My Life with Harold Wilson

Peter Jenkins

  • Final Term: The Labour Government 1974-76 by Harold Wilson
    Weidenfeld/Joseph, 322 pp, £8.95

I did not know Harold Wilson until he became leader of the Labour Party in early 1963. The first personal encounter I can remember was when he stopped at a party and engaged me in arcane small talk about the world price of wheat and its consequence for the price mechanism of the Common Agricultural Policy. I was blinded with science. It was a characteristic beginning.

I covered his 1964 election campaign for the Guardian, and also the pre-election campaign which he conducted in order to steal the initiative from Sir Alec Douglas Home, who declined to go to the country until the last moment. And I came to like him a great deal. When he retired on 16 March 1976, I felt as if his presence had filled the best years of my life. It was like the death of an estranged father.

In those early days, he liked to travel by train. At Oxford, he had written a prize-winning essay on some aspect of the Victorian railway system. Since then the service had deteriorated. On one occasion not long after he had become Prime Minister, he was travelling on a Sunday to Blackpool with the Swedish Prime Minister, Tag Erlander, as his guest. Wilson was explaining his plans for building the New Britain. The train clanked to a halt. For half an hour it stood stationary and then shunted slowly backwards down the line. British Rail never failed to provide us with metaphors as Wilson travelled the land preaching modernisation and progress.

His style with the press was flattering to young reporters. He would single us out by Christian name at press conferences, and refer to articles we had written in order to show that he had read them. He seemed to have read everything. He would seldom, on those long railway journeys or over a nightcap in his hotel room, ask for our opinions, but he was eager always for the gossip which newspaper men can retail to politicians. His interest was invariably in that day’s or the next’s events. At the time, and during his first ‘New Frontier’ spell in Number 10, we regarded his keenly topical preoccupations as another sign of his ‘purposiveness’ (a Wilsonian word), and as a mark of his in-touchness with the real daily world, which was also a good sign. Fleet Street was flattered, for example, that its first editions should be rushed to Number 10 for the Prime Minister’s bedtime reading. When it was said of him that he was really ‘a news editor manqué’, it was meant fondly. Later, these traits were incorporated into the indictment of him as a man of inveterately short-view and opportunistic or tactical preoccupation. His remark about ten days being a long while became an albatross.

The second aspect of his character which we discovered in those early days was that he was a much easier man, friendly and kindly, than he was made out to be by his enemies, of which he had many and believed himself to have even more. The Stock Exchange view of him, which permeated the suburban middle classes, was that he was an unspeakable shit. That went back largely to the affair of the Bank Rate Tribunal. His reputation among his political colleagues was none too good either: he was widely regarded as politically devious. Nor, it was said, did he suffer journalists gladly, unless he knew and trusted them. We came to think him all right, however – or, at least, most of us did. He mostly reserved his mordant wit and put-down knowledge for public occasions and even then would lay off the people he knew and liked; in private he was easy-going and funny.

He could also be boring even then. He was inclined to go on about the Green Committee, to which he had been official secretary in his Civil Service days. This had had something to do with fixing miners’ wages during the war, and had given him a tediously detailed knowledge of the coal industry. Another favourite was his negotiation with Mikoyan in Moscow during his period at the Board of Trade. The deal wasn’t clinched until he had ordered his plane to start revving up on the tarmac. This story was intended to show Wilson as the ace negotiator, a cool customer and man of steel. I remember one of the reporters saying: ‘To hear him talk about being President of the Board of Trade you’d think he’d been President of the United States.’

His popularity in the country, especially among Labour people north of the Trent, held up remarkably throughout much political misfortune and extended into his retirement. This was something which metropolitan comment tended to ignore. Wilson was an incorrigibly provincial man with the common touch, and that, I think, chiefly accounts for his becoming something of a folk figure. Being liked, and well-liked, was important to him, and grew, perhaps, from some basic insecurity or diffidence. I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of great public men are innately shy. An embarrassed wiggle or wince, almost effeminate, would come over his walk as he made himself advance down a garden path to a stranger’s doorstep in order to engage in painfully strained small talk. His instinctive reaction to any situation in which he felt ill at ease was to spout facts, display knowledge. It was this shyness, or vulnerability, combined with his need to be liked, which drove him eventually to the unreasonable lengths of self-vindication of which this latest book, and its mammoth predecessor, are classics.

There were already signs of paranoia at an early stage of his Prime Ministership. What was called his kitchen Cabinet at Number 10 was more like a medieval court, a centre of intrigue and morbid suspicion. Marcia Williams, as she then was, had a sharp political intelligence as well as a commanding personality, but some of the others were dreadful toadies. On one occasion, during Wilson’s first year, I told one of my Transport House contacts that perhaps the Prime Minister should be warned that Joseph Kagan, the Gannex millionaire (later ennobled by Wilson and now wanted by the police), was behaving in ways which might embarrass or damage him. I heard nothing more about the matter, although I suspected subsequently that if anybody had scored a black mark it was me. Those were the days when George Wigg was watching us. Wilson and Icontinued to get on well enough when we met, which was only occasionally, but one was never sure who had last whispered what in his ear and in the end it became possible only for journalists who were prepared to become Number 10 trusties to maintain easy-going contact.

What most appealed to us about Wilson in those early days, and what was far more important than these other matters, was that he appeared as a man who could stir the country and move it forward. He struck us as a new kind of politician, a player rather than a gentleman (one of his favourite distinctions), a competent professional of modern spirit. John Kennedy was already dead, but the New Frontier spirit seemed to be alive in the Britain of 1964, and Harold Wilson to exemplify it. We believed him, or some of us did, when he said that he would get Britain going again, bring in new people, harness new energies, shake up and reform. Even Peregrine Worsthorne was moved to compare him to Lloyd George and write about the ‘fire in his belly’.

His traditionalist tone and manner, and the North Country edge to his voice, secured the support and, later, engaged the affection of the Labour loyal, but Wilson in 1964 seemed to be laying the foundation for a broader and more vigorous national alliance. As no one has done since, he engaged the enthusiasm of the progressive middle classes – the opinion-formers; the academics, many of whom had been recruited to Transport House working parties; the middle-ranking managerial and technical cadres of industry, proverbially the ICI man-in-the-white-coat; teachers, younger doctors, community workers: people of all kinds who wanted to get on with it, to find scope for their skills and help to build the New Britain. We believed that with Labour and Wilson it could be done. It is important today that we should not rewrite history and traduce the Wilson of 1964.

Devaluation in 1967 was something of a turning-point in my life with Harold Wilson, as well as in his. I had gone to see him for a background talk only a few weeks previously and come away alarmed by the state of optimistic fantasy in which he seemed to be approaching economic affairs. It was that rather than the belated and inevitable devaluation which made me wonder. 1967 was the year, I think, looking back, in which Britain’s economic decline began to catch up with Wilson, and in which he must have begun to realise that he didn’t have the measure of the problem. From then on, the cocky resilient style, all of his manoeuvrings and ingenuities – the talents which had appealed to us in 1964 and convinced us of his competence and resolve – began to jar with the reality of Britain’s chronic and intractable problems. This was what came to be called, after President Johnson’s, his ‘credibility gap’. It was a polite way of suggesting that Wilson was a liar. But Idon’t think he stretched the truth more than most politicians try to do. The problem was that the abilities which were appropriate in the hectic, hopeful early days of his prime ministership became increasingly unacceptable as they were employed in covering up his failures and patching his party and the country together. For he had given up on building the New Britain. The task now was to hold the old one together.

He had one last stab at the problem with his attempt to reform the trade unions along the lines proposed by Barbara Castle in her famous White Paper In Place of Strife. His defeat at the hands of the trade-union movement was a turning-point of far greater significance than the humiliating, forced devaluation of the previous year. For the result was a shift in the balance of power within the Labour Movement in favour of the trade unions which posed, in new and more acute forms, the question of whether what the unions called ‘free collective bargaining’, and what the Labour Party called socialism, were in any degree compatible. Could a Labour government govern? Could any government govern?

Six years later, back in power again, Wilson put the question to the conference of the National Union of Mineworkers. He quotes the passage in his book: ‘The issue now is not whether this or any other democratic socialist government can survive and lead the nation to full employment and a greater measure of social justice. It is whether any government so constituted, so dedicated to the principles of consent and consensus within our democracy, can lead this nation.’ An answer to that question was given to Mr Callaghan this year.

The In Place of Strife affair was a disaster for Wilson and the Government, but in the shower of abuse which descended upon his head it was scarcely noticed that his offences were mostly the opposite of those of which he was customarily accused. For example, rather than putting party before country he had gone further towards splitting the Labour Movement, and risking his own leadership, than any previous Labour prime minister since MacDonald. Rather than trim and temporise, he had stuck doggedly to his guns until disarmed by his own Cabinet. It was a bold and honourable endeavour to take the measure of the trade-union problem – an attempt which has been increasingly vindicated by the passage of time.

My affair with Harold Wilson came to its end with his U-turn on the Common Market. I condemned his speech to the special Labour Party conference in 1971 in terms which, Ithink, he never forgave. I called it a ‘snivelling and despicable’ performance. Although never in the least an enthusiast for the Common Market, he had become convinced in office that Britain’s declining place in the world necessitated membership. He knew perfectly well that it would be difficult for Britain to thrive within a club which had been based on a carve-up between German industry and French agriculture. The terms, when they came, were worse than could be desired, but they were not markedly different from the ones which Wilson’s Government had been on the way to negotiating. He vehemently and repeatedly denied this, but it can scarcely be doubted that he, too, would have seized the political moment – the open French door – and continued to negotiate from within.

Wilson claims in his book to have been thoroughly vindicated in rejecting the Heath terms but not the Common Market, and in his subsequent U-turn over the referendum. He quotes with great satisfaction an editorial from the Times which said that in the referendum he found the answer, ‘perhaps the only answer, to the problem of getting Labour consent to Britain staying in Europe. He has shown great political skill and insight.’ He reports also that Roy Jenkins subsequently conceded, most generously, that he had ‘misunderstood’ Wilson’s handling of the issue.

It is true, I now think, that Wilson could not have held the European line, and the Labour Party together, through the years of opposition between 1970 and 1974. At the same time, it is now apparent what an immense price was paid through having to do it his way. The European wing of the Labour Party, which was for the most part its Social Democratic wing, lost authority and influence when it felt obliged to support the Heath terms. It has never really recovered. It did not dare to fight battles simultaneously on other fronts, and this enabled the Left to gain ground. Licensed, in effect, to be split over Europe (the licence was made official for the 1975 referendum), the Party took licence to split on basic policy issues also, and came to power in 1974 with only the Manifesto papering the gap. The Party’s hand was thus weakened against the unions, who for the first l8 months after Wilson’s return to power had things exactly their own way, with the kind permission of Michael Foot. The quintessential document of the times was the Social Contract. This, he says, was ‘widely interpreted as a voluntary agreement to accept restraint in pay demands as part of a wider social agreement’. During the first year of renewed Labour government, as Wilson records, wages increased by 32.9 per cent and prices by 21.4 per cent.

Wilson builds a theory of leadership around his success in holding the Labour Party together and reconciling it, through the referendum on Europe, and his success in opening a new chapter of incomes policy with the £6-a-week limit in July 1975. He writes: ‘To bridge a deep political chasm without splitting a party or provoking dramatic ministerial resignations is sometimes regarded as something approaching political chicanery. This is to subordinate the realities of two hundred years of democratic politics to the demands of sensationalism. The highest aim of leadership is to secure policies adequate to deal with any situation … without major confrontations, splits and resignations.’ The last sentence, of course, entirely begs the question, but later on he writes again: ‘In my view, a constant effort to keep his party together, without sacrificing either principle or the essentials of basic strategy, is the very stuff of political leadership. Macmillan was canonised for it.’ Nowhere does he say what ‘principles’, or even what ‘strategy’, were saved from the sacrificial knife.

Wilson did leave the Labour Party patched together. He left the country patched together – for the time being. The July 1975 pay policy provided at least a basis on which it could be governed once more by Labour. But by that autumn the IMF had caught up with the Wilson Government, now presided over by James Callaghan. The next year, the unions declared once more for free collective bargaining and last year the pay policy was repudiated. The Government tried once more to govern without the consent of the trade unions. Once more it failed. It was the Scots who brought it down, but it was the unions who once more ensured its defeat at the polls. The Wilson era ended, in a sense, not on 16 March 1976, but on 3 May 1979. It ended in failure.

In Final Term, the man who led the Labour Party for 13 years, and presided over nearly nine years of British decline, offers no sort of analysis of what went wrong and no kind of theory about what might go right. The book, I am afraid, is almost worthless save as almanac. His earlier book, although suffering from the same basic defect, at least contained touches of colour and sparks of life. This one contains neither. Incidentally, among other vast lacunae, it makes no mention at all of Lady Falkender (Joe Haines gets a single passing reference and his name misspelled in the index), of the mysterious allegations about the role of the South Africans in the Thorpe affair, or of the astonishing – disgraceful and unforgivable – resignation Honours List. Nor does it leave us any the wiser as to what other considerations may have prompted his resignation, or, indeed, haunted his long career.

One can only extrapolate from the record which Wilson chooses to provide and guess that by the time he returned to Number 10 in 1974 he had ceased to enjoy politics and to believe that he could solve the country’s problems. A kind of deadpan resignation runs through this latest book. Even the desire for self-vindication has mellowed since the first volume, and in this one there are many fewer preposterous claims to glory. It is as if the author is too tired to pretend any longer. I found it sad reading, just as I find it sad to see Wilson demeaning himself as the host of a late-night chat show.

The Final Term is, unlike his first book, a confession of failure – not of personal failure, but of the failure of the Labour Movement to take the measure of the country’s problems. In other words, the failure is of a systematic kind, and to the extent that this is true, the personal opprobrium which has attached to Harold Wilson is not wholly deserved. It is too early to rehabilitate him. There are no grounds yet for revising the dismal history of the last 15 years. But it is time to allow him a place in the nostalgia craze. Only three and a half years have gone by since he stepped out of Number 10, yet I find myself thinking of him as a Sixties figure, who belongs to the youthful pantheon of the Beatles, Mary Quant and David Frost. He then embodied many of our hopes, and is perhaps as much the victim as the cause of their betrayal.