A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed  like total opposites.

Wilson seemed working-class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath seemed stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor, champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.

Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago in the year 1916.

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Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being rather a dull figure under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe-smoking working class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t win by a wider margin.

Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the Tory answer it Wilson.

Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, Heath’s last chance. As in 1992 and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories got back with a majority.

As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.

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Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise, was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a very small one, similar in size to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in serious trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had done. He never forgave her and remained a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

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Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority was vanishing fast and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his reputation with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. (They were wrong: Wilson had not been favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway, so aside from anything else, he had no real motive). But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

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Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to pursue both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.

Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

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Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston

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Book review: Modernity Britain Book Two A Shake of the Dice 1959-62, David Kynaston. Published by Bloomsbury.

They sometimes say that if you can remember the nineteen sixties, you weren’t there. Well, I genuinely wasn’t there, I know this for a fact. But after reading this, the second part of the third volume of David Kynaston’s masterful collection of books spanning the period from the Attlee victory in 1945 to its bitter denouement in May 1979, I sort of feel like I lived through it.
Or at least the first part of the Sixties. For this book takes us to the half way point in Kynaston’s saga. It is a nation in transition. The colossal changes of the Sixties have not quite began at the end of the book. The Beatles are no longer The Quarrymen. They have been to Hamburg but they have not fully taken off yet. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s names are getting mentioned but the satire boom has not yet really got going either. John Profumo is still just another minister in the government. Harold Macmillan is still in office although his hold on power looks less secure by 1962 than it did when the book starts after his General Election triumph of October 1959. Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell meanwhile survives a party crisis, a challenge from Harold Wilson and a brief Liberal Party revival after their sensational 1962 Orpington by-election win. But neither Mac or Hugh will turn out to be leading their parties by the time of the 1964 election.
This is a nation poised between the “Never had it so good” years and the “white heat” of another Harold’s technological revolution. Big important issues such a immigration, slum clearance, tower block building and the issue of British decline are being faced and in some cases botched. But it is Kynaston’s mixture of the lives of the stars, the stars of the future (new Tory MP Margaret Thatcher of Finchley begins to make her presence felt), the perfectly ordinary which makes these books such a delight.
In 1961, for example, rising Carry On star Kenneth Williams (then in his mid-thirties) complains of the heat. On the same day, the future Princess Diana is being born. In 1960, Labour politician Michael Foot asserts boldly (and probably wrongly) that “Like it or not, the most spectacular events of our age is the comparative success of the Communist economic systems…the achievement by any reckoning is stupendous”. Barbara Windsor, the 23 year old star of Joan Littlewood’s “Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be” scoffs at the idea that she might return to the Theatre Royal shreiking: “Are you kidding? I’m finished with all that ten quid a week lark. I’m not in this business for art’s sake, you know – I’m in it for the money. Besides, I’ve got too many expenses to keep up. I’ve just bought a telly.”
Beloved Dixon of Dock Green actor Jack Warden has an easy solution to the “problem” of a group of teenagers he sees loafing on the street. “Bring back the birch,” he says.
This is a marvelous book. Roll on the undoubtedly still more eventful next volume.

The best (Labour) Prime Ministers we never had

Who should have been Prime Minster but never got the chance?

(A Tory list is to follow shortly!)

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Hugh Gaitskell

(Life: 1906-1963. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1950-51. Labour leader: 1955-1963)

The case for: With the exception of Neil Kinnock, no post-war politician has done the hardest job in British politics (Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) for as long as Hugh Gaitskell did: over seven years. A youthful Chancellor during Attlee’s last days, Gaitskell had already made an enemy of the unofficial leader of the party’s Left, Nye Bevan. Always a right-winger in the party, Gaitskell struggled to prevent full blown civil war both before and after their heavy 1959 General Election defeat despite a tearful conference address in which he pledged to “fight and fight again” to save the party he loved. Tragically, just as Labour seemed to be finally pulling together, Gaitskell suddenly fell ill and died in early 1963. His successor Harold Wilson, boosted by Tory chaos after the Profumo Affair, led Labour back into power in October 1964. Many, particularly acolytes like George Brown and Roy Jenkins felt it should have been Hugh. Or failing that, them.

The case against: To be fair, the public never loved Gaitskell. He led Labour to defeat in 1959 and might have done again in 1964. As an adulterer himself (he was having an affair with James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s wife – some even suspected Gaitskell was poisoned by the KGB) he might have lacked moral authority during the Tories’ Profumo sex scandal. Wilson himself, indeed, only won power himself very narrowly after his election as leader prompted a surge in Labour popularity. Would Gaitskell have done the same?

The verdict: We will never know.

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Roy Jenkins

(Life: 1920-2002. Home Secretary 1965-1967. 1974-1976. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1967-1970. EEC President: 1977-1981. SDP leader: 1982-1983)

The case for: Jenkins’ spell as Home Secretary must rank as one of the most successful ministries ever. In just a few short years, he oversaw the abolition of capital punishment, ended the death penalty, legalised homosexuality and liberalised the abortion and divorce laws. Few politicians changed British life as much as he did.

The case against: With his posh manner, liking for the fine things in life and speech impediment, “Woy” Jenkins was often described as “nature’s old Etonian” even though unlike his colleagues Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Tony Benn, he was actually from genuine working class stock, in fact a Welsh mining community. But his position as a right-wing pro-European was unfashionable at the time. He scored poorly in the 1976 leadership contest following Wilson’s resignation and after a spell as President of the EEC returned as a founder member of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981. The SDP really did seem set to win power for a period in 1981, but a combination of internal feuding, Thatcher’s Falklands victory and an unfair electoral system saw them perform badly in 1983, scoring almost as many votes as Labour but scarcely any seats. In old age, Jenkins advised Tony Blair on electoral reform  as a Lib Dem peer (Blair ignored him) and wrote numerous biographies of historical figures such as Gladstone and Asquith.

The verdict:  He never led Britain but undoubtedly changed the nation more than many who have.

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Denis Healey.

(Born: 1917. Defence Secretary: 1964-1970. Chancellor of the Exchequer: 1974-1979. Deputy Labour leader: 1981-1983).

The case for: Healey was a familiar figure on TV in the Seventies and Eighties, famed not only for his distinctive eyebrows and sense of humour but also for his formidable intellect, debating power and competence. An ex-communist and (like Jenkins) a Second World War veteran, Healey oversaw the British military disengagement “East of Suez”  in the Sixties and endured a rocky ride as Chancellor during the 1976 IMF Crisis, famously turning his car away from the airport where he was planning a conference trip abroad when the crisis grew too severe. In fact, the loan was later recognised as unnecessary and due to a treasury error. After Labour’s 1979 defeat, many were astonished when the elderly, scruffy and un-telegenic left winger Michael Foot beat the only slightly younger but far more popular Healey for the Labour leadership in 1980. Did the members planning to defect to the SDP vote for Foot in the hope of strengthening their cause? A few votes would have made all the difference. At any rate, Foot, though a decent and highly intellectual man proved a disastrous leader. The party split, the new SDP rejecting Labour’s new anti-nuclear and anti-EEC positions. Healey himself fought off a serious left-wing challenge for the Deputy leadership from Tony Benn in 1981. Both Labour and the SDP performed disastrously in the 1983 election. But Healey, to his credit, never deserted Labour.

The case against: Healey would have almost certainly fared better as Labour leader than Foot did after 1980 and may well have prevented the damaging SDP split. But whether even he could have prevented Margaret Thatcher being returned in the post-Falklands 1983 election (winning a majority of 144) is open to question. Particularly as Healey could sometimes be quite gaffe-prone himself during election campaigns, accusing Thatcher of “glorifying in slaughter” in 1983 and suggesting the Russians wanted a Labour victory before the 1987 contest.

The verdict: The best Prime Minister we never had? Perhaps. Lord Healey has now outlived virtually all of his ex-colleagues and rivals. He is ninety-six.

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John Smith

(Life: 1938-1994. Labour leader: 1992-1994).

The case for: Labour was at a very low ebb indeed when John Smith was elected leader in July 1992. Labour had just suffered her fourth defeat, this time during a recession. Many doubted Labour would ever win again. As leader, Smith projected an air of competency which Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock had always lacked. Though his election as leader generated less excitement than Blair’s did in 1994, his strong often witty Commons performances, his success in abolishing the union block vote and the total Tory collapse after Black Wednesday, the pit closures, Back to Basics, the Maastricht Tory civil war and Tory sleaze made a Labour victory in 1996 or 1997 inevitable. His sudden death following a heart attack in May 1994 triggered a period of genuine mourning.

The case against: As the architect of Labour’s unpopular tax plans, Shadow Chancellor Smith is sometimes blamed for Kinnock’s 1992 election defeat. He was also accused of being too laidback as leader and effectively hoping victory would fall into his lap. However, despite no New Labour-esque attempts to woo business or the press, in 1994 Smith’s strategy seemed to be working.

The verdict: The Tory disintegration was so total under John Major that had Smith lived it is almost inconceivable that he would not have become Prime Minister. Had he lived, he would now be seventy-five.

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David Miliband

(Born: 1965. Foreign Secretary: 2007-2010).

The case for: Despite being the more experienced, better known and older of the two Miliband brothers, David narrowly lost the 2010 leadership contest to his brother Ed despite winning more votes from MPs and party members.

The case against: Although probably better on TV than his brother, David has endured image issues too (notably the “Banana Incident”) and lacked the killer instinct to take a stance for or against Gordon Brown at critical times in government. But ultimately his Blairism and (like Hilary Clinton in 2008) his support for the Iraq War and somewhat arrogant manner probably cost him victory.

The verdict: Unproven. Ed Milband seems neither as bad as his detractors say, nor his brother as good. And with David Miliband still under fifty, he could yet make a comeback. True, he’s not an MP. But then neither is Boris Johnson (who is the same age). The tragedy is that as brothers neither can easily serve under the other.

Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson: fifty years on

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Sudden deaths in front-line British politics are mercifully quite rare. In 1970, Iain Macleod died suddenly a month after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a desperate blow to Edward Heath’s new Tory Government. In 1994, Opposition leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Had Smith lived, it seems virtually certain he would have led Labour back into power in 1997, instead of Tony Blair.

Although he had been leading Labour for seven years at the time of his death fifty years ago, (he led the Opposition for longer than any other post-war leader except Neil Kinnock) it is less certain Hugh Gaitskell would ever have enjoyed the trappings of Downing Street even had he survived what turned out to be his final illness. True, Labour did win power again in October 1964. But this was only after Gaitskell’s successor Harold Wilson had immeasurably boosted the party. And even then it was a narrow win. Gaitskell had lost the 1959 election heavily and might well have led the party to defeat again. We will never know.

The youthful, combative Harold Wilson was undoubtedly the right choice for the party at the time, even though his subsequent leadership after the Labour landslide of 1966 would ultimately prove disappointing. George Brown, who came second in the race, was to prove a notoriously erratic figure and later that year appeared drunk on TV (having just provoked a fight with US actor Eli Wallach) on a  programme on which he was being interviewed about President Kennedy’s assassination which had occurred earlier that day. James Callaghan, who came third in the 1963 leadership, would eventually lead Labour and the UK himself between 1976 and 1979.

Alas, Hugh Gaitskell famous for his two conference speeches in which he tearfully pledged to “fight and fight again to save the party we love” and another in which he declared that European integration threatened to end “a thousand years of British history” would never get this opportunity to lead his country.  After years spent fighting the Left and working to keep the party alive, he died just as things were finally falling into place.

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