“But the bloody man plays golf!” – The Enduring Appeal of Harold Wilson

Starmer could do worse than take pointers from the Wilsonian example in the 1960s

By Yann Griffiths

It was the era of Terence Stamp and Jean Shrimpton, Bobby Moore lifting the World Cup, the wit and charm of ‘That Was The Week That Was’, The Beatles and Coronation Street – this was, of course, the 1960s. Overseeing it all was Harold Wilson, Labour’s most successful twentieth-century Prime Minister (PM), who held office in the turbulent period between 1964 and 1976. All of this might seem rather distant; the day before yesterday, an anachronism, a Britain gone with the wind. Yet, Wilson’s name, sullied and reviled in historiography since his resignation in 1976, keeps cropping up. Prime Ministerial aspirant Keir Starmer continues to name check Wilson and a rehabilitation of sorts has begun in academic circles. But why? Because Wilson was a winner. Starmer and his coterie realise this, making Wilson, who according to one obituarist at the time of his death in 1995 had been ‘’almost air-brushed out of the Labour Party history’’, a man of ongoing relevance to the contemporary Labour Party and whose story Labour can learn and take pointers from. 

It is important to chart Wilson’s story and reputational evolution. Even at the inception of his incumbency, Wilson had his detractors. Indeed, when the doyen of revisionism Anthony Crosland heard that Harold Wilson had been appointed as party leader in 1963 he is said to have exploded rather hilariously: ‘’But the bloody man plays golf!’’. At the time of his resignation, Wilson was tired beyond his years and the ensuing reaction to his time as incumbent was vitriolic. Much of the criticism surrounding Wilson stems from those who view the ‘Wilson years’ as a time of failure and missed opportunity.

As David Marquand commented retrospectively, the Wilson era was one of ‘’lost innocence, of hopes betrayed’’. Accusations of deviousness, untrustworthiness and a Machiavellian political approach dogged Wilson after he removed himself from public life. Alongside what many saw as a missed opportunity after an intense initial political honeymoon and a landslide majority in 1966, there was the dodgy ‘Lavender List’ of resignation honours as he departed, sordid espionage stories, a devaluation in 1967 and industrial strife. Yet, Wilson was a Prime Ministerial behemoth, he won four of the five general elections he contested, becoming the first PM in the twentieth-century to increase his majority at successive elections.

Despite these monumental achievements, Wilson’s place in Labour Party history remains shrouded in ambiguity. For some, the revisionism surrounding Wilson is predictable, a cyclical historical process that doesn’t need investigating. As historian Kenneth O Morgan noted: ‘’Since Harold Wilson’s stock has plummeted so sharply for so long, one can only suppose that some day it will register an upward movement’’. The Wilson rehabilitation, however, is more complex than this and Wilson’s tenure and electoral success remain acutely important today. Crucially, Wilson’s approach to governance illuminates deep-rooted and current tensions within the contemporary Labour Party on questions of idealism and pragmatism and on which governmental approach works best. 

Wilson was an arch-pragmatist and perhaps this explains the cynicism surrounding his administrations. Many within the Labour movement indict the substance and style of a pragmatic approach to governance, believing pragmatism and socialism to be fundamentally incompatible. As Hilary Wainwright’s ‘A Tale of Two Parties’ explains, the Labour Party has often been an uneasy alliance between ‘’the ameliorative, pragmatic tradition associated especially with the Parliamentary Party; and on the other hand, the transformative, visionary tradition which in the past has only had majority support in the constituency parties’’. It is little surprise, therefore, that both Starmer and Wilson have faced the ire and opposition of the grassroots.

However, the ideological and partisan distaste of pragmatism refuses to appreciate that pragmatism could be mixed with one’s socialism, as was the case for Wilson, and fails to accept the possibility that leading the Labour Party and advancing the socialist cause by winning elections has historically suited the conciliator and not the dogmatic pathfinder.

The key aspect of Wilson’s pragmatism was his party management, especially in finding the common ground between the Bennite left and Jenkinsite right of the Party that made governance possible. Indeed, as his biographer Ben Pimlott has outlined, Wilson was a practical genius at short term politics, seeking above all else to secure the unity of the party. Party unity, in this context, was the fruit of adept party management, something which allowed Wilson to remain electorally successful and carry out legislative agendas. His most famous innovation was in taking the themes of science and modernisation and harnessing them to socialism. Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech, delivered in Scarborough in 1963, remains a totemic piece of oratory. Here, Wilson focused on the Conservatives inability to modernise and stimulate economic growth using the burgeoning phenomenon of science. Science moved to the forefront of Labour’s electoral rhetoric and bid to remedy Britain’s decline.

Crucially, the theme meant Wilson could draw together both wings of the Party behind the banner of science, whilst simultaneously connecting to white-collar voters. The rhetoric of science and modernisation worked as it satiated the interventionist demands of the left, whilst the right also felt it satisfied their ambitions of a new approach at the ballot box. Moreover, Wilson wasn’t scared to have big ideological beasts (Jenkins, Benn, Healey, Crosland and Castle) in his Cabinet, believing in the policy of ‘creative tension’ and keeping his political enemies close. In keeping his party united, Wilson was able to oversee substantial legislative agendas. Indeed, in giving Roy Jenkins the political space to pass swathes of social reform, Wilson oversaw the end of capital punishment, allowed for no-fault divorce, passed the first race relations legislation and decriminalised homosexuality and abortion.

He kept Britain out of Vietnam and set up the ‘Open University’ – the latter his most cherished achievement. His final contribution, the handling of the 1975 EEC referendum, remains a vintage piece of ‘Wilsonism’. In suspending the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, as Peter Jenkins wrote in The Guardian, Wilson had sought to secure three primary objectives: ‘’to keep his party in power, in one piece and Britain in Europe’’. He had succeeded in all of them and settled the issue of Europe for a generation.  

Starmer, it appears, has looked to the Wilsonian example for inspiration. It was the Tory Reginald Maudling who once observed that Britain was “a Conservative country that sometimes votes Labour”. Wilson reversed that trend. The shared contexts of 1964 and 2024, ascension to power after years of Tory declinism, underline that those bygone Wilson years undoubtedly have something to teach a party who have faced political exile for what seems an eternity. When accused of copying the New Labour project, Starmer seems to have taken refuge in Wilson and his approach. Starmer’s proposal to create ‘Great British Energy’, a publicly-owned company that will harness renewable energy to cut energy bills and deliver energy independence, has shades of the Wilson ‘White Heat’ rhetoric.

A policy and narrative that aims to bring together the left and right of the Party. Indeed, Starmer has invoked the spirit of Wilson in avoiding electorally unpopular policies by mooring himself to different branches of the Labour movement via policies that throw red meat to those across Labour’s broad church – Starmer’s recent olive-branch to the left, a pledge to scrap private schools charitable status, a case in point. As an approach and style of governance, it certainly lacks romance or nobility, something which may help to explain the invective which surrounds the pragmatic approach. Yet, as the Wilson example shows, it works in its essential goal of avoiding factional splits and uniting both wings of the Party in order to win elections. The Wilsonian example should alter the pejorative connotations which pragmatic political maneuverings invoke. Indeed, should we not laud a flexible governing approach and style which enables a government to govern freely without plot or intrigue?

Wilson made a rough and ready philosophy of pragmatism, understanding that shouting into the void from the political sidelines meant there could be little chance of enacting the principled policy or change which Labour purported to embody. Indeed, the history of the Party since Wilson’s resignation has been telling and has made the Wilsonian example even more poignant. Labour’s lurch to the left during the 1980s, as well as the SDP split in 1981, were antithetical to Wilson’s pragmatic and emollient style, arguably keeping the Conservatives in power for nearly two decades and, thus, need treating as events which bestow Wilson and his approach to governance with a good measure of historical charity. Wilson’s political placement and legacy should be remembered as being determined by the need to win general elections. Indeed, Wilson bypassed the ‘theology of arguments’ to transcend ideological divisions which were hindering Labour’s chances of governmental power.

For Wilson, without the ability to get a majority to walk through the voting lobbies in the Commons, politics was rendered at best irrelevant. Starmer et al concur. The Labour Party has often been understood as a movement of a plethora of different political actors with varying political interests, rather than merely just a political party. Trade unions, feminist associations and environmental groups all make up what can be understood as the ‘extra-parliamentary’ wing of the Party, making coordination and unity regarding policy issues incredibly difficult. In turn, Labour often appears as a party which has a unique capacity to fall out with itself and is often pitted against a Tory Party which displays a greater capacity for doing what is necessary to achieve and retain power. Seemingly, the Labour Party emerges as a party which professes to hold and laud political principles above personalities yet appears to routinely indulge in personalities at the expense of principles.

Here, Starmer can look to the ‘Wilson Years’ to understand that such a paradox can often only be controlled and managed from the pragmatic middle, where the principles of left and right can be adequately modified and legislative space given to both. Henry Fairlie eloquently captured the essence of Wilson’s pragmatic approach, asserting that Wilson strove to ‘’seek and find the point of contact between different ideas and attitudes, the common ground which makes government possible’’. As Keir Starmer attempts to reconcile the remerging ideological schisms in the Party, he must also show dexterity in his handling of the fratricidal bickering which is bound to take place.

To ostracise the left of the Party in his attempts to rebalance Labour could prove to be a cruel electoral irony. It seems apt to close with a quote from Anthony Crosland, a man who had fraught relations with Wilson and could always be relied on for a cutting sound bite, but nevertheless understood what he was trying to do: ‘Harold is a bastard, but he’s a genius. He’s like Odysseus. Odysseus was a bastard but he managed to steer the ship through Scylla and Charybdis’’.

Starmer could do worse than take pointers from the Wilsonian example.

Yann Griffiths did a masters dissertation on Labour in the 1960s and lives in Manchester.

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