Saturday, 12 March 2016

A hundred years of Harold Wilson

Last Friday was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Harold Wilson (above), Britain's Labour Prime Minister between 1964 and 1970, and then again between 1974 and 1976. Such a date provides us with an opportunity to take stock, to look back and to ask: what did Wilson's Labour achieve, how did it do it, and what might we learn from Mr Wilson today?

The first thing to say is that his stock has been rising for two decades, ever since the 1992 publication of Ben Pimlott's magisterial and empathetic biography of the four-times Labour election winner. By taking a much more detailed look at his life and premierships, Pimlott was able to show that there was a consistent thread running through his life: holding the Labour Party together, and trying to hold the country together, often in tough times. Those are not low, indecent or pragmatic aims: they are at the heart of what it means to be a party leader in an adversarial system, and to try to get things done in a country that is often extremely conservative (with a small 'c'). If you have no tactical nous, no strategy to rout the other side, no commitment to the organisation and structures of your political tribe, what are you doing in politics in the first place?

But Harold's rising reputation owes more to just different ways of seeing the man. An important 1991 essay in the London Review of Books, by Oxford historian Ross McKibbin, gives us rather more perspective on the question. McKibbin here put forward two intertwined arguments that are often lost amidst the largely inaccurate folk memory of 'industrial chaos' and 'Winter of Discontent' with which even we professional historians cannot help conceptualising the end of the 1970s. The first point is that subsequent governments have helped to trash Britain's industrial base, balanced growth among her regions and nations, investment, training, overall social harmony and indeed the UK's good name in the world, But the more significant fact presented by McKibbin is that Britain's economy did pretty well in this period. Her productivity gains and her overall economic growth rate reached peaks in the 1960s that they were never to touch again; indeed, that last indicator in particular has looked pretty weak from almost exactly the day on which Harold left office.

So the last few years have burnished Harold's reputation. There were a number of reasons why his name fell so far into disrepute, so quickly, but most of them have inevitably faded with time, leaving a more substantial legislative and intellectual record than was clear during the 1960s and 1970s. By nature he sought a middle way, and he was as boxed in as any other leader. He refused to help the Americans in their ruinous war in Vietnam, despite a great deal of pressure being put on him to do so late in 1964; but he needed American financial support to support a very vulnerable pound. So he refrained from criticising US policy until 1966. But in the end his government was forced off the fixed dollar parity of sterling it had sworn to defend anyway, and had to renounce the effective end of Britain's worldwide defence and security policy anyway. So radical policies that would have been seen as enormously dangerous and Left-wing in 1964, and would have seen Harold lionised among the intelligentsia and on campuses across the land, were brought in through necessity anyway. It Harold Wilson's bad luck that he tried to compromise between traditional policies and more radical departures, and often ended up garnering popularity from supporters of neither.

All of it took a big toll on a man who thought it his duty to see much of the key paperwork himself. He ended up looking exhausted, quitting long before he had to and basically just saying 'I've had enough'. He used more diplomatic words, to the effect that he didn't want to rule out solutions he may have rejected in previous situations, when things may have been different. But that's what he meant.

Mr Wilson was often portrayed as a bit of a trickster, a twister, a tactician to whom the game was everything, and the principles of socialism perhaps much less. Of course, in these present days when everyone to the Right of Trotsky is apparently a 'Red Tory', he looks to many on the Left as if he was just another managerialist technocrat, bent on preserving capitalism by throwing a few bones to Britain's reformist but ultimately timid liberals. This is certainly the line that many took at the time, including that great campaigning Left-wing journalist Paul Foot. And then there were the endless compromises, inevitable in any long career of course, but apparently particularly so in Harold's. He was the Left-winger who resigned with Aneurin Bevan over National Health Service prescription charges, who then drifted to the Right when it seemed to suit him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Here was the man who originally ran on a platform that was very sceptical about Britain's nuclear weapons, who then made sure that she kept them; here was the politician who challenged his own leader (Hugh Gaitskell) in 1960, ostensibly to defend the rights of Labour's Conference, but in the minds of many of his colleagues to put his own name up in lights. One could go on.

We're tempted to say: so what? Not only is it necessary and proper to change, tack, zig-zag and obfuscate in the face of change, but it may in fact be a moral endeavour to take those choices on one's self as the leader, rather than engaging in the eternal (but barren) purity of Opposition. Deciding is better than posing: governing more a matter of conscience than refusing to get one's own hands dirty on behalf of other people. Who would it serve to plough on regardless, unchanging, uncomprehending, unyielding? Certainly not Labour voters, who need a Labour government most of all - and who always preserved rather more affection for the man from Huddersfield than many of his more immediate colleagues.

Whose principles do not change over nearly four decades in public life, in any case? The challenges facing the Attlee administration, in which Mr Wilson served as President of the Board of Trade, were nothing like those at the end of his long time in Whitehall and Westminster: the decontrols he brought forward in the late 1940s, as the economy shifted from wartime rationing towards production for peace, might be just as justified as those building and land controls he brought in during the late 1960s, a time of incipient inflation and speculation. Harold was prepared to get up every day, roll up his sleeves and wrestle in the mud to push back evil by degrees - week after week, month after month, year after year winning political and ideological ground from which he could make the world a little bit more fair, more just and more equal. Few could have battled harder towards those ends.

What was in fact most remarkable about Harold Wilson was his sheer political virtuosity, the skill of a man who could be a Harold for any hour, a Mr Wilson for any occasion. There was Doctor Wilson, the family's trusted general practitioner; Uncle Harold, the friendly confidante; Inspiring Harold, calling us to embrace the 'white heat of the technological revolution'; Negotiator Harold, who thought that he could talk anyone round to anything (which, alas, in Northern Ireland he could not); Party Rulebook Harold, who thought and fought his way through Labour Conference time after time to keep the party headed towards power; and finally Gannex mac-and-pipe Harold, a man so thoroughly normal, so workaday, so through-and-through, well, British, that you identified with him, you liked him, you admired him and you would vote for him. Labour was lucky to have him. So was Britain - a land amassed with political unreason, now, but then led by an ex-academic who believed in reasoning, cajoling, thinking, speaking, convincing, befriending, and who was without the messianic fervour that we are now supposed to want from our aspiring Prime Ministers. Well, the Wilson version was better.

In the end, Harold knew which way the wind was blowing. He was ahead of his time. He knew that telecommunications and computerisation were about to reforge the world of work. He understood that the trade unions would have to brought within the frame of the law, even if his In Place of Strife proposals hit the buffers of trade union conservatism in the late 1960s. He saw the danger of social disintegration and inequality in an age of inflation. He moved to recognise, seize on and reshape all those trends, through a new Ministry of Technology, via new arbitration arrangements and productivity agreements, by increasing pensions and boosting low wages in his social contract with the unions. Many of these initiatives were in the end found wanting. But the alternative? Just giving up on comprehensive solutions, abandoning any attempt to square the circles of globalisation, price rises, labour discontent and efficiency? Just sweeping away many of the industries Mr Wilson was labouring to save as a 'solution' that basically any old Chancellor could have settled for? That didn't always work out very well in the 1980s, either.

Harold Wilson passed the first legislation to outlaw racial discrimination. He passed equal pay for women. He vastly increased the education budget, so that for the first time it overtook defence spending. There were massive pushes on council housing, road building, new universities. There was the Open University, Harold's own pet project and a life-changing higher education revolution for those who wanted to better themselves. The iniquitous 11+ exam that condemned so many to the inferior education of the Secondary Modern schools was abolished. The Wilson years saw the shadow of the death penalty lifted, and abortion law reformed. He set up the Department of the Environment and the standing Royal Commission on the Environment, recognising public concern and pressing need on that front. He kept the UK out of the war in Vietnam. He made the second and near-decisive push towards Europe, a bid never taken off the table, and then his negotiating skills and cunning kept us in when the Labour Left might have dragged us out. Pensions rose. Wages rose. Productivity rose; unemployment remained fairly low, by subsequent standards; growth stayed strong.

All of which means one thing: we owe Mr Wilson. We owe him a lot. Happy birthday, Harold.


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