Harold Wilson: A Biography

Published in History Today

Lives of former prime ministers have lost, if the biographer is wise, their triumphal quality. Horn's Macmillan tried to keep up its cheerfulness and paid the penalty in credibility. Whoever takes up the grievous history of Margaret Thatcher will have to follow the Hallelujah chorus and 'As we, like Sheep' with 'Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened'!

For Britain, heads of government, after the brief efflorescence which the press gives them, have turned into symbols of defeat - emblematic bearers of blame and derision. But the consensual dismissal of Harold Wilson even before the end of his effectual life (pitifully closed by intellectual collapse) means that biography should incline to rescue. Terms like 'revisionist' are being used about Ben Pimlott's full and highly readable piece of scholarship. But a prime minister who outperformed the growth rate of his trumpetted successor, under whom unemployment knocked around the 700,000 mark, who neither sought to, nor succeeded in, 'smashing' anything, and who was a decent human being, deserves revision.

I wish that Ben Pimlott, for all his excellence, was a little rougher. The account of the slandering of Wilson by a clutch of fascist-minded intelligence officers in need of psychiatric help deserves a blazing set piece of high profile contempt rather than the quiet, matter of fact dismissal given here. But even so, Pimlott is a good restorer perhaps precisely because he resists dazzlement. Never seeking to show off or advance Pimlott through Wilson, he is a truer biographer.

For an instance, the account of Marcia Williams, though charitable to that wearying woman, is not likely to be bettered. It honestly describes a politically fascinated man's enjoyment of the company of a politically fascinated woman when his sane and wise wife was candidly averse to politics and contemptuous of the glitter circuit. It is also a final rejoinder to oceans of tattle. But the parallel account of a weak man's inability to sack or do without this debilitating scold also measures Wilson - too weak, too nice. To have let her effectively drive out the excellent Derek Mitchell indicates calamitous frailty.

Mary Wilson, sneered at by the poisonous Richard Ingrams circle as 'Gladys', the name she chose not to use, the petty bourgeois joke figure, loved being a don's wife and quite enjoyed the circuit of an MP, but had values which vomitted up the Falscberei of the Whitehall cocktail circuit. She said that the only good thing about the parties there was that the long dresses worn let you use up laddered tights. Mary Wilson would be echoed in the view of her successor, Norma Major, another soldierer-on, that the prime minister and his wife were 'fawned upon by those who would call them "dear little people" if it wasn't for John's job'.

These little people were actually as rooted as we English can be. One has heard such scorn among Tory colleagues for the little man's choice of grand-sounding Rievaulx for his title. Pimlott demonstrates here that Rievaulx was the home of Wilson's yeoman line for twenty identifiable generations until his great grandfather, John, moved away. Sir Alec Home's good natured rejoinder about 'the fourteenth Mr Wilson' was actually understated. He was something like the twenty-third Mr Wilson.

Through Harold Wilson, as shown here in fair, friendly hands, ran the highest paper intelligence, ambition without fully focused purpose and a personal solicitude and flinching from hurting people which, in a prime minister, astonishes and delights, he also displayed an underlying lack of nerve. Wilson on the way up was more effective and less attractive. The view of him in 1960 as a swivel-bottomed careerist lining up with a cause, unilateralism, in which he did not believe, was only a half truth. The reality given here, of a Wilson deferring to pressures and nervously watching other jumpers-in like Anthony Greenwood, is even more depressing. Wilson was only opportunistic by defensive reflex.

As prime minister, he was so often the kindly minder of other men's failings, not least poor, agitated, gin-triggered, emotionally wound-up George Brown. Though ironically the instincts of Brown on devaluation (from 1965) were right, those of James Callaghan and Wilson himself were wrong. Wrong for several reasons, one of them recollection of the humiliation of 1949 and Conservative exploitation of it.

But reading Pimlott, one thinks of another reader for whom this book should stay always at hand. There is as full an account here as one wants to read of the destructive factionalism of Labour, the little groups of us and them, malign people like Colonel Wigg, happy trouble-stirrers like Crossman and some very high-strung Labour right-wingers who seemed programmed to get Wilson wrong. It would all end in tears six years after Wilson was finally gone with the creation of the SDP. Thoughts here are of those who:

fretted the pygmy body to decay And o'er informed the tenement of clay

But this account of Wilson's fruitless peacemaking, the necessary process of saying something to one faction and doing the opposite for the other, is a terrible warning to the present, equally gentle-handed tenant of Downing Street. John Major's straddling speech at Brighton in October 1992, all road cones and no knickers, was perfectly Wilsonian in its desire to keep the peace while people who hissingly hate him, snarled on the mountain of conference. Wilson would be damned for a falseness he didn't have and for a fear of leadership which was real.

Mr Major should read Pimlott's superb Harold Wilson and kill somebody.

About the Author:

Edward Pearce is the author of Election Rides (Faber, 1992).

 

Harold Wilson: A Biography

Harper Collins 668 pp.

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