was abolished in all but a few areas and comprehensive schools, attended by only 7 per cent of pupils when Labour came to power in 1964, catered for the large majority by the time Wilson left office. Legislation in 1970 gave women the right to equal pay; in 1975 they gained entitlements to maternity leave. Britain became a safer country: car seat belts were made compulsory, drunken drivers deterred by the breathalyser, health and safety at work greatly strengthened.

Thomas-Symonds rightly credits Wilson with two other achievements. First, unlike Blair, he refused to commit British troops to an American war – in this case, Vietnam – but remained on good terms with the White House. (“All we needed was one regiment,” lamented Dean Rusk, the US secretary of state at the time. “The Black Watch would have done.”) Second, Wilson “successfully dealt with the European question in British politics” and settled it for a generation. He led a party that was deeply divided on whether Britain should stay in what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). Like David Cameron, who faced a similar problem 40 years later, he opted for a referendum. Unlike Cameron, in 1975 Wilson won – by a resounding two-to-one margin.

His manoeuvrings on Europe sealed Wilson’s reputation for being a devious and untrustworthy character who put short-term political advantage over the long-term national interest. As he ducked and weaved in the early 1970s to prevent the party splitting on Europe (as it did a decade later), the New Statesman called for his overthrow because “his very presence… pollutes the atmosphere of politics”. For most of his career, his own views were opaque: he seemed to think Britain would be better off in Europe but feared the EEC was against national economic planning – one of the few things in which he consistently believed – and he had a soft spot for the Commonwealth. 

It was the same on other big issues, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and the pro-nationalisation Clause IV of Labour’s constitution. There were never any Wilsonites, as there were Bevanites and Gaitskellites and as later there would be Blairities and Thatcherites, because nobody was ever sure where he stood on anything. He had, as his ally Barbara Castle deftly put it, “ideological limitations”. From his earliest days as a rising star, he won most parliamentary support from the Labour left, but he was never exactly on the left. He presented himself as taking “pragmatic” positions; others thought he took the positions most likely to win him power and keep it. As leader, he kept his enemies close and implausibly told leading left figures that “I am running a Bolshevik revolution with a tsarist shadow cabinet”.

Even his views on his own government’s social reforms – which many regarded as its most important achievements – were ambiguous. Though he appointed the liberal-minded Roy Jenkins as home secretary, agreed to provide parliamentary time for private members’ bills on the partial legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, and ignored the whips’ advice that the bills were turning “our own working-class support against us”, he didn’t vote in any of the 45 Commons divisions on them. Once described as “a perfectly sincere Sunday Methodist”, Wilson was by instinct a social conservative. He took “an almost boyish pleasure” in the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy, according to Thomas-Symonds, and had great affection for the Queen personally, sometimes seeing her twice a week, instead of the customary once.

Despite his mostly sympathetic treatment of Wilson, Thomas-Symonds acknowledges that it was characteristic of him “to be both a part of something and apart from it at the same time” and amusingly suggests that he extended the principle to his holidays, which were nearly always in the Scilly Isles, off the Cornish coast. “Wilson could travel overseas… but at the same time remain in the UK.”

If Wilson had a guiding principle, it was to keep Labour united. But united to do what? Labour’s 1974 manifesto promised “a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families”. Right-wing elements in the security services were so alarmed that they raised absurd suspicions that Wilson was a communist agent and plotted to overthrow him. Because his unexpected resignation was never fully explained, some still believe the plot succeeded. But hardly anybody outside MI5 took the manifesto promise seriously and his governments often ended up, to use his own words, in “a messy, middle-of-the-road muddle” – though that, as he once told his cabinet, was where he was at his best.

This book has Starmer’s imprimatur on the cover, proclaiming that it puts Harold Wilson “in his rightful place”. But, Wilson being Wilson, one still can’t quite decide what his rightful place is. Starmer’s view on that is something we may find out in the next few years.  

Harold Wilson: The Winner
Nick Thomas-Symonds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 544pp, £25

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession