Book review: Harold Wilson - the Unprincipled Prime Minister?
Opinions on Harold Wilson may be slowly changing - and this book will play a part in the reassessment of his reputation.
A hundred years ago Harold Wilson was born in a small terraced house in the Colne Valley. Over fifty years later, when I was the young MP for the constituency, he was always eager to accept my invitations to visit his old stomping ground.
I shall never forget sharing platforms with the great man in the scattered Pennine villages. After all, he had already been prime minister for six years and I held him in awe. He retained a particular rapport with local people who loved his wit and humour. He was one of them, which was reinforced by photographs in the local paper of him watching Huddersfield Town while calmly puffing on his pipe.
Until Harold came along, many of my generation feared that Labour would never again win a general election. He recognised the challenge and offered the electorate a modernised Labour party capable of building a modern Britain. He succeeded in persuading them and when he left office in 1976, we were undoubtedly a more progressive industrial country.
It was appropriate to celebrate his birth with a book; yet it was not obvious how to do so. We already had excellent biographies including the seminal works of Ben Pimlott and Philip Ziegler. The authors of this book responded by gathering essays from academics, each dealing with Wilson’s activities in their own specialist fields. Supplementing these, political practitioners were invited to add their considered judgements of him. The result is telling.
Some of the academics are more critical than others, but generally Harold is being seen in a more positive light than suggested in the book’s subtitle of The Unprincipled Prime Minister?
Hardly any of the contributors even mention this. An exception is Robert M Page who writes, “Although Wilson’s pragmatism led many commentators and associates to regard him as unprincipled, cynical and even untrustworthy, this was not the impression that held sway among ordinary Labour voters. For them, Wilson was seen as someone who was amusing, down-to-earth, with hobbies and interests similar to their own and who really did have their best interests at heart.” This accords with my recollection of the man who won four general elections for Labour.
When, however, the contributions are considered in the round, there is acknowledgement and appreciation of the difficulties that Wilson inherited in 1964; a fractured unmodernised society, a broken economy with horrific balance of payments problems and a fractious party.
An interesting hint of a divide appears between the academics and the politicians. The mainstream practitioners who were active in the years of Harold’s premiership all indicate support and admiration for the way he held the Labour party together, sought to drag Britain into the modern era and presided over a series of liberalisation acts including abolition of the death penalty and the legalisation of homosexuality, abortion and divorce.
Perhaps it was expected for Labour politicians to take this view but the former Liberal leader, David Steel, writes, “the overall impact of the Wilson premierships was positive. His achievements were humane. Britain was generally a more free and civilised country by the time he left office in 1976… My abiding memory is of a man of innate decency and ability.”
Harold Wilson has not always been accorded the highest reputation in the years since his retirement but I feel that slowly opinions are changing. This book will play a part in this reassessment, which pleases me as I have always regarded Harold as someone special. He was clever, kind and caring and he left a better Britain than the one he inherited.
Lord Clark of Windermere is a Labour peer and was MP for Colne Valley, 1970-1974, and South Shields, 1979-2001
Harold Wilson: The Unprincipled Prime Minister? Is edited by Andrew S Crines & Kevin Hickson
and published by Biteback. This article was first published in The House magazine.