YP History has been unkind to Harold Wilson, the leader who looked to the future
Published in the Yorkshire Post 14 February 2013
Fifty years ago today Harold Wilson became the first Yorkshireman to lead the Labour party. Eighteen months later he followed Frederick Robinson, Viscount Goderich, and H H Asquith as the third Yorkshireman to reach Number 10.
Of those three, Wilson was the proudest of his Yorkshire roots. He spoke frequently about his Huddersfield childhood (occasionally dramatizing its deprivations) to establish his claim to be a man of the people. He has been judged harshly by most modern historians and did himself little service by his own over-blown memoirs. His own party does not like to remind itself of the leader who won them four elections out of five. None of his successors ever expressed any spontaneous admiration for him. Harold Wilson deserves better. Yorkshire, and Britain, have some good reasons to value him and his legacy.
To begin, Harold Wilson was a superb leader of the opposition. Largely unknown outside Parliament when he took over, he dominated British politics within weeks. Comparisons are odious, but Ed Miliband could learn much from Harold Wilson (as Tony Blair did) about how to establish himself as an interesting and plausible Prime Minister in waiting. He offered a positive vision of economic growth and social advance, achieved through science and technology and the liberation of talent from barriers of class and education. It is easy now to mock Wilson’s reference to the “white heat” of scientific revolution. At the time, it was vivid and attractive.
The Wilson governments of 1964 to 1970 are usually presented in terms of failure. They did not match his promises in opposition, particularly on the economy, but they had some important achievements.
The number of students in higher education virtually doubled during Wilson’s first six years. A pet project of Wilson – the Open University – gave thousands of people outside the traditional profile of British students the chance of a degree. Under Wilson, students graduated without today’s level of debts and they could expect a job afterwards. Between 1964 and 1970 unemployment peaked at 631,000 – around 2.5 per cent of the labour force. GDP growth was disappointing – but it was still positive and over 2 per cent a year in real terms.
Wilson’s six years gave England a more equal state school system. Many people now decry the destruction of grammar schools, but few, if any, have called for the restoration of the secondary modern schools which educated the great majority of British children before comprehensives. Wilson’s policy survived because it was popular. The subsequent Conservative Education Secretary – Margaret Thatcher – allowed local authorities to wipe out more grammar schools than Wilson’s egalitarian (and expletive) Anthony Crosland.
The Wilson governments of 1964-1970 saw a raft of overdue reforms: the end of capital punishment and theatre censorship, new laws on homosexual activity and abortion. Wilson gave the vote to 18-to-21 year olds: he was not to know that this age group would be the least likely to use it. New laws against racial discrimination were some offset for timidity and expediency over immigration. The very last act of Wilson’s government led the world in giving rights to chronically sick and disabled people.
In foreign affairs, Wilson’s record now looks inglorious. But it was less costly and destructive than that of many successors. He kept Britain out of the Vietnam War. Under acute financial pressure, his Defence Secretary Denis Healey liquidated unsustainable commitments East of Suez and gave Britain more efficient and less costly armed forces with a realistic strategy. Wilson’s was the first postwar government to spend more on education than on defence: 1968 was the first (and so far, last) postwar year in which no British service personnel were killed in conflict.
The Wilson years saw Britain become the music and fashion capital of the world. He was taunted for giving the Beatles the MBE, but the citation accurately referred to their services to export.
Wilson led two more governments, in far worse times. In contrast to 1964 and 1966, voters returned him reluctantly, as an alternative to the blustering incompetence and industrial paralysis on offer from Ted Heath. Wilson’s reputation has suffered further from those final terms, which have linked him to high inflation and surrender to trade union power. His shock resignation and a controversial honours list are still a source of rumour and conspiracy theory. But Wilson can be defended. His government’s “social contract” made the unions take responsibility for their impact on inflation and the wider economy. When he resigned in 1976 he was not alone in thinking that the worst of the economic storm was over. He remains the only modern Premier to step down voluntarily because he believed that his powers were failing.
Wilson’s second term produced the EU referendum in 1975. This was a brilliant piece of party management and a lasting constitutional innovation. David Cameron once called himself the heir to Tony Blair, but his promise of renegotiation of EU membership followed by a referendum makes him the heir of Harold Wilson. It would be graceful of him to say so.
Wilson in office never matched Wilson in opposition but Yorkshire can still take pride in its third Prime Minister.