Wilson, (James) Harold, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx
- Roy Jenkins
(James) Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx (1916–1995)
Wilson, (James) Harold, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx (1916–1995), prime minister, was born at 4 Warneford Road, Linthwaite, Huddersfield, Yorkshire, on 11 March 1916, the son of (James) Herbert Wilson (1882–1971), works chemist, and his wife, Ethel, née Seddon (1882–1957), a schoolteacher before her marriage. The Wilsons were a firmly rooted West Riding lower middle-class family (Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Wilson's rival at the general election of 1964, made one of his best remarks when, after being mocked by Wilson as the fourteenth earl of Home, he replied by saying that he assumed that his opponent was the fourteenth Mr Wilson). He was educated first at New Street Elementary School, Milnsbridge, from 1920 to 1927, then at Royds Hall School, Huddersfield, from 1927 to 1932. The employment consequences of the 1930s slump then caused his parents to move to the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire, and he spent his final eighteen months of schooling at the Wirral county grammar school in Bebington.
Wilson was a remarkably successful pupil, both at Royds Hall and at Wirral grammar school. His school career was subject to two interruptions. The first was a six-month absence in Australia in 1927 to visit his maternal grandfather. This was of some symbolic importance. Nearly fifty years later he claimed to have forty-three close relations in Australia, and the Commonwealth even in its declining days was a strong influence on his outlook. The second interruption came from a severe attack of typhoid in 1931. He was always a pre-eminent examination passer. But he showed no wide intellectual curiosity. He was superb at the syllabus, but he ranged little outside it. He was much less inquisitive culturally than was his fairly near Yorkshire neighbour and very near contemporary Denis Healey. Nor was he rebellious or iconoclastic. The centre of his extra-curricular activity was the local branch of the Boy Scouts. He was not much attracted by or good at team games, but concentrated on the rather lonely sport of long-distance running.
In 1934 Wilson won a history exhibition at Jesus College, Oxford. The only surprise, given his scholastic facility, was that it was not a major scholarship. He does not appear to have hesitated about braving the bastion of privilege that many thought the University of Oxford was in the 1930s. Once there, however, he lived a very defensive life. According to one of his biographers, 'Harold Wilson's Oxford was as remote from that of Evelyn Waugh's Lord Sebastian Flyte as can well be imagined' (Ziegler, 14). So it was, but so too was the Oxford of most undergraduates in the 1930s: the Oxford of Edward Heath and of Denis Healey, neither of whom came from a grand school or an elevated social background. Yet the Oxford lives of Heath and Healey and of many other grammar-school boys of those years were very much wider than that of Wilson. They were known outside their colleges and to a greater or a lesser extent across the university as a whole, whereas hardly any of Wilson's contemporaries could later remember him as an undergraduate. Although he had been a successful debater at school, he joined but never spoke at the Oxford Union, and confined his Oxford speech-making to the more protected pastures of the Jesus College Debating Society, recently formed. Many of his contemporaries saw the world (and particularly war-menaced Europe) as their oyster and Oxford as, among its other advantages, a very good shell-knife. They travelled compulsively in the vacations. Wilson, by contrast, never once went abroad during his Oxford years, and seemed to feel no desire to do so. He spent his vacations at home in the Wirral, working hard in available libraries and courting his wife-to-be at the local tennis club. There was a deep-rooted provincialism about Wilson which persisted throughout his national political career, and indeed in many ways enhanced it.
The pulse of political interest also beat fairly low in Wilson during his Oxford years. (This was in spite of the later much publicized photograph of him standing hopefully outside the door of 10 Downing Street at the age of seven.) For most of them he was a cool Liberal; he even became treasurer of that party's slightly moribund university club. But the general election of 1935, when the Liberals lost nearly half their seats, left him singularly unmoved. Three years later, by which time he had become a graduate student, the post-Munich Oxford by-election contested primarily by Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) and A. D. Lindsay (master of Balliol), a climacteric in the life of nearly all leftward-inclining dons and undergraduates of that era, passed him quietly by. Yet there was no doubt that his inclinations were left-inclining, even if only very mildly so. The Oxford teacher who most aroused his enthusiasm was G. D. H. Cole, reader in economics, fellow of University College, and indefatigably fluent writer of Left Book Club and other socialist tracts. Cole was elegant and acerbic. He exercised a considerable influence, but less through his somewhat ephemeral writings than through his eponymous group, which brought together fifteen or so chosen undergraduates for voluntary seminars on the borderline between academic work and political commitment. Wilson must be accounted the most important of all those whom Cole influenced, and Cole was undoubtedly a major factor in setting Wilson on a course which led him to become a Labour MP in 1945 and the leader of that party eighteen years later. However, Wilson's first appraisal of Cole in 1935 was almost as inappropriate both in words and in substance as it is possible to imagine. 'He's a very nice chap', he wrote home to his parents (Pimlott, 52).
The inappropriateness stemmed essentially from Wilson's narrowness of knowledge of people outside his family and lack of sophistication in the use of words. He was a very unsophisticated undergraduate, but he was also a dedicated student (already working eight or ten hours a day in his first year) with a mind brilliantly attuned to satisfying the examiners of the Oxford school of philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE), to which he had switched from history. His first academic triumph was to win the Gladstone memorial prize for a long essay on 'The state and the railways in Great Britain 1823–63', a subject appropriate to Gladstone, who had carried through the major piece of regulatory legislation in 1842, when president of the Board of Trade. It also provided the foundation for one of Wilson's two 'unnecessary' subjects of amateur expertise for the rest of his life. He loved talking about railway timetables, as he did about the American Civil War. More immediately, it gave him an opportunity to declaim an extract from his essay at the encaenia in 1936.
In the following year Wilson, having picked up another prize in the meantime, took his final honours schools. He got a clear-cut first, and there is some evidence that he achieved the highest marks in PPE of any undergraduate of the decade. Soon afterwards he won his third prize—the George Webb Medley senior scholarship, which gave him £300 a year and enabled him to stay in Oxford without depending on money from his hard-pressed parents. Academically his results put him among prime ministers in the category of Peel, Gladstone, Asquith, and no one else. But just how great was his intellectual prowess? One at least of those who taught him thought that even within his chosen subjects he lacked originality. What he was superb at was the quick assimilation of knowledge, combined with an ability to keep it ordered in his mind and to present it lucidly in a form welcome to his examiners. But he had no taste for intellectual adventure which might upset this process. In the middle of his second year Keynes's General Theory came out. Wilson acquired a copy and no doubt read it but he did not allow its heterodoxy to excite him. It had no discernible influence on his written work.
Wilson's interest in economics turned in a statistical and micro direction. The accumulation of facts was the road to grace. He would have been a much better disciple of Sidney Webb than of Maynard Keynes. The man to whom he in fact became a disciple was neither Webb nor Keynes but William Beveridge, who in 1937 came from the directorship of the London School of Economics to be master of University College, Oxford. In view of the emotional and intellectual coolness of both Wilson and Beveridge, however, apprentice would be a better word than disciple. Wilson did not like Beveridge, and Beveridge was reported as regarding Wilson as 'a useful machine, not as a person' (Pimlott, 63). However, the two men worked together on unemployment statistics for over a year, in effect engaged on deconstructing Keynes, treating the subject as a sum of maladjustments more than a simple product of demand deficiency. This resulted in Wilson being elected a junior research fellow of University College in 1938, which provided him with a welcome harbour, for despite the impeccable nature of his ‘schools’ marks he had twice failed to be selected to an All Souls prize fellowship; he had also applied without success for a couple of academic jobs outside Oxford.
Hugh Gaitskell, who until his early death twenty-five years later opened the way to Wilson's premiership, was to have a closely intertwined career relationship with Wilson but one uninfused by warmth, once said, 'You know, the trouble with Harold is that he is not a good economist' (personal knowledge). At the time it seemed a singularly inapposite remark from the usually apposite Gaitskell. By it Gaitskell meant that Wilson had become too ‘political’, judging everything by tactical party considerations rather than by more austere academic standards. But by that time it was not relevant whether Wilson (or Gaitskell himself) was a good economist. The question was whether they were effective politicians with the stuff of statesmanship in them. And in any event the premiss was false. Wilson was a good economist, but even within the boundaries of ‘the dismal science’, let alone outside them, the sweep of his mind was narrow and unadventurous.
The Second World War
The beginning of the Second World War found Wilson as a young but not yet securely established don aged twenty-three. He was in every way a clerk rather than a captain, and it does not seem to have occurred to him to seek enlistment in the forces. There was no question of avoiding service. The Oxford recruitment office knew a born bureaucrat when they saw one, and he was quickly swept into the temporary civil service, briefly in a lowly position but rising rapidly. His first job of interest was to be part of the secretariat of an Anglo-French committee which assisted Jean Monnet, head of a French purchasing mission in London, with supply problems. It was a strange assignment for Wilson, for he was never able to speak French. Nevertheless he claimed to have been the note-taker at a cabinet room entretien between Churchill and de Gaulle, as he also claimed to have listened in (officially and here without language difficulty) to a telephone conversation between the prime minister and President Roosevelt. But, just as Lytton Strachey memorably wrote that 'there was a lobster salad side to Cardinal Wiseman', so there was a Walter Mitty side to Harold Wilson.
After passing through the Ministry of Labour, where he was again rather too close for his liking to Beveridge, and as a result passed up the opportunity to become secretary to his inquiry into social security which produced the most famous report of the decade, Wilson in August 1941 found his semi-permanent wartime niche. This was in charge of statistics and, as his reputation grew, of some other things too, in the department of mines. This sounds like a Whitehall backwater. It was not a full department but a dependence of the Board of Trade, and its ministers—first D. R. Grenfell, a gruff Welsh miner, and then Gwilym Lloyd George, also Welsh but a very stolid and conservative chip off the old block—were far from being major ministers. Coal, however, was an absolutely major ingredient and potential bottleneck in Britain's war effort, with its flow of production from over 1000 separate companies and nearly 2000 collieries, both haphazardly measured and unsatisfactory in result. There can be no doubt that, if Wilson did not increase the output, he vastly improved the statistics and gave ministers a much clearer picture of actual and likely future production. By a quirk of fate Hugh Gaitskell was set to write a report upon him and upon the general performance of the ministry for Hugh Dalton, who took particular pride in left-of-centre talent-spotting and who had recently taken over as president of the Board of Trade. Gaitskell described Wilson as 'extraordinarily able'. 'We must on no account surrender him either to the Army or to any other department' (Pimlott, 78–9).
At the beginning of the war, on the first day of 1940, Wilson had married his schoolboy and tennis club sweetheart, Gladys Mary Baldwin (b. 1916), daughter of the Revd Daniel Baldwin, Congregational minister. Gladys (as she was then known) was not exactly the girl next door, for the traditions of the Congregational ministry were peripatetic, and Daniel Baldwin had churches in Bebington, at Blackpool, and at Duxford, near Cambridge, but the relationship began locally in the Wirral. Mary Wilson (as by a double process of mutation she became known) appears in her wedding and other early photographs as a very attractive young woman. She was also a good minor poet, whose work and personality attracted the admiration of John Betjeman. The trouble was that she did not like politics. Nor did Wilson when they were married, and her hope that she might live a quiet life among ‘the dreaming spires’ was not at the time obviously unreasonable. Indeed the form of their wedding encouraged this. It was in the chapel of Mansfield College, then a firmly nonconformist house, and her bridegroom unusually chose to be married in his academic gown. If it was intended to show an academic commitment, it was misleading. Already in the war years Mary Wilson found that the pull of public service was irresistible for her husband. He worked furiously at his civil-service jobs, often sleeping in his office, leaving her sometimes lonely in a fairly bleak flat in Richmond where she knew nobody, and sometimes in an Oxford base which he visited only for occasional weekends.
In his early civil-service days, as in his Oxford ones, Wilson's degree of party political commitment appeared minimal. But he gradually strengthened his Labour links. He responded to Dalton's interest in him (although he also got on well with Sir Andrew Duncan, Dalton's tycoon predecessor at the Board of Trade) and he became a member of the executive committee of the Fabian Society. In the spring of 1944 he was placed on the Labour Party's list of possible parliamentary candidates, and at his second attempt he was selected for a constituency. This was Ormskirk, which was basically a semi-rural Lancashire division, although already swollen by Liverpool working-class overspill. It was a far from certain electoral prospect, in which Wilson needed the luck of a split pro-government vote in order to win it, even in the Labour landslide of July 1945. He none the less in the autumn of 1944 resigned from the civil service in preparation for his new career and returned to Oxford as a full fellow (and domestic bursar) of University College. He had made a decisive choice. He was not an inevitable or a spontaneous politician, and at this stage he conspicuously lacked one of the politician's tools: he was, and remained for nearly another decade, a dull and very note-bound speaker, always, whether in the House of Commons or on a public platform, metaphorically reading out an essay. But once he had decided to be a politician he was a wholly dedicated one. For the next thirty-one years of his life few non-political considerations—whether of family, pleasure, friendship, or intellectual curiosity—were allowed to divert his eye from the ball.
The Attlee government
Early in 1945 Wilson used both his experience with and his freedom from the civil service and his return to Oxford not so much to nurse his constituency as to write a short and very well-timed book entitled New Deal for Coal. It was a well-argued, non-doctrinaire statement of the case for nationalizing the mines. The case was presented almost entirely on the grounds of efficiency rather than of socialist fulfilment. He even suggested that the chairman of the future coal board might be paid up to £15,000 a year—then a very large salary—to ensure managerial quality. It was a good subject to have chosen, for the public ownership of the coal industry was at the centre of the Labour programme and the miners were a powerful influence within both the Labour conference and the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The treatise probably did Wilson mild good in Ormskirk and still more with the party leadership. Partly as a result he was one of only five newly elected MPs, and much the youngest of them, to get a place in the Attlee government. It was a very junior place, but it made him a parliamentary secretary at twenty-nine, and set him on the road to becoming the youngest cabinet minister since Peel, beating Churchill by two years, in September 1947. In the meantime he had progressed in March of that year from his job as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Works to being secretary for overseas trade within the Board of Trade, under the presidency of Sir Stafford Cripps. Wilson was very much a Cripps man at this stage, and it was the patronage of that ascetic lawyer, whose political star in 1947–50 was rising as fast as his health was declining, which turned the scale in favour of Wilson's great leap forward to the cabinet, as president of the Board of Trade. This meant that his career temporarily overtook that of Hugh Gaitskell, who had to wait another three years until, with a still more decisive overtaking, he outpaced Wilson to become chancellor of the exchequer on the retirement of Cripps. Gaitskell was almost exactly ten years older than Wilson.
During his period at the Board of Trade Wilson was regarded as a competent, rather bureaucratic minister. He committed no major mistakes; he made no memorable speeches. Except possibly on one issue—that of Soviet trade—he acquired no reputation for being one of the more left-wing members of the cabinet. His association with missions to Moscow began when he was secretary for overseas trade, continued when he became president, were fortified by his eight-year employment (1951–9) as economic adviser to Montague Meyer Ltd, the United Kingdom's leading timber importer, and spilled through even to his first premiership. He believed he had by then established a special relationship with Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet trade minister and deputy prime minister, and was always excited by the thought of a high-level mission to Moscow. In this respect, however, he was little different from Churchill, who believed he had a special relationship with Stalin, and whose wartime solution to any problem between allies was always to try to arrange a new summit. Wilson's liking for Moscow missions provided no rational foundation for the ludicrous suspicions about his being a Soviet agent which later disfigured MI5.
Internally Wilson's Board of Trade administration was pro-business and mildly populist. The phrase which he made his motto was the 'bonfire of controls' which he announced near to Guy Fawkes' day in 1948. He also became fascinated by the British film industry in the days of Rank and Korda. Perhaps it provided an outlet for his otherwise heavily suppressed sense of glamour and cultural breadth. His recipe was more imaginative than that of his predecessor. Cripps thought the answer to this aspect of the dollar problem was to clamp down on the imports of American films. Wilson thought a more liberal import regime accompanied by the funding of home-grown production was a better answer.
Externally (to his department) the most significant event in Wilson's early cabinet period was his falling out with Gaitskell, and to some extent with the whole Whitehall establishment, over the handling of the devaluation of sterling in the summer of 1949. It was a convoluted dispute, but the broad lines appear to be that, in late July, Wilson agreed with Gaitskell and Douglas Jay, the economic secretary to the Treasury—for in Cripps's Swiss clinic absence the management of the economy had been put into the hands of this triumvirate—that devaluation was necessary and that they would jointly urge it upon Attlee. Wilson, rightly or wrongly, was then thought to have played a double game and permanently sacrificed the trust of the other two. He was sometimes for and sometimes against devaluation, depending on the person to whom he was talking. The irony was that he defeated the object of his own ambition, for which he was thought to be intriguing. It was obvious that Cripps's health would not allow him to continue indefinitely as chancellor. Wilson, already in the cabinet and in the next most serious economic department to the Treasury, was at the beginning of the summer holidays the leading contender for the succession. By the autumn he had been decisively displaced from that position by Gaitskell. The people whom he had been anxious to impress—Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, and the senior officials—had all swung against him. Robert Hall, director of the economic section of the Cabinet Office, recalled a September ‘mandarin’ consensus 'that H. Wilson is no good, ought if possible to be shifted from the Board of Trade, and certainly ought not to succeed S[tafford] C[ripps]. If any young one is to do it, it is to be Gaitskell' (Lord Roberthall, The Robert Hall Diaries, 1947–53, 1989, 83). The ‘hanging jury’, to make matters worse, was, as well as Hall himself, composed of Oliver Franks, Roger Makins, and Edwin Plowden, exactly the sort of donnish public servants to whom Wilson ought naturally to have been most attuned. And to make matters doubly worse there were subsequent press suggestions, believed to come from the Board of Trade, that Wilson alone was the clear-sighted and consistent advocate of the necessary but unpopular policy of changing the parity of sterling.
There is little room for doubt that this tangled skein left a permanent mark on Wilson's relations with the political and official establishment of the later Attlee era, and maybe also on Wilson's own perception of himself. They saw his statistical and economic skills sullied by too rapid an injection of over-political values into a personality unrounded by easy social intercourse with intellectual equals. He began to see himself as something of a rebel, or at least a ‘cheeky chappie’ immune to the urbanities of upper middle-class life, but faster on his feet in the political arena than anyone else.
As the powerful early mould of the Attlee government was broken up, first by the forced retirement of Cripps in September 1950 and then by the death of Ernest Bevin in the spring of 1951, there were two very different ministers left dissatisfied with the consequential changes. Wilson was disappointed at not getting the Treasury. And Aneurin Bevan was still more disgruntled, and with some justification, at not succeeding Ernest Bevin at the Foreign Office. Morrison, unfortunately for himself, for he was quickly out of his depth, was appointed. It was Attlee's most serious failure in man-management and cabinet-balancing, normally his forte. From this failure there stemmed the debilitating ‘Bevanite’ civil war in the Labour Party which even after its worst ferocity had subsided, gave the Conservatives the first (1951–64) of their two long spans of late twentieth-century power. Wilson began this period as a little-known but eager auxiliary of the rebel commander, Aneurin Bevan, a personality as unlike Wilson as it is possible to imagine. Wilson then moved, as his own position strengthened, into favouring a more accommodating attitude—although well short of total surrender—towards the official leadership. This process culminated in Wilson himself, aided by several fortuitous circumstances—but no one succeeds to the prime ministership without some of these—becoming the official leader early in 1963, and triumphantly bringing the Labour Party's fourteen wilderness years to an end twenty months after that.
However, just as Wilson was the agent of the end of misfortune, so he was regarded by some as being a medium-grade agent of its beginning. The key fact and date, the equivalent of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter at the beginning of the American Civil War, was the resignation from the Attlee government of Bevan, Wilson, and John Freeman (a junior minister) on 23 April 1951. Before major resignations, as is always the case, there was a good deal of havering. Was Bevan, the principal, really going to resign, and if so who was going to do so with him? The evidence is that Wilson, who was considered a most unlikely resigner a short time before, became a determined and settled advocate of this course and, together with Jennie Lee (Bevan's wife), pushed firmly in this direction.
The unfriendly explanation is that Wilson had worked out the future moves on his mental chessboard and had come to the firm conclusion that this was in his long-term interest. He had lost the support of the Labour right over devaluation, and he needed a balancing accretion from the left. As matters developed over the next decade and a bit this was a correct appraisal. His tacks of the 1950s, first to the left and then back to the centre, were brilliantly successful as exercises in political positioning. His resignation in 1951 did serve his long-term ambitions well. But this was by no means obvious at the time. It required at the least a very cool nerve. The Labour right regarded him as a bandwagon jumper and hoped that he had destroyed himself as a political force. 'Nye's little dog' became Hugh Dalton's contemptuous way of referring to him (Pimlott, 168). And the left was by no means wholly welcoming. His companion in resignation, Freeman—an able, cold-blooded, and condescending man—described him as 'like an unusually able motor car salesman' (Pimlott, 166).
Despite these suspicions Wilson handled the process of resignation more skilfully than did Bevan. He provided a better rationale, putting his eggs neither in the basket of opposition at all costs to any health service charges nor giving the impression of personal spleen, but arguing persuasively (and probably rightly as things turned out) that the economy could not carry the combined burden of the breakneck rearmament programme, into which American pressure following the outbreak of the Korean War led the government, and of adequate welfare services. Furthermore Wilson's House of Commons resignation statement, the day after Bevan's bombastic egocentricity, gave the impression of a conciliator whose best efforts had been rejected.
Wilson also quickly proved himself, if not beloved by, at least very useful to the rebel band. As Bevan was so overwhelmingly a broad-brush man, it was very desirable to have an adjutant who was good at details. Furthermore, despite his general lack of need or gift for friendship, Wilson formed close and long-term relationships with the two most talented figures among the Bevanites: Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman. He was also good at the Bevanites' central propaganda device. This was to send ‘brains trusts’ around the constituency Labour parties, the weaning of them away from the official leadership being their most immediate objective. These were composed of four or five left-wing MPs plus a questionmaster. The format suited Wilson perfectly. He did not have to move the audiences with great flights of eloquence. He had to answer questions with knowledge, a developing wit, and enough ‘spin’ to advance the Bevanite (and increasingly the Wilsonite) cause. The experience honed his political skills in a way that the Board of Trade had never done. His direct reward came in October 1952 at the notorious, because politically blood-soaked, Morecambe conference when he and Crossman defeated Morrison and Dalton for membership of the party's national executive committee. Never before (or since) had such high-flying birds been brought down at the Labour Party's annual battue. It was the highest point of Bevanism.
Wilson in those years of the early 1950s had to survive a different challenge which required nerve and luck. He was very exposed on his constituency front. At the 1950 election he had scraped home, following a major redistribution of seats, in Huyton, the rechristened and more urban part of the old Ormskirk division, only by 800 votes. Before his resignation he was looking for a safer seat, and for an up-and-coming cabinet minister this was thought reasonable. Once he became a rebel, however, the somewhat heavy-handed Labour national machine applied the sanction of making this difficult. Buttressed by the Huyton party, which had enthusiastically supported his rebellion, he therefore decided to stay and fight. It was a wise decision. Huyton was one of the greatest growth stocks in Labour electoral history. It was not so much that he converted voters as that they poured in. Liverpool overspill council estates transformed the constituency. Its electorate went up from 50,000 to over 100,000 in the next twenty years, and Wilson's majorities, over 1000 in 1951, over 2000 in 1955, were by even the ebb years of his premierships up to around 20,000. After 1951 he never again had serious constituency worries.
The next climacteric in Wilson's career came in the summer of 1954, when Bevan's combination of exuberance and indiscipline caused him to go over several tops. Although Bevan had in the previous year been elected a member of the shadow cabinet, he got up from the front bench and contradicted everything that Attlee had just said. This was too much for nearly all the Labour MPs, including many of the Bevanites, and Bevan's position became untenable. He resigned from the shadow cabinet, which presented Wilson with a difficult choice. At the last election for this body Wilson had come thirteenth, which made him the runner-up with the automatic right to succeed to a vacancy. Either he had to betray Bevan, with whose flounce he did not agree, or send out a signal that he was for him, right or wrong, and preferred tribal warfare to the front bench. It was a decisive moment for him, and after much hesitation he accepted the vacancy. His action was disapproved of by most of the Bevanites, but approved of by the rest of the party. Having left one shore, he had to make for another. When Attlee retired eighteen months later Wilson voted against Bevan and for Gaitskell in the subsequent leadership contest and then succeeded the latter as shadow chancellor, a role which he filled up to and beyond the 1959 general election.
During these three and a half years Wilson, who had already strengthened his position with the party in the country by his intensive visits to constituencies when writing his election report on party organization after the 1955 general election, not only made himself acceptable to (although again not loved by) the new leader and (with a little more affection) the bulk of the party, but also made his reputation as a parliamentarian. He acquired wit by deliberate application, but this did not prevent it from being good parliamentary wit. He was at his best when dealing with Macmillan, whether as chancellor or prime minister. When the latter in his one budget introduced premium bonds, the first tentative foray towards a state lottery, Wilson mocked and rebuked him with brilliant opportunism: 'The Chancellor told us that the Budget was prepared under the piercing eye of Mr. Gladstone. There was one passage that was quite obviously written under a portrait of Horatio Bottomley' was the culmination of a sustained piece of raillery (Hansard 5C, 551, 18 April 1956, 1014).
Wilson became something of a parliamentary ‘turn’, whom members flocked in to hear, which they had certainly never done when he was president of the Board of Trade. But he was more than that, for he always deployed fluent arguments, and when he had to fight with his back to the wall, as he did in the bank rate tribunal debate of February 1958, having by rash accusations got himself into what seemed a hopelessly exposed position, he did so not only with great ingenuity, but with tenacity and courage too. He was in a sense an irresponsible parliamentary speaker, for he believed in exploiting the loopholes on the other side more than in expounding great truths, but he did so with a daring which recalled Disraeli—a very considerable parliamentary comparison.
The Labour peace of the late 1950s was essentially based on the lively expectation of victory at the general election of 1959. Even Bevan came back into communion with Gaitskell and accepted the deputy leadership. When that election, so far from being won by Labour, resulted in the biggest Conservative majority since 1935, renewed intra-party warfare was almost inevitable. The Gaitskellites wanted to respond to the third successive defeat by anticipating Tony Blair in creating a ‘new Labour’ party. And Wilson, who was not skilfully handled, began to feel that—Gaitskell having had his chance and muffed it—he ought to flex his own muscles, but not too blatantly, for the leadership. In the last months of 1959 he was more hostile to Gaitskell than was Bevan. But Bevan's health was already collapsing and he therefore ceased to be a factor in the equation, although he left a great legend behind him. By 1960 it was clear that if Gaitskell was to be replaced by anyone it would be by Wilson.
Wilson's dilemma over the next couple of years was that he did not think the time was ripe for a challenge (he was still only forty-three and did not need to hurry), but that he was determined that no one should supersede him as a champion of the centre left. This dilemma came to a head in autumn 1960, when Gaitskell, facing defeat on a unilateral nuclear disarmament motion at the Labour Party conference, announced his resolve 'to fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love' (Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1960, 36). Wilson saw this as unnecessary intransigence. He was not a unilateralist, he was in favour of NATO, but he instinctively believed that a fudging formula was the way through most difficulties.
It is in retrospect remarkable how narrow were the differences between Gaitskell and Wilson, as between Gaitskell and Bevan, during all these internecine wars. The differences were essentially ones of temperament. Gaitskell thought Wilson was a tricky fixer. Wilson thought Gaitskell was stiff-necked, and that his intransigence was leading to an unnecessary period of disruption within the party. But this did not answer the question of whether he should mount a direct challenge to Gaitskell's leadership. He would have preferred not to, but when a stalking horse (Anthony Greenwood) of the centre left announced that he would stand if Wilson did not, Wilson's dilemma became agonizing. He hesitated so long that the stalking horse became reluctant to withdraw in his favour, but Greenwood eventually did so and Wilson then lost to Gaitskell by the votes of 166 MPs to 81. It was not glorious, although it defended his base on the left of the party, and probably improved rather than weakened his position for the contest in 1963, following Gaitskell's death. Wilson's moves were nearly always well thought out. But his behaviour also engendered near hatred from the Gaitskellites.
Even a short time, however, is a great healer. Many of the 166 who voted against Wilson late in 1960 must have voted for him early in 1963, and others who did not were prepared to accept first shadow office under him and then real office a year or so later. In the crucial contest of 1963 Wilson had and needed two pieces of good luck. First, his principal opponent from the right of the party, George Brown, although a politician of insight and courage, had many faults of temperament and behaviour. Second, and partly as a result, there emerged a third candidate in the shape of James Callaghan, more damaging to Brown than to Wilson. In the first ballot Wilson had 115 votes, Brown 88, and Callaghan 41. The Callaghan intervention had decisively destroyed any momentum which the Brown campaign had previously possessed. In the second ballot, held on 14 February 1963, Wilson won by 144 to 103. Arithmetically it was less decisive than his defeat by Gaitskell two years before, but in its consequences it was much more so. It settled the Labour Party leadership for three premierships and thirteen years. It put Wilson on the threshold of 10 Downing Street at the age of forty-six, after seventeen years in the House of Commons.
Wilson had a bare twenty months as leader of the opposition before he became prime minister. He handled them almost faultlessly. His victory over Brown gave him an opportunity for magnanimity and a benignity of mood in which to exercise it. He treated the Gaitskellites with calculated generosity. They did much better in the allocation of shadow portfolios than did the Bevanites, who with a few exceptions had to be content with having got their man, in so far as he was their man, into the top job. These adjustments were made easier for Wilson by his light ideological baggage. He had been against Gaitskell's revisionism of 1959, but that was largely because he thought it too abruptly done. He was not literally in favour of Clause 4, but he did not think it worth arguing about. He was initially more hostile than Gaitskell to Macmillan's bid in 1961 to join the European Community, but that was largely because it came from the tories. He subsequently made two bids of his own and also gave a clear if subdued pro-EEC recommendation in the referendum of 1975. He was not a unilateralist, but he thought Gaitskell was too intransigent in his opposition to those who were.
Across the floor of the House of Commons, Wilson had a relatively easy hand to play. For his first eight months as leader he was opposite Harold Macmillan, but a Macmillan sadly diminished—first by General de Gaulle's veto on British entry to Europe in January, and then by the Profumo scandal in June. For the remaining twelve months he had as his prime-ministerial opponent Alec Douglas-Home, as amateur as Wilson was professional, and out of touch with the House of Commons since 1951. Not unnaturally, he outplayed them both. Their relative weakness enabled him to pre-empt some of a prime minister's international role. He went twice to Washington, once in 1963 to see John F. Kennedy (who did not personally take to him but whom he impressed with his grasp and speed of comprehension), and then in the spring of 1964 to see the newly succeeded Lyndon Johnson. He also paid a highly publicized visit to Khrushchov in Moscow.
At home Wilson had to perform the clever balancing trick of giving the Labour Party a broad and modern appeal without offending the old household gods of the party, as he believed that Gaitskell had needlessly done. He achieved it by what subsequently seemed the sleight of hand of treating science and socialism as though they were synonymous. At the time it appeared a brilliant piece of political presentation, which reached its epitome at the Scarborough Labour Party conference of 1963, when he talked about 'the white heat of the [scientific] revolution' (Pimlott, 304), and contrasted Labour's enthusiasm for it with the out-of-date, gentlemanly, ‘grouse moor’ image of his principal opponents.
Wilson's Scarborough speech was a great success at the time. Newspaper coverage of it, and indeed of his whole performance as leader of the opposition, was dangerously favourable. Yet such are the quirks of politics that over that early autumn of 1963, which embraced the brilliantly presented Labour conference and the chaotic Conservative one of a week later, when the prime ministership looked up for bids in the hotels and dance halls of Blackpool, the Labour poll lead declined from a commanding 16 per cent to a less confidence-giving 8 per cent. This illustrated another feature of Wilson's approach to 10 Downing Street. It was done against no calm confident background of certain victory. Throughout the last summer before the election Labour's Gallup poll lead narrowed steadily and uncomfortably, while at the end of August, on the threshold of the campaign itself, another poll gave the tories a slight lead. This was very stressful for Wilson, to whom victory was essential. He was emphatically not a leader like George Lansbury or Michael Foot who got his satisfaction from being at the head of the party. For Wilson it was Downing Street or bust, and a fourth successive defeat would indeed have come very near to busting the Labour Party. However, he weathered these strains and trials, thereby presaging one of his best qualities in government. He had good nerve in a crisis.
The campaign went well for Wilson but gave no firm assurance of victory. Home, the underdog, fought back with surprising tenacity and very nearly won. Wilson had a huge majority in Huyton, but there was uncertainty throughout that night and even during his morning train journey back from Liverpool. Eventually he secured the narrowest possible overall majority. Labour had 317 seats, the Conservatives 304 (including the speaker), and the Liberals 9. Late that afternoon of 16 October 1964 Wilson went to Buckingham Palace and ‘kissed hands’ as prime minister. He had 'got to the top of the greasy pole' (Disraeli's phrase was peculiarly appropriate to him), but he had not secured any firm length of tenure. With such a small majority it was unlikely to be a long parliament. Electioneering was only just over, but also, with a somewhat longer pace, it was beginning again from the moment that Wilson reached Downing Street.
Wilson had fulfilled one half of his central ambition. He had become a prime minister. But he also wanted to become one of impact and note. For that he needed at least one full parliamentary term. That meant a victorious election in either 1965 or early 1966. To this end he had four priorities. First he must hold the Labour Party together. Although he was almost excessively lacking in dogma or doctrine, he was a tribalist. Despite the risks of his minuscule majority, he recoiled with distaste from any thought of a Liberal alliance, even though that party's attractive leader, Jo Grimond, was hanging out his tongue in that direction. Labour Party unity was Wilson's stock-in-trade, something which differentiated him from Gaitskell, whose ‘prince-over-the-water’ legend was still potent with many members of the new government, and something too for which Wilson was prepared to sacrifice much repute in the early 1970s. Second, and not always compatible with this, he wanted to head a moderate government pursuing moderate policies. The cabinet, like the shadow cabinet before it, was strongly ‘Gaitskellite’ rather than ‘Wilsonite’. But one or two hostages to fortune, steel nationalization the most prominent, had to be put into the government's programme for the first session.
Wilson did not equate moderation with inactivity. He wanted to insert a Kennedy-like sense of new, young dynamism, following sleepy years, into both the British economy and the machinery of government. This was his third priority. His fourth also had a strong transatlantic link. He cared greatly about Britain retaining as much as possible of its old world-power status. Put brutally, this meant that he wanted to be head prefect to Lyndon B. Johnson's headmaster. And that, in Johnson's eyes, which were increasingly concentrated on the Vietnam War, meant that Britain had to maintain both the parity of sterling and a military presence east of Suez. Johnson would have liked part of that presence to have been in Vietnam, fighting alongside the Americans, but on that Wilson skilfully eluded him, despite his heavy dependence on American financial support for sterling. On the other two points Wilson did not need to have his arm twisted by Washington. They were both fully in accord with his instinctive wishes.
They were not, however, in accord with Wilson's desire for greater dynamism in the British economy. To maintain a $2.80 rate for sterling required both American money and a series of investment and other cuts at home which quickly made nonsense of George Brown's national plan, the centrepiece of economic policy in 1965. This incompatibility eventually proved the Achilles' heel of the government, and to some extent of Wilson's reputation. There came a time when both American money and domestic deflation were exhausted and could not further stave off the inevitable, but that did not occur in the crucial interval between the first election and the second reinforcing one. Over this period Wilson remained at the peak of his performance. Publicly he dominated the government; he gave six ministerial broadcasts and five long televised interviews. And his press coverage remained excellent. He cultivated the political correspondents as no prime minister had ever done before, and they remained at least semi-enchanted.
Internally also Wilson infused the government with a good spirit. He copied Churchill's habit of sending off minutes to ministers on a random selection of issues, some of them unimportant, which had struck his eye in the newspapers. But on the whole he did not interfere too much, unless the minister was manifestly weak. He was a classic example of a man who had been made nicer by success, and was mostly at that stage a pleasure to deal with. Gaitskell, by virtue of his accumulated trust, might well in 1964 have secured a bigger parliamentary majority than Wilson's 5, and might indeed have proved a better prime minister for long-term issues. But he could not have rivalled Wilson in adroitness at handling the minuscule majority, or in the deadly tactical skill with which the date of the next election was chosen—the only time in the second half of the twentieth century when a Labour prime minister used his prerogative of holding the starter's gun to his party's clear advantage.
Wilson had parliament dissolved on 11 March 1966, started with an opinion-poll lead of 9 per cent, held on to two-thirds of it throughout an unexciting but well-controlled campaign, and on 31 March saw his dissolution majority of only 3 turned into one of 97. It was his high tide of authority and self-esteem. The second term, which he had been so eager to achieve, proved more testing and less rewarding than the first. The security of a big majority called for a lengthening of his perspective, and he was always better at the short term than the long. But his qualities of tenacity, courage, and resilience were formidable. His stock was never so high again, but he was far from collapsing in adversity. For another ten up-and-down years he was the best punishment-absorber in British politics. He was often down but he was never out until, unexpectedly to most, he chose to be so at the early age of sixty.
Adversity struck quickly in that summer of 1966. It began with a seamen's strike, called by a union which had both some hard-left leaders and a remarkable capacity to produce an immediate deterioration in Britain's balance of trade, and consequently a new burst of fever for poor ailing sterling. This vulnerability caused Wilson to become paranoiac towards the strike, and to use MI5 information as the basis for an ill-judged House of Commons attack upon the union leaders, whom he described as 'a tight-knit group of politically motivated men' (Wilson, Labour Government, 307). This led an old ally to ask whether Wilson was not sometimes politically motivated himself, and more seriously to fill with distaste all his main cabinet allies, Crossman, Castle, and Benn. He therefore started the critical month of July 1966 with the euphoria of the election victory already dissipated. The battering of sterling intensified, and there was presented the stark choice of devaluation accompanied by some deflation but with the hope of rebound, or of a contrived defence of the rate with many of Labour's hopes abandoned and with no prospect of a rebound.
While Wilson may have been politically right, even if economically wrong, to have opposed devaluation in October 1964, it is difficult in retrospect to argue that he was right to persist in the view in July 1966. He had a chancellor of the exchequer who had lost his nerve and did not know quite where he stood, as well as a solid group of six leading cabinet members, headed by George Brown and coming from both left and right, who were firmly for devaluation. But Wilson was determined the other way, and by mobilizing the tail of the cabinet, a technique at which he was always good, succeeded in defeating the powerful cave.
The price paid for what proved to be only a sixteen-month postponement was a formidable list of cuts and restrictions, including a prices and incomes freeze for six months followed by another half year of severe restraints. Wilson insisted on himself announcing the package to the house, a punishing parliamentary experience, although it was a task which he could reasonably have delegated to his chancellor. Partly this was admirable, for a dogged courage was always a strand in his make-up. Partly, however, it was for the less admirable reason that he had got into a mood in which there was practically no senior member of his government whom he trusted. He saw plots against himself everywhere, embracing not only the chancellor but the first secretary and the home secretary, as well as many lesser figures. Furthermore his media honeymoon had come to a disagreeable end. There was a revulsion on both sides, with Wilson developing a particularly strong sense of grievance against the BBC.
July 1966 marked a clear break point in Wilson's premiership. Before it he was seen not merely by himself but by many others as almost a superman, or at any rate a super-politician, who solved problems with an effortless and benevolent ease. In this phase the cabinet was as near to a happy band of brothers as is ever the case in politics. And Labour MPs were happy with their leader, the left quiescent, the right reconciled, and the large swathe of the centre enthusiastic. After that climacteric he still showed some signs of superhuman qualities, but they were those of survival more than of success. His trademark became that of the indestructible little man who emerged from vicissitude after vicissitude, if not in glory, at least with a tenacity which won him the sort of affection achieved by a pair of old shoes which do not wear out. But the cabinet became a pit of unconcealed hostility and bitterness. Some of his bitterest private (until their diaries came out) critics were his old allies Crossman, Castle, and Benn. Among the back-bench MPs the left thought he had become Lyndon Johnson's poodle, the right thought the time had come for a change, and the centre half-agreed with them but could not decide who they wanted in his place. So he survived.
Devaluation, when circumstances eventually forced it in November 1967, was a further blow to Wilson's reputation, but by then such setbacks became almost the equivalent of battle honours. 'I am famous for my freezes', a caption to a contemporary cartoon showing him as a beleaguered medieval sovereign when he announced a further series of swingeing public expenditure cuts in January 1968, gave him a certain grim satisfaction. He did, however, protect from the axe the plans for an open university, which was one of his proudest and most personal achievements. He presided over disastrous local government election results that spring. 'All your northern fastnesses are yielded up', Iain Macleod memorably quoted when Newcastle, Bradford, Sheffield, and other towns and cities fell to the tories. Cecil King, the chairman of the Daily Mirror, Labour's most important press support, added to the febrility of the time by bringing out a front page which demanded Wilson's immediate replacement. This crass intervention strengthened rather than weakened Wilson's position. It was King not Wilson who was replaced within three weeks. And the prime minister was able to demonstrate his indiarubber quality by telling a party rally during that interval: 'I know what's going on; I am going on'. So he and the government did go on, for another two years—but for the next fifteen of these twenty-four months, while sterling even at the reduced rate remained on a knife-edge, it was survival rather than success which was the mainspring. Wilson's nerve on the several occasions when endemic weakness erupted into dangerous crises was put to severe tests, and sustained its reputation as his best quality.
A further setback was the failure in the first half of 1969 to enact the bold proposals for the reform of industrial relations contained in Barbara Castle's white paper In Place of Strife. Wilson fought hard for this, but was eventually defeated by the opposition of the trade unions, of much of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and of a cabinet cave led by James Callaghan. In combination they ultimately became an insurmountable barrier. Wilson fought with tenacity for Castle's proposals, but, when forced into defeat, pretended with a hollowness which could hardly have deceived himself that it was a victory. Such willingness to use weasel words was a less admirable side to his character.
By the autumn of 1969 a dramatic turn-round in the balance of payments gave sterling a medium-term security. There was also an internal budget surplus for the first time for many years. As these issues had dominated politics for at least the previous two decades, so the rebound, long though it had been delayed, had a correspondingly big political impact. The government continued to lose by-elections, but not on the crushing scale of the previous two years. And then, suddenly in the spring, despite an austere budget, Labour moved up to equality or even a small lead in the opinion polls. Wilson responded to the cracking of the ice and sprouting of the bulbs with understandable enthusiasm, for his long hard winter had lasted much more than six months. By late April his thoughts were moving towards an early general election. By early May his mind was settling in that direction. By mid-May it was fixed, with the endorsement of nearly all the cabinet, that 18 June would be the day.
Wilson attempted a quiet, some might say a complacent, campaign. The note he wanted to strike was that in a good summer a satisfied Britain was accepting Labour as the natural party of government and himself as a steady man whom they knew and could trust. It nearly worked. A week before election day a reputable poll showed Labour with a lead of 12½ per cent. Yet there was something wrong with the atmosphere, and as soon as the ballot boxes began to yield their secrets the defeat was clear. The first result showed a swing of 5½ per cent to the tories. Heath won with a parliamentary majority of thirty.
The blow to Wilson was heavy, the more so because it was unexpected and he had no respect for Heath. However, he handled himself with dignity in the handover and immediately determined that he wanted to stay as leader until (pace Palmerston and Johnnie Russell) he could 'have his tit-for-tat with Teddy Heath' at the next election. This took three years and eight months, and was on the whole a miserable time for Wilson. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between these years and his 'clear, confident morning' of 1963–4. Then he had led from the front, his recipe for party unity being to keep moving forward so fast that no one had time to start quarrelling. Now it was to keep his head as far down as possible and to perform a series of tacks to left and right, trying to head off threatened revolts from one side or the other.
Wilson began by somewhat neglecting parliament and immersing himself in rapidly compiling a vast catalogue of the events of the previous government. He had great fluency, if little sense of literary style, and reported that he sometimes wrote as many as 15,000 words a day. The resulting book, The Labour Government, 1964–70 (1971), was benevolent in intention. No old scores were paid off. But few sinews of structure were visible, and penetrating insights were also rare. The exercise may have been necessary for financial reasons, although Wilson was always modest in personal expenditure, but it precluded his setting any stamp of opposition leadership on the Parliamentary Labour Party before the eruption of the European dispute, which he found both distasteful and damaging. Although he had been disdainful of the Macmillan–Heath attempt at British entry into the Common Market in 1961–3 (which he dismissed as 'selling washing machines in Dusseldorf'; Ziegler, 131), the experience of office had converted him by 1966 to the view that Britain's destiny lay in Europe. He made one application in 1967, which de Gaulle rejected with contumely, and, with the general out of the way, was actively preparing another in early 1970.
Heath more enthusiastically took over where Wilson had been forced to leave off, and during 1971 was obviously moving to the conclusion of a successful negotiation. The terms of entry were not perfect for Britain, but, as George Thomson (Wilson's choice to be Labour negotiator) memorably said, they were as good as the Labour government could have expected or achieved. They placed Wilson in an appalling dilemma. He had no great feeling in favour of Europe to guide him, merely a cool appraisal that on balance it was in Britain's interest to go in. As against this he had a Labour Party and a trade union movement slipping clearly in the other direction. He was particularly worried that Callaghan, who made a menacing speech in May, might lead an anti-European coup d'état against him. He therefore gradually went back on all his government European attitudes and ended up imposing a three-line whip against the terms of entry. The whip was not as ferocious as it sounds, for it was defied by sixty-nine Labour members without disciplinary consequences. The damage was done to Wilson's reputation and, still more devastating, to his spirit. There were many who thought he was never the same man again after what he judged to be this necessary tergiversation.
Wilson also had a mildly embarrassing time over the Heath government's Industrial Relations Bill. It was about 80 per cent the same as what In Place of Strife had proposed, but most Labour MPs, freed of the responsibilities of office, were determined to oppose the measure outright. Wilson shuffled along. He was less willing to propitiate the left on Tony Benn's proposals for a massive further dose of nationalization for the 1974 manifesto. He fought hard against this, and in particular the proposition that the twenty-five most successful companies should be taken into the public sector. In a riposte appropriate to 1973 he sardonically asked Benn whether he thought that by nationalization he hoped to make Marks and Spencer as efficient as the Co-op.
Altogether Wilson approached the third of his electoral bouts with Heath without much zest or confidence. It came earlier than he or most people had expected, in February and March 1974, with the economy struggling under the effects of first a world oil price surge and then a miners' strike at home. A government-enforced three-day working week and power cuts such as had not been experienced since 1947 provided an unpromising background for Heath. He sought to counter these misfortunes by dissolving on the potentially persuasive issue of who governed Britain: the ministers of the crown or the leaders of the trade unions? Heath made the mistake of calling the election a few weeks later than he should have done if he were to have maximized the impact of this, and also of believing that he could hold a single issue in the forefront of the public's mind throughout a month-long campaign. Nevertheless the circumstances posed great dangers for Wilson and the Labour Party. He handled them without inspiration but with a considerable adroitness, chiding the government for its clumsiness but not getting far out on the limb of union militancy. Gone was the image of the energetic young statesman of 1964 who was going to inject a new dynamism into national life. In its place he tried to assume more the role of a tried and experienced family doctor who would calm the fevered patient.
Wilson was, however, a doctor who had far from total faith in his own remedies. There is strong evidence that at the beginning of the week of the poll his mood was the mirror image of that at the same stage in the 1970 election. He thought that he had lost, and was going through the motions of the last efforts of his political career (for he would have had neither the desire nor the strength of appeal to remain leader after another defeat) with more resignation than hope. Then his luck changed and although the Labour share of the vote was depressingly low at 38 per cent (the worst since 1931) the Conservative share was almost (but not quite) equally low, and the quirks of the British electoral system gave him four more seats than his principal opponents, although well short of an absolute majority. The Liberals had been the victors of the campaign itself, jumping up to over 20 per cent of the popular vote, but getting only nine seats. Heath sought but failed to make a coalition with them. This delayed Wilson's return to Downing Street by three days, but gave him the advantage that—the Conservatives having tried and failed to put together a governing majority in the new parliament—his right to a dissolution, whenever he judged another election could improve his position, became indisputable.
The weakness of the second Wilson government was essentially that, having achieved the object for which he had suffered much obloquy and punishment, that of walking back through the front door of 10 Downing Street in his own right, his next central objective became that of walking out again as soon as, with his reputation at least partially restored, he responsibly could. There was no hidden motive in or threat behind his resignation, at sixty, almost exactly two years later. He had had the settled intention to retire early at least from the last months of his first government. Indeed he then, on the assumption that he would win in 1970, had the summer of 1973 firmly in mind, for the specific reason, at once frivolous and endearing, that he would by then have been prime minister continuously for a few days longer than Asquith, and would thus have achieved (in pre-Margaret Thatcher days) the longest stretch of the century. A considerable part of his motive was that he had subjected his wife, who disliked political life, to enough of a burden over the twenty-six years since he had first become a cabinet minister. In the event circumstances delayed his plan, but only by three years. There may possibly also have been in 1976 some early intimation of the failing of his hitherto superb mental powers, which was a sad feature of his retirement years. If so, this gave a certain nobility to his going.
The second Wilson government had its achievements, but they were in a quiet key. It was unusually full of ministers with experience and even fame, but it has never been suggested that it was an administration of high note. The prime minister's pace was less hyper-active than it had been in his first government. Ministers were allowed to get on with their departmental affairs with very little interference. The miners and the country were got back to work, although at a price of a year with Britain's highest ever inflation rate. The second election was won in October 1974, but by such a narrow margin that it gave neither a sense of triumph nor any security of parliamentary majority. A somewhat cosmetic renegotiation of the terms of British entry into the European Community was achieved, which enabled Wilson to recommend a ‘yes’ vote in the subsequent referendum, held in June 1975. This was won by a much more decisive majority than the second election, but he waged the campaign without enthusiasm and appeared to take little satisfaction in the result. By March 1976 Wilson was able to feel that he was leaving the country in a calmer condition than he had found it, although it was also on the edge of the sterling débâcle with which the Callaghan government had to deal. He retired on 5 April 1976.
Wilson was the first prime minister since Baldwin in 1937 to retire voluntarily and even unnecessarily. And, again like Baldwin, he had a less happy retirement than perhaps either of them deserved. Baldwin's retirement at least began well. Wilson's did not. It was disfigured by his, at best, eccentric resignation honours list, which gave peerages or knighthoods to some adventurous business gentlemen, several of whom were close neither to him nor to the Labour Party. He then had a fairly active four years, producing three books: the hastily written Governance of Britain (1976), which came out only seven months after he had started writing it; Final Term (1979), an account of his second government, which did not contradict the pattern set by the earlier volume; and The Chariot of Israel (1981), one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew, and which contained more force and passion than any of his other works. He also recorded a series of television programmes about former prime ministers, of whom Palmerston and Disraeli appeared to be his favourites, which subsequently became a ‘book of the series’, A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers (1977). In addition he presided (1976–80), in an interested but conservative way, over an officially appointed committee of inquiry into the financial institutions of the City of London. It was reminiscent of Asquith's chairmanship in 1920 of a royal commission into Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1980 severe illness struck. Wilson had to undergo three successive operations and, although he slowly recovered physical equilibrium and lived for another fourteen years, he became a sad simulacrum of the taut, intellectually nimble, almost over-rational man that he had been. He retired from the House of Commons at the general election of 1983, having played little part there for some time. He became a life peer in that year, as Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, having been a knight of the Garter since May 1976.
Increasingly as the 1980s went on Wilson retired into a world of his own, his famous memory shattered, his statistical ingenuity turned to playing with cabbalistic numbers. When he died at St Thomas's Hospital, Lambeth, London, on 23 May 1995, three prime ministers had succeeded him in Downing Street, and a fourth, his old rival Edward Heath, was also alive, although almost as remote from power as Wilson had himself become. He was buried at Old Town Church on St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly, on 6 June. His wife survived him.
Wilson was the dominating politician from 1963 to 1976, a period which again recalls Baldwin and his mostly quiet hegemony from 1923 to 1937. He was often accused of lacking any lodestar of political belief, although he was far from unique among prime ministers in that respect. He believed in governing, in making the Labour Party the dominating party of government, and in trying to keep it so. And he thought governing should, subject to the exigencies of party, be done moderately and pragmatically, nudging his way around events rather than pursuing some Manichaean aim. He also wanted it to be done amelioratively to those who most needed protection. While he could be suspicious, he was a kind, if not a warm, man who liked being nice to people, important and unimportant. He was not inspirational and he left little ideological legacy. His name occurs less often in the Labour hymn-sheet than does that of Attlee or Bevan. But he was a very considerable servant of the state. He kept the train of government on the rails over difficult stretches of country.
- B. Pimlott, Harold Wilson (1992)
- P. Ziegler, Wilson (1993)
- H. Wilson, The Labour government, 1964–1970: a personal record (1971)
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- personal knowledge (2004)
- private information (2004)
- b. cert.
- m. cert.
- d. cert.
- Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers
- Bodl. RH, corresp. relating to colonial issues
- BLPES, corresp. with Lord Beveridge
- BLPES, Crosland MSS
- BLPES, Dalton MSS
- BLPES, labour party national executive committee and sub-committee papers
- BLPES, Shinwell MSS
- Bodl. Oxf., Attlee MSS
- Bodl. Oxf., George Brown MSS
- Bodl. Oxf., Goodhart MSS
- Bodl. Oxf., Greenwood MSS
- CAC Cam., corresp. with John Silkin
- Christ Church Oxf., Bradwell MSS
- Churchill College, Cambridge, Gordon-Walker MSS
- Churchill College, Cambridge, Noel-Baker MSS
- NL Scot., letters to Arthur Woodburn
- NL Wales, letters to T. G. Thomas
- Nuffield Oxf., G. D. H. Cole and Margaret Cole MSS
- Nuffield Oxf., Fabian Society MSS
- Nuffield Oxf., Morrison MSS
- People's History Museum, Manchester, parliamentary labour party papers
- RS, corresp. with Lord Blackett
- U. Leeds, Brotherton L., corresp. with Henry Drummond-Wolff, etc.
- U. Warwick Mod. RC, corresp. with Richard Crossman
- University of Warwick, Cousins MSS
- University of Warwick, Edelman MSS
- University of Warwick, Gollancz MSS
- University of Warwick, Clive Jenkins MSS
- BL NSA, party political recording
- Y. Karsh, photograph, 1949, NPG
- Y. Karsh, photograph, 1963, NPG
- Vicky [V. Weisz], ink and crayon cartoon, 1965, NPG
- R. Spear, oils, exh. RA 1974, NPG [see illus.]
- A. Newman, photograph, 1978, NPG
- M. Cummings, cartoons, NPG
- J. Musgrave-Wood, cartoons, NPG
- W. Papas, cartoons, NPG
- G. Scarfe, cartoons, NPG
- photographs, repro. in Pimlott, Harold Wilson
- photographs, priv. coll.
Wealth at Death
£490,992: probate, 17 Oct 1995, CGPLA Eng. & Wales