A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

Harold-Wilson-006

They seemed almost 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 and 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.

image_update_fc2386a1bdeaa8a8_1356951244_9j-4aaqsk

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 do better.

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 1992and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories were 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.

edwardHeath_2230873b

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 similar one to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in 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 he still seemed a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

p01h3n9l

Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority y was vanishing 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 name further 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 expected to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway. But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

15318

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 do 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 c laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

rtx1mv3l

Advertisements

General Election memories 8: 2010

New government starts

Exeter, May 6th 2010

A few things changed in the next few years. I moved inevitably from my late twenties into my early thirties. My social life in Exeter prospered. Despite not knowing anyone in Devon at all on my arrival, I soon met loads of people through both my shared house band my job at DVD Monthly magazine. The job was very enjoyable too. I am a huge film buff and got to see tons of films and even got to interview a fair few stars.

cam 2 2010

2007 was the year Tony Blair (still then viewed as a very successful Prime Minister) bid the nation a fond farewell as leader and I left the magazine for a less glamorous but theoretically more secure job on the local paper. Still more crucially, that was also the year I met the love of my life Nicky. We moved into a small rented house in Exeter together just before the 2010 General Election.

Welsh Conservative conference

In the meantime, things had started to go less well for everyone thanks to the global economic slump which began in 2008. I myself lost my job on the vulnerable property section of the paper at the end of 2008 (the DVD magazine went under after nine years at almost exactly the same time) and I would be either unemployed or in slightly unsuitable temporary non-journalism jobs for the next two years or so. At the time of the 2010 election, I was working at a solicitor’s in Taunton. The other employees (mostly trainee  solicitors) were all very nice (I had got the job through one of them, an ex-housemate) but I was ill suited to the work and the car share arrangement to work from Exeter to Taunton each day was awkward, particularly as I didn’t have a car and could not drive.

My hours were long and although I knew the job would be ending soon, I felt slightly as if I was missing the election. Exeter had an excellent Labour MP called Ben Bradshaw. He had served in the Brown government and had been an MP since 1997 but in 2010 was looking quite vulnerable. I wanted to help more.

Bradshaw

For Labour were clearly heading for defeat nationwide, of that there was little doubt.  History will probably judge Gordon Brown kinder than we do. He stopped Britain from entering the Euro and later probably prevented the recession from becoming a full blown depression. The global slump had nothing to do with government overspending. Virtually nobody claimed this at the time simply because it was self evidently not true. Government spending did not seriously escalate until the banks needed bailing out, something the Tories supported at this point. Indeed, the chief Tory complaint at this time was that the markets were overregulated: the exact opposite of the truth.

Brown, was, however, temperamentally unsuited too leadership in some ways and though very much a Tony Blair wannabe, the new young Tory leader David Cameron did at least look the part.

2010

Nicky and I did our bit; Nicky holding some Labour balloons for Ben Bradshaw (who thankfully retained his seat) even though she actually ended up voting Liberal Democrat. We also both went to see Lord Prescott speaking in the street in Exeter during a campaign visit.

Perhaps this election is too recent to view with any real historical perspective. But to summarise in case you’ve forgotten:

Nick Clegg, the previously unknown Lib Dem leader blew everyone away during the TV debates and briefly, amazing as it now seems, became the most popular leader since Churchill. Yet on election night, the Lib Dems in fact did only about as well as normal. Cleggmania now seems like a myth.

VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

The good news, however, was that the people hadn’t forgotten how bad the Tories were and they fell well short of real power, yet again. They hadn’t managed to secure a majority since 1992. Thank God (2017: no longer true. Will do a follow-up piece soon).

The subsequent Tory-Lib Dem coalition was a surprise but there didn’t seem much point Labour clinging onto power. We had clearly lost. But this was new uncharted territory.

Nick-Clegg

 

 

Book review: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

jeremy-thorpe

Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.

Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.

The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).

Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.

Jeremy-Thorpe-2

Jeremy Thorpe

Michael Bloch

Published by: Little Brown

Why this clumsy Coalition of clots isn’t working

Image

The oddest thing about Britain’s Coalition Government is that so few people saw it coming.

Coalitions are quite rare in the UK, it’s true. No party has won more than 50% in a General Election since 1931 but the First Past the Post system is designed to almost guarantee big majorities. Yet occasionally, as in 1974, this doesn’t happen. It happened again in 2010.

I’m not blaming anyone but it also seems odd that so few people anticipated the eventual Conservative/ Liberal Democrat Coalition. Most people seemed to assume either that the Tories would win outright or that the third party would fulfil its usual role of backing Labour. Until the 1920s, Labour would generally support the larger Liberal Party in Hung Parliament situations. When their roles were reversed, the Liberals generally did the same for Labour as with the 1977-79 Lib-Lab Pact.

This wouldn’t have made sense in 2010. The arithmetic did not favour it. The right decisions were made. The problem is that the current situation pleases nobody.

Tory supporters are just frustrated that they didn’t win outright. The Conservative agenda is frustrated by the fact that the people clearly didn’t really want them back in power. Every u turn is blamed on the Lib Dems. In truth, David Cameron is starting to look like a weak leader anyway.

Labour supporters aren’t happy either. They are glad not to be part of the Coalition. But they are still denied power.

The Lib Dems are also unhappy. The party leadership is guilty of treachery in many supporters’ eyes. The party has failed to fulfil any of its own desires (such as electoral reform or changes to the House of Lords). Nor is it adequately restraining the usual excesses of a Tory Party in power. The Lib Dems more than anyone else risk annihilation in 2015. Nick Clegg looks increasingly vulnerable as leader.

But who is to blame? Normally the wishes of the electorate can be summarised in one sentence e.g. 1979 people had grown weary of strikes and slow growth and wished to give Mrs Thatcher a chance or  1997 with the Tories hopelessly split and damaged by sleaze, the public flocked to New Labour.

But what verdict did the 2010 result send out? People don’t like Gordon Brown but don’t really want the Tories back either?

Ultimately, the country was ready for change in 2010, but even after thirteen years in Opposition, the Tories had still failed to transform themselves into an appealing alternative government.

The Tories have failed democracy and failed Britain too.