Questionably Virtuous

Stuart Middleton

  • Harold Wilson: The Unprincipled Prime Minister? Reappraising Harold Wilson edited by Andrew Crines and Kevin Hickson
    Biteback, 319 pp, £20.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 78590 031 0

There has never been a bad time to reappraise Harold Wilson. He was a politician so enigmatic, so elusive even to his own associates, that he seemed to demand near continuous reappraisal throughout his career. On the verge of office in 1964, he appeared to more than one observer as a latter-day Lloyd George, a radical tribune sprung from provincial nonconformity to drive the nation before him with wit and moral exhortation. After leaving office for the last time, he was more widely compared to Stanley Baldwin, a national conciliator and broker of industrial peace. In 1957 his chief ally in the Labour Party, Richard Crossman, complained in his diary that Wilson ‘grows fatter, more complacent and more evasive each time you meet him’ – and then resolved to make him prime minister. Even Wilson’s enemies found it difficult to pin down precisely what it was they disliked about him. Looking back on the factionalism of the 1950s Roy Jenkins recalled that ‘one of the basic tenets of Gaitskellism was that Wilson was a tricky fellow.’ The Gaitskellites’ leading theorist, Anthony Crosland, struggling to convince a journalist of Wilson’s shortcomings, was reduced to spluttering: ‘But the bloody man plays golf!’

While serious interest in the question posed by Andrew Crines and Kevin Hickson’s book – whether Wilson was ‘unprincipled’ – has long since been exhausted, what remains intriguing is the way in which his foibles, the hypocrisy and evasion that marked his premierships, were connected to broader processes that constrained progressive politics during the three decades or so after 1951. When Labour left office that year, the vocabulary of politics seemed to register Britain’s transformation into an advanced social democracy: it was a ‘welfare state’, in which the working class was rapidly undergoing ‘embourgeoisement’ through social security and full employment; Labour was now unmistakeably a national rather than a class party, and the trade unions had incorporated themselves into the polity by their self-abnegating contribution to the war effort.

But the actual changes accomplished by Clement Attlee’s administrations were more ambiguous than the new terms of debate made them sound. Civil society and private industry had been left largely unreformed, and the welfare state was counterbalanced by a fiscal regime that continued to transfer resources to the middle class. The trade unions were not uniformly enthusiastic about the new role commonly assigned to them: at the end of the 1940s one official told the sociologist Ferdynand Zweig that ‘our movement is basically a sectional movement for the benefit of small sectional interests … It is all right having the national interest in mind but we are not the right people to have it.’ The Fabian Society marked Labour’s return to opposition in 1951 with a lecture series entitled Is This Socialism?

The welfare state in Britain was something of a myth insofar as it implied a wholesale transformation of the polity, and when Labour left office it had to grapple with an acute form of the problem that faced most parties of the left in Western Europe: how far socialism in one country could be realised in a political and financial order constructed under the auspices of American capitalism. It was in this context that Wilson embarked on his strange career in Labour politics. Like the polity the Attlee governments had remoulded, he was not in all things obviously or inherently Labour. At Oxford he had been an assiduous treasurer of the Liberal Club, and his subsequent gruelling stint as an assistant to William Beveridge was a formative professional and political experience; they parted company just before Beveridge started work on the report that appeared, to unexpected public jubilance, in 1942. By then Wilson had joined the cohort of clever young men thrusting their way through wartime Whitehall, where he made a name for himself with his prodigious memory and command of statistics.

After entering Parliament for Labour in 1945 and becoming the youngest cabinet minister in more than a century, Wilson continued to strike colleagues as a civil servant manqué. As president of the Board of Trade he was at the centre of the decision to devalue sterling in 1949, when the balance of payments came under pressure from a recession in America. As the ailing chancellor, Stafford Cripps, convalesced in a Swiss clinic, the key decisions fell to Wilson and two inexperienced colleagues, Hugh Gaitskell and Douglas Jay. He responded to their calm assurance with a calculating vacillation that laid the basis for a lasting distrust, even as devaluation was agreed on and announced in September 1949. The economy recovered more quickly than ministerial relations, which worsened further when Gaitskell, promoted over Wilson to succeed Cripps, proposed to finance British support for America’s war in Korea partly by introducing charges for NHS dentures and spectacles. Aneurin Bevan resigned as health minister in protest; Wilson followed him the next day.

The hostility between Gaitskellites and Bevanites would define much of Labour politics during the 1950s. Wilson’s resignation initially identified him with Bevan, although the reason he gave for it was a technical objection to the economic feasibility of rearmament, on which he was later vindicated. But the lingering effects of that early identification gave him a breadth of appeal that few senior party figures could match. After Gaitskell became leader in 1955, party divisions were heightened by growing militancy in the trade union movement, particularly when Frank Cousins became leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1956. At the TUC Congress that year Cousins rejected government calls for wage restraint and told delegates: ‘In a period of freedom for all, we are part of the all.’ Whereas Attlee’s party had enjoyed the support of moderate union leaders, Gaitskell’s leadership was marked by a growing fissure between his right-wing cadre in the parliamentary party and the parts of the wider Labour movement that Cousins claimed to speak for.

The personal truce between Gaitskell and Bevan in 1957 did not unify Labour, and the movement continued to be afflicted by the question the Fabian Society had posed in 1951. If what Britain had wasn’t socialism, could it be achieved despite the countervailing imperatives of the dominant international order? Wilson’s navigation of this turbulent passage in Labour politics was either prudent or guileful, depending on whose account you prefer. When Gaitskell responded to Labour’s election defeat in 1959 by announcing that ‘affluent’ capitalism had invalidated the commitment to nationalisation in Clause IV of the party’s constitution, Wilson devised a compromise formula which meant that Gaitskell’s more radical rewriting was abandoned. Cousins exploited growing support for unilateral disarmament as a conduit for dissatisfaction with Gaitskell, and Wilson’s attempts to cultivate support from the left while appearing independent of it slipped out of control. At the end of 1960 he was forced into an unsuccessful challenge for the leadership – a failure which nonetheless, like his resignation in 1951, resulted in an accrual of political capital to be drawn on later.

In the meantime he lowered his profile, aware that the strength he gained from being independent of any faction in the party could also leave him without support if he was caught in the wrong position at the wrong time. There was a strong element of self-interest in the non-committal stances he adopted on nuclear weapons and the EEC in the early 1960s, but he was also perhaps acting on a clearer understanding of Labour’s history and constitution than any other of its leading figures at the time: it had never been a party of doctrine, so the question of whether or not the welfare state was ‘socialist’ did not need to be resolved. By the end of 1961 the question had in any case become less urgent, as the growing pressures on consumption-led growth gave the lie to claims that Britain had entered an unproblematic era of ‘affluence’. Harold Macmillan’s desperate application to join the EEC offered Gaitskell a chance to conciliate the left, to whom the EEC’s capitalist rationale was anathema. Wilson backed his leader but could not secure his trust: after Wilson unsuccessfully contested the deputy leadership with the Gaitskellite George Brown at the end of 1962, Gaitskell told a journalist that although both were prone to disloyalty, he preferred Brown’s drunken indiscretions to Wilson’s more sober calculations.

Gaitskell died of lupus in January 1963, leaving his supporters desolated and divided over their choice of successor. But Wilson’s previous leadership bid had established him as the left’s only credible candidate, and he mobilised with almost unseemly haste to hold off the challenges of Brown and James Callaghan. For the next twenty months, Wilson was in his element: after de Gaulle vetoed Macmillan’s EEC application, Wilson greeted the Profumo affair and the accession of Alec Douglas-Home as though they were the unfolding of a strategic masterplan of his own devising. He didn’t exactly reunite the party, but he was reassuring to the left and accommodating to the right, directing the energies of both against a government that might have been designed as a foil for his peculiar blend of moralism, technocracy and persiflage.

At the centre of Wilson’s new political formula was ‘planning’, a long-standing enthusiasm of his, which the left equated with socialism and revisionists viewed as a prerequisite for modernising the British economy. The Tories tried to embrace it from 1961, but Wilson mocked their death-bed conversion and identified them with ‘the Establishment’ – a recently recoined term whose overtones of entrenched privilege helped to mask Labour’s anxieties over whether it was itself part of the established order in postwar Britain. The essence of Wilson’s public doctrine from 1963 was that ‘this’ was definitely not ‘socialism’, but that socialism could be realised by means of a National Plan, which was to be formulated by Brown in his new Department of Economic Affairs.

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In effect, Wilson returned Labour to office in October 1964 by reconstituting it as a party of opposition, a position it could maintain even after winning the election because of its precarious majority. Wilson kept up the Establishment-baiting from the government benches, announcing that the new administration contained ‘no relatives of mine … none of my wife’s relatives’ and no one ‘who was at school with me or, indeed, at any time attended any of the schools I went to’. But he already knew that the task facing his government was more difficult than his rhetoric had made it sound. The day after the election, he and his economic ministers received a Treasury memorandum forecasting a balance of payments deficit of £800 million, and demanding urgent action. Wilson vetoed devaluation, which the Treasury in any case cautioned against, and they agreed on an import surcharge to stanch the immediate outflow of currency. But whatever course was taken, it was clear that even a moderate programme of social democratic reform would be seriously constrained if the fruits of capitalist growth that it would notionally distribute were not forthcoming. The grand strategy of ‘planning for growth’ that Wilson had elaborated in opposition was tacitly replaced, first by planning for deflation, and then by not planning at all.

One of the great questions of postwar British history is whether the Wilson governments were ‘blown off course’ not in 1966 or later, but immediately after they took office: in effect, whether they had ever really been ‘on course’ at all. The strength of the winds that buffeted them was immense: the fiscal irresponsibility of the outgoing government, the workings of the international financial system, and Washington’s insistence both on extensive military commitments ‘east of Suez’ and on an overvalued pound. Wilson’s attempt to draw the trade unions into a closer political embrace, symbolised by the appointment of Cousins to ministerial office, was frustrated by the policies his government introduced in an attempt to hold down wages. In 1966, a strike by the National Union of Seamen turned into a confrontation between the unions and the state, after Wilson incautiously framed it as such; Cousins resigned, and the pressure on sterling prompted the severe deflationary measures that put an end to Brown’s National Plan.

In its place, an alternative stimulus for economic modernisation was sought in a second EEC application – symbolically exchanging quasi-socialist planning for social democracy financed by transnational capitalism. Wilson’s own enthusiasm for Europe was now greater than in the early 1960s, but the EEC remained a profoundly divisive issue in the party and he devoted months to constructing – or manipulating – cabinet support, before announcing the application in May 1967. The announcement created an expectation of devaluation, worsening the problems created by yet another downturn in the balance of payments. By October, the Treasury believed that devaluation was inevitable. It was finally conceded in November, with Wilson’s accurate but unfortunate public reassurance that ‘the pound in your pocket’ had not immediately been devalued. In the same month, de Gaulle confirmed his rejection of the EEC application, and Roy Jenkins replaced Callaghan at the Treasury, heralding ‘two years’ hard slog’ – i.e. tax increases and public spending cuts, the first tranche of which included rapid withdrawal from east of Suez and the reintroduction of prescription charges.

Those measures couldn’t succeed without the support of the trade unions for an uncongenial wages policy; in other words, they depended on the extent to which the Labour movement was prepared to view itself as a national rather than a sectional interest. But the attitudes that had been expressed to Zweig fifteen years earlier hadn’t changed much, and were compounded in the mid-1960s by the decentralising impulses of the shop-stewards’ movement, which reduced union leaders’ ability to moderate the pay demands of their members. As Robert Taylor observes in his contribution to Crines and Hickson’s book, the unions were too weak institutionally to play the role Wilson required of them; and their historic commitment to free collective bargaining was irreconcilable with the corporatist visions he entertained. The fiasco over the proposed reforms to trade union law in the 1969 White Paper In Place of Strife may have been the low point of Wilson’s premiership. The TUC eventually gave its ‘solemn and binding’ undertaking to moderate wage demands if the legislation was abandoned. The Economist called the arrangement ‘In Place of Government’, and the shop stewards’ champion Jack Jones told the TUC that power had passed to its members from both Whitehall and the TUC itself.

That was particularly damaging to Wilson because he had begun claiming that he had transformed Labour into ‘the natural party of government’ – in effect closing the gap between rhetoric and reality that had existed since the Attlee administrations. It was a large claim, and assessments of the first Wilson governments have generally not upheld it. But their record is still more impressive than their many critics have been prepared to allow. Despite the severe economic constraints he faced from the moment of taking office, British society became less unequal under Wilson and the poorest were less poor in 1970 than they had been in 1964. The expansion of higher education and the liberalising reforms promoted by Jenkins at the Home Office were also signal accomplishments, as was Wilson’s resistance of US pressure to join the quagmire in Vietnam – which appears more commendable in the light of recent misadventures than it did to idealistic critics at the time.

Kenneth Morgan describes Wilson’s career after 1969 as a ‘slow diminuendo’, but it is arguably in this period that his most enduring political legacy was established. First, after the failed bid for EEC entry and Labour’s return to opposition in 1970, Wilson somehow balanced the fervent Europhilia of Jenkins and his entourage with the uninhibited hostility of the left, which had begun to formulate an economic strategy for the state to gain control over multinational capitalism. With a faintly heroic disregard for his own integrity, Wilson hinted at changes in his personal position on the EEC and embellished the arguments against the terms of entry that Heath secured. He then won Labour’s support for a referendum on continued membership, provoking Jenkins into a self-defeating resignation. It was at the height of those tensions in opposition that Wilson complained of ‘wading in shit for three months to allow others to indulge their conscience’. It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for him. He was never going to come out smelling of roses, but the resounding victory in the referendum of 1975 provided a measure of vindication, and his exertions compare favourably with more recent attempts at party management on the same issue.

The second aspect of Wilson’s legacy that was established after 1969, and which he sometimes identified as his greatest achievement, concerns his claim that Labour was the ‘natural party of government’. The electorate demurred in 1970, but apparently revised its judgment in the two elections of 1974. Wilson’s settlement of the miners’ strike that had confounded Heath, and the ‘social contract’ that produced temporary wage restraint and union-friendly labour legislation, briefly seemed to vindicate his claim. But Labour returned to office in 1974 with fewer votes than it received when leaving it in 1970; and for all the attempts by Labour and union leaders to act as responsible parties of government, they were subject to institutional pressures that could be resisted but not overcome. Increasingly militant demands for party democracy from sections of the Labour membership, fomented by Tony Benn, pulled the party leftwards, and Jack Jones found that the shop-stewards’ movement ran counter to his realisation that a national framework for wage settlements was necessary.

The tensions that had run through politics and industrial relations for most of the postwar period remained in force during Wilson’s second premiership. By suggesting that Britain had finally become a fully fledged corporatist social democracy, he unwittingly opened the way for the figure who would define the next political era. After Heath left office, latent Conservative unease over the reversals and accommodations of its postwar leaders found new expression, first through the maverick figure of Keith Joseph and then the apparently more mainstream one of Margaret Thatcher. Their antagonism towards ‘the new Establishment’ exploited the suggestion, which Wilson’s rhetoric promoted, that the centre of political power in Britain had fundamentally shifted and implied that it was being exercised in the service of sectional interests (something the course of industrial relations seemed increasingly to confirm). Wilson retired in 1976, not long before the breakdown of the social contract at the end of 1978 and the so-called Winter of Discontent made Labour’s claim to speak for and act on behalf of the nation more difficult to sustain. This distinction passed to a politician who was arguably more attuned to the economic self-interest of the strikers than their own putative leaders were. When Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, mournfully sensed ‘a sea-change in politics’ during the 1979 election campaign, it was one that had been long in preparation.

The moment in British and Labour politics that Wilson represented was consigned to history by Thatcher and her successors. The ways in which he prepared the ground for them may appear part of his failure, but they were at least as much the result of the structural constraints under which his governments were forced to operate. At times he appeared almost alone in the post-Attlee Labour Party in his recognition of those constraints, and in his willingness to adjust to them rather than pretend they could be ignored or easily transcended. He regarded the Labour Party after his retirement with growing dismay. Its current attempt to reoccupy the slough it fell into in the early 1980s attests to a shortage among its recent leaders of Wilson’s most marked political virtues: his regard for party unity, his pragmatism, his capacity to respond to party democracy without abdicating the functions of leadership. They are all questionable virtues, but politics can be a questionably virtuous activity, and the Labour Party has lived with the effects of leaders who thought that in their cases it ought to be otherwise. How they could use Wilson now.