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.

This was what gave the 1964 Labour Government a significance far greater than the 1974-79 Administration. 1964 saw the coming together of the British best and brightest. The failure of Wilsonism didn’t only break the heart of this group: it was in a very direct sense their failure too. And the result of that failure was not merely electoral defeat but a sense of intellectual disillusion and disarray from which the Left has never really recovered. Seared by that experience, the British intelligentsia is reluctant even now to put so much confidence in the Labour Party again – a fact that has contributed powerfully to the sense we have of there being no true alternative élite to the Tory mainstream and which allows it to flow on, unimpeded.

Labour came to power in 1964 pledged, above all, to put an end to the ‘stop-go’ cycle: instead, there would be a move to French-style planning, with power taken away from the Treasury (which had routinely slammed on the brakes whenever the balance-of-payments constraint threatened a sterling crisis) and given to a more growth-minded Department of Economic Affairs. But since a pattern of steady growth might produce wage-push inflation, the Unions would, from the first, be brought within the framework of a prices-and-incomes policy. But as everyone now knows, Labour faced an immediate sterling crisis, and a crucial decision was taken in secret by Wilson, Callaghan and Brown not to devalue. The next three years of government were spent sacrificing growth, trade-union goodwill and just about everything else to prop up sterling. Even after the pound’s inevitable collapse, the Government didn’t really regain its balance. It launched a tough austerity policy to hold inflation, let wages rip before the election, and since the spectacle of the unions breaking free of constraints was noxious in middle-class eyes, tried to make a public show of taming trade-union power. When the Unions forced the Government into a humiliating climb-down, its undoing was complete.

That crucial initial blunder over devaluation was pretty well inevitable when one considers that neither Brown nor Callaghan, the two key economics ministers, had any training in economics. Both men lacked the confidence to go against ‘expert’ Treasury advice, while Wilson had the training but lacked the character to do so. Back in the throes of the 1949 sterling crisis, Wilson, then President of the Board of Trade, had earned the contempt of the other economics ministers by his inability to stick to any line on devaluation. No sooner had they all agreed on devaluation than Wilson would back off, haver and cavil. Gaitskell and Jay came to distrust him utterly while Dalton said of him: ‘He trims and wavers and is thinking more of what senior ministers – and even senior officials – are thinking of him than of what is right.’ Ultimately Gaitskell forced through a devaluation which, it soon became clear, was a resounding success – whereupon Wilson leaked to two national newspapers a version of the sterling crisis in which he depicted himself as the driving force behind devaluation, and Gaitskell as the obstacle. For Wilson always hankered after headlines praising him as a masterful taker of crisp decisions, while in practice lacking the nerve to behave that way.

The issues were nothing if not clear in 1964. Lord Cromer, the Governor of the Bank of England, advised that if sterling was to be held, interest rates would have to rise by 1 per cent. Brown stupidly resisted this logic, which led to a 2 per cent rise a week later and brought ‘an unusually emotional’ Cromer to No 10, demanding a tough credit squeeze, public expenditure cuts, legislation to remove trade-union restrictive practices and the abandonment of steel nationalisation. Wilson, barely six weeks in power, demanded angrily whether this meant that, for practical purposes, government, whatever the policies on which it had been elected, would have to abandon its manifesto pledges and carry out Tory policies, on the grounds that the City and the Bank would tolerate nothing else. If so, he insisted, he was prepared to call an election on the issue of international finance and its readiness to dictate terms to his government. In that event, Cromer replied, before election day there would be no sterling reserves left. In which case, said Wilson, they would let sterling float. In which case, shouted Cromer, there would be an international financial crisis (there wouldn’t, of course: Britain floated the pound without difficulty in 1971).

Even so Cromer’s threat worked. Wilson rather lamely claimed that the world’s central bankers would get together to prevent a crisis, but in practice Cromer had won the exchange: with time Wilson would carry out the whole of Cromer’s programme. Pimlott omits all mention of what Morgan rightly terms ‘a rare instance of power holders ... deploying ultimate sanctions in British politics’ – indeed, and quite unaccountably, neither Cromer nor the Bank of England even rates an entry in Pimlott’s index. This is a pity because one of Pimlott’s central judgments is that Wilson was right to resist devaluation which, Pimlott claims, would have meant ‘an abandonment of the Party’s promises, on which it had been elected, within moments of coming to office’. It’s an odd thing to say, given that the refusal of devaluation locked Britain into another six years of stop-go which, above all else, Labour had promised to end. Similarly, Pimlott accepts the argument that devaluation would have triggered unacceptable international consequences, which is also odd since this did not happen when devaluation finally came in 1967, and odder still when the preferred alternative of an import surcharge in 1964 was an illegal breach of both EFTA and GATT. Later still, Pimlott suggests that Labour’s economic strategy was always basically unworkable, and that this was the central problem, though when one looks back one is more struck by how far Wilson might have got had he stuck to his guns about growth and about pouring resources into new technologies, and let the rest go hang.

Wilson was the eternal eleven-plus boy, always needing praise, mortally unhappy when criticised in the media, ready to boast of his own cleverness and achievements if no one else would do it for him. My late Magdalen colleague, Redvers Opie, who played the key role of assistant to Keynes at Bretton Woods, examined both Wilson and Heath in economics in their Oxford Finals and, by chance, kept his notes, which he once showed to me. Heath he thought uninspired, a good solid Second, a man of immense sturdiness and yeoman rectitude. Of Wilson he noted that he was quite brilliant, ‘wrote like an angel’, but that he was ‘only clever, with nothing more’. Wilson needed success very badly. When he failed, however narrowly, as in the leadership contest with Gaitskell, he quickly concluded that the whole enterprise had been a mistake. When he failed badly and publicly in the 1970 Election he was utterly crushed. Defeat was psychologically unbearable to him, and friends, observing how old and bent he had suddenly become, could not conceive that he would ever be prime minister again. When, unexpectedly, he won in 1974 the effect was almost magically rejuvenating.

There is a curious reluctance on the part of both books to come to terms with the great watershed of the 1970 Election, the largest peacetime reversal ever suffered by a British government and flatly in the face of the opinion polls. Pimlott simply attributes this to Labour ‘peaking too soon’, Morgan to Labour complacency. Neither reason will really do, particularly since Heath, Jowell and Curtice have pointed out, in How Britain votes, that class voting was very much weaker in 1970 than in any other British election for which data exist – an even more remarkable finding when one considers the extremely high levels of class voting seen in the 1966 Election. Heath et al offer no explanation for this, because, like Pimlott and Morgan, they unaccountably ignore the degree to which the late Sixties and early Seventies were the age of Enoch Powell – and, more specifically, they ignore the mass of evidence accumulated by Douglas Schoen in his Enoch Powell and the Powellites.

Schoen gathered together all the opinion-poll data of the Powell years and showed that after the ‘rivers of blood’ speech of l968 Powell developed an immensely strong and loyal constituency, so much so that in answer to the question ‘Who would you like to see as prime minister?’ Powell was effectively treated by voters as a third party leader. Normally, when asked this question, British voters name either the actual premier or the Leader of the Opposition, but now uniquely and without prompting they nominated Powell in such large numbers that he quite frequently ran ahead of one or other of the big two. This support was at first tied overwhelmingly to feelings about race and immigration: indeed, during the Ugandan Asians affair of 1972-73 the Labour Party was horrified to find Powell actually running ahead of both Wilson and Heath in one of the private polls about choice of prime minister. Schoen showed that in 1970 there was a pro-Tory swing many times the average among those who rated Powell most highly; that this effect was by no means confined to Powell’s bailiwick in the Midlands but was nationwide; and that the consequence was a shift of anywhere between two and four million votes to the Tories. By demoralising and demobilising its working-class constituency Wilson’s government had doubtless contributed to this effect, paving the way for an appeal based on race which cut right across the old class cleavage. At the same time, the Powell vote seems to have been a somewhat shamefaced one: until a late hour voters did not own up to the pollsters, or perhaps even to themselves, how powerful the impact of Powell’s anti-immigration speeches had been. In 1974 Powell campaigned for a Labour vote and shifted a smaller but still very considerable number of votes to them, in all probability settling that election too. Schoen’s findings have frequently been ignored out of a liberal instinct that to acknowledge the power of racism is somehow to legitimise and even to magnify it. This cannot, however, be good enough grounds for neglecting data which have the effect of changing our view, not only of Harold Wilson’s career, but of a great deal of out recent political history.

Biography properly done is not a kind art. Consider, for example, how thoroughly public respect for Gladstone, Lloyd George and JFK – great leaders all – has been undermined by the revelations of their respective sexual (and in some instances not merely sexual) shenanigans. And yet we know perfectly well from our everyday lives that the interplay between personality, moral character and human achievement is not reducible to simple pieties of any kind. The sense of national decline has caused us to place a perhaps undue emphasis on leadership; the longing for a Churchillian superman who would be able to stop the rot led straight into the cul-de-sac of Thatcherism. When the electorate realises, as it did this year, that it has been offered a choice between two leaders neither of whom is ‘up to it’, its rage and frustration are quite palpable.

Even so, one boggles at a process of selection which made Wilson, prior to Thatcher, the longest-serving modern prime minister. Like many grammar-school meritocrats, the young Harold early developed an exaggerated need to please authority. As school captain he lavished praise on the house system, became a patrol leader at Scouts and generally courted the headmasterly constituency with a fulsome enthusiasm for all the most ‘traditional’ aspects of a grammar school which, like most of its kind, tried hard to be an ersatz public school. As anyone who went to a school of that kind knows, what it cannot produce is publicschool self-assurance. Harold’s priggishness was such that he once suggested to the headmaster that soccer matches be held at lunchtime to prevent his peers getting up to sexual mischief.

Wilson came into politics as a young man among giants: he was the youngest member of a Cabinet which included Attlee, Cripps, Bevin, Morrison, Dalton and Bevan, while on the benches opposite brooded Churchill. He was, moreover, acutely conscious that his fellow economics ministers, Jay and Gaitskell, shared an easy Wykehamist self-assurance, and that within the Gaitskell circle there were lots of jokes about the Wilsons having flying ducks on the wall. This situation did not diminish Wilson’s ambition one whit but it didn’t increase his bravery either. It says something about the Labour Party that while Wilson repeatedly topped the shadow cabinet election poll among MPs, his colleagues never had any illusions about him. On becoming leader, Gaitskell surveyed his Executive and lamented that only Jim Griffiths had courage and intelligence. Wilson, he wrote, ‘has plenty of intelligence and a little courage’. Later, he tried to get rid of Wilson as Shadow Chancellor because ‘he wouldn’t take the tough decisions.’ Crossman, though Wilson’s closest political friend, wrote in 1957 that ‘Harold ... grows fatter, more complacent and more evasive each time you meet him.’

It is easy, in a word, to show that Wilson’s character was desperately flawed, that those flaws were well-known long before he took office, and that most of the failures of his administration originated in them. If the 1964-70 Government was ruined by the inability to face up to devaluation and to stick to a policy of growth, come what may, the 1974-79 Administration was doomed by the refusal to face up to the consequences of the 1973 oil shock. By then, however, the options were all uncomfortable: a realisation which seems to have grown on Wilson, and from which, more than anything else, his final resignation seems to have stemmed.

Having weathered the great inflation of 1975 when prices soared by over 18 per cent, Wilson told the country in April 1976 that he was going because there ‘were no impending problems or difficulties’ that the public didn’t know all about. The opposite was, of course the truth: ahead lay the IMF loan crisis which would require public-spending cuts in the face of a howling recession. With by-elections cutting the Government’s majority to nil, Celtic nationalism on the rise and continuing trouble in Ulster, Wilson knew perfectly well that he was handing a poisoned chalice to his successor: indeed, not long afterwards he was to confide to Roy Jenkins that he felt there was no future for either the Labour Government or the Labour Party and that coalitionism was the only solution. Harold simply got out while the going was relatively good. When the IMF crisis broke a few months later he rushed onto television to say that he would never have resigned had he foreseen such difficulties. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

There followed the saga of his farewell honours list – typically, Wilson sought to deflect the outrage over the high proportion of wealthy rogues on the list by alleging that his critics were motivated by anti-semitism – and the even more colourful affair of The Pencourt File. It is fairly clear that various elements in MI5 had entertained seditious plans against Wilson’s government in the mid-Seventies. In addition, Wilson became convinced that the South African intelligence services were mixed up in similar plots, with the net perhaps spreading as wide as the Thorpe affair. He could and should have been a lot more vigorous in cleaning out these Augean stables. Instead, he did nothing. In retirement, however, he began to brood in a fantastical way on the matter, unburdening himself at length to two young reporters, Barry Penrose and Roger Courtiour.

It was the first sign that Wilson’s mental powers were flagging. ‘I see myself as the big fat spider in the corner of the room,’ he told them:

Sometimes I speak when I’m asleep. You should both listen. Occasionally when we meet I might tell you to go to Charing Cross Road and kick a blind man standing on the corner. That blind man may tell you something, may lead you somewhere.

When the interview was published there was a roar of derision. Wilson quickly denied that he had said these things. But Pencourt had taped the interview, so Wilson had then to retract his retraction. Rather like an ageing boxer, he was no longer quite nimble enough and it showed. He hoped desperately that the mastership first of University College, Oxford, and then of Trinity, Cambridge, might be offered to him, but by then his standing was sufficiently low to make such candidacies almost a joke. Seldom has a former prime minister been so quickly and entirely diminished by public disregard, indeed, public contempt.

In fact, this was not altogether fair. It gradually became clear that Wilson’s memory had faded rapidly and that, in Morgan’s words, he was suffering ‘a degree of senile dementia, the most common form of this ... ailment now being known as Alzheimer’s disease’. Pimlott is diplomatically silent, but drops hints that he would concur in such a diagnosis. Morgan says that Wilson has suffered from Alzheimer’s ‘since at least 1986’. One cannot but wonder, however, whether his faculties were not gradually impaired over a far longer period. The later his utterances, the more charitable our judgment should be.

For all that one can say against Wilson there was much that was positive. His reputation for deviousness was well-deserved but he was also a virtual genius at short-term political tactics. His hypersensitivity to criticism and praise allied to his high intelligence meant that he was constantly able to imagine how a political act or posture would ‘play’, and to this sensitivity he added an often perfect sense of timing. The smack of firm government was, sadly, mere bluster: he did not stand up to pressure groups or the Establishment or anybody much – he courted popularity and acceptance too diligently for that. But this meant, too, that he could often be kind and generous – and he was a large enough man to bring into the Cabinet old and sworn enemies like Crosland and Jenkins. While he was never smart or fashionable, he had a far better insight into the feelings of ordinary people than the Gaitskell set had. He also never quite forgot the people from whence he’d come, a fact he turned to his political advantage over and over again, not only by a superior tactical sense of what would play well in the pubs and the clubs, but sometimes by shafts of humour and genuinely moving rhetoric.

Moreover, Britain became a more liberal place under him: the changes in censorship, the reform of the laws relating to divorce, abortion and homosexuality were a notable achievement, and old-fashioned deference to 14th earls never really survived Wilson’s jibes. Britain became more egalitarian and its government somewhat more open under him and if the economy did not actually thrive, it’s arguable that in the end it did no worse than it would have under anyone else. But that’s the problem. So much was expected of Wilson, he bore the hopes of a generation; to do no worse than anybody else was not what the great crusade was supposed to be about.