The familiar personality of The man most likely to rule Britain next

Blair Fraser July 27 1963

The familiar personality of The man most likely to rule Britain next

Blair Fraser July 27 1963

The familiar personality of The man most likely to rule Britain next

Caí lad ica is m ig ht d o better than Britons at explaining the political successes of Labor’s Harold Wilson. Shrewd, ruthless and b rilliant, he is strikingly reminiscent of Mackenzie King. Here’s how he’s reconciled the warring elements of his party as Labor nears power

Blair Fraser


A FEW DAYS AFTER he was elected leader of the British Labor Party, Harold Wilson faced a private meeting of ninety-odd Labor MPs who were among his least enthusiastic supporters — the so-called Trade-Union Group. Mainly they are elderly craft unionists, deeply conservative in opinions and temperament. More than half of them had only elementary schooling, and they were wary of a onetime Oxford don with the name of being too clever by half. They were even more suspicious of Wilson as a man of the Left. In the party leadership contest they had backed George Brown, a trade unionist like themselves and a man of the Right.

None of them had ever been inside Harold Wilson's house, and he proceeded to tell them coolly that he had no mind to invite them there now. As some recalled his words later, he said; “I'll not he asking you home to dinner, but you can be sure of one thing — I'll not be asking anyone else, either. I'll not be off dining with any set of rich socialist cronies.”

This seemingly ungracious speech had exactly the effect Wilson intended. Far from offending the crusty trade unionists, it reassured them. It also reminded them of their one real grievance against the party’s late, deeply mourned leader Hugh Gaitskell — his fondness for gay social evenings with colleagues of the same upper-level background (Winchester and Oxford) as Gaitskell himself, a

circle from which the trade union group had felt itself excluded.

Thus, without committing himself to anything in particular, Wilson went a long way toward healing one of the splits that bedevil the Labor Party, and impair its otherwise excellent chance of winning the next election. The major splits are two, dividing the party into three groups. At the left are the doctrinaire socialists who also tend to be anti-American. anti-NATO, and in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. At the far right are the right-wing intellectuals, really no more than left-of-centre liberals who support NATO and consider socialism oldfashioned and irrelevant to the real problems of today. In the middle is the trade union group whose attitude to socialism is like that of the average Christian to Christianity — anyone who questions its truth is a sinful blasphemer, hut anyone who actually tries to put its precepts into practice is a dangerous radical. Keeping these three mutually hostile factions quiet and getting them to work together for victory is the constant problem of any Labor leader who hopes to win a British election.

Labor's chances of winning have never looked as bright as they do now. The Profumo scandal ruined Harold Macmillan as Conservative leader. Even the twenty-seven Tory abstentions in the critical house vote on the issue, more than twice as many as the party whips had feared or hoped,

were less ominous than the deadly silence in which Conservative MPs listened to Macmillan's apologia. A new leader will have little more than a year to establish his authority, make himself known to the country, and repair the grievous damage to his party’s reputation and popularity.

Even before the Profumo scandal broke, all political barometers were set fair for Labor. Public opinion polls, parliamentary by-elections, and the municipal elections in May all told the same story. Labor has the support of about half the electorate. Conservatives no more than a third. The rest goes to a much revived Liberal Party — not enough to win many Liberal seats but enough to beat the Tory in many a close three-way contest.

These auguries focus the attention not only of voters here but of statesmen from Washington to Moscow, from Cape Town to Ottawa, on James Harold Wilson as a British prime minister, on the men who would make up a Wilson cabinet and on the policies such a government might follow.

Labor is projecting the Wilson image with new professional skill, thanks to volunteer help from about fifty “admen anonymous" who are donating their services, evenings and weekends, to the Labor Party’s cause. The image is both attractive and reassuringly commonplace — the large pipe, as ever-present as Churchill’s cigar; the gabardine raincoat worn in all weathers; the faint but clearly

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Friendly and hostile accounts of Wilson are nearly the same

audible traces of a Yorkshire accent, surviving all those years in Oxford and Westminster; the gray suit a few shades darker than the gleaming gray hair that frames a complexion as ruddy as a country squire’s. Altogether a genial if not a jolly figure even in the flesh, until you come to the pale blue ice-cold eyes.

But in fact Harold Wilson makes not the slightest pretense of being a nice chap, whatever his image-makers might prefer. He bases his claim to the support of the British people not on charm but on competence.

Friendly and hostile accounts of Wilson differ astonishingly little. He is a man with many admirers, but lew of them are close friends. He is admired for astuteness and shrewd, ruthless judgment, and distrusted at the same time for precisely the same reasons. Both friend and foe invariably describe him as a coldly calculating politician. He has no power to win men’s hearts, but he shows a devilish skill at appraising their characters and using both their strong and their weak points to enlist their support. He is an insatiable glutton for work, and he seems to take no pleasure in anything else. (His only recreation, apart from an occasional solitary round of golf, is a weekend at his cottage in the Scilly Isles — which he normally spends working on his speeches.) He has never been much noted for personal loyalty to others, but he is notoriously mindful of past occasions when others have been loyal or disloyal to him.

When he was chosen Labor leader after Hugh Gaitskell's sudden death last January, the Conservatives regarded him with complacency as hardly the man to inspire his party to a victorious crusade. But any Canadian could have pointed out to the gleeful Tories an ominous coincidence: The foregoing sketch of Harold Wilson would do equally well for William Lyon Mackenzie King, who contrived to be a prime minister for longer than anybody else in the history of the British parliamentary system. Already Wilson has shown some of the talents that made Mackenzie King the formidable politician he was.

One is sheer physical and intellectual stamina, an incredible capacity for hard work. During the first half of May he made fourteen speeches in fifteen days, and still carried his share of the load in parliament. He can go short of sleep and not mind it. a very important quality in a statesman. In April he came back from a strenuous American tour: arriving at London Airport after two hours’ sleep on the plane, he went straight to a large press conference with Commonwealth correspondents whom he did not know, and who asked him all the trickiest questions they could think of. Wilson parried these with perfect good temper, by referring us to statements he had made in parliament — he could give the exact

reference in Hansard for debates of up to ten years before, from memory. Then he went to the House of Commons to hear Conservative Chancellor Reginald Maudling's first budget. Wilson was the first MP to rise after Maudling sat down: he spoke for about half an hour, a commentary on the budget so bitingly witty that even Conservative back-benchers were moved to reluctant mirth. At the end of that staggering day he showed no outward sign of weariness.

An even more useful talent is for compromise, and Wilson's shadow cabinet — weighted heavily with right wingers — indicates how far he is willing to go to maintain peace within the party. Wilson showed similar skill in disposing of George Brown, his main opponent for the leadership, without offending any of Brown's ex-supporters. Brown lost standing in the party not so much by losing the leadership contest as by his reaction to defeat. He went off to Scotland

to sulk for a week, not telling even his own supporters where he was, then came back and let it be known he was willing to carry on as deputy leader but wanted to be foreign affairs critic as well. Wilson blandly asked him to remain deputy leader, but appointed him to the less glamorous post of home affairs (police, immigration and the like), in which Brown had never shown any great interest. Brown and Wilson do not take much trouble to conceal that they dislike

each other, and whatever post Brown may hold in a Wilson cabinet is unlikely to be an influential one. Nevertheless, Brown's own bitterness is now' directed less at Wilson than at those right-w'ingers who backed James Callaghan for the leadership, and thus assured Brown's defeat. To some of these he has literally not spoken since he lost the leadership contest last February.

These personal quarrels may help to explain the bitterness of Labor’s

doctrinal squabbles. They all involve factors of personal loyalty, personal sincerity and consistency, suspicions of personal opportunism and selfseeking. Old unforgotten, far-off things and battles long ago — expulsion of Stafford Cripps, attempts to expel Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson's decision to run against Hugh Gaitskell for the leadership in 1960 after Gaitskell's pro-NATO defense policy had been repudiated at the annual party conference — these are the

memories that embitter many an argument which by itself might sound like a trite topic for a high-school debate. Wilson's successful moves to swing the right wing behind him have been not so much compromises on policy and theory as the personal reassurance of former enemies.

So much for Wilson's appeasement of the Right. What about the Left, who after all were the men who got Wilson elected leader? Wilson gets some protection against the charge

of ingratitude from Labor’s method of choosing its leadership when the party is in opposition. Any Labor leader must include in his “shadow cabinet.” and by custom should give the leading posts to, a "parliamentary committee” of a dozen men who are elected by the whole parliamentary group. Since the parliamentary group normally has a right-wing majority, it's natural that the “shadow cabinet” also has a right-wing slant.

But Wilson could, if he liked, have added left - wingers to the shadow cabinet that had served Hugh Gaitskell. He did change the various jobs around a bit, but he brought in only one new man who could be described as left-wing — his old friend and ally Richard H. S. Crossman.

Crossman is the Peck’s Bad Boy of the parliamentary Labor Party. He is not a predictable rebel like, say. Michael Foot, who with four others was expelled from the party a few years ago for defying majority decisions and voting against the defense estimates. Crossman is not so much a rebel as an irrepressible individualist. He is a well-to-do socialist, son of a high court judge, who before the war was an Oxford don. (Yes, another one; Labor has half a dozen in its parliamentary group.) Nowadays, though, he misses no opportunity to say (especially to an academic audience), “I'm not an academic, I’m a journalist and a politician." It's being a journalist that gets Dick Crossman into trouble more often than not.

Wrangling needlessly in public

He contributes a weekly column to the Guardian and writes for the leftish, w'aspish New Statesman; he also does a fair amount of broadcasting. In all these ways he expresses personal opinions without inhibition, and w'ith no reverence for official Labor Party policy or eminent Labor Party personalities. Not long ago. for instance, he announced in one article that no more than four MPs of the trade-union group could possibly be deemed fit for cabinet office. He might have got away with that roundhouse swing if he hadn't named the four, but that is not Crossman’s way. He named them, thus making furious implacable enemies of the other ninety, w'hile embarrassing even the chosen four.

At the moment he is conducting a heated public argument with George Strauss, the socialist millionaire. Crossman said that Prime Minister Attlee concealed, from “all but a handful of trusted friends,” his decision to make a British atomic bomb. Even the Attlee cabinet didn't know, according to Crossman. Strauss, who was one of Attlee’s ministers as Crossman was not, says Crossman is talking through his hat. So far Strauss has had the better of the unfinished debate. No matter who is right in this particular squabble, though, it's typical of Crossman to have got into such a needless intra-party wrangle in public.

But one suspects that Crossman’s real offense in the eyes of the Labor Establishment is having been too close for too long to Harold Wilson (as the Establishment itself was not). Both men are natural mavericks, and

have tended to stick by each other if by no one else.

Crossman has been indiscreetly complacent about this since Wilson became leader. “At last I've backed a winner,” he gloated at one socialist meeting — a remark his enemies quote with sarcastic indignation. It's noticeable, though, that Crossman's enemies are (he men who were Wilson's enemies before. Some of those who used to denounce Wilson now denounce Crossman for the same sins, like Russian communists inveighing against the Albanians when they really mean the Chinese.

So far, Wilson has shown no special favor toward Crossman or any other left-wing supporter. Crossman is “shadow minister” of science, very far from being a key post. And though a Labor prime minister suffers none of the handicaps that impede a Labor opposition leader in choosing his men, many people doubt that the Left will ever dominate a Wilson cabinet, even if he wins the election and has a free hand.

Wilson knows that Labor’s left wing is composed of highly unstable elements, prone to chain reactions of ideological fission that often threaten to blow the party to bits. Wilson is a cool - headed, cool - hearted realist. Most observers guess that in a real Wilson cabinet Crossman would hold some narrowly specific post like pensions and national insurance (on which he is a highly qualified technical expert) with no voice on general policy. Barbara Castle, the fiery redhead who was Wilson's parliamentary private secretary when he was in Attlee's cabinet as president of the Board of Trade, is also a popular bet for some junior ministry. Gossip seldom mentions any other left-wing figures as probable Wilson ministers.

How then has Wilson been able, as up to now he has been able, to retain the full support of Labor’s Left?

Partly on policy grounds. Wilson has made no sensational departures from the Gaitskell policy line (he takes care to refer often to "our policy as outlined by Hugh Gaitskell" and to “the policy laid down by our party conference”) but in his speeches the same ideas have a lot more bite. Wilson attacks the Conservative front bench not, as Gaitskell did. more in sorrow than in anger, but with a savage contempt that is contagious.

Under Gaitskell, as Wilson punctiliously recalled, the Labor Party condemned British export of arms to South Africa "as long as apartheid continues.” But it was Harold Wilson who stood in the rain before a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square, a month after his election as leader, and trumpeted: “That is still the policy of the Labor Party today, and it will be the policy when Labor is called to form a govern ment.”

The South African government was furious, and threatened to cancel its contracts for British aircraft (which would have put some British aircraft workers out of jobs). Wilson was unperturbed. “If employment in Britain after twelve years of Tory government depends on selling arms to police states in Africa, then it's time we had a change of government,'' he said. Labor's militants were delighted.

In defense and foreign policy, Wil-

son has been studiously moderate — emphatic in his support of NATO, no friend of the unilateral nuclear disarmers, nor of far-out leftist MPs like Konni Zilliacus (who often sounds like, though he is not, an orthodox comm un ist ).

Actually Wilson is a lot closer on defense policy to President Kennedy and to Robert MacNamara than Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is. Labor policy agrees with Kennedy that the British “independent” deterrent (which in fact depends on U. S. supplies for its carrier) makes no sense. A Wilson government would not try to replace the RAF’s “V-bomber” force, which will be obsolete within five years. Instead it would save the ten to fifteen percent of the defense budget that now goes into British nuclear weapons, and spend the money (or part of it) on improving Britain's conventional forces, which could certainly do with some improvement.

In economic policy, Wilson has already elaborated a plan for increasing the power of the international bank and monetary fund. Explaining it to the American Chamber of Commerce in London, he skilfully made it sound mild and conservative: “We must

apply in international monetary affairs the techniques which, in the field of domestic banking, our forefathers developed with such success in the nineteenth century . . . We no longer think of settling our internal debts by transporting gold bullion about the

country. But in international affairs wc are still living in the age of Charles IE with gold-laden stage coaches floundering through the mud, the prev of marauding highwaymen.”

Whether or not he convinced any of this rather conservative audience, he at least sounded more like a New Frontiersman than a socialist revolutionary. Broadly this is true of all Wilson's policy statements. Even the Labor Party’s advertisements arc steals from the Kennedy campaign of I960 -— as are the Conservative ads, which read exactly like Labor's but are less attractively designed.

These obeisances to orthodoxy don't seem to worry Labor's Left, probably because they know Harold Wilson. They think he inclines to the Left on most issues by instinct and lifelong habit.

Wilson is the son of a works chemist. now retired, who himself is a lifelong socialist and brought his children up likewise. Works chemist is one of those borderline jobs whose holders consider themselves “middleclass'' or “working-class" according to their own preference: Herbert Wilson always called himself one of the workers. And if that had not been enough to fix young Harold's class bias, his father's two years of unemployment in the Great Depression did the rest.

A scholarship hoy at grammar school and at Oxford, young Wilson set his sights on public lite quite early (in an essay at the age ot twelve,

entitled "Myself in Twenty - five Years.” he interviewed himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer) but he did not. curiously enough, join the Labor Club at Oxford or debate in the Oxford Union. He joined the Liberal Club instead. Some of his biographers have speculated that he stayed away from the Labor C luh because, in those Spanish Civil War days, it was under strong communist influence. Others believe he was repelled by the upper class radicals of the day — Wilson has always been more anti-snob than anti-capitalist. In any case, he spent most of his time working, earned a first - class honors degree in politics and economics, and the offer of a job as the youngest Oxford don (aged twenty-one) that anyone could remember since ( ardiñal Wolsey’s time. When war broke out he volunteered for the army, instead was directed into the ministry of supply and then into the war cabinet secretariat. He became an expert on coal production, and a high-ranking official in the ministry of fuel and power.

By January 1945 he was nominated Labor candidate for a suburban constituency in Liverpool, became a parliamentary secretary as soon as the Attlee government took office and then, in 1947, president of the board of trade — the youngest cabinet minister since William Pitt. He was thirty-one. Four years later he resigned from the Attlee cabinet along with Aneurin Bevan. because he thought Attlee and Ernest Bevin had accepted a rearmament program that would bankrupt the nation. The Labor government was defeated six months later, and Labor's Right has never again felt quite the same about Harold Wilson. Nobody as able as Wilson could be kept down, or out, especially when his party was in opposition, but he was never again a member of its Establishment's inner circle. In particular he is unforgiven for contesting Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership in I960, after Gaitskell had been defeated at the party conference on the issue of unilateral disarmament. To his enemies it looked like pure personal ambition — Wilson was not a “unilateralist.” but he seemed to be seeking the advantage of their anti-Gaitskell sentiment. His friends say nonsense, he

was running against Gaitskell because he thought Gaitskell was wantonly and needlessly splitting the party.

These wounds have not yet healed, but they are healing. Wilson has evidently made party unity his first objective in this first few months of his leadership, and he seems to be gaining it. The Left is quiet and apparently content, the Right still wary but not dissatisfied.

What would a Wilson government do to Britain?

Shake it up is one safe answer. Wilson is not a doctrinaire socialist, but he is not in the least sentimental. He is not a man to suffer fools gladly. no matter where they come from, but he burns with indignation that rich fools (and rich scoundrels) should lead easier lives than poor fools. He is not an inverted snob like the late Nye Bevan. who was prejudiced against any man who had been to a private school, but on the other hand unlike Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell. he

has not the slightest prejudice in their favor. Neither is he at all susceptible to the social glitter of high office — “if we overdo the social thing.” Mrs. Wilson told an interviewer last March, "it means Harold doesn't get his work done.” And that, of course, settled it.

Anyone else who gets his work done, be he titled capitalist or humble bureaucrat, will probably get on well with a Wilson government. Anyone who doesn't, won't. ★