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!’

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