Say what you will about Harold

Christopher Hitchens

  • Wilson: The Authorised Life by Philip Ziegler
    Weidenfeld, 593 pp, £20.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 297 81276 9

Since it can be properly said that nothing in Harold Wilson’s political career became him like the leaving of it, there is some justice in the fact that he is now best-remembered for one photograph and for one action. The photograph shows him next to the Duke of Grafton while assuming his stall at Windsor as a Knight of the Garter, and the action was the compiling (would that be the word?) of a resignation honours list that rewarded those who – oh, dash it, I don’t know – shall we say made money rather than earned it? Anyway, in the photograph Wilson looks like nothing so much as a grinning monkey on a stick, and in the matter of the honours list he achieved the near-impossible feat of discrediting the discredited and making a laughing-stock out of something already rather disagreeably risible. So I suppose that one can spare about ten milliseconds of sympathy for those, suggestively calling themselves ‘revisionist’, who have attempted to sweeten Harold Wilson’s memory. (I mean our memory of him; not his memory of us, which has notoriously faded.)

For the sake of contrast, one might mention the limerick which Clement Attlee once wrote about himself:

Few thought he was even a starter
There were many who thought themselves smarter

But he ended PM
CH and OM
An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

Who can doubt that this rhyme was intended partly at the expense of its own author? Attlee was more of a child of privilege than Wilson, and belonged firmly on his party’s conservative wing, but he was a brave soldier and a principled man on the whole, and his first ministry saw the inauguration of National Health, the belated grant of independence for India, the reform of the electoral system and some small inroad on privatised folly in basic service industries. Would anyone from Pimlott to McKibbin to Howard to Ziegler care to mention one – even one – attainment of the Wilson period that could bear comparison?

Lord Melbourne’s over-used but pungent observation about the Order of the Garter, that he liked it because there was ‘no damned merit in it’, is very necessary for any consideration or reconsideration of the Wilson phenomenon. If he represented anything at all, he stood for the idea of meritocracy. In British terms, and especially in British Labour terms, this has long meant a demonstrated willingness to fawn on the Crown, the Lords, the Foreign Office, the ‘intelligence’ services, the Chiefs of Staff and the Inns of Court, while manifesting a pugnacious plain-man’s dislike of ‘intellectuals’, especially if these can be represented as ‘public-school’, ‘Oxbridge’ or ‘parlour-pink’ intellectuals. It’s a tried and tested applause-line, and it hasn’t failed yet. While I myself was in the process of unlearning a few illusions about Mr Wilson, I remember, I noticed his frequently-retrieved memory of the ‘public-school Marxists’ he had despised (while at Oxford), and also his man-of-the-people Uriah Heep admission that ‘I never got beyond that whacking great footnote on the second page of Das Kapital.’ I turned (not for the first time in my life, since I had had the benefit of a public-school education) to the second page of that arduous but seminal work. There is no footnote on page two. In this it is unlike Wilson’s ingratiating Oxford entry for the Gladstone Memorial Essay Prize, which was entitled ‘The State and the Railways in Great Britain 1823 – 63’ and which contained four hundred of them.

At what point, I wonder, could anyone have seen it coming? The advance, I mean to say, of a mediocre but ruthless man without qualities? Philip Ziegler’s book charts the boy Wilson’s ghastly youth, replete with team spirit, sycophancy, Scout’s honour and a craving to please elders and authority. There it all is, if you can stomach the reading of it. (It used to be expressed in another photograph, of infant Harold and his dad outside Number Ten.) The humdrum chapel morality; the Nonconformist self-righteousness; the passive-aggressive display – when the antagonist was insecure enough – of a homespun Yorkshire chauvinism. I did not know, until I ploughed through Ziegler’s lustreless narrative, that the undergraduate Wilson had had a flirtation with Moral Re-Armament – surely the most dank and dingy of all the pietistic movements to have borne the ‘Oxford’ prefix, and sinister to be going on with, but the discovery didn’t surprise me. When Harold Wilson chose professional Lib-Lab politics as his career path, the main loss was suffered by the world of husky, insincere lay-preachers and by the dire counsellors of the nation’s Wolf-Packs and Cubs. (No shock to find that Wilson’s chief pride in that milieu consisted in the putting-down of beastliness.)

For some reason or other, perhaps connected with the narcotic idea of his being the ‘authorised’ biographer, Ziegler chronicles the rise of a consummate liar and phoney while invariably letting his ‘objective’ prejudice obscure his view of the facts. An early point at which Wilson might have been unmasked – as someone provincial rather than regional, someone evasive rather than subtle, someone populist rather than democratic – came in 1948. In that year, Wilson made a speech in Birmingham claiming that when he was at school ‘more than half the children in my class never had any boots or shoes to their feet.’ He did not mind leaving the impression that he himself had been in the unshod or clogged half, if half it was. We know for a fact that he was much fussed-over as a lad, and that his school was by no means of the poorest. But in describing the ensuing row over Wilson’s veracity, Ziegler misses trick after trick. He cannot support Wilson’s bogus claim, which was quite famous at the time. Nor can he say what is obvious – that a politician who starts manufacturing a deprived past for himself is a dangerous and disordered animal with very watchable symptoms (Nixon and Clinton both leap to mind). He doesn’t even record Iain Macleod’s withering and unanswered observation – ‘If Harold Wilson ever went barefoot to school, it was because he was too big for his boots.’ Is this the writer who gave us sprightly books on Diana Cooper and, indeed, Lord Melbourne? For shame!

Of course, many millions of Britons had been shoeless and worse when Wilson was growing up, or at any rate growing, and there came a time in the life of the Attlee Government when the newly instated welfare provisions (are they still patronisingly called a ‘safety-net’, as if they covered the vicissitudes of deck-tennis?) were to be sacrificed to the Moloch of re-armament. It’s been debated for decades whether Wilson resigned on this matter, along with Aneurin Bevan and John Freeman, because of the principle of National Health, or because of the more ancient principle of reculer pour mieux sauter. And it’s hard to blur this choice, but Ziegler has a clumsy try at the task. Prescription charges, on the one hand, Gaitskell’s Korean War budget, on the other; Bevan determined to resign anyway, the Attlee Government facing electoral defeat; prizes to be won on the National Executive and the back-benches for respectable opposition – who would doubt that Wilson was figuring his options of opposition? Ziegler would. In leaden phrases he instructs us:

It is possible to construct two plausible scenarios: the first featuring Wilson as a gallant young idealist sacrificing his job and risking his future for the sake of a principle and in support of a cherished leader; the second portraying him as a cynical schemer, calculating the course of action that promised him greatest advantage in the long term and inflicting grave damage on his party in the pursuit of his individual ambitions.

One thing must be said at once. Even those who are so careless as to write about ‘plausible scenarios’ would still find it flat-out impossible to describe the first of those as plausible in the least. Does this leave us necessarily with the second of the straw men? Not if we accord to Ziegler, who sets out to split the difference:

Wilson did look before he leapt; he did make calculations about his political future; but equally he did feel strongly about the burden of defence and the health charges; he did admire and feel loyalty to Aneurin Bevan, one of the few politicians admitted by Mary to the family home as a friend; above all, he was taking a serious and avoidable risk.

This isn’t good biography, good psychohistory, good political analysis or even good journalism (‘equally’, for heavens’ sake). Elsewhere in the book Ziegler makes painfully plain that Mary Wilson’s humane and decent views on public affairs were invariably treated by her husband with cold contempt. Elsewhere in the book, also, we learn that within a very short time of his resignation, which occurred in April 1951, ‘Wilson had become “a deviationist from the Bevan line”, Carol Johnson, the secretary of the PLP, declared as early as December 1951 ... By January 1952 Wilson was sounding out Bevan and Crossman about a proposal that he should go back on the front bench.’ Clear? Another way of making the same point is to cite John Freeman, who resigned with Bevan and Wilson and who said: ‘If there were a word “aprincipled”, as there is “amoral”, it would describe Wilson perfectly.’ (Freeman, as well as having been a co-resigner, a beneficiary of future Labour Governments and a late defector to the Right, nonetheless holds the un-Wilsonian distinction of being one of the few men in public life who are known to have refused a peerage.)

As it falls out, there is no way of charting Wilson’s subsequent political backing and filling except as an essay in opportunism, and with no great relish or skill Ziegler gets us through the years 1951 to 1964. One must be candid and say that minutes of trade-union gatherings in Margate are not quite his thing, and that he must often have wished for some more Samgrass-like commission in a great house or archive like that of the Mountbattens. One must also be candid and say that one doesn’t blame him. His sense of fairness may well arise from his sense of being out of his depth, however, and it hit me on page 250, where Ziegler writes: ‘It was the seamen’s strike which threw the government off course.’ By then we are at 1966, with the full disgrace of the July deflationary measures and the headlong rout of all the promises made by Wilson, Callaghan and Jenkins, to say nothing of Crosland and Healey, and come to that Castle and Peart. Anyway, those of us who still remember Wilson’s crushing of a revolt by underpaid and exploited seafarers, and his later lame excuses for the collapse of the currency, recall that he himself said: ‘We were blown off course by the seamen’s strike.’ So it seems that Ziegler has subliminally surrendered to much of the contemporary Wilsonian alibi, including the inept nautical metaphor.

The Labour government which Wilson led, or over which he presided, was immolated morally by its support for a war of atrocity and aggression in Vietnam, and immolated politically by its fetishisation of an impossible and illusory position for sterling. The innumerable other corruptions and failures and betrayals all stemmed from these two calamities which were, as even Ziegler grants, essentially one and the same. The price exacted by Lyndon Johnson for support of sterling was that British Labour lent its vanishing prestige to his Indo-China adventure. This was and remains a worse historical humiliation even than Suez – because it was more protracted, and because it involved the exertion of financial blackmail, not to get Britain out of a sordid colonial entanglement, but to embroil it in one more deeply. Ziegler actually phrases this rather briskly, but again as if he were retained as Wilson’s attorney or spin-doctor:

Worse still, these problems were interrelated: if he made no concessions to the left wing over the deterrent they would be more likely to revolt on Vietnam: if he did not do as the American President wanted over Vietnam the run on sterling might become a stampede. To give the Rhodesian negotiations the calm and concentrated attention which they deserved against such a tempestuous background was beyond the powers of any except the superhuman. [Italics mine.]

I want very much to come back to Rhodesia in a moment, but notice for now that even when he puts things as Wilson and Falkender might wish them put, Ziegler acknowledges what was hysterically denied at the time – namely, the connectedness of the foreign and domestic capitulations.

Despite his lenient style, Ziegler possesses one great advantage over Ben Pimlott’s even lengthier retouching. He has dwelt in the stacks of the LBJ library in Austin, Texas, and has discovered slightly to his own shock that all of Wilson’s Vietnam diplomacy was a deliberate fraud. This fraud could be termed great if it had not turned out to be so paltry. In one of his excursions into pure delusion (it was at about this time that he declared that Britain’s ‘frontiers are on the Himalayas’) Wilson posed as a broker between Kosygin and Johnson, and moreover as a broker who had found a formula for ‘peace’. ‘Peace is within our grasp,’ as he put it, always citing Ambassador ‘Chet’ Cooper, who was the point-man for the White House in these supposed talks. In the LBJ archives, old ‘Chet’ is quoted as saying: ‘He didn’t have peace within his grasp, he was always overly optimistic about it ... The US Administration regarded Wilson at best as marginal, at worst as a nuisance, and did not bother to keep him informed, even when he thought he was negotiating on their behalf.’ Or, as LBJ said when he heard that Wilson had called an election: ‘I suppose I’ll have that little creep camping on my doorstep again.’ It’s consoling, in a way, to discover that those who waged the Vietnam War found Wilson almost as contemptible and fantasy-sodden and solipsistic as did those who opposed it. Not until Clinton’s recent exposure of John Major’s blubberings about Bosnia, perhaps, has one felt such an authentic thrill of ‘special relationship’ humiliation. And if that seems to be setting the standard pretty high, then please to remember who first set it.

Wilson’s willing annexation by ‘national security’ orthodoxy at home and abroad meant that he took the unsupported word of the CIA types about Vietnam, and of the MI5 types about the British Labour movement. In the case of the seamen’s union, according to Ziegler:

The briefings were not recorded, and conducted in great secrecy – the only time that the door between the offices of Marcia Williams and the Prime Minister was locked was when the representatives of MI5 or MI6 were visiting – but Wilson found the evidence conclusive. After the strike had dragged on for six disastrous weeks he denounced the union leaders in the House. A ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men’, he said, were hoodwinking the seamen and holding the country to ransom for their own nefarious ends. The far left were naturally outraged.

Skipping over Ziegler’s dull consensus prose here – disastrous for whom and dragged out by what? – one may note two things. First, it was not just the ‘far left’ that found itself shocked. Not even Heath could bring himself to repeat or support Wilson’s vulgar charges. Second, this was Wilson’s own deliberate aggrandisement of the very same political force – the unleashed and promiscuous secret police – which he was later to blame for all his own troubles. The same James Jesus Angleton for whom he had done so many favours over Vietnam, and the same MI5 and MI6 whom he had encouraged via the good offices of the bad George Wigg, were to find him unsound in spite of (or perhaps also partly because of?) his gruesome eagerness to please. None of Wilson’s exculpatory recent biographers has troubled to minute this irony, if indeed it is one.

There came a time, late in the life of Wilsonism, when you would hear his hacks and flacks begin their sentences with, ‘Say what you will about Harold, but ...’ and then would follow some piece of half-baked sentimentality. A common offering was that our Harold could not – perhaps for Christian reasons – abide racism. Not such a big claim on its face. Do you know any morally serious person of whom it could usefully be said that ‘at least he has no racial prejudice’? But both Pimlott and Ziegler are curiously addicted to this point. And they give the same pair of examples. It’s true that Wilson once attacked the Tory victor in Smethwick in 1964 for letting his canvassers say that if you wanted ‘a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’. And it’s true that he became annoyed when Ian Smith kept Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole in a boiling police van, without food or water, while they waited to be produced for a meeting with Wilson himself.

The two stories, however, have one other thing in common. In both instances, Wilson’s own person was being inconvenienced or insulted. In the case of Smethwick, he had been robbed of the Parliamentary presence of the tenth-rate Patrick Gordon Walker, who he wished to make Foreign Secretary in preference to the even more hideous George Brown, and was thus subjected to the vast annoyance of a by-election which he went on to mishandle badly. In the case of the brutish conduct of Smith, Wilson was being made to look a fool. He was also being tested as to whether there was any outrage committed by the Rhodesian Front that would shake his far from ‘super-human’ commitment to inaction and inanition. One had not to wait long for an answer. By 1968 Wilson and Callaghan had deprived British passport-holders in Kenya of their rights in a racist panic measure described by the Times as the most unprincipled in living memory, and well before that Messrs Nkomo and Sithole had been returned to their detention in the bush, while Wilson chartered frigates on which to shake paws with Ian Smith. By the close of his regime, Labour was one of the few governments in the world that was deliberately breaking the arms embargo on South Africa.

Isaiah Berlin once said of a person I shall not identify (except to say that his surname rhymes with Heine) that he was ‘that very rate thing – the complete charlatan’. British political biography does not readily allow for this concept, and it’s easy to see why. If by any chance it is true that Harold Wilson was an empty, nihilistic and vainglorious crook, then where does that leave Nuffield College and MORI and the whole apparatus of moderation and maturity? If he was a conman, you can hear them muttering (I have heard them muttering) then logically that means we were conned. The natural resistance offered to this unwelcome conclusion is of course the precise reason why so few conmen are ever caught. The victims are embarrassed at the thought of testifying to their own gullibility. Yet, when they try and witness to the contrary, they do an even neater job of work.

In our sad times, the image of the perfect phoney is very often an aspect of the social-democratic political style. A classic social democrat is one who must continue to please his constituents while labouring to reassure the powers that be. (‘There are two things to dislike about Harold Wilson,’ it used to be said. ‘His face.’) The resulting practice of theatrical – no, operatic – dissimulation was best caught by Isaac Deutscher in his study of the Scandinavian social democrat and all-purpose political conjuror and thug Trygve Lie. Yet there are honourable contrasts, such as Willy Brandt. In the whole of Brandt’s memoirs, the name Wilson is mentioned twice and then with a very pallid politeness. But when Wilson’s career began, it could still be said that British reformist socialism counted for something in the world.

The fact that this is no longer true is a fact that has yet to be definitely registered, either by its remaining adherents or by those who are the gatekeepers and umpires of ‘moderate’ and statesmanlike standards. Before Wilson, it is true that there was Ramsay MacDonald and all the rest of it. But before Wilson it was not so candidly admitted that the point of being in politics was to be in politics, nor that the point of being in power was to be in power. Not until the genial, vacuous, canny pipe-smoker came our way could it be said that Labour might lose an election and nobody with a tincture of radicalism or realism be other than stoic about the fact.

During one of the 1974 general elections I took a ride off the quite nice John Smith, who guided me around his Lanarkshire constituency. In the course of the tour I predicted a poor outcome, because Harold Wilson was presenting himself as an alternative Prime Minister rather than a Leader of the Opposition. After a pause which I may have misinterpreted, Smith slowly replied: ‘That might just be a very exact criticism.’ That Smith has now so little to bargain with is due to the fact that so many electors are far beyond disillusionment. If Baron Wilson of Rievaulx did a service, it was to make certain that the Labour Party, and some enduring illusions about the political calling, became properly divorced. What he put asunder, no one will ever put together again.