Saturday, June 23, 2007

Memories of Harold Wilson

I met Harold Wilson on August 17th 1990 at a musical review production on the Isles of Scilly. My wife and I were going to watch the gig racing that evening but it was chucking it down. So the only entertainment we could find was this review. There were only two tickets left, because it was only a few minutes before the production, and I was separated from my wife. The booking lady gave me a seat right down the front at the side, which had been marked with an "X" as if no one should sit in it.

I was rather surprised to find myself sitting next to Lord Wilson. I sat next to him during the production and chatted to him before it started and in the interval. He struck me as being a lovable old grandpa, and I wouldn't have guessed that he was ill. He did actually remember several things in detail. Here are some of notes I wrote the same day of the meeting:

Pointing to the 'No Smoking' sign Harold Wilson said: "I haven't brought my pipes of course, but there used to be a thing called "Nosmo King" - I'm surprised Her Majesty's Inspectors didn't crack down on it because they were normally quite tough on that sort of thing."

After most of the musical pieces, he turned to me and said "That's very good". He laughed at the comic pieces and after one hilarious tableau involving "lifeboat men" in huge sea wellies "rescuing" (carrying off) women to an accompaniment of buckets of "sea" (water) being thrown over them, he turned to me and said: "I think this will go down as the best they've ever done."

He asked me where I came from and whether I was busy. He said he came from "'Uddersfield" but when he was quite small his father got told to move to Lancashire so they had to move - but it was alright in the end. He said his father was a top industrial man and he (Harold) went to college then to Oxford for three years on a scholarship, then he was a lecturer for a few years, then he went "down South". He said he lived very near the House of Lords and when he wasn't there he did a lot of walking.

He said the Lords were very gentlemanly and after the debates they talked to each other and said things like "Why did you say that?" in the bar.

He said that he started his parliamentary career in the House of Lords because the House of Commons had been bombed. "Not a lot of people know that", he said. He said that when he was Prime Minister the Isles of Scilly nearly ran out of money. So he gave an order for them to be given more money - "I got a man in and gave him the order". "After all", he said "they give a lot of money to the Scottish Isles, so why not the Scillies?". Anyway, he said, he was going there in three weeks time so it would have been rather embarrassing if the islands had been closed when he got there!

He said his son was a top Maths person and had been to the States about 12 times.

During the concert we all sang "Happy Birthday" for one of the cast. At the end, noting that I had a low singing voice like him, he said to me "We're both stuck with bass, I'm afraid."

From my memory, he said that he had "been Prime Minister for three terms" (I think it was three that he said - I didn't make a note of that sentence) and when I said I had been out fishing and saw the Trinity House surveying ship, he mentioned that he was an Elder Brother of Trinity House.

I mention all this because it is often thought that Wilson spent his whole life in a dark cloud from 1980. But, as Lady Wilson confirms, he was "very calm". He was ill, but my conversation shows that even in that illness he had patches of what I would describe, for his age at the time, as perfectly normal behaviour.

There is an excellent and rare interview with Mary Wilson, widow of Harold Wilson, in the Daily Mail today. It was conducted by Roy Hattersley. It is worth a read.

It is a timely reminder of the last Labour Prime Minister who stood down voluntarily. Mary Wilson says of the 1976 resignation:

As she charts his decline, she gives the lie to the persistent rumour that there was something deeply mysterious about his surprise resignation. Among the more sinister whispers was that MI5 had been about to expose him as a KGB agent.

At the time, Harold Wilson was a fixture in everyone's lives: the pipe-smoking PM who had devalued "the pound in your pocket", confirmed our membership of the Common Market and predicted the "white heat" of the coming technological revolution.

There seemed no reason for him to step down - and no convincing explanation was put forward. But the truth, Mary says, is simple. After his unexpected election victory in 1974, "Harold always meant to go quite quickly".

So why did he choose to make his announcement in the spring of 1976?

"He'd had enough. There was a seamen's strike, which he had just dealt with. He told me that he could not deal with it with the same level of energy, the same zest . . . and, possibly, he began to feel that his memory was going."

The article also reminds us that the Wilsons did not move into Downing Street after Labour's 1974 election victory, but stayed in their flat in Lord North Street. That, in itself, retrospectively, perhaps, confirms that Wilson didn't intend to stay long in office when he won in 1974.

However, it is strange to see Hattersley writing: "There seemed no reason for him to step down" because on Question Time, a few weeks ago, Hattersley inferred that Wilson was forced to step down. Perhaps we can put it down to Roy H being in a pressurised situation on the programme - he was on the ropes a bit on the question he was answering at the time.


  1. Absolutely fascinating. One day I will write a book rehabilitating Wilson - a much maligned man and in some senses Britain's last Liberal Prime Minister.

  2. Thanks very much, Ed. Yes, he certainly seemed to have a reasonably collegiate approach, especially in contrast to Tony Blair. I think I read somewhere that Wilson's father was a Liberal.

  3. HE was a Liberal at university. The social reforms enacted during his first term in office are the foundations of everything the Daily Mail hates about Britain (therefore they must be good).

    He was a political pragmatist who kept Britain out of an American war and while there was much to criticise about his record he worked within the constraints of his party and his time.

    Its interesting to speculate how things would have gone in the first half of the 1970s if Labour had won the 1970 election - would the best post-war prime minister we never had (Jenkins) have steered a more competent course as Chancellor than did Tony Barber? Would Barbara Castle have followed through on union reforms. Would the SDP and the Alliance ever have happened if Labour had been in power when the UK joined the Common Market? And England might not have got beaten by Germany in the quarter finals of the 1970 World Cup either of course.

  4. Interesting thoughts Ed. The contrast between Wilson, refusing to give Lyndon Johnson "even an army band" in Vietnam, and Blair's committing troops with the US in Iraq, is very sharp and will, I think, be one of the clearest historical perspectives on Blair. One wonders if Wilson was much more acutely conscious of the Labour party than Blair, and that perhaps this was at the heart of their sharply different behaviours in remarkably similar situations.

  5. In fairness to Blair, though, he recognised that he needed to change the Labour Party in order for them to become electable - and that was never going to make him popular within it.

    Wilson was in charge at a time when social democratic notions of what to do with the economy we very much in vogue so he was working with the grain on that. Not sure what some of the more old Labour types would have made of his liberalising social agenda though.

    The interesting thing about Wilson for me is his political skill. Judging by the various diaries (of admittedly biased observers including hopeless snobs like Crossman), cabinet management wasnt his strength. But his ability to spin his personal image to the public was enviable. He was a good deal more 'Uddersfield than Oxbridge in his public persona - deliberately masking a considerable intellect.