Harold Wilson – Flawed Genius?

Harold Wilson is Labour’s most successful leader. This has long since been forgotten, but the House of Lords began to put the spotlight on him on March 6th 2018 when two politicians who served under him, Bernard Donoughue and Giles Radice, gave lectures remembering him as Prime Minister. Lord Donoughue, drew on inside knowledge – he was one of Wilson’s “Kitchen Cabinet” after the first 1974 election and set up the Number 10 Policy Unit. Although the term ‘soft left’ had not been coined, Donoughue sees him in that tradition. This partly explains why the Blairites – deliberately – and the Corbynites – accidentally – have forgotten Wilson.

Yet he is with Attlee the only Labour leader after the second world war before Tony Blair who is remembered though usually for his statement “A week is a long time in politics” which is held to be a comment about his short termism – he was always condemned for having little more about his politics than survival, and overcoming the immediate crises which seem to be a constant in the life of Westminster, certainly in the largely forgotten 1970s. These are valid criticisms and he left his successor James Callaghan with a raft of problems which sank Labour and allowed Margaret Thatcher to win the 1979 election: but the most serious problems lay with an undisciplined trade union which staged the “Winter of Discontent” strikes in 1978-79 putting Thatcher and the Tories in for 18 years. The union backlash against Labour ws the first of the two splits which won Thatcher three elections – and which the union leaders never apologised for. That history has yet to be properly discussed and Donoughue does not attempt to do the job. Instead we are given a sharp insight into the Wilson Number 10 from the perspective of working in the boiler room of cabinet government in 1974-76 after Wilson had won two knife edged elections in 1974.

The basis of Wilson’s claim to success is his achievement in winning four of the five elections he fought. As Donoughue says, this is an unprecedented achievement. Attlee won one and a half – 1945 followed by the narrow victory of 1950 when the writing was on the wall – while Blair won two and a half- the Landslide of 1997 repeated in 2001, followed by the narrow victory of 2005 when the writing was on the wall. Labour has not won an election since. The lecture was too short to go into the elections in the 1970s, which Donoughue witnessed, but looks in a valuable way into what Wilson did as a master tactician running the party – very relevant to the post Corbyn Labour Party.

So what did Wilson have going for him and what lessons can he teach today? Donoughue touches on several, notably being adored by Labour voters and ‘hated by the Daily Mail, itself a proof of his great qualities”. The route to being hated by the venemous Mail was his skill in leading the Labour Party, divided as always between the hard left and the hard right, though Wilson himself was fond of quoting the maxim “If you cannot ride three horses at the same time, you should not be in the circus”* – and the divisions were not yet toxic. Wilson can be seen as soft left which Donoughue defines as “the familiar left wing Tribunite ladder” up which Wilson climbed, based on the then weekly Tribune newspaper – very different from the hard left Tribune magazine of the post-Corbyn period – plus the Tribune Group of Labour MPs, which then split with the hard left Campaign group emerging. Under Wilson the left/right split did not go critical, though the social democratic right which was to form the Social Democrat Party in the 1980s was already visible, and would make the second civil war which put Thatcher in Number 10 a destructive period which still defines positions nearly forty years later.

For Donoughue, Wilson’s “most valuable leadership quality was in understanding that the Labour Movement has always contained a coalition of two distinct traditions”, which he defines as the liberal progressive intellectual elite, and “second the rank and file Blue Labour, including trade unions,…concerned with the problems facing ordinary working people in everyday life”. Its a simple sketch which needs more work, and Blue Labour is not the right wing tendency which flowered briefly under Miliband, but Donoughue is right to seeing that bridging divides in the Party was Wilson’s critical task and his comment that “Neither side should… dominate and neglect the other”, makes sense. Unity definitely is strength.

Donoughue writes that Wilson was able to rise above factions, which Callaghan his successor was not able to do and is now virtually impossible for a Labour Leader. It would be sensible to note that Wilson’s attitude to what became the Hard Left was dismissive. Wilson had no time for Tony Benn, who like Wilson and Callaghan has largely vanished from public gaze. But that is partly due to New Labour, and Donoughue is right to suggest that the priority of Wilson as “improving the daily lives of working people from whatever class” seems a lost politics, and this was the root of the rise of UKIP. Working people were rejected by New Labour and the Referendum of 2016 was pay back time, very much so in the old mining areas Thatcher had decimated. By 2019 the memory of Thatcher had faded and Corbyn could not keep the working class who had voted UKIP in 2015 from going over to the Tories though the fault here is with Ed Miliband, who could not overcome Blairism and Toryism and reject austerity.

As Donoughue said, Wilson healed the 1972 Labour split over Europe with a referendum which he used (in 1975) “to unite and not divide”. The first referendum was a massive success, achieved a 2/3 majority against Leaving the EU (the Tories had taken the UK into the European Communityin 1972 using a parliamentary Act) and put the issue into touch for a generation. It was the behaviour of the Blair- Cameron elite, dangerously out of touch with small town Britain, which allowed that consensus to be broken. And it is a sign of how abysmal media comment and historical understanding has become that the 1975 vote is lost from sight.

It is a fact of life that when the Brexit campaigners and their papers claimed a second EU Referendum could not happen, this was true only because the 2016 vote was the second. The People’s Vote never made the case for the first referendum preceeding and justifying more than one referendum as they had no grasp of this history. A large part of British history vanished, in large part because Harold Wilson and Thatcher buried it. Donoughue shared Wilson’s view that the referendum was a “dubious device” especially when embraced by Tony Benn and his mirror image on the hard right, Enoch Powell. It was a dangerously superficial view failing to recognise that a tipping point had been reached. Had Wilson worked through the constitutional implications and made referendums a rule governed process, we would not have had the disasters which followed Cameron’s decision to keep the Tory party together by pledging a referendum at the 2015 election. Like Wilson, Cameron thought only in terms of holding his party together. Cameron thought he would copy Wilson and win the vote. Labour’s leader was the superior tactician and Wilson won a super majority to give the country 40 years in the EU, from 1975 to 2015. Both the tactical achievement and the strategical failure to work out the role of referendums are central legacies of Wilson’s time in office in the 1970s.

Wilson’s strength was in tactics. Whether a week was the limit of his vision, or he was simply overcome by a party split down the middle, taking all his energy to hold together, the fact remains he was a master tactician. Donoughue quotes his motto “he never entered a room without first establishing the best exit. That was a metaphor for his political tactics”. There is merit in this view: had Theresa May done this before triggering Article 50 she would not have been destroyed by the hard line Brexiteers who had destroyed Ted Heath John Major and David Cameron. They had no interest in power and preferred to eliminate Prime Ministers to forward their anti EU agenda.

They destroyed Theresa May who called the 2017 election thinking she could outflank them as Cameron had attempted and failed. As a destructive tendency they can easily destroy Boris Johnson and he knows that his strategy has to be to give the hard right what they want or he is out. His strategy, has worked well proving that if a week is a long time in politics, long months with a vaccination programme is even better. Wilson was a better politician than any leader since, never under threat of removal despite pressures. That no one including Johnson can say the same is a sign of the times.

To this extent tactical skill is supreme but as Wilson’s sucessors found, strategy cannot be neglected. For Labour it is essential to have a strategy. Keir Starmer has to understand the history, that the most successful leader in Labour history failed by not having one. It is not enough to muddle through. When Jim Callaghan took over from Wilson, he was unable to keep the show on the road.

Wilson alas no longer figures in a history written by the victors, namely the Blair New Labourites of the 1990s. They patronised the old Labour Right wing, the Unions and the anti-capitalist and pro public service core of the party. Donoughue argues that “it may be time to move Labour’s policies… towards the soft left”. If so it is vital to understand the legacy of Harold Wilson. Donoughue made the point that Wilson proceeded in a “modernist pragmatic way, moving forward seeking the Common Good”. That is a key lesson which counters the short termism of a Week being a Long time. Wilson did what Labour should always have as its priority – win elections. The down side to that was that he did not achieve any long term achievements of the kind Attlee had done. Until Labour regains that ability it cannot continue to ignore Harold Wilson, both his virtues and his limitations.

Trevor Fisher                          18th March 2021

Published on Labour List 11th April 2018 Updated 11th June 2020 and 18th March 2021

* which the ILP always said was invented by their leader in the 1930s, Jimmy Maxton

The lecture can be found on Lords Speakers Lectures, Harold Wilson, a flawed political genius.