Harold Wilson: The Unprincipled Prime Minister?

As I read this collection of essays on the life of Harold Wilson I became acutely aware of the particular influence Harold had had on the whole of my life, from the time I was born. Starting with his key wartime role as a civil servant and moving on to his close working relationship with William Beveridge as he designed the postwar welfare state, his ministerial career had a huge influence on my early start in life: from the hospital I was born in, through my time in the school system and later the opportunity to be the first in my family to benefit from a university education. I went on to become a university teacher in the rapidly expanding higher education sector that Harold Wilson promoted so relentlessly.

Harold Wilson taking over as the highly charismatic young leader of the Labour party convinced me that a life in politics was a worthy ambition and that democratic socialism was the way to change our country into a more equal, open and economically vibrant society. As fate would have it, by 1979 I had been selected as the parliamentary candidate for Harold’s birthplace, Huddersfield, and had the privilege of knowing him in the later years of his life.

I was eagerly anticipating this collection of essays that help to mark the centenary of Wilson’s birth in 1916 but was slightly apprehensive that after Ben Pimlott’s comprehensive biography there was little more to add. I should not have worried as these contributions add much more to the understanding of Labour’s most (electorally?) successful leader. They also shine an intense light on the development of our party in its struggle to create a modern democratic party that can stick to its socialist principles, win elections and govern successfully.

Kevin Hickson’s chapter, Wilson and British Socialism, is a solid contribution to the debate, which dominates as the theme of this collection of essays. Was Wilson a good leader? Was he a socialist? Did he have principles? Did he make good decisions, and was Labour a successful party in government?

Paul Foot is remembered for saying ‘Wilson had always been an unprincipled opportunist’, while Ralph Miliband, in his book Parliamentary Socialism, argued that Labour had always been committed to the parliamentary system and that this meant that it could not be a vehicle for socialism. The belief of some on the left of the party was that there should be a political realignment with a greater use of extra-parliamentary activity.

The ‘Bennite’ left was influenced by this thesis when calling for elected representatives of the party at both national and local levels to be held more ‘accountable’ to party activists, for ‘a more profound challenge to the capitalist system’.

For me Dennis Kavanagh, in 1966: A Missed Opportunity, was disappointing, as he repeats much of the conventional wisdom on the alleged failures of the one Wilson period with a substantial parliamentary majority, but with little of the analytic rigour provided by Jim Tomlinson in his review of ‘Wilson’s Economic Policy.’ Here we see clearly the ability to place the Wilson-led governments in the context of ‘the larger narratives about the postwar British economy’.

Tomlinson admits that most conventional views of economic policymaking in the 1960s are ‘tales of perpetual crisis’ and for the most part are ‘accounts of ultimate failure’. However, as Tomlinson demonstrates, most of these ‘crisis and failure narratives emanate from the Thatcherist-inspired “declinist narrative” which has distorted our understanding of much of post-war British economic history and policy.’ Recognising this fact, he persuasively argues, helps to at least rescue Wilson from some of the more tendentious versions of the declinist narrative.

Sadly this narrative was too often repeated by Labour leaders, such as Tony Blair, at the 2006 party conference who said of the Wilson years, ‘They were great people but we were not ready then to see change was coming, accept it and then shape it for progressive ends. United we should have been the advocates of economic and industrial change in the changing world and if we had been how many fewer lives would have been destroyed’.

Not only is the declinist narrative highly self-serving and partisan, it does not stand up to scrutiny. Tomlinson quotes Jim Callaghan at the 1976 conference: ‘We used to think that we could spend our way out of recessions, but I have to tell you that this option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting bigger doses of inflation into the economy’.

Tomlinson argues that the central claim of this famous speech is untrue. There was no upward trend in British inflation in the 1950s and 60s, with the figure fluctuating around two to three per cent. Only right at the end of the 1960s does inflation go up sharply, in the wake of the 1967 devaluation of the pound.

After dispelling many of the myths surrounding Wilson’s management of the economy and emphasising the incredible global pressures of the time, Tomlinson concludes, ‘If there was a foundational flaw in Labour’s approach to the economy when it took office, it was the absence of developed policies to deal with the balance of payments situation it faced.’

This collection is a very stimulating contribution to any study of the Wilson years and Labour’s legacy as a political party. Moreover, if read carefully it will bring home to all but the most extreme zealots in our movement that in order to achieve the kinds of change we desire, we have to present a contemporary version of democratic socialism that is sensitive to the profoundly changed nature of the world in the 21st century. Without the ability to excite the imagination and aspirations of our fellow citizens we will not persuade them to give us their votes and we will remain inert, powerless and ineffectual.

As no other leader in the history of the Labour party has as successfully managed, Wilson contrived to capture such a mood and vision in his 1963 ‘white heat of technology’ speech. Kenneth O Morgan reminds us of this in his contribution when he writes ‘the keynote of his speeches was to bypass old ideological conflicts, what he called “theology”, with an apolitical appeal … he linked socialism with science, technological modernisation and automation, instead of class war and Clause 4.’

Contrary to his many detractors on the left, what this book amply illustrates is that, far from being an unprincipled prime minister, Wilson knew that only a Labour party with fresh and relevant ideas for the transformation of society and with the capacity to attract and energise the centre ground, had any serious hope of winning elections and delivering on its great principles.

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Barry Sheerman is member of parliament for Huddersfield. He tweets @BarrySheerman

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Harold Wilson: The Unprincipled Prime Minister?
Kevin Hickson and Andrew Crines (Eds)

BiteBack Publishing | 352pp | £20

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Comments: 2...

  1. On April 7, 2016 at 8:03 pm Omoba Oladele Osinuga responded with... #

    An objective assessment of Wilson’s legacy and why he remains one of Labour’s most successful, respected and admired leaders.

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