Saturday, April 07, 2012

Book Review : Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott (HarperCollins 1992)

History has not been kind to Harold Wilson. His administrations are remembered primarily for their crises - devaluation, In Place of Strife, rocketing inflation and the turmoil of the seventies. The circumstances of his resignation were strange, the only British Prime Minister last century to leave office at a time of his own choosing, when not forced to do so by political events, illness or electoral defeat. The infamous lavender list left a nasty taste in a country recently rocked by Poulson.

Yet it the achievements of Wilson's governments were significant. They represented a sea-change from the previous administration (13 of Macmillan's cabinet had gone to Eton) which was much more in tune with a rapidly changing society. Wilson's famous words on the "white heat of the technical revolution" stuck a chord with the voters, and Labour was swept to power in 1964 with a mandate to modernise. Whilst the its attempt to direct investment more efficiently through a National Plan created by the new Department of Economic Affairs was a failure, its attempt to create a fairer society through the expansion of university education was undoubtedly of lasting significance. Capital punishment was abolished, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, the Lord Chancellor's censorship of the theatre was swept away. Later events were to show that the ideas behind In Place of Strife were undoubtedly correct, and the subsequent emasculation of the Trade Union movement under Thatcher indicate that the Trade Union movement's opposition to the White Paper was misplaced.

Wilson's administration redefined the nature of Britain's armed forces, reduced defence spending from 8% to 5% of GDP in keeping with Britain's post-colonial role, whilst withdrawing from traditional commitments "East of Suez". Perhaps his greatest achievement was to keep British troops out of Vietnam despite intense pressure from a United States government on whom Britain was dependent for economic support during recurring balance of payments crises. Only a funambulist with the skill of Wilson could have achieved this balancing act.

Yet Wilson's tragedy came in two electoral shocks - his unexpected defeat in 1970, and his equally unexpected victory in 1974. He was shaken to the core by his loss, and when he regained power in 1974 the drive and attention to detail was no longer there. Pimlott shows conclusively that Wilson was planning his resignation almost as soon as he had taken power, thus dispelling rumours of lurking scandals or MI5 conspiracies to unseat him.

Pimlott's is a classic political biography: comprehensive, detailed, sympathetic but not uncritical. He presents Wilson as a highly capable administrator, whose mercurial brilliance allowed him to paper over the deep divisions between right and left in the labour party. He felt deeply betrayed by his protégée Anthony Wedgwood Benn's swing to the left, and the widening chasm between him and the Jenkinsites of the right contributed to his deepening sense of disillusionment. Wilson was no ideologue, but Pimlott gives a sense that in Wilson's final administration he no longer believed that he was capable of transforming Britain into the fairer, more efficient and better run state that he had worked for all his life.

No comments: