World news

Harold Wilson’s last laugh, or: Carry On Dubbing

JOHN ELLISON June 14 1976
World news

Harold Wilson’s last laugh, or: Carry On Dubbing

JOHN ELLISON June 14 1976

Harold Wilson’s last laugh, or: Carry On Dubbing

What can a TV impersonator, a raincoat maker, a tycoon with a titled mistress and a family doctor all have in common? Answer: They are friends of Sir Harold Wilson, Britain’s longest-reigning socialist prime minister. And thus (for no one has yet produced any other convincing reason) they and a clutch of other unlikely individuals found themselves elevated to Britain’s titled classes. Sir Harold’s curious appointments (the Times pointed out that some of them were “untamed capitalists ... capable of destroying socialism”) led to revolt by Labor Members of Parliament and widespread suggestions that the farce would jeopardize the British tradition of granting titles.

Sir Harold, himself knighted by the Queen when he retired this spring, had been invited according to custom to announce a resignation honors’ list. The convention has been that an outgoing prime minister rewarded those who had contributed to the success of his term of office. Then came word that the Political Honors Scrutiny Committee—comprising three elder statesmen from the three major political groupings—had rejected some of the names on Wilson’s list. “These fellers have never done anything,” confided committee chairman Lord Crathome. As public curiosity was stimulated, names were leaked to the press. Alarm grew in Westminster, because many of them had no connection with socialism or good works.

The most hilarious of Sir Harold’s 42 nominations—he was awarded the Order of the British Empire—was Mike Yarwood, a television mimic who made his name by mercilessly parodying Wilson. The most controversial was the knighting of Jimmy (now Sir James) Goldsmith, 43, a tycoon with a taste for gambling and high living. Sir James donates substantially to Tory party funds and has personally advised former Tory leader Edward Heath in his business dealings. Sir James has a wife and two children in Paris and a mistress— Lady Annabel Birley—in London, by whom he has another two children.

Among nine newly created peers were some good personal friends of Sir Harold’s. One, Sir Joseph Kagan (knighted in an earlier Wilson honors list) is a Yorkshire textile manufacturer who developed a lightweight, air-insulated coat which became as regular a prop for Wilson as his pipe. Another was Wilson’s family doctor—whose brother happened to be the treasurer of the Tory party. Among the new knights: actors Stanley Baker and John Mills. Further down the scale came Lady Wilson’s private secretary, the senior cleaner at No. 10 Downing Street, and the bobbie who guards the Downing Streetdoor.

Tory MPS wondered how Wilson had managed to miss out his pet labrador, Paddy. But while some were prepared to dismiss it all as pure farce (Wilson has a lively sense of humor), it was more than many in Labor could stomach. A substantial group put down an unprecedented motion in the Commons dissociating the party from the list. JOHN ELLISON