on 4 April 2014
‘Wilson’ (1993) by Philip Ziegler is an ‘authorised biography’ but the author insists this only meant a final agreement before publication. Ziegler professes to be independent and largely succeeds but there’s always the influence of Wilson himself between the lines. Particularly for the early years it largely depends on statements by its subject, Harold James Wilson. Sometimes this appears to be much with tongue in cheek – in 1940, as a Civil Servant, Wilson sat in ‘on a meeting between Churchill and de Gaulle and – or so he says, at least – had impressed the Prime Minister by the lucidity of his memoranda’ (P.30). Ziegler shuffles aside the image of ‘socialist’ Wilson, at a high point in the Cold War, engaging in Anglo-Soviet trade deals, and netting extensive fees in the process, with a tolerance of Blairite Labour and the comment ‘for a man of high intelligence and considerable cunning he could be startlingly naive ‘(P.95). Wilson even wrote ‘The War on World Poverty’ (1953) but failed to do much when in power; Ziegler explains this was due more to ‘the realities of exercising power than the sincerity of his protestations’(P. 93). He dabbled with the leftist Bevanites and then deserted them when their influence faded. In 1951 he failed to be elected on to the NEC but should we really because on the ballot paper he was ‘J. H. Wilson’(P. 98) – were the voters that ignorant and didn’t Wilson do any canvassing? It all seems like the subject’s ‘explanation’ and the biographer’s acceptance of it. I won’t push the matter any further.
In the 1950’s Wilson struck out a distinctive line and so was ‘generally disliked in the Party despite his efforts to avoid personal differences’ (qu. P. 105). Wilson tried to be on good terms with everyone, with the result he was distrusted by everyone. Bevan in 1958 said that Harold Wilson was ‘ more dangerous than Gaitskell because he isn’t honest and he isn’t a man of principle but a sheer, absolute careerist, out for himself alone’ (Crossman qu. P. 115). Gaitskell rejected both nuclear disarmament and Clause Four, rallying points for the Left, enabling Wilson to mount an unsuccessful challenge for the leadership. But in January 1963 Gaitskell suddenly died and this time Wilson did secure the leadership.
‘I was elected without ties, commitments, promises or any obligations to any individual or group. Now I am free to do the job in my own way’ (Wilson qu.P.138). Hard to believe the first sentence in a party riven by rivalries and one used to making decisions through Party Conference or the NEC. Wilson’s manoeuvring to form a Shadow Cabinet casts doubts on the second sentence. Ziegler doesn’t question either sentence. Some approaches he did change – CND and Clause Four were locked away – and he set out ‘an alliance between science and socialism’ and promised a Britain ‘forged in the white hear of this revolution’ (qu. Pp 143-4). In October PM MacMillan suddenly resigned and Wilson anticipated facing the ‘14th Earl of Hume’, a much softer target, in the approaching General Election. However, it didn’t prove so easy and the Labour overall majority was limited to five.
Wilson had trouble with organising his administration – especially as he insisted on hiving off part of the Treasury (under Callaghan)to form a Department of Economic Affairs (under the unstable Brown), ‘a prime example of creating bad organisation in order to appease personalities.... Wilson, I am sure, knew the scheme was ill-judged, but for some reason put personal appeasement first’ (Jay qu. P.171). He placed a union leader, Frank Cousins, in charge of the new Ministry of Technology for political reasons and it was a disaster. To secure the promised Foreign Ministry for Patrick Gordon-Walker, who’d lost his seat at the Election, he tried pushing him into another seat and the voters rejected him. His import of close confidants such as Marcia Williams upset senior civil servants (e.g. Derek Mitchell, Principal Private Secretary. Like Lloyd-George and others Wilson came to be dependent on a close knit ‘kitchen cabinet’. So much for his boast quoted in the previous paragraph. As for the Cabinet itself, ‘It was Parkinson’s Law at work: words expanding to fill the time available’ (P. 189). Wilson waited till talkers had exhausted themselves and then delivered a judgement – a complete contrast to the previous Labour PM, Attlee.
In 1964 Wilson missed his chance of devaluing instantly and blaming it on ‘Thirteen Years of Tory Misrule’(Labour’s Election Slogan), Ziegler suggests that was because Attlee had devalued in 1949. However, his three administrations were plagued by financial instability and ‘swinging Britain’ almost swung into ruin. Disaster was staved off by media-friendly ideas (e.g. the Queen’s Award for Industry), extensive international borrowing and ‘a pretty dismal and gloomy set of squeezes’ (Wilson to Brown June 1965 qu. P.206).
Wilson’s electoral triumph in 1966 (Labour 363 MPs: Conservatives 253 MPs: Liberals 12 MPs) appeared a mixed blessing as it let in too many ‘unwelcome’ MPs aka Left-wingers into the Commons. However, outside events caused trouble (e.g. the Seamen’s strike in May 1966) provoked the long-delayed onslaught on sterling. Certain of US dislike of devaluation, Wilson resisted cutting the Exchange Rate, scrambling for deflationary packages and dealing with a possible Cabinet revolt by moving ‘people around the chess board with complete frivolity’ (Barbara Castle qu. P.260)/ Ziegler comments, ‘Cynicism perhaps, frivolity no’ – and I agree with him. He certainly seemed to have misjudged the electoral mood when he set the date for the General Election. Ziegler does mention (P.347) that the date had to come before April 1971 and Wilson expected popular resentment at Decimalisation due in February 1971. Anyway, he got it wrong with the Conservatives (330 MPs) defeating Labour (288 MPs) – the 6/7 time when the party reforming the voting system lost the subsequent election!
In opposition, Wilson took some time to adjust – spending months producing a lengthy version of his period in power. His interventions in Northern Ireland, especially talk of ‘reunion’, gained him little credit. His position regarding British entry into the Common Market remained ‘too clever by half’ (King qu. P. 383), perhaps dominated by domestic considerations. The results of his taking a strong pro-Israeli line in 1973 led to internal disputes and his squabbles with the Left disappeared into the morass of the energy crisis (1973-4), initiated by the effects of the Yon Kippur War (1973) and worsened by a miners’ strike. On 28 February 1974 Prime Minister Heath launched a General Election on ‘Who Governs Britain’ and Wilson seized his chance to appear as conciliator flaunting the ‘Social Contract’(1971) promising industrial harmony.
Wilson gained a tiny minority (Labour 301: Conservatives 297), not overall – and the Conservatives got more votes, despite the intervention of Enoch Powell. The next few months were a fairly quiet intermission (with Irish and European problems played down). In the General Election (10 October 1974) ‘the electorate duly opted for peace and quiet’ (P. 421).Labour acquired a decent majority (Labour 319: Conservatives 277) but Wilson was basically played out. The next two years were dominated by renegotiating the 1973 entry into Europe and a referendum on 5 June 1975 with 65% backing that position. Now he battled vs. Wedgewood Benn and Leftist tendencies within Labour (issues including more nationalisation and wage restraint) merging into yet another financial crisis. ‘I see no reason for the existence of a Labour Government..... We have adopted the Tory mores ‘ (Castle qu. P.449) as Wilson’s relations with NEC worsened, much being revealed in ‘The Crossman Diaries’. Wilson became increasingly disturbed by ‘hostility’ in the press and the BBC, culminating in his alleging MI5 was operating vs. him. He had long planned to resign mid-term and the decision may have been strengthened by signs of mental decline. Growing inflation meant financial crisis meant probable electoral defeat. ‘Let Callaghan carry the can!’’ is how Ziegler conveys Wilson’s mood. He resigned on 16 March 1976 to universal suspicion because of his reputation but ‘in his own funny way he had been a big man’ (Castle qu. P.491) Wilson was ‘the nicest Prime Minister we have had since Baldwin’ (Cosgrave qu. P.518).
At Westminster he became ‘half-forgotten and largely ignored’ (P.503)but, nevertheless, headed an enquiry into the City of London, wrote books and gave lectures. He retired from the Commons in 1983 and died on 24 May 1995 from colon cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Wilson’s ability to manoeuvre was extraordinary: Britain retained an ‘independent nuclear deterrent’, despite opposition from both the Americans and Labour’s left wing; a threatened rail strike just before the planned March 1966 General Election was avoided by ‘beer and sandwiches’ at 10 Downing Street. Among his successes were helping to prevent war between India and Pakistan (1965); the British balance of payments being transformed from -£800m to +£600m (1964-70); and improvement in general conditions– more housing, higher wages, more universities and colleges (especially the Open University, legal reforms (capital punishment abolished, homosexuality legalised and more rights for women).
Wilson had failures – he couldn’t reverse Smith’s 1965 decision on UDI for Southern Rhodesia through talks on ‘HMS Tiger’ (Dec. 1964) and ‘HMS Fearless’(Oct. 1968) and the imposition of sanctions didn’t work. Although converted to British entry into the Common Market, lengthy negotiations were brought to nothing by President De Gaulle’s ‘Non’. In 1969, along with Barbara Castle, he fought an unsuccessful battle within the Cabinet to reform industrial relations and emerged as ‘a small man with no sense of history and somebody really without leadership qualities’ (Benn qu. P.310). In the Biafran civil war in Nigeria he backed Gowon’s government vs. Ojukwu and the results approaching genocide shocked and angered most of the electorate.
Over Vietnam the picture remains less clear. Wilson failed to bring about a Commonwealth initiative for peace talks over Vietnam (1965). Indeed, Wilson continuously claimed to support US efforts vs. North Vietnam despite intense opposition from within the Labour Party – but he kept Britain out of a quagmire. Ziegler doesn’t state whether that was success or failure. He supported Israel in the Six Day War but didn’t that lead to drastic oil shortages? Wilson failed to anticipate the return of ‘the Troubles’ in Ulster but what could he have done?
From the start Wilson was clearly a pragmatist – floating between careers in academia and those burrowing away in the minutiae of Whitehall analyses – and confident on making good impressions everywhere. Such a personality might dislike rejection, and Wilson remarked, when told that 10 Downing Street’s garden was filled with buried hatchets, ‘I put a lot of them there myself. But I always left a label so I know where I can find them again if I need them’ (P.45). From 1966 there were certainly signs of paranoia towards colleagues leaking Cabinet secrets, the press, the BBC and, towards the end, MI5. He was ‘provincial to the backbone, committedly petit bourgeois’ (P. 366) and easily flattered by the glittering world of ‘showbiz’ or the ‘upper crust’.
The account is very detailed, full of opinions and reasonably written. Worth 5 stars.