on 23 July 2011
An entry from Haus Publishing's popular '20 Prime Ministers of the 20th Century' series, Paul Routledge's (Daily Mirror) short and succinct biopic of Labour PM Harold Wilson is interesting, though inconsistent. The book is split into 12 chronological sections, in which Routledge deals with everything from Wilson's strict work ethic in both his Oxford years and in Politics, with his attempts to modernise and liberalise technological, educative and social issues in Britain, and also his failure to succeed in some of his proposed aims. Routledge is enlightening on the political climate Wilson existed in, with succinct and fascinating explorations of electoral campaign battles with Ted Heath, the rumours around Wilson's links with both Russia and closer to home, with Marcia Williams; amongst other background events. In these ways, Routledge provides the right balance of detail for an introduction of this length, and on these issues his writing is both enjoyable and informative. Similarly, the text is assured and very useful in its brief but comprehensive evaluation of Wilson's foreign policy; especially that relating to France.
The balance of the text is not nearly so successful though, either in tone or in theme. Routledge is unnecessarily harsh on Wilson at times; and blames wider economic and Unionist issues on Wilson, sometimes unfairly. Equally, Routledge spends a huge number of pages (considering the text's length), discussing the MI5 plot to dislodge Wilson's position as PM, whilst making only very brief mentions of some of Wilson's most important and long-lasting reforms; such as legalising abortion, making contraception safer, and taking steps to abolish the death penalty. Important measures of those in his cabinet like Barbara Castle, who brought in seatbelts and breathalysing tests, are also mentioned only as an afterthought, when they were big changes in policy. On the whole, for those looking for an enjoyable, readable and short introduction to Wilson's life and politics, there is enough in Routledge's book to make it a worthwhile purchase, but some imbalanced analysis, and very uneven pacing mean that this isn't the stellar introduction it could have been.