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.)

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