Smoke And Mirrors

‘The accusation against Harold Wilson is that the mystery concealed nothing’

Open Season
Harold Wilson: Paranoid, ruthless, but ultimately noble (Allan Warren CC BY-SA 3.0)

Forty years ago this month Harold Wilson stood down, utterly unexpectedly, as Prime Minister. It was a mark of the low esteem in which Wilson had come to be held that the subsequent rumours and speculation were almost entirely negative. A sexual scandal was about to engulf him. Dodgy financial dealings had been uncovered. He was being blackmailed by the KGB, or apartheid South Africa’s security forces. He was a Soviet agent and British security was closing in on him.
You can argue that Wilson asked for it. He was a secretive and sometimes ruthless operator, and he suffered from advanced political paranoia. But we now know that Wilson stepped down primarily because he felt old and tired and feared that his mental powers were slipping. By 1976 he no longer felt up to the job and he was not prepared to short-change his country by struggling on. In short, his resignation was at best noble and at worst decent.

Just about remember Harold Wilson? If so, you will surely recall two of his defining soundbites, both deeply cynical, and one downright dishonest. “A week is a long time in politics” came first. Then, broadcast soon after devaluation in 1967, “It does not mean that the pound in the [British housewife’s] pocket is worth 14 per cent less than it was.” The first quote reinforced Wilson’s image as an opportunistic hustler, lurching from day to day, gambling that something would turn up. The second was uttered after he had been forced to devalue, having lost his economically illiterate, utterly unnecessary crusade to “defend the pound”. Of course there were still as many pence to the pound. But what mattered was that the value of goods and services sold abroad had indeed been devalued, while the cost of our imports had risen.

Then there was the bizarre nature of Wilson’s relationship with his one-time secretary, Marcia Williams, elevated to be his most powerful personal adviser and confidante. There were endless — utterly untruthful — rumours of a sexual relationship, or that she was blackmailing him over some past indiscretion or crime. But what was true was the astonishing way in which she screamed and shouted and bullied him into submission. Endless examples appear in published diaries of key political figures. I remember one or two relatively mild examples myself. Finally, there was the growing paranoia which led him to believe that, inter alia, MI5, the KGB and the South African secret service were plotting against him.

But what was Wilson really like? There is a revealing study of him by Ruskin Spear in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a a brutalist work: head and shoulders on a dark red background. Wilson is lighting his trademark pipe, puffing away and hiding himself behind swirling clouds of smoke — as he did deliberately when he wanted to deflect attention from some awkward question. The inscrutable smile suggests just a hint of mischief, a touch of menace, and ultimately, a deep mystery.

The accusation against Wilson is that the mystery concealed nothing. He just wanted to climb Disraeli’s “greasy pole” and squat there. As a result he achieved nothing and his four terms in office were wasted years. But this is a gross distortion. Take Labour first. He was quite simply the greatest election winner in the history of the party. After the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell in January 1963, it was Wilson who reunited and reinvigorated the party and led it to victory in 1964 and 1966. Then, after the failure of the Heath administration of 1970, Wilson triumphed twice more, in 1974. It was Jim Callaghan, not Wilson, who presided over the Labour election débàcle in 1979 which followed Jim’s mishandling of the Winter of Discontent.

Roy Jenkins took credit for the great liberal social reforms of the 1960s. Homosexual acts between adults were legalised. Capital punishment came to a final end as did corporal punishment in prisons. Abortion was legalised. Divorce was rationalised. Race relations legislation was launched, as was the end of theatre censorship. This massive wave of social reforms — much of it unpopular with voters and especially Labour supporters — would not have been possible without Wilson’s discreet but active support. Backing Jenkins was an act of idealism, not cynicism. And don’t forget Wilson’s unswerving commitment to the creation of an Open University. The public didn’t care a jot, while much of the snobbish academic establishment sneered and jeered. Above all, Wilson made the first, astonishingly brave, attempt at trade union reform. Thatcher’s union reforms were built on Wilson’s courage.

Wilson loved to posture, Walter Mitty style, on the international stage. But in spite of intense American pressure he made sure that there were no British boots on the ground during the ghastly Vietnam War. and he did so while keeping the special relationship intact — a welcome achievement which demanded a master of duplicity. It took similar sleight-of-hand to win his European referendum, keeping this country in the EEC and his fragile party united.

Wilson stepped down so suddenly in the spring of 1976 because he had detected the first signs of diminishing intelligence and faulty judgment, one more selfless gesture from a decent man who — despite his failings — left a decent record behind him.

In 1986 I saw Wilson for the last time (he died in 1995), at his Victoria mansion block flat, to record an interview following the publication of his final book. By then he had trouble holding the thread of conversations, so he had decided not to do any broadcasts. But, generously, he made an exception for me. We had become friends during the two decades I had been labour specialist for the Financial Times and then the Guardian.

After the mike had been switched off I asked him what had been important to him in the great Labour struggles between the Europhiles, the Atlanticists and Lenin’s “useful idiots”, of whom the party had plenty. What did he really believe in? “Oh, Queen and Commonwealth,” he replied, without hesitation. (Of course he meant Queen, country and Commonwealth). Then he added with a grin: “The rest was just politics.”