Sunday, February 26, 2006

In Political Praise of: Harold Wilson

(BBC Online)

When I was about thirteen years old, I went with my family on holiday to the Scilly Isles, and it was whilst we were browsing through a shop on St. Mary's that my Dad told us to have a look outside, which we did.
In the distance, with their backs to us, down the main street, was Harold Wilson with his wife, chatting to one of the locals. If nothing else, the gimmicks were a giveaway, what with the pipe in Wilson's mouth and the labrador who was with them.
By then he was definetly past his best. A retired Prime Minister with a seat in the House of Lords, who now lead a quiet and almost reclusive life, due to his long battle with Alzheimer's, but this image I have in my mind is for me what made part of Wilson's character. A man who was fairly ordinary and used his genuine pleasures in life as an advantage and not made up or exaggerated for the sake of spin.
Born in Huddersfield in 1916, Wilson was educated at the local grammar school, before obtaining a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford in 1934, to study History.
During this time, Wilson was active in politics to be a member of the Liberal Party (before switching to Labour), but not enough to become involved heavily at University level, nor to get involved with the Oxford Union. Indeed, one of his contemparies and future member of his cabinets, Dennis Healey, cannot remember Wilson at Oxford at all, and yet was a friend of the future Conservative leader, Edward Heath. Wilson's energies were firmly on his academic career. After switching to Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, he graduated with a brilliant first class degree and ended up as one of the youngest Oxford University dons of the 20th century.
Wilson's career might have continued in that vein had it not been for the War. He enlisted, but was classified as a specialist and was moved to the Civil Service, spending the War as a Whitehall civil servant at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. This galvanised a desire to be involved in full-time party politics. He was adopted as a Parliamentary candidate for Ormskirk, resigned as a civil servant, and was elected in Labour's landslide victory in the 1945 general election.
His reputation had preceeded him and he was immediately made a Junior Minister and appointed to the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade within two years at the tender age of thirty-one. Making him the youngest cabinet minister of the Twentieth Century, before resigning with Minister for Labour, Nye Bevan in 1951 over the introduction of NHS medical charges.
Wilson was seen at the time as someone who was very much to the left of the Party. Something which helped trigger a misunderstanding of Wilson from most people. Harold Wilson was first and foremost a Labour politician, but he was also a shrewd pragmatist with some right-wing tendencies, coupled with the realisation that the Party had elements within it that wanted to stamp their version of socialism on the Labour Party, whether it was Social Democracy or proto-communist, and that the rest had to swallow it or go hang. In order to preserve the main ideological aims of the Labour Party, Wilson knew he had to keep the threads together. It was both brilliant and destructive, for it meant that, as leader, he did not fully deal with the rise of the hard left within the Party when they loomed on the horizon.
After the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963, Wilson was elected Labour leader, bringing the Party to victory in the 1964 general election. It came with a majority of four, but Wilson managed to put forward a firm programme of government, modelled on the policies and activities of the Kennedy administration. He brought Labour a majority of 97 in the 1966 general election.
Wilson managed to skirt through a series of potentially damaging acts, such as the devaluation of the pound in 1967, in a way that accused his opponents of deviousness, but there is much to praise him for. He launched sanctions against Rhodesia, attacked South Africa for his policy of Apartheid, helped found the Open University and resisted British involvement in the Vietnam War. All of this was not enough to prevent Labour's defeat at the hands of Edward Heath in 1970, but it may of helped (along with the addition of Heath's inhability to handle the growing industrial unrest) Labour's return to power in the Feb 1974 general election, cemented with another general election that October.
Wilson then threw his last masterstroke. He dealt with the growing national and party divisions over Britain's membership of the European community by calling for a referendum, allowing party members to agree to differ in public. The result saw a 2 to 1 favour to retain membership (which Wilson wanted).
He then shook everyone by resigning in March 1976, a week after his sixtieth birthday. It's now thought he did this because he was aware that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and wanted to enjoy a few years of retirement before the clouds closed in.
He may have been shabby in his choice of friends, he may have made some crucial mistakes, he may have been opurtunist. But Wilson was no Lloyd George and did much to keep Britian afloat in it's place in the World during difficult times.

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