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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Why Richard Nixon was pretty bad, after all

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Forty years after his resignation as US president and twenty years after his death, many have sought to revise the general opinion about disgraced US president Richard Nixon. But though he did achieve successes,  it’s worth remembering: he was known as “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…

The Pink Lady campaign

Nixon played dirty from an early stage, shamelessly exploiting the post-war ‘Red Scare’ to demolish his Democrat opponent, the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in his 1950 campaign for the US Senate.  Although she was basically a New Deal Democrat, Nixon using provocative and sexist language labelled her “the Pink Lady…pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed saying the same thing. Douglas lost and gave up politics (her granddaughter is the actress, Illeana Douglas). Nixon won by a landslide and became a senator but at a price: he would be known as “Tricky Dicky” forever.

Sabotaged peace talks

Having lost the 1960 election narrowly to JFK, Nixon wasn’t prepared to do so again in November 1968. But President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to halt the bombing campaign in Vietnam in October was calculated to help Nixon’s opponent Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Acting covertly, Nixon used an intermediary to sabotage the peace talks. The Humphrey team knew about it, but confident of victory, stayed quiet. Instead, Nixon won narrowly. The truth wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1994.

Foreign policy dishonest

Nixon was elected claiming to have a “secret plan to end the war.” In fact, he had no plan. He first attempted to win the war as  Johnson had, by fighting, also illegally invading Cambodia before ultimately withdrawing US forces and  ensuring a Communist victory (in fairness, probably an inevitable outcome, whatever he did). Nixon’s administration also backed General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende government in Chile in 1973, leading to the deaths of 3,000 people.

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Obsessed with his “enemies”

Nixon generally confused legitimate and fair political opponents with enemies of the state. His “enemies list” included everyone from Senator Ted Kennedy to entertainers like Bill Cosby (ahem) and Barbara Streisand.

Watergate

In 1972, having sabotaged the primary campaign of his most feared opponent Senator Ed Muskie, the Nixon team’s attempts to wiretap and destroy their political opponents escalated when a botched break-in at Democrat HQ led to the Watergate scandal which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. No scandal, other than the Iran-Contra scandal, has come close to Watergate in terms of severity. Nixon lied repeatedly, humiliated his country and himself and destroyed his own presidency.

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Second term blues

Barack Obama Is Sworn In As 44th President Of The United States

So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?

Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).

Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.

Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.

To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.

That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.

Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.

 Richard M. Nixon (Rep).

Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.

January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.

But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?

In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.

Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.

Ronald Reagan (Rep).

Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.

Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.

The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.

The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.

Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.

Bill Clinton (Dem).

Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.

Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.

Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.

George W. Bush (Rep).

“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.

Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.

Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.Imagea

Is this the future?

Picture the scene. It is a cold day on January 20th 2013. A huge crowd has gathered in Washington DC to witness the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

This is the future. Or is it? The reality is that Americans are almost certainly going to have to wait a bit longer for a new president. For by far the most likely outcome of the November 2012 presidential election is that the Barack Obama will be re-elected, only the third Democrat to win a second term in US history. Barring tragedy or serious scandal, Obama will be in the White House until 2017.

Part of this is down to the total failure of the rival Republican Party to find anyone decent to run against him. The fact that a suitable front runner hasn’t yet emerged from the Republican pack is not in itself a bad thing. It is only February. At this stage of the electoral cycle, four years ago, Democrats were still a long way from choosing between Obama and Hillary Clinton and that delay (much more severe than this) didn’t ultimately do them any serious harm.

But there is a difference. Senators Clinton and Obama were both serious contenders for the presidency. The Republican field this time is poor.

The fact that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was even briefly considered a serious frontrunner for the nomination is a sign of the dire situation Republicans find themselves in. Currently the main race is between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Romney has consistently failed to excite the party faithful enabling Santorum, who under normal circumstances would have been out of the race long ago, to hang on. Voters are torn between choosing between the least terrible option, not the best one.

History favours Obama. Only four elected presidents in the past century have been defeated in their bid for re-election in November and all in fairly extreme circumstances. A third party candidate brought down President Taft in 1912, the Great Depression defeated Hoover in 1932. Jimmy Carter was knocked out by the combination of the hostage crisis and economic malaise as well as the strength of Reagan’s candidature in 1980. Reagan’s former Vice President, the first President George Bush was similarly floored by a combination of recession and strong challenge from Bill Clinton in 1992.

Obama has disappointed many of his supporters. Unemployment remains high even as the economic recession in the US lifts. Guantanamo Bay remains open. Some feel his health and economic reforms have not gone far enough.

But Obama is not a Herbert Hoover, a Jimmy Carter or a George HW Bush. And none of the Republicans are anything like an FDR, a Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton. Polls indicate most Americans want to give Obama’s reforms a second term to come to fruition.

True, I may yet end up eating my words. Predicting anything is a risky business. None of the past three presidential election outcomes could have easily been anticipated at this stage of the cycle. But the evidence suggests Obama will be in the White House for a good while yet.