Many Labour hearts fluttered with excitement on Valentine’s Day fifty years ago. The party had elected its first classless leader. It wasn’t long before people were telling the opinion pollsters that the chirpy, pipe-smoking Harold Wilson was making the prime minister Harold Macmillan look like an Edwardian fuddy-duddy.
I can remember the stir that Wilson caused at his first party conference: he promised a Britain “forged in the white heat” of a new revolution. Science would transform industry and people’s prospects would be decided on merit rather than their social class. Within a year, Labour overturned a Tory majority of 99 and took power for the first time in 13 years. The Wilson era had begun. All the talk was of the prospect of change: more equality, opportunity and prosperity for all. And when Wilson thrashed the Tories in a second election 17 months later – in March 1966 – he looked like a man with the power to become a great prime minister.
So why is it that we look back at what Harold Wilson and his governments achieved with such disappointment? Why is it that the man who won more elections than any other prime minister in the 20th century is seen to have achieved so little?
The drab fact is that Harold Wilson’s only clear claim to greatness is that he was a great survivor. He secured power for Labour that was to last for a total of 11 years. He was in office for eight of them until his surprise resignation in March 1976. No one doubts he could have stayed until 1979 and – who knows? – with his knack for winning elections he might even have beaten Margaret Thatcher.
To be fair, there is no doubt that Britain under Harold Wilson did experience real social change. Comprehensive schools ended selective secondary education over most of the country. There was a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor. Hikes in direct taxation led to a substantial redistribution of income. Laws on homosexuality, divorce and abortion were relaxed and the death penalty was abolished.
But these developments took place against the background of a Labour government lurching from crisis to crisis. The high hopes people had of Wilson when he took office in 1964 were soon reduced to a public perception of a Prime Minister muddling on with his party increasingly divided on principles and policies. Much of the failure was due to events and forces Wilson could not control; much of it was Wilson’s own personal fault.
His main fault was that he failed to recognize and adapt to the speed of Britain’s economic decline. He clung for far too long to the delusion that Britain could remain a world power with a strong pound. He was overwhelmed and humiliated by the devaluation that was forced on him in 1967. He threw his weight behind a national plan for industrial development in the mistaken belief that the socialist planned economies were pointing the way to prosperity. He vacillated on the Common Market and only when he inherited membership from Edward Heath’s government in 1974 did he show forthright leadership in helping to deliver a decisive Yes vote in a referendum.
Wilson, the man, was a curious enigma. He had few close friends. He was obsessed with suspicion that his ministers and even the secret services were conspiring against him. It is hard to discern a single issue that he was deeply passionate about. Denis Healey, his defence secretary and chancellor of the exchequer, said Harold Wilson never gave the Labour party any sense of direction.
It has been a fascinating exercise surveying the Wilson years in such detail for BBC Parliament’s extended Valentine’s Day programme. Perhaps the most touching moment in a whole series of television performances that viewers will see him carry out with such skill is his last one as prime minister. The day he announced his surprise resignation in 1976, he said “I wish I could have been prime minister in happier times.”
Peter Snow presents Harold Wilson Night on Thursday 14 February, from 6pm-11pm on BBC Parliament