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Harold Wilson: The Winner. Nick Thomas-Symonds. Review.

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Harold Wilson: The Winner.  Nick Thomas-Symonds. Weidenfeld & Nicolson

“Puts Harold Wilson in his rightful place…a fine work of history” Labour leader Keir Starmer is cited on the front cover of the new biography of the Party’s longest – serving Prime Minister. “Celebrates him as a successful prime minister and the architect of social reform.” wrote Roy Hattersley minister of defence and minister of state for foreign affairs in Harold Wilson’s government, in the Guardian. In his Introduction, Thomas-Symonds announces,”the time has now come to illuminate the significance of Harold Wilson has the signifiance of Harold Wilson as one of the shapers of modern Britain.”After the first two comments, it will come as little surprise to learn that he concludes, “Wilson deserves to be remembered for his achievements: the lasting changes that made Britain a fairer place, but also one of the twentieth century’s great political personalities.”

After the Labour triumph in 1964 Perry Anderson wrote, “Wilson above all has offered a strategy to the Labour Party – it is this that has enabled him to temporarily cancel the divisions within it and dominate the party. A strategy for the Labour Party as it exists today, however is one thing; a strategy for socialism is another.” Yet, readers of the present day New Left Review, the haunt of bitter young men, women, and their elders, may perhaps be surprised to learn that its then Editor continued on an optimistic note. Surveying the heritage of the British tradition of reform, creative social thought, and class consciousness, he wrote, “One of the encouraging results of the new phase inside the Labour Party has been the release if the generous, creative potential of each of these traditions – personified perhaps in men like Benn on the one hand, and Cousins on the other, in the present government.” (Problems of Socialist Strategy in Towards Socialism. 1965) In the same paperback Tom Nairn commented, “There is no doubt that relatively, with regards to the past annals of the Labour leadership Wilson represents a kind of progress.” (The Nature of the Labour Party) He “appears as a potentially more Left-Wing leader in a time of potential progress…”

Guild Socialism.

The Winner ably steers through the thickets of Wilson’s life, his Yorkshire education, success at Oxford, mastery of statistics researching for Beveridge, his time at the Ministry of as he contributed to the war effort in the Ministry of Fuel and Power, defending the interests of miners against “innumerate” mine owners, until we reach his political career in 1945. Readers will be struck by the emphasis on a Congressionalist background. His socialism influenced not just by faith but was inspired by discussion classes held by G.D.H. Cole, whose Guild Socialism was, Thomas-Symonds asserts, “a libertarian version of socialism, as distinct from Marxism.” Those familiar with Cole’s writings, from What Marx Really Meant (1934) to the volumes of A History of Socialist Thought (1953 – 61 will not be satisfied with this hard and fast division. But if Cole “pointed” Wilson in the direction of the Labour Party and religious fire burned in his loathing of unemployment, the future Labour leader would claim to have never read a word of Marx.

Once in Parlement in 1945, appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, then Presiding over the Board of Trade’s 1947 ‘Bonfire of Controls’, put his ability to master his brief to work. Out of office during the Bevan-Gaitskell fights of the 1950s he sided with the left though it might be said that a position on unilateral disarmament does not shine out. Other issues, from his defence of the NHS onwards, mattered more. “Like Bevan, Wilson was also a believer in economic planning. At its most basic level, his meant having a government that could mobilise the resources of the country to meet the needs of its people.” Gaitskell did not realise, “a great number of people had joined Labour because they believed Socialism was a way of making a reality of Christian principles in everyday life.”

At cross-current to the Guild Socialist advocacy of self-government in industry Sir Raymond Street, believed that “He has a fantastic belief in the power of the government and individual Ministers to supervise and decide things for the common good”. Yet, to qualify this claim, as Labour’s civil war lumbered on during the decade in the Clause Debate of 1959 Wilson declared, “I was in favour of neither outright nationalisation, nor a a complete ban on all further nationalisation. the question, I told my colleagues, and such of the press as were listening, is ‘daft’. It was a matter of degree and of proving the case.” As Bevan is cited, “All bloody facts. No bloody vision.

The thirteen wasted years of Tory rule ended in 1964. His 1963 Labour Conference speech, “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry” setting an agenda of sorts for the decade. Science, and what would be called “modernisation” are at the forefront – the May Day Manifesto of 1968, whose authors included Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson and Stuart Hall, called modernisation, “the ‘theology’ of a new capitalism”. Francis Wheen in The Sixties (1982) talked of disappointment on the left, “matters which would have been regarded as centrally important by most socialists – public ownership and the redistribution of wealth – were relegated to the margins.” The Manifesto was harsher, “a Labour government has stuck to old and discredited policies: cutting ordinary people’s living standards, and putting the protection of a capitalist economic and financial system before jobs, care and extended education.” Today many on the left consider the Wilson years as part of the “long retreat of social democracy” from its reformist origins, in Britain marked by the high-point of the Attlee post-war government.

The Achievements of the Wilson Governments.

The Winner offers a different narrative centring on the best things the governments between 1964 – 1970 and 1974 to 1976 managed to achieve. They include the expansion of further and higher education, a less punitive and more generous welfare system, housing programmes which while no doubt unable to cover the full need make the present day crisis look all the worse, the liberal reforms achieved (not all directly government initiated) the abolition of capital punishment and corporal punishment in gaols, the right to abortion, the legalisation of homosexual acts and the ending of censorship and anti-discrimination legislation. There was Equal-pay legislation and Health and Safety at Work (1974, the basis of present Health and Safety Acts). 

There was less success on industrial relations, although In Place of Strife (1969), thwarted and relegated after labour movement opposition, looks pro-trade union in its requirement for strike ballots (designed to halt unofficial work stoppages), compared to post-Margaret Thatcher repression of workers’ rights. There was later to be the very modest success of the Social Contract wage restraint agreement in return for repealing the Heath Industrial Relations Act and the failure of the Bullock Report on industrial democracy, an idea one would consider in the tradition of Cole’s Guild Socialism. Keeping the party together and allowing for a successful renegotiation and referendum to vote to join the European Union, or Common Market as it was known, in 1975, remains impressive given the scale of prejudice from patriotic left and right on the issue.

Detailed pages on devaluation make little sense today in a world of floating exchange rates but underline the priorities of the government at the time. Ian Smith’s UDI in Rhodesia remind us of how recent decolonialisation from Africa was and how the ‘sanctions’ Wilson used against the white minority regime were less than impressive. Thomas-Symonds makes a case for Wilson’s wiliness in staying out of the US-led intervention in Vietnam, though not many would notch that up as a memorable aspect of the war in Indo-China. These, and other, foreign policy issues, though, not fully the PM’s responsibility. they included a stint with the rumbustious George Brown as Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs. A thread that tightened, was steadfast Atlanticism even if this passion was not always requited by President Lyndon Johnson, or paid for by a British military presence in Saigon.

This is not only a biographical account of Wilson’s years of office, his disputes, his colleagues with a fine touch about his personal life, and his wife Mary, but a solid political history. The pitch, aimed at a readership as we approach another 13 wasted years of Tory rule, is Wilson the Winner. The man, who won four of five general elections, more than any other postwar British leader of any party. . A “cerebral academic” with the “common touch” for whom “the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it is nothing”. A leader with “Scout’s sense of duty”, with “a reverence for Britain’s constitutional settlement, particularly the monarchy.” He was a social conservative who recognised the need for radical social changes. One can see in this elements of a less than universal appeal to everybody who’s a Labour member or supporter, that fits the agenda of the right-wing of the Party, “Labour to Win.” The author, who has an academic and legal background, is at present, shadow secretary of state for international trade.

In 1974 Wilson said to his adviser Bernard Donoughue, “I don’t want too many of those Guardianisms Environmentalism, Genderism, etc..I want my speeches always to include what working people are concerned with: jobs, pay, prices, pensions, homes, kids, schools, health.” If there is one thing Harold Wilson. The Winner is convincing upon it is, Wilson not only meant the last part of the phrase, he did his best to work for people to live their lives enjoying the best he and Labour could help to ensure in every one of these areas.


Written by Andrew Coates

December 7, 2022 at 2:57 pm

2 Responses

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  1. “rumbustious Gordon Brown as Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs”

    Shurely George, not Gordon Brown. Gordon could never be said to be rumbustious, I think. He was also 13 when Wilson was elected.


    December 8, 2022 at 5:17 am

    • Corrected.

      If there was a smiley icon on the comments I’d put it!

      Andrew Coates

      December 8, 2022 at 9:04 am

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