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.’

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