Wilsonia

Paul Foot

  • The Wilson Plot: The Intelligence Services and the Discrediting of a Prime Minister by David Leigh
    Heinemann, 271 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 434 41340 2
  • A Price too High by Peter Rawlinson
    Weidenfeld, 284 pp, £16.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 297 79431 0

Many years ago, I was one of many journalists who set sail with high hopes in search of an undiscovered country called Wilsonia. It beckoned from afar across mighty oceans of investigations and tip-offs. The lucky journalist to reach it first would be rewarded with arguably the greatest political scoop of our time: he or she would finally reveal why Harold Wilson, to the astonishment of the entire political and journalistic world, suddenly took himself off to obscurity.

Harold Wilson had dominated the political scene for 13 years before his resignation in March 1976. He had become leader of the Labour Party in 1963, won an election from an apparently hopeless position in 1964, consolidated that victory with a huge majority in 1966, lost an election in 1970, but won the next two, both in 1974, putting Labour back in office for another five years. His early period in Downing Street had been accompanied by a cheeky aggressiveness which infuriated Conservatives everywhere. He could not contain his enjoyment of high office. He revelled in his youth – he was only 48 when he became prime minister. He would boast that he could serve 15 years in Downing Street before reaching the age of his predecessor, Harold Macmillan, when he first went there. His enemies on left and right abused and hated him, but not one of them ever imagined that he would walk out of Downing Street without the slightest sign of a revolt against him in his own ranks or in the country. His own explanation – that he had had enough – was hollow talk beside the vainglorious boasting of former years. There must have been a reason, we thought as we set out on our exciting voyage, a reason underneath the surface – financial skullduggery perhaps, a sexual liaison, or something to do with espionage, the great best-seller.

One by one we all drifted back to shore unrewarded. My own voyage had taken me from the Wigan Alps to Bulgarian export/import statistics but had produced not a glimpse of Wilsonia. Many years later, inspired by the Spycatcher revelations, David Leigh of the Observer has set out on the journey once more. There is no one better qualified. All through the awful Eighties David Leigh has kept the flag of investigative journalism fluttering high. He has a stack of awards to show for a stack of inquiries which have earned him the highest accolade: the deep and undying hatred of the Prime Minister. If Leigh could not discover Wilsonia, no one could.

Well, he has not found it, or at least he has not found it in anything like the shape any of us imagined it, and having read this book, I am prepared to accept, like a reformed gold-digger on the Sierra Madre, that Wilsonia never existed: that there never was a simple, secret explanation for Wilson’s resignation. His own explanation was probably true – he had had enough. It is in answering the question why this sprightly 60-year-old had suddenly had enough that David Leigh’s book makes a powerful contribution. What we are left with at the end of the story as Leigh tells it is a sad and rather tired politician, with all the aggressiveness and cheek beaten out of him. Part of this was due to the cares of office, to the dreadful problems which seem to drop out of the sky on top of any Labour prime minister. Worst of all, however, was the suspicion, which preyed on Wilson more and more as the months went by, that he was being subverted, not by subversives, but by the men and women trained to ‘catch’ subversives.

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