Harold Wilson’s legacy

Some who have been reading my past political leanings blog postings might have picked up that while I am currently ambivalent when it comes to supporting one or other of the political parties, I do have, maybe surprisingly so, a certain soft spot toward Labour, as shown in my recent “Where next for Labour” posting. This was as a result of my teenage foraging into politics and a childhood exposure and upbringing that meant Labour did become my automatic party of choice. I do, for example, now follow the deep soul searching currently taking place, especially as the dust begins to settle, regarding leadership candidates and direction, and just maybe I can throw in some pearls of wisdom to any who care to listen. The importance of social justice has not left me and while now of a view that politicians can do little to remedy the worst aspects of social injustice, I still see Labour, of all the parties, as the best set to do so.

It was at the point I went to university and, after I embarked on a career in teaching, when reality kicked in. One thing that put me off Labour was that I began to see it as being the party least likely to uphold what I considered important, and that was preserving the rule of law – it was after all the time of student revolts and miners strikes and so forth. My early fundamentalist leaning Christian upbringing had a certain bearing, as this taught me that socialism was about man usurping God when it came to government. Despite impressing upon us young people that we should be keeping away from politics, it seemed that my early mentors favoured the Conservatives for allowing us to get on with our lives, away from the ungodly effects of state control, by doing those things necessary for people to live peaceably, e.g. by maintaining law and order.

For a long period after those early years and up to soon after I embarked on my community activist career, from around 2000, I kept away from politics, although the fascination never left me. I suppose, hovering around somewhere in the middle and being a floating voter best described my position. The low years (for Labour), following the defeat of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government and the rise of Maggie Thatcher’s Conservative one, was followed by Tony Blair’s New Labour, which held the reigns of power for thirteen years, with the way having been opened up by the likes of John Smith and Neil Kinnock. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but New Labour didn’t especially grab me. Its hollow undemocratic rhetoric, pre-occupation with modernization, championing of the nanny state, lack of attention to the social justice concerns of an earlier generation and rule by self serving champagne socialists may be some of the reasons. Coincidentally, “thirteen” is the number of years of “Tory misrule” that preceded the Harold Wilson Labour government that came into power in 1964 and it is “yer darling, bleeding ‘Arold”, to quote Alf Garnett, one of the iconic television characters of the period, that I will now focus my attention.

While there will be many who will disagree, when I look down the list, the two outstanding British prime ministers that I can recall are Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson. I could add Winston Churchill but here I have only vague memories and, besides which, his heyday was during the War, which really was before my time. Some time ago, I reflected that the Labour party politicians who stood out as far as I was concerned during those impressionable teenage years were: Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Jim Callaghan, Barbara Castle and of course Harold Wilson. Tony Benn and Denis Healey, I have already blogged about (and done so positively). I may one day return to Jim Callaghan and Barbara Castle, who were remarkable in their own rights, but here I tackle, or at least place the proverbial stake in the ground, the legacy left by Harold Wilson.

Checking up on the history, Labour only come into being in the early twentieth century. Besides a period of being part of a national government (1931-1935) and soon after being part of the War Time administration, its only other periods of power prior to Wilson were in the 1920’s and 30’s under Ramsey McDonald and then 1945-1951 under Clement Atlee. The latter period was significant insofar Labour received an overwhelming mandate and helped to set up the welfare state, many elements of which are still with us. But then came Harold Wilson, usually with a small Parliamentary majority and up against trying to keep happy a wide divergence of opinion within the party and powerful trade union, as well as industrialists etc., interests. I suppose, if I were to write more deeply on the subject, I would need to read more widely but in the meantime I rely on good old Wikipedia for the salient facts and an interesting, somewhat skeptical, Socialist Worker article by way of guidance.

I can’t say for sure why Harold Wilson so inspired me as a youngster in my quest for a hero to look up to, but he did have a profound effect, even though my views tended to be more leftward than Wilson’s brand of pragmatic socialism. While the type of country Britain had become was not quite in the “you have never had it so good” category espoused in an earlier prime minister, Harold MacMillan, oft quoted statement, it was still a lot closer to this than what it had been in pre-War days, when evidently many had it ever so bad, and given overall living standards were on the rise an adaptation in approach was needed. Wilson was a pragmatist, recognizing the need to work within the constraints he had found himself, but working for change from within, particularly to benefit the type of people who would typically vote Labour – the less well off and the working class. He was a fore runner to a later successful socialist, Tony Blair, when it came to pragmatism, although some diehards, such as those the Socialist Worker attracted, would question whether Wilson and Blair were true socialists anyway.

I doubt whether it was doctrinaire socialism that attracted me to Wilson and Labour. Rather, I felt, rightly or wrongly, Wilson and his brand of politics were right for the country at the time. I seem to recall that one of Wilson’s phrases was “consensus”, which was in marked contrast to the confrontation style politics of Thatcher, who followed not long after he stood down as Prime Minister. Another attraction was his “white heat of technology” preoccupation and the need for making proper investment in latest technology and his evident commitment to education e.g. in starting the Open University and encouraging poorer families to participate in higher education, seeking to replace anything that might have stood in the way. Strangely enough Wilson, an ex-grammar school boy who once espoused the virtues of grammar schools, headed the move toward comprehensive education, something at the time I thought was a good thing. And while some may argue the extent to which he achieved this, Wilson did not lose sight of the need to lift up those who were nearer the bottom of society’s pile and tackle head on the need to address social injustice wherever this was to be found. While I have qualms over the liberalising laws, e.g. abortion, divorce, censorship, made under the Wilson government, this was the swinging sixties and Wilson went with the flow as politicians of all flavours have done before and since, As I say, I need to read more deeply and widely to come to a fully thought through view on all these matters, and I suspect if I did so those rose tinted spectacles that I wore during my youth I might need to throw away.

Notwithstanding things have moved on somewhat since then, I would still suggest to those debating the future of the Labour Party and how to make it once again electable, that they consider the legacy of Harold Wilson and what it was that made early party activists tick and see how this could apply to the situation today. While it would be disingenuous of me to cite my hero in order to justify my own philosophy, I can reflect that my own political journey has elements of Wilson ideology. Part of this has been going from dependence to independence and then onto interdependence – we need support to become empowered so we then empower others – yet never reneging on our responsibilities to the disempowered.

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