So much was expected

R.W. Johnson

  • Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott
    HarperCollins, 811 pp, £20.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 00 215189 8
  • Harold Wilson by Austen Morgan
    Pluto, 625 pp, £25.00, May 1992, ISBN 0 7453 0635 7

On 4 July 1934 Harold Wilson, an 18-year-old schoolboy waiting to go up to Oxford, proposed to Gladys Baldwin, the pretty young typist he’d first seen playing tennis only three weeks before. Gladys (who later came to prefer her second name, Mary) was somewhat bemused, particularly since Harold, already, in Pimlott’s words, ‘cheerful, boastful, absurdly sure of himself and confidently planning the future’, went on to tell Gladys that he intended to become an MP and, ultimately, prime minister. For these were things he had more or less been promising himself ever since the famous Boy Scout photo was taken of him posing in front of No 10.

This is just the way Adrian Mole might have proposed to Pandora: in one breathless rush telling her that he is going to go to Oxford, then become an MP and eventually prime minister. The hand of Mole is even more discernible in Harold’s later comment: ‘Had she believed all this, it would have been the end of a promising romance.’ Ha! So just when we had this picture of the suitor Harold humbling himself before Gladys and disclosing his innermost ambitions to her, it is snatched away. Harold single-mindedly ambitious from a tender age? Perish the thought. Harold in the supplicant position? Good heavens no: it was all a knowing put-on to test young Gladys’s sophistication. And thank heaven she passed, for she would otherwise have been summarily despatched to the boundary by Harold who was, you understand, always the complete master of the situation.

So that all seems clear enough. Well, not quite, for Pimlott is quoting one Wilson source on the matter, while Morgan, citing Harold on a different occasion, tells us that this all happened on 18 July, not 4 July, and that the idea that the romance would have been over had Gladys believed the stuff about becoming prime minister, was really just a family joke and not something Harold himself had said or felt. Which leaves things in a perfect state of Wilsonism, where images have been conveyed of a Harold who is at once astonishingly farsighted yet not ambitious, endearing yet masterful, and conveyed in such a way as to leave everyone confused. A week is a long time in courtship.

These two vast books are, in a sense, both a disappointment. This has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the research: it is just that the Labour Governments of l964-79 leaked like a sieve at the time and were then re-examined not only in the standard collection of memoirs by a notably literary and talkative lot of ministers, but also in the voluminous tell-all diaries of Crossman, Castle and Benn. For anyone who lived through the Wilson years and then waded through this superfluity of revelation and reminiscence, there is simply little new to be learnt. Both books have, of course, deliberately jumped the gun on the moment, barely a year hence, when the Cabinet papers of 1964 will be released, but one suspects that second editions will be able to accommodate their revelations with the addition of an extra footnote or so. In the meantime one’s attention is commanded more by the authors’ key judgments than by any new facts they have garnered.

Of the two books, Pimlott’s, as one would expect in the light of his triumphant biography of Dalton, is considerably the richer in personal insight and judgment of character and motive, but he is inclined to take the view that those in power could not have done anything very different. Morgan’s book will doubtlessly be less successful but it is often equally good, or would be if at times he didn’t seem to avoid judgment altogether – and if his economical style weren’t oddly marred by a preference for the lower case. To refer to the prime minister visiting the midlands to make a speech about the ministry of technology is permissible: to go on to talk about him entering the house of commons or the house of lords suggests a certain fixity of prejudice against capital letters; to insist on talking about labour and the tories is frankly irritating.

The significance of Harold Wilson is that he first embodied and then crushed the hopes of a generation. It may not have been bliss to be alive in October 1964 but, viewed amid the post-Thatcher debris of the Nineties, it does seem an almost unimaginably hopeful starting-point. The Tories were in a state of collapse, not merely politically but culturally: there was no real doubt that it was the Labour Party which seemed to be in tune with the spirit of the age. It’s true that we had been economically overtaken by Germany, but we were still ahead of France, not to mention Italy, and the economy was growing strongly. And in the wings waited probably the most intellectually talented front bench in our Parliamentary history. It was, or so it seemed, a pantheon of youth, vigour and sophistication, and naturally enough the Government found it easy to attract a whole phalanx of outstandingly able academics as advisers: whether you looked at the Treasury, at Education, Social Security or the Prices and Incomes Board, you would quite routinely find men who were world authorities in their fields happily beavering away for a government on which they, too, had placed all their hopes. For most of the country’s intellectual élite had been in a state of internal exile throughout the Tory years: not just the Angry Young Men, but radical economists like Balogh, Kaldor and Joan Robinson, and just about every leading social scientist (Titmuss, Townsend, Halsey, Floud), historian (Hobsbawm, Thompson, Hill) or literary intellectual (Wesker, Tynan) in sight.

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