Harold, row the boat aground

Paul Foot

  • Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister by Harold Wilson
    Weidenfeld/Joseph, 214 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2775 7

Since this is such a sad book, let us start with something cheerful. One evening in March 1966, on an assignment to cover the general election campaign in the West Midlands, I found myself at the back of the Birmingham Rag Market, surrounded by what seemed like millions of people. The thousand seats in the front had been taken up long before the start of the meeting. The huge amphitheatre was covered with people standing, jammed together, craning their heads forward so as not to miss a word.

It was, believe it or not, a Labour Party meeting, and the main speaker was the Labour leader, Harold Wilson. The ‘warm-up’ was a brilliant speech by the MP for Stechford, Roy Jenkins, who described his leader as ‘the greatest Parliamentarian of his generation’. The acclamation for Wilson as he rose to speak, diminutive behind a huge lectern, was deafening. I noticed that he had few notes – perhaps one sheet of paper with a few jottings on it. He hardly glanced at it. Instead, he allowed the great gathering to control his speech for him. He preyed on his hecklers like a fisherman, goading them to interrupt on the subjects he favoured. A small gang of raucous young Tories swallowed the bait: ‘T-S-R-2,’ they chanted in fatuous indignation at the cancellation of some obscure and well-forgotten fighter plane. The speaker cocked an ear and called for more. ‘Did I hear TSR2?’ he called sweetly. As the baying intensified, he swung into a set of devastating statistics about the waste and absurdity of the TSR2. He brought what appeared to be an aging and respectable working-class audience to a delirium of delight. He laughed at the new technocratic Tory leader, Heath, just as he laughed at the ‘ancestral voices’ of Heath’s predecessor, the 14th Earl of Home. The whole place resounded to his humour and his confidence.

It was the high peak of British social democracy. Wilson’s government had weathered the early storms after its election in 1964. With a tiny majority, it had promulgated several substantial reforms. The old Tory hegemony seemed to have been broken. For just that brief, fleeting moment it looked as though Labour government worked: that it was possible to have full employment, a strong pound, economic growth and expanding social services at the same time, and that all could be wrapped up in the warm mantle of egalitarianism. What Wilson called ‘a moral crusade’ seemed to have conquered the reactionaries – and to have done so without any unpleasantness or effort. Change was coming about through the ballot box, and no one was being hurt in the process. The response on polling day was extraordinary. Labour were returned with a majority over all other parties of nearly a hundred seats. Thirteen million people voted Labour, more than in any other year except 1951. No one doubted that Labour with its vast new majority would improve on what they had done with a majority of five.

The descent was astonishingly fast. By the end of July, only four months after all these triumphs, the Wilson Government was down on its knees, grovelling to the very bankers whom Wilson had derided in his election speeches. The old Tory medicines – wage freeze, high interest rates, increased unemployment, public-spending cuts (described by one left-wing backbencher as ‘ripping up the hospitals with our bare hands’) – had been applied in even greater doses than in the Tory past. Labour’s supporters drooped. Socialist enthusiasms vanished. Reactionary notions spread into every area of government policy. In Vietnam, where Wilson in his youth had denounced imperialist intervention, the Labour Government lined up behind the American army of occupation. In Rhodesia, Labour stood back while an illegal racialist regime made hay. Tougher and tougher immigration controls – anathema to Labour’s leaders in the early Sixties – were introduced. Even the cherished free National Health Service – the principle on which Wilson himself resigned from the Labour Government in 1951 – was breached. In the post-devaluation package of January 1968, prescription charges – abolished with such enthusiasm when Labour came to office – were re-introduced. The International Monetary Fund insisted on them as a condition for the loan. Even when the Government offered to find exactly the same amount in ‘savings’ from cuts in other areas, the IMF stood firm. The money must come from health charges. Any dangerous subversive rubbish about a free health service had to be rubbed out once and for all.

The electoral consequences were inevitable. By 1970, when the next election came round, the moral crusade had turned into yet another cynical hunt for office. The Conservatives were returned for four more years. By the time Harold Wilson was back in Downing Street again, in 1974, he was sadder, more realistic, more conventional. The cheeky humour with which he denounced the ‘faded antimacassars’ who ruled British society had turned into deference. He was no longer the campaigner with a single sheet of notes mocking the Right and holding out a ‘new vision’ of a fair and prosperous Britain. Instead, he was the elder statesman, never happier than when he was chatting to the Queen. In 1976, after two more years as Prime Minister, he suddenly resigned. He said he was tired – and he was probably right: a million investigations to prove that his resignation was part of some weird conspiracy have run into the sand.

More than any other politician of our time, Harold Wilson is the symbol of the debacle of modern Labour. In his other two autobiographical books he reluctantly reveals some clues as to why the great dreams of the mid-Sixties came to so little. In The Labour Government: 1964-1970, he inveighs against the ‘speculators’ who did not give him room for economic and political manoeuvre. In Final Term: 1974-1976, these have turned into ‘bailiffs’ who evicted him from his party’s policies and aspirations. In this book, he has gone back before both governments and written about his childhood, his youth, and his political career before he became Prime Minister. For anyone unfortunate enough to have read all the biographies of Wilson (Leslie Smith, Dudley Smith, Gerard Noel, Ernest Kay and others even worse) there is really nothing new here. It is the same old story of the young Boy Scout, Nonconformist and Liberal. He says he joined the Oxford University Labour Party (though not the Labour Club) in time for the famous 1939 by-election, but since he gets the name of the winner (and his precedessor) wrong, his memory may be at fault.

Wilson’s shift to Labour came, I would suspect, later, during the war, as he watched Labour rising high in the polls and the popular imagination. His career in Parliament from 1945 to 1964 picked a careful path through the shifting fortunes of Labour’s Left and Right. From 1947 to 1951, he was an extremely conventional, not to say reactionary President of the Board of Trade. In 1951, he resigned from the Cabinet with Aneurin Bevan over the imposition of health charges and the armaments programme, was a Bevanite for a few years, but neatly stepped into Bevan’s shoes in the Shadow Cabinet when his former hero resigned over South-East Asia. He always kept on good terms with Bevan’s arch-rival, Hugh Gaitskell – though he doesn’t reveal whether he voted for Gaitskell against Bevan for Party leader in 1956, as he probably did. He worked in close association with Gaitskell in the late Fifties, but stood against him in the leadership election of 1960: only to revert to him soon afterwards.

The book trudges over all this old ground without divulging a single interesting new piece of information, and, except in occasional flashes of personal animosity (as against Herbert Morrison or Denis Healey), without much passion or enthusiasm. There is only one good joke, and it was made at Wilson’s expense by Aneurin Bevan. When Wilson announced with customary Yorkshire pomposity that he was ‘forged’ in that county, Bevan replied: ‘Forged were you? I always thought there was something counterfeit about you.’

Yet, in the dross, it is possible to find some clues to explain the dreadful sequel. Throughout the book, Harold Wilson revels in his distaste for political theory. He was, he insists, from first to last, a technical man, who wanted to get on with running things. He was impatient and intolerant with colleagues who tried to think about the big social movements which determined the course of politics. ‘It has never been part of my political attitude,’ he writes, ‘to tear society up by the roots and replace it with something entirely different. I do not look at problems from that kind of perspective. I consider that the best style of government is like rowing – the ideal solution is to get the boat along as quickly as possible without turning it over.’ He was like the captain of a ship who knew everything about his craft, from the attitudes of the crew to the most sophisticated computer. But he had no compass, no knowledge of the currents and tides, or of the storms which, to use one of his favourite phrases, blew him off-course. His ship was at the mercy of forces much more powerful than the ones he knew or controlled. He did not recognise or understand those forces, and never wanted to.

Hoary British empiricism, in which he constantly rejoices, was his greatest enemy. This empiricism has dominated the thinking of Labour politicians ever since the Party was founded. It infected the clockwork socialism which was so popular in the Thirties. Men like John Strachey could see that capitalism wasn’t working, and so concluded, empirically, that it could never, even for a moment, rise above its contradictions or expand. When there was a period of steady capitalist expansion for thirty years after the war, Strachey started to argue, empirically, that now capitalism was stable, it would always be so. The inflexibility of British empiricism, the inability to look or imagine further than a few feet in front, poisoned even Marxism, the most flexible and imaginative of political philosophies.

At least thinkers like John Strachey tried to grapple with political theory, however, Anthony Crosland, whose The Future of Socialism came out in the same year, 1956, as Strachey’s Contemporary Capitalism and argued very much the same thing, took issue with Karl Marx. But he was quick to denounce those who wrote Marx off. ‘The man was a dedicated genius,’ he wrote, ‘and only moral dwarfs or people devoid of imagination sneer at men like that.’ Without ever even reading him, Harold Wilson sneered at Marx. He exults here in his ignorance, repeating yet again the old saw that he never got beyond page two of Das Capital, where he was put off by a footnote. Wilson’s intellectual genesis was founded on footnotes: he spent hour after happy hour with hosts of irrelevant statistics about railways in the time of Gladstone. It was not footnotes which put him off, but ideology. He was so anxious to get on with rowing the boat that he could not, even for a moment, study the tempestuous forces which would determine its course. When his party was shipwrecked, and he himself, like so many Labour leaders before him, cast up spluttering platitudes at the House of Lords bar, he is even less able than when he started out to explain the cause of the disaster.

Can Parliament bring about Socialism? Marx himself, flexible as ever, changed his mind on this crucial question. In the early 1860s, perhaps to boost the flagging spirits of the defeated Chartists, he declared that universal suffrage would bring political power to the working class. His close and anxious study of the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 changed all that. He saw there the mighty forces which capitalism had built in its defence, and started to predict that anyone who took on those forces armed only with a majority of votes, statistical genius, an Oxford scholarship and a determination to row the boat across to the other side was doomed to catastrophic defeat.

Reading Harold Wilson’s thin story in the mid-1980s, it is impossible to fight off nostalgia. For all his pragmatism, Wilson made promises which seemed to point towards a more prosperous and egalitarian society, and tried to match up to them. Labour politicians today do not even make promises, for fear that they cannot be carried out. Eighty-six years of pragmatism have plunged us back far beyond Harold Wilson’s heyday. Labour’s position now is more reminiscent of the late 1920s than of the 1960s or 1970s. Then the Labour leaders sought to win an election solely on the unpopularity of a Tory administration which had defeated the might of the Trade Unions (including the miners) in open class war. By keeping quiet, by promising next to nothing, they aimed to appease a timid electorate and creep into Whitehall. They succeeded. They lasted two years, in which unemployment tripled. Their leaders abandoned Labour for the Tories, and plunged their erstwhile supporters into 15 years of the blackest reaction. The man in charge of Labour’s economic policy at that time – the first to ditch his party for high office in a Tory ‘National’ government – was Philip Snowden. Harold Wilson’s book opens with this sentence: ‘My boyhood political hero, Philip Snowden, MP for Colne Valley, began his autobiography with the words, “I am a Yorkshireman.” ’ Like hero, like disciple. Forged.