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.

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