Harold Wilson, the son of Herbert Wilson (1882–1971) and his wife, Ethel Seddon (1882–1957), was born in Milnsbridge on the outskirts of Huddersfield on 11th March 1916. His father was a chemist and his mother, a former school teacher. (1)
Wilson was educated at New Street Elementary School (1920-1927), Royds Hall School (1927-1932) and Bebington Grammar School (1932-1934). One of his teachers, Edgar Whitwarm, later recalled: "To Harold it was effortless. There was never anyone to touch him... He was the sort of boy a teacher comes across only once or twice in a lifetime. He was more or less top in everything." (2)
Wilson's father had been a supporter of the Liberal Party but after the First World War he changed his allegiance to the Labour Party: "Although never himself poor, the young Harold saw real poverty and the reliance on charity all around him... The family instilled in Harold an austere view of life. Each member was a 'self-contained, self-sufficient person, disinclined to display feelings'. Harold learned that anxieties and problems were best kept under personal control. He was to become an intensely loyal, warm man but a lonely figure with few friends to whom he could relate his feelings." (3)
His biographer, Roy Jenkins, has pointed out: "Wilson was a remarkably successful pupil, both at Royds Hall and at Wirral grammar school.... He was always a pre-eminent examination passer. But he showed no wide intellectual curiosity. He was superb at the syllabus, but he ranged little outside it. He was much less inquisitive culturally than was his fairly near Yorkshire neighbour and very near contemporary Denis Healey. Nor was he rebellious or iconoclastic. The centre of his extra-curricular activity was the local branch of the Boy Scouts. He was not much attracted by or good at team games, but concentrated on the rather lonely sport of long-distance running." (4)
In the summer of 1934, Harold Wilson met Gladys Mary Baldwin, while visiting the tennis club where she was a member. Mary was the daughter of the Revd Daniel Baldwin, a Congregational minister. She had left school at sixteen and was working as a typist at Lever Brothers in Port Sunlight. (5) Wilson later claimed it was love at almost first sight. But Mary says she took much longer to make up her mind. (6)
Later that year he won a history exhibition at Jesus College. At Oxford University he came under the influence of his socialist history tutor, G. D. H. Cole. Wilson later wrote in his memoirs: "I had long held G.D.H. Cole in high regard and found this closer contact with him most congenial. He was a good-looking man, of medium height with a good head of hair, and most attractive in speech and address, except for the manner of his lectures. I had attended a number of them, which he delivered at great speed, eyes down, without a single note. His special subjects were economic organization and history, and he concentrated on these. I was left to teach economic theory, not the area I preferred. I took to spending most Tuesday and Wednesday evenings with him, helping with copy for and proofs of his articles for the New Statesman and Nation. When the work was finished, he used to pour out for each of us a glass of Irish whisky, which he preferred to Scotch. On one of these occasions he was celebrating his fiftieth birthday. He announced that he had made a resolution, to foreswear all reading of books and concentrate on writing them. He was already publishing at least one a year in addition to his other writings. For the most part they were highly topical and dated rather quickly but some, particularly those on economic history, have survived."
With the encouragement of Cole he joined the Labour Party. "It was G.D.H. Cole as much as any man who finally pointed me in the direction of the Labour Party. His social and economic theories made it intellectually respectable. My attitudes had been clarifying for some time and the catalyst was the unemployment situation. I had seen it years before in the Colne Valley, with members of my class jobless when they left school. My own father was still enduring his second painful period out of work. My religious upbringing and practical studies of economics and unemployment in which I had been engaged at Oxford combined in one single thought: unemployment was not only a severe fault of government, but it was in some way evil, and an affront to the country it afflicted." (7)
However, Wilson did not join the Oxford Labour Club because it was dominated by public school Marxists. In his memoirs Wilson recalled. "One meeting... was enough for me... What I felt I could not stomach was all those Marxist public school products rambling on about the exploited workers and the need for a socialist revolution.... I felt that the Oxford Labour Club wasn't for the likes of me... certainly I never had any common cause with the public school Marxist." (8)
Wilson was a very hard-working student and his first academic triumph was to win the Gladstone Memorial Prize for a long essay on "The state and the railways in Great Britain 1823–63". This essay reflected his keen interest in the British Railway System. Another subject that he took a keen interest in was the American Civil War. The following year he won the George Webb Medley Senior Scholarship, which gave him £300 a year. He got a clear-cut first, and it has been claimed that he achieved the highest marks in PPE of any undergraduate of the decade. One of his tutors thought that even within his chosen subjects he lacked originality. "What he was superb at was the quick assimilation of knowledge, combined with an ability to keep it ordered in his mind and to present it lucidly in a form welcome to his examiners." (9)
In 1937 Wilson began working with William Beveridge on the theories of John Maynard Keynes. It has been claimed that the two men did not like each other and Beveridge and according to Lord Longford he regarded Wilson as "a useful machine, not as a person". Ben Pimlott, the author of Harold Wilson (1992) has argued that over the next few years, Beverage continued to rely on Wilson whenever he needed "efficient, streamlined assistance... Wilson, meanwhile, reaped the benefits of their cold alliance in Beveridge's munificent patronage." (10)
Beverage wrote about the abilities of Wilson at the time: "One of the difficulties of economics in the past has been that anybody who did really well (Wilson) has been liable at once to start teaching, and pass on just what he has been taught of necessarily theoretical work in his undergraduate course. Wilson now with me is applying his economic training to the study of concrete problems, and I am anxious that he should be able to make a success of them, as I believe he will so that he might be a still better teacher and economist two years hence." (11)
On the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the civil service, "briefly in a lowly position but rising rapidly". Wilson was head-hunted by members of the Cabinet Secretariat. (12) He was part of the secretariat of an Anglo-French committee which enabled him to meet both Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. According to his memoirs, Churchill was impressed by the "lucidity of his memoranda". (13)
On 1st January 1940, Wilson married Mary Baldwin. At the time she expected him to return to university teaching. She later told Roy Hattersley: "I loved being the wife of a don and would have been happy to remain one all my life." (14). They rented a flat in Richmond. Mary Wilson was also a poet, whose work and personality attracted the admiration of John Betjeman. Wilson often slept in his office and Mary told friends that she was feeling isolated and lonely. "Harold was not very perceptive about female needs and emotions; his articulate, level-headed and undemonstrative parents had done little to prepare him for the temperament and desires of a hypersensitive wife confused by her own changing moods. From the beginning he did not appear to involve Mary in his political life." (15)
Wilson continued to impress his bosses and in August 1941, he was put was director of economics and statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. As his biographer has pointed out he became an important figure in the need to increase the production of coal during the war: "Coal... was an absolutely major ingredient and potential bottleneck in Britain's war effort, with its flow of production from over 1000 separate companies and nearly 2000 collieries, both haphazardly measured and unsatisfactory in result. There can be no doubt that, if Wilson did not increase the output, he vastly improved the statistics and gave ministers a much clearer picture of actual and likely future production." (16) Michael Foot has claimed: "Wilson's work on coal statistics is regarded throughout the civil service as one of the most brilliant statistical achievements in civil service history." (17)
Hugh Gaitskell reported to Hugh Dalton that Wilson was "extraordinarily able... he is only twenty-six, or thereabouts, and is one of the most brilliant younger people about... he has revolutionised the coal statistics. The great thing about him is that he understands what statistics are administratively important and interesting. We must on no account surrender him either to the Army or to any other department" (18)
Harold Wilson was impressed with Winston Churchill. He later wrote: "His qualities were transcendent. First, there was the quality of indomitable courage. Never in the hour of greatest peril doubting ultimate victory, he could at once rebuke and inspire fainter hearts than his own. That inner certainty which enabled him to stand almost alone in seeing and warning of the danger, that certainty became an unshakeable rock when it was Britain and the Commonwealth who stood alone... Winston Churchill had through his power over words, but still more through his power over the hearts of men, that rare ability to call out from those who heard him the sense that they were a necessary part of something greater than themselves; the ability to make each one feel just that much greater than he had been." (19)
Wilson continued to be interested in politics and he became a member of the executive committee of the Fabian Society. In 1944 he was selected as the Labour Party candidate for Ormskirk. One newspaper reported: "At 28, Mr Wilson is looked on by socialists as a coming President Board of Trade or Chancellor of the Exchequer." (20) He now resigned his position at the Ministry of Fuel and Power to become a tutor at University College. The following year he published the book New Deal for Coal (1945). "It was a well-argued, non-doctrinaire statement of the case for nationalizing the mines. The case was presented almost entirely on the grounds of efficiency rather than of socialist fulfilment. He even suggested that the chairman of the future coal board might be paid up to £15,000 a year - then a very large salary - to ensure managerial quality. It was a good subject to have chosen, for the public ownership of the coal industry was at the centre of the Labour programme and the miners were a powerful influence within both the Labour conference and the Parliamentary Labour Party." (21)
Wilson was elected to the House of Commons in the 1945 General Election. Wilson was only 29 but the new prime minister, Clement Attlee appointed him as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power under George Tomlinson. The News Chronicle reported: "Outstanding among the really new men on the Labour benches I would put the brilliant young civil servant, Harold Wilson... He is regarded by the Whitehall high-ups as one of the discoveries of the war. Wilson it was who supplied the Minister of Fuel and Power with his facts and figures, and his statistical digest of the coal industry... was such a model of clear and concise statement that even the industrial correspondents could not find any future with it." (22) Christopher Mayhew, also elected for the first time in 1945, later commented that having a conversation with Wilson a daunting experience: "I watched his bulging cranium with anxiety as he talked, expecting the teeming brain within to burst out at any moment." (23)
"He (Wilson) had progressed in March of that year from his job as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Works to being secretary for overseas trade within the Board of Trade, under the presidency of Sir Stafford Cripps. Wilson was very much a Cripps man at this stage, and it was the patronage of that ascetic lawyer, whose political star in 1947–50 was rising as fast as his health was declining." (24) Two years later, Wilson entered the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. He therefore became the youngest minister since William Pitt.
Wilson later recalled how Attlee successfully controlled "five headstrong horses" in his government - Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton, Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevin: "Attlee's strength in Cabinet was due in part to his businesslike control of its proceedings and his utterly clear capacity for summing up its decisions... The Prime Minister's crispness in Cabinet reflected his greatest quality, courage.... Attlee was in full control, of himself, his Cabinet and the House. His answers in Parliament were concise and clear, with a tight little sense of humour." (25)
It has been argued that Wilson was a competent minister. "He committed no major mistakes; he made no memorable speeches. Except possibly on one issue - that of Soviet trade - he acquired no reputation for being one of the more left-wing members of the cabinet. His association with missions to Moscow began when he was secretary for overseas trade, continued when he became president... Internally Wilson's Board of Trade administration was pro-business and mildly populist." (26)
Wilson did not have a good relationship with fellow Cabinet minister, Hugh Gaitskell. Both men were seen as future leaders of the Labour Party. Gaitskell wrote in his diary: "It is a pity that Harold Wilson, whom I regard as extremely able and for that reason alone most valuable to the Government, should offend so many people by being so swollen-headed... It may, of course, be that I am regarded as a rival of his and therefore my friends are always talking to me in deprecating terms about him. But I do not think this is altogether the case. What is depressing really is... that he is such a very impersonal person. You don't feel that you could ever be close friends with him, or in fact that he would ever have any close friends." (27) Philip Ziegler, the author of Wilson (1993) has pointed out that if "Wilson had kept a similar diary he would have accused Gaitskell of being a snob, a bigot and a prig." (28)
Harold Wilson was considered a poor performer during elections. A journalist, Ernest Kay, argued: "He spoke without notes for little over half an hour. I was disappointed as I listened to him and I knew that some of my colleagues were sharing my feelings. By the time he was halfway through his speech the audience had grown to perhaps thirty: it was easy to hear the shuffling of feet and to watch the suppression of yawns. He was not a good speaker. He was dull. There was no fire in him. I thought he spoke as though he were delivering a lecture at Oxford... He ended his speech to little more than a murmur of applause - and most of this came from the platform. Soon afterwards the meeting ended - well in advance of the scheduled time." Kay spoke to him afterwards and discovered a very different man: "Harold Wilson was charming. He scintillated with wit. He was amusing. He cracked jokes. He was relaxed. Why, I found myself thinking, doesn't he put over some of this wit in his speeches?" (29)
David Watt, a political correspondent, claims that Wilson was brilliant in his handling of hecklers or any unscheduled interruption but admitted that he was a poor performer in the House of Commons: "Technically Mr Wilson is a terrible speaker... he gabbles his words half the time as if he himself were bored of them. He builds cliché on statistic on cliché in mountainous sandwiches of tedium; he has no gestures to speak of and very little variety of infection." Watt added that if he did not work from detailed notes he would lose the thread of his argument and became wordy and repetitive. (30)
In February 1950, Clement Attlee promoted Hugh Gaitskell to minister for economic affairs. When Richard Stafford Cripps resigned nine months later, Gaitskell was appointed to succeed him as chancellor of the exchequer. Herbert Morrison approved of the appointment: "I regarded him at that time as a man of considerable ability and with a praiseworthy desire to act in a sane and responsible manner." Aneurin Bevan disagreed and sent a letter commenting: "I feel bound to tell you that for my part I think the appointment of Gaitskell to be a great mistake. I should have thought myself that it was essential to find out whether the holder of this great office would commend himself to the main elements and currents of opinion in the Party. After all, the policies which he will have to propound and carry out are bound to have the most profound and important repercussions throughout the movement." (31)
As a result of the Korean War the British government came under pressure to increase defence spending. Clement Attlee eventually agreed to increase the British defence budget from £3,400 million to £4,700 million. Harold Wilson disagreed with this policy as he thought that any attempt to reach the target would be disastrous to the British economy. Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health), John Strachey (Secretary of State for War) and John Freeman (parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Supply) agreed with Wilson but Gaitskell insisted that he would be able to find the money to pay for the increased spending on defence.
Gaitskell decided that one way of obtaining this money was by making cuts to government spending. The National Insurance Act created the structure of the Welfare State and after the passing of the National Health Service Act in 1948, people in Britain were provided with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. Gaitskell told his colleagues that he intended imposing charges on spectacles and on dentures supplied under the NHS. Wilson, Bevan and Freeman all threatened to resign. Attempts were made to bribe the three men. Wilson was offered a safe seat in the next election. Freeman was offered Wilson job in the Cabinet if he carried out his threat to resign. Herbert Morrison resorted to threats and told Wilson that if he resigned he "would be finished in Labour politics for twenty years." (32) Gaitskell hoped that the three men would resign. He told Hugh Dalton, "We'd be well rid of the three of them!" (33) James Callaghan told his contact at the American Embassy that even though Wilson and Bevan had threatened to resign "there was virtually no sympathy within the party" for the men. (34) Wilfrid Macartney, a long-time friend, wrote to Bevan warning him not to resign: "Don't go into the wilderness unless like Moses you can take the tribes with you, and remember he was there for forty years." (35)
Michael Foot, the author of Aneurin Bevan (1973) has argued: "On the afternoon of 10th April he (Hugh Gaitskell) presented his Budget, including the proposal to save £13 million - £30 million in a full year - by imposing charges on spectacles and on dentures supplied under the Health Service. And glancing over his shoulder at the benches behind him he had seemed to underline his resolve: having made up his mind, he said, a Chancellor 'should stick to it and not be moved by pressure of any kind, however insidious or well-intentioned'. Bevan did not take his accustomed seat on the Treasury bench, but listened to this part of the speech from behind the Speaker's chair, with Jennie Bevan by his side. A muffled cry of 'shame' from her was the only hostile demonstration Gaitskell received that afternoon." (36)
The following day, Aneurin Bevan resigned from the government. In a letter to Clement Attlee Bevan explained his actions: "In previous conversations with you, and in my statements to the Cabinet, I have explained my objections to many features in the Budget. Having endeavoured, in vain, to secure modifications of these features, I feel I must ask you to accept my resignation. The Budget, in my view, is wrongly conceived in that it fails to apportion fairly the burdens of expenditure as between different social classes. It is wrong because it is based upon a scale of military expenditure, in the coming year, which is physically unattainable, without grave extravagance in its spending. It is wrong because it envisages rising prices as a means of reducing civilian consumption, with all the consequences of industrial disturbance involved. It is wrong because it is the beginning of the destruction of those social services in which Labour has taken a special pride and which were giving to Britain the moral leadership of the world. I am sure you will agree that it is always better that policies should be carried out by those who believe in them. It would be dishonourable of me to allow my name to be associated in the carrying out of policies which are repugnant to my conscience and contrary to my expressed opinion." (37)
In a speech he made in the House of Commons Bevan explained why he had made the decision to resign. He began by examining Gaitskell's proposal to increase the government's defence spending. "The figures in the Budget for arms expenditure are based upon assumptions already invalidated. I want to make that quite clear to the House of Commons; the figures for expenditure on arms were already known to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be unrealizable... I begged over and over again that we should not put figures in the Budget on account of defence expenditure which would not be realized... I therefore say with the full solemnity of the seriousness of what I am saying that the £4,700 million arms programme is already dead. It cannot be achieved without irreparable damage to the economy of Great Britain and the world."
Bevan then went on to look at the cuts to the National Health Service: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer in this year's Budget proposes to reduce the Health expenditure by £13 million - only £13 million out of £4,000 million... If he finds it necessary to mutilate, or begin to mutilate, the Health Services for £13 million out of £4,000 million, what will he do next year? Or are you next year going to take your stand on the upper denture? The lower half apparently does not matter, but the top half is sacrosanct. Is that right?... The Chancellor of the Exchequer is putting a financial ceiling on the Health Service. With rising prices the Health Service is squeezed between that artificial figure and rising prices. What is to be squeezed out next year? Is it the upper half? When that has been squeezed out and the same principle holds good, what do you squeeze out the year after? Prescriptions? Hospital charges? Where do you stop?"
Bevan argued that this measure was undermining the Welfare State: "Friends, where are they going? Where am I going? I am where I always was. Those who live their lives in mountainous and rugged countries are always afraid of avalanches, and they know that avalanches start with the movement of a very small stone. First, the stone starts on a ridge between two valleys - one valley desolate and the other valley populous. The pebble starts, but nobody bothers about the pebble until it gains way, and soon the whole valley is overwhelmed. That is how the avalanche starts, that is the logic of the present situation, and that is the logic my right honourable friends cannot escape.... After all, the National Health Service was something of which we were all very proud, and even the Opposition were beginning to be proud of it. It only had to last a few more years to become a part of our traditions, and then the traditionalists would have claimed the credit for all of it. Why should we throw it away? In the Chancellor's Speech there was not one word of commendation for the Health Service - not one word. What is responsible for that?" (38)
Wilson's resignation speech was less passionate that the one made by Bevan. "Although a matter of principle, as I believe it to be, now severs me from my colleagues in the Cabinet, I should, at the same time, wish to express my deep sense of the privilege it has been to have had an opportunity of serving with them and in however modest a way to have played a part in the real and great achievements of the Governmentin these past few years. Achievements in our economic and social life I believe without parallel in our history." (39) Hugh Gaitskell commented that although Wilson's speech was more restrained "in a way it was more dangerous". (40)
Harold Wilson and John Freeman also resigned from the government. Wilson, Bevan and Freeman now joined what was known as the Keep Left Group. Other members included included Richard Crossman, Sydney Silverman, Konni Zilliacus, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Tom Driberg, John Platts-Mills, Lester Hutchinson, Leslie Solley, Sydney Silverman, Geoffrey Bing, Emrys Hughes, William Warbey and Michael Foot. As one of its members, Ian Mikardo has pointed out: "The Group was radically changed, as was almost everything else in and around the Labour Party, when Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned from the Government in 1951. Overnight we were transformed, not by ourselves but by the media, from the Keep Left Group to the Bevanites... In 1951 there were thirty-two of us, and by the following year that number had risen to forty-seven MPs and two peers." (41)
Harold Wilson argued that Gaitskell took this action as part of a battle he was having with Aneurin Bevan: "He was certainly ambitious, and had close links with the right-wing trade unions. It was not long before that ambition took the form of a determination to outmanoeuvre, indeed humiliate, Aneurin Bevan. Hugh, for his part, despised what he regarded as emotional oratory, and if he could defeat Nye in open conflict, he would be in a strong position to oust Morrison as the heir apparent to Clement Attlee. At the same time he would ensure that post-war socialism would take a less dogmatic form, totally anti-communist but unemotional." (42)
Wilson maintained that he left the government to support Bevan. However, others in the Cabinet suggested that he took this action because he thought it was the best way to become leader of the Labour Party. One member of the government, Emanuel Shinwell, claimed that Wilson was "highly ambitious" and although this was admirable in itself but was not "improved by insincere gestures of alleged idealism". (43) Herbert Morrison said that the government did not expect Wilson to resign: "His resignation left us speechless... Was the move from ardent conviction? Or was it because he felt that Bevan's resignation would in due course bring victory?" (44)
Philip Ziegler, the author of Wilson (1993) has considered the reasons for Wilson's resignation: "It is possible to construct two plausible scenarios: the first featuring Wilson as a gallant young idealist sacrificing his job and risking his future for the sake of a principle and in support of a cherished leader; the second portraying him as a cynical schemer, calculating the course of action that promised him greatest advantage in the long term and inflicting grave damage on his party in the pursuit of his individual ambitions. Anyone who believes that either of these versions presents the entire truth would be better employed designing puppets for Spitting Image than in the craft of biography. Wilson did look before he leapt; he did make calculations about his political future; but equally he did feel strongly about the burden of defence and the health charges; he did admire and feel loyalty to Aneurin Bevan, one of the few politicians admitted by Mary to the family home as a friend; above all, he was taking a serious and avoidable risk. He may not have been impulsive or idealistic but his resignation was an act of political courage, a gamble which fits ill with the image of cautious and devious time-server which has won such wide acceptance." (45)
John Freeman admitted that their resignations were part of a plan to make Aneurin Bevan leader. "Everybody understood the resignations as a tactic to make Nye leader." (46) Hugh Gaitskell recorded: "They expect that Bevan will try and organize the constituency parties against us, and there may be a decisive struggle at the Party Conference in October. We certainly cannot say that we have won the campaign... opinion may well swing over to him. He can exploit all the opposition-mindness which is so inherent in many Labour Party Members." (47)
Some people thought that Harold Wilson was in danger of losing his seat in Huyton in the 1951 General Election. However, his campaign to protect the National Health Service from government cuts was popular with the electorate and he in fact increased his majority from 1,193 in 1950 to 2,558 in 1951. The Labour Party was less successful and lost 20 seats. The Conservative Party formed the next government and Winston Churchill became the new prime minister.
On 30th October, 1951, twenty-four members of the Keep Left Group (Bevanites) met at the home of Richard Crossman to consider post-election strategy. Wilson attended the meeting and Crossman later commented: "Harold Wilson was as neat and competent as ever, and whenever an idea is put forward, remembers without fail an occasion on which he did it or set up a committee on it.... he has a good mind, is an excellent member of the group and is likeable into the bargin." (48) Jo Richardson also respected his intellectual abilities but had doubts about his personality: "He struck me as being totally sure of himself... bordering on the arrogant." (49)
The Bevanites were popular with rank and file members and in October 1952 Wilson was elected on to the National Executive of the Labour Party at the year's National Conference. Crossman, Aneurin Bevan, Barbara Castle, Tom Driberg and Ian Mikardo were also successful. They knocked off senior figures on the right of the party such as Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison. At the conference Wilson made a passionate speech demanding cuts in defence spending.
Hugh Gaitskell decided to attack the Keep Left Group. He told a journalist: "There is only one thing we have to do in the next few years, and that is to keep the Labour Party behind the Anglo-American alliance." (50) In a speech at Stalybridge on 5th October, Hugh Gaitskell told the audience that about a sixth of the "Constituency Party delegates appeared to be Communists or Communist inspired." He claimed that the Bevanites and the Tribune newspaper had pured out "a stream of grossly misleading propaganda and poisonous innuendoes and malicious attacks on Attlee, Morrison and the rest of us." Gaitskell then went onto argue: "It is time to end the attempt at mob rule by a group of frustrated journalists and restore the authority and leadership of the solid sound sensible majority of the movement. If we don't or can't do this we shall not persuade, and shall not deserve to persuade, our fellow citizens to entrust us once again with the Government of the Country." (51)
When Clement Attlee resigned in 1955, Hugh Gaitskell became the new leader of the Labour Party. Wilson did not think Gaitskell made a good leader of the party. In his memoirs he argued: "Hugh Gaitskell had many fine qualities, including unswerving loyalty to his close band of friends and to the principles of economics as he interpreted them, together with great personal charm. But once he came to a decision, a remarkably speedy process associated with great certainty, the Medes and the Persians had nothing on him. Whether the argument took place in the Shadow Cabinet or the National Executive, any colleague taking a different line from his was regarded not only as an apostate, but as a troublemaker or simply a person lacking in brains."
Denis Healey was another Shadow Cabinet member who disliked Gaitskell style of leadership. In his autobiography, The Time of My Life (1989), he pointed out: "I was worried by a streak of intolerance in Gaitskell's nature; he tended to believe that no one could disagree with him unless they were either knaves or fools. Rejecting Dean Rusk's advice, he would insist on arguing to a conclusion rather than to a decision. Thus he would keep meetings of the Shadow Cabinet going, long after he had obtained its consent to his proposals, because he wanted to be certain that everyone understood precisely why he was right. In the political world a leader must often be content with acquiescence; he is sometimes wise to leave education to his juniors." (52)
Gaitskell urged Britain's entry to the European Economic Community but was unable to persuade the majority of members of the Labour Party to agree to this policy. After losing the 1959 General Election Gaitskell attempted to change party policy on nationalization (Clause IV). At the party conference in November 1959 he argued: "Why was nationalization apparently a vote loser? For two reasons, I believe. First, some of the existing nationalized industries, rightly or wrongly, are unpopular. This unpopularity is overwhelmingly due to circumstances which have nothing to do with nationalization. London buses are overcrowded and slow, not because the Transport Commission is inefficient, but because of the state of London traffic which the Tory Government has neglected all these years. The backward conditions of the railways are not due to bad management but to inadequate investment in the past, which has left British Railways with a gigantic problem of modernization.... Above all, we must face the fact that nationalization will not be positively popular until all these industries are clearly seen to be performing at least as well as the best firms in the private sector. When we have achieved that goal, then we can face the country with complete confidence." (53)
Gaitskell felt very strongly about the party policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. At the party conference in Scarborough in October 1960, two unilateralist resolutions, from the transport workers and the engineers, were carried and the official policy document on defence was rejected. Gaitskell's thought these were disastrous decisions and made a passionate speech where he stressed that he would "fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love". Wilson now challenged Gaitskell for the leadership but was defeated by 166 votes to 81. Gaitskell now had the confidence to advance a defence policy that effectively rejected the Scarborough decisions.
In July 1961 Harold Macmillan applied for entry to the European Economic Community. Gaitskell had always been in favour of joining the EEC but he now changed his position. At the party conference in Brighton in October 1962 he argued that the prospects for a federal Europe as amounting to: "The end of Britain as an independent European state. I make no apology for repeating it. It means the end of a thousand years of history". Gaitskell's Brighton speech dismayed many of his closest friends. Dora Gaitskell commented: "All the wrong people are cheering".
Hugh Gaitskell died at the Middlesex Hospital, London, of the rare disease lupus erythematosus, on 18th January 1963. Wilson was one of the main contenders for the party leadership and he was able to defeat his right-wing rivals, George Brown and James Callaghan. Wilson was seen as on the left of the party and one of his first acts as leader was to restore the whip to the little band of rebels who had been expelled two years before for their attitude on unilateralism. However, he had to go slowly. He told his left-wing intimates, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot: "You must understand that I am running a Bolshevik Revolution with a Tsarist Shadow Cabinet." (54)
Wilson was only 47 years-old when he became leader. He might have looked old when compared to John F. Kennedy, but was seen as young when compared to the 70 year-old Harold Macmillan. Wilson thought his youth was his great advantage and refused to wear spectacles in public.
On 1st October 1963, Wilson made a speech where he argued that he was the future. Under his leadership Britain would experience a second industrial revolution: "Planning on an unprecedented scale to meet automation without unemployment; a pooling of talent in which all classes could compete and prosper; a vast extension of state-sponsored research; a completely new concept of education; an alliance of science and socialism." (55) James Cameron wrote the next day in The Daily Herald: "Harold Wilson's startling essay into political science-fiction may well be held by experts to be the most vital speech he has ever made. Here at last was the twentieth-century."
Labour were favourites at the beginning of the 1964 General Election campaign but a vicious attack of Wilson by the right-wing press in the few weeks before the election saw the Conservatives edge ahead. Wilson appealed to the BBC to provide some balance. Wilson pressed for the political element of the daily programme Today's Papers to be suspended during the election period, on the ground that the papers were predominantly Tory. The BBC refused and the programme went ahead.
Wilson had more success when he protested to the Director-General, Hugh Greene, that the immensely popular Steptoe and Son was being screened an hour before the polls closed. He claimed that these viewers would more likely to be Labour voters. When Greene postponed the programme by an hour Wilson telephoned in gratitude: Thank you very much, Hugh. That will be worth a dozen or more seats to me." If that was the case, it won him the election because by the time they finished counting the votes, Wilson had an effective majority of five. After the 1966 General Election this majority was increased to 97.
Some members of MI5 believed that Wilson was a Soviet agent. Anatoli Golitsyn also told them that Hugh Gaitskell had been poisoned by the KGB. Peter Wright, a senior figure in MI5, explained in his biography Spycatcher: "The story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. Gaitskell was Wilson's predecessor as Leader of the Labour Party. I knew him personally and admired him greatly."
Wilson was fairly successful in his promise to modernize Britain. During that period the House of Commons passed the 1965 Race Relations Act (outlawed discrimination on the "grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins" in public places), 1965 Abolition of Death Penalty Act (replaced the penalty of death with a mandatory sentence of imprisonment for life), 1967 Sexual Offences Act (it decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21), 1967 Abortion Act (it legalising abortions by registered practitioners, and regulating the free provision of such medical practices through the National Health Service), 1968 Theatres Act (abolished censorship of the stage), 1969 Divorce Reform Act (allowing couples to divorce after a separation of two years); Comprehensive Education (1966 to 1970, the proportion of children in comprehensive schools increased from about 10% to over 30%), Housing (1.3 million new homes were built between 1965 and 1970), Family Allowances (from April 1964 to April 1970, family allowances for four children increased as a percentage of male manual workers aged 21 and above from 8% to 11.3%.)
Wilson had more difficulty with the economy and in November, 1967, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, was forced to devalue the pound. In 1968 Cecil King, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, became involved with Peter Wright of MI5 in a plot to bring down the government of Wilson. Wright claimed in his memoirs, Spycatcher (1987) that "Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction."
Hugh Cudlipp arranged for King to meet Lord Mountbatten, the recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, who had been privately highly critical of the defence cuts made by the government. Solly Zuckerman, the government's scientific adviser, was also invited to attend the meeting on 8th May. According to Cecil King's account in his memoirs, Without Fear or Favour (1971), when he told Mountbatten of his plans, he replied that "there is anxiety about the government at the palace, and that the queen has had an unprecedented number of letters protesting about Wilson".
According to Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, the authors of Smear! Wilson and the Secret State (1992): "King then delivered a version of his preoccupations at the time - approaching economic collapse and ineffective government, with a Prime Minister no longer able to control events. Public order was about to break down leading to social chaos. there was a likelihood of bloodshed in the streets." At this point Zuckerman got up and said: "This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling." He also told Mountbatten to have nothing to do with the conspiracy to overthrow Wilson.
Two days later, King published an article in the Daily Mirror under his own name entitled "Enough is enough". It read: "Mr Wilson and his government have lost all credit and we are now threatened with the greatest financial crisis in history. It is not to be resolved by lies about our reserves but only by a fresh start under a fresh leader." Three weeks later the directors of International Publishing Corporation unanimously dismissed King.
By the end of the 1960s, with unemployment and inflation increasing, Wilson's popularity declined and the Conservative Party, led by Edward Heath, won the 1970 General Election. Heath successfully led Britain into the European Economic Community (ECC). However, many in his party was unhappy with this policy and it created deep divisions that lasted for over thirty years.
Edward Heath also came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
When Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974 Peter Wright once again became involved in a plot against the Labour government. It was suggested that MI5 files on Wilson should be leaked to the press. Wright was eventually persuaded by Victor Rothschild not to take part in the conspiracy. Rothschild warned him that he was likely to get a caught and if that happened he would lose his job and pension.
In 1975 Wilson decided to hold a referendum on membership of the European Economic Community. Wilson allowed his Cabinet to support both the Yes and No campaigns and this led to a bitter split in the party.
Wilson's government again had trouble with the economy. Faced with the prospect of having to get a loan from the International Monetary Fund, Wilson came under increasing attack from all sections of the Labour Party. Wilson was also suffering from the early signs of Alzheimer's Disease and in 1976 decided to resign from office and was replaced by James Callaghan.
Wilson was knighted in 1976 and was created Baron of Rievaulx in 1983. Harold Wilson died in 1995.
I had long held G.D.H. Cole in high regard and found this closer contact with him most congenial. He was a good-looking man, of medium height with a good head of hair, and most attractive in speech and address, except for the manner of his lectures. I had attended a number of them, which he delivered at great speed, eyes down, without a single note. His special subjects were economic organization and history, and he concentrated on these. I was left to teach economic theory, not the area I preferred.
I took to spending most Tuesday and Wednesday evenings with him, helping with copy for and proofs of his articles for the New Statesman and Nation. When the work was finished, he used to pour out for each of us a glass of Irish whisky, which he preferred to Scotch. On one of these occasions he was celebrating his fiftieth birthday. He announced that he had made a resolution, to foreswear all reading of books and concentrate on writing them. He was already publishing at least one a year in addition to his other writings. For the most part they were highly topical and dated rather quickly but some, particularly those on economic history, have survived.
It was G.D.H. Cole as much as any man who finally pointed me in the direction of the Labour Party. His social and economic theories made it intellectually respectable. My attitudes had been clarifying for some time and the catalyst was the unemployment situation. I had seen it years before in the Colne Valley, with members of my class jobless when they left school. My own father was still enduring his second painful period out of work. My religious upbringing and practical studies of economics and unemployment in which I had been engaged at Oxford combined in one single thought: unemployment was not only a severe fault of government, but it was in some way evil, and an affront to the country it afflicted.
When Wilson was President of the Board of Trade I found him moderate in his views - at times too moderate for my liking. His Anti-Monopolies Act was something of a compromise and therefore not too effective. He appeared to get inordinate pleasure out of his bonfire of economic controls. In the main he was right, but I consider that, in view of the economic situation at the time, he overdid it. At that time he would certainly not have been classed as left-wing, but his resignation in company with Bevan over the Health Service rumpus, was an obvious left-wing gesture. He had taken little or no part in the row, and his resignation left us speechless with surprise. Was the move from an ardent conviction? Or was it because he felt that Bevan's resignation would in due course bring victory and it would be advantageous for Wilson to be in such company?
If the latter were the case it was a passing sentiment. Ostensibly a member of the Bevanite group, Wilson did not find it impossible to accept the seat on the Parliamentary Committee left vacant when Bevan resigned. Perhaps the most realistic classification for this able economist and clever debater is that he is a Wilsonite.
Since the opening of the new session the Bevanites had sought to organize themselves into a more effective parliamentary group. On the suggestion of lan Mikardo and on the precedent of the Keep Left group, it was agreed to elect a regular chairman - Harold Wilson was the first - and to meet at a regular time in the parliamentary week: 1.30 on Mondays. None of those participating in these secret rites thought at the outset that they might be indulging in some scandalous Mau Mau activity - (none at least except the compulsive informer in our midst who reported our proceedings regularly to Hugh Dalton and thereby to the Whips). Unofficial groups had existed in Parliament ever since the first Witenagemot, and the Bevanites of the early 1950s imagined they were following a more recent precedent set by others, notably the XYZ Club, which had been talking politics over exclusive dinner tables since its foundation by Douglas Jay and a few others in the early 1940s. No one, after all, had ever suggested that the Keep Left group should be outlawed. By January 1952 the new Bevanite arrangements were in full working order and the agenda was crowded.
When the Finance Bill was tabled, it contained the fateful clause. Bevan was on a speaking engagement in East Anglia. He rang me up to say, 'I am resigning. They've introduced the Bill.' The next day he sent in his resignation letter. To the last he was pressing John Freeman and me not to resign, and Freeman records that he would have stayed on but he felt he had to resign when I did.
Mary remembers how I agonised about my own resignation, walking up and down the bedroom floor all night trying to make up my mind. I was under some pressure to stay in the Cabinet and maintain a presence, if only to fight the battle from within. What formed no part of my thinking, although I have been challenged on it, was the calculation that the Government was disintegrating and that I would do well to put down a marker for the future. At the time it looked far more like an act of political suicide, but the issue on which I resigned was different from Nye's.
His own speech to the House was sadly miscalculated. For once he should have had a script. As it was, banal interruptions and barracking from the Conservative benches, and murmurings from a few on his own side, provoked him to extravagance in his choice of words. One thing was certain: he could not speak for me.
The following morning we went to Ernie Bevin's memorial service and in the afternoon I made my own statement, which was quietly received. I was careful to say that although I personally found it necessary to leave the Government, I intended both inside and outside the House to do everything in my power to support the Party and the Government in the difficult times that lay ahead.
Differences of opinion arose in the Government. The immediate cause was a proposal in the Budget to make charges for certain of the Health Services in order to prevent abuse. There were other differences of a more personal nature. I endeavoured to effect agreement, but the disagreement spread to some other matters, notably to the effect on the economy of the country of the level of armaments on which we had embarked. I had, as a matter of fact, pointed out in public speeches that the achievement of our programme was conditioned by various factors such as the availability of raw materials and machine tools, and the level of prices. There was, therefore, in my view, no real difference of principle. However, the upshot was that Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman insisted on resigning from the Government.
In this unhealthy atmosphere, the Gaitskellites were seeking their revenge. Their leader, far from discouraging them, was spurring them on, and some were aiming at expelling those who disagreed with him. A few of us, Barbara Castle, lan Mikardo and myself, felt that we should form a small tight group to work out our strategy and our week-by-week tactics. I was elected leader. We met at half-past one every Monday. I set myself the task of resisting extremism and provocative public statements.
For MPs to meet in unofficial groups, getting together informally, as distinct from in committees and sub-committees set up by the House of Commons itself, is probably as old as Parliament itself. King John could have written a thesis on the subject. But this was too much for Hugh Gaitskell, who would have been better advised to acknowledge that he led an unofficial group of his own. Immediately after the annual conference at Morecambe in 1952 he found his voice.
In a speech at Stalybridge, he repeated an allegation that one-sixth of the constituency party delegates at Morecambe were communist or communist-inspired. He drew the conclusion that at a time when communist policy was to infiltrate the Labour movement, the Bevanites were assisting them by their disruptive activities. Then, in a direct reference to us and our pamphlets, he went on: "It is time to end the attempt at mob rule by a group of frustrated journalists and restore the authority and leadership of the solid, sound, sensible majority of the movement.' He referred to 'the stream fit grossly misleading propaganda, with poisonous innuendoes and malicious attacks on Atlee, Morrison and the rest of the leadership."
For the past fortnight, the House has debated the cost in political and moral terms of the Government's action in Suez. Today we have to count the reckoning in economic terms as well. When I say 'in economic terms' I do not mean merely the cost in terms of government expenditure. We are no longer in the days of nineteenth-century colonial wars, when the cost of these ventures could be reckoned in terms of another tuppence on the income tax or another penny on tea.
I hope that the Chancellor or the Minister of Supply will tell the House frankly today what, in the view of their advisers, will be the economic consequences of this military action. After all, it was long prepared. What estimates did the Government make of its costs and its economic consequences? What estimates do they make now?
Much has been written about Harold Wilson and MI5, some of it wildly inaccurate. But as far as I am concerned, the story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. Gaitskell was Wilson's predecessor as Leader of the Labour Party. I knew him personally and admired him greatly. I had met him and his family at the Blackwater Sailing Club, and I recall about a month before he died he told me that he was going to Russia.
After he died his doctor got in touch with MI5 and asked to see somebody from the Service. Arthur Martin, as the head of Russian Counterespionage, went to see him. The doctor explained that he was disturbed by the manner of Gaitskell's death. He said that Gaitskell had died of a disease called lupus disseminata, which attacks the body's organs. He said that it was rare in temperate climates and that there was no evidence that Gaitskell had been anywhere recently where he could have contracted the disease.
Arthur Martin suggested that I should go to Porton Down, the chemical and microbiological laboratory for the Ministry of Defense. I went to see the chief doctor in the chemical warfare laboratory. Dr. Ladell, and asked his advice. He said that nobody knew how one contracted lupus. There was some suspicion that it might be a form of fungus and he did hot have the foggiest idea how one would infect somebody with the disease. I came back and made my report in these terms.
The next development was that Golitsin told us quite independently that during the last few years of his service he had had some contacts with Department 13, which was known as the Department of Wet Affairs in the KGB. This department was responsible for organizing assassinations. He said that just before he left he knew that the KGB were planning a high-level political assassination in Europe in order to get their man into the top place. He did not know which country it was planned in but he pointed out that the chief of Department 13 was a man called General Rodin, who had been in Britain for many years and had just returned on promotion to take up the job, so he would have had good knowledge of the political scene in England.
In their rush to get into Europe they must not forget the four-fifths of the world's population whose preoccupation is with emergence from colonial status into self-government; and into the revolution of rising expectations. If this is so, is the world organization not to reflect the enthusiasms and aspirations of the new members and new nations entering into their inheritance, often through British action, as the Prime Minister said, and who want to see their neighbours also brought forward into the light? It must be recognized that this is the greatest force in the world today, and we must ask why it is so often that we are found, or thought to be found, on the wrong side.
The record of this country since the war, under both Governments, is good enough to proclaim to the world - India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanganyika and Sierra Leone and, even after the agonies, Cyprus. Why do we contrive it that in the eyes of the world we are so often allied with reactionary governments, whose record in the scales of human enfranchisement weigh as a speck of dust against real gold and silver as far as our record is concerned?
Why is it that the British Foreign Secretary speaks in accents of the dead past, as though he fears and resents the consequences of the very actions which his Government as well as ours have taken?
Not only in this country but abroad people are asking, 'Who is in charge? Whose hand is on the helm? When is the Prime Minister going to exert himself and govern?' I do not believe that he can. The panache has gone. On every issue, domestic and foreign, now we find the same faltering hand, the same dithering indecision and confusion. What is more, Hon. Members opposite know it, and some of them are even beginning to say it.
The MacWonder of 1959 is the man who gave us this pathetic performance this afternoon. This whole episode has justified our insistence eighteen months ago that the Foreign Secretary should have been in the House of Commons. But we were wrong on one thing. We thought that the noble lord would be an office boy. The Prime Minister was able to restore his tottering position today only by a fulsome tribute to the noble lord. Indeed, to adopt the saying made famous by Nye Bevan: 'It is a little difficult to know which is the organ grinder and which is the other.'
During my several visits to the Soviet Union I had discovered that 60 per cent of their engineers had got their degrees in part from distance teaching. Then, in March 1963, a Labour Party study group under the chairmanship of Lord Taylor presented a report on higher education in general and commented on the continuing exclusion of the lower-income groups. They also proposed an experiment on radio and television for serious planned adult education.
Today I want to outline new proposals on which we are working, a dynamic programme providing facilities for home study to university and higher technical standards, on the basis of a University of the Air and of nationally organized correspondence college courses.
These will be intended to cater for a wide variety of potential students. There are technicians and technologists who perhaps left school at sixteen or seventeen and who, after two or three years in industry, feel that they could qualify as graduate scientists or technologists. There are many others, perhaps in clerical occupations, who would like to acquire new skills and new qualifications. There are many in all levels of industry who would desire to become qualified in their own or other fields, including those who had no facilities for taking GEC at 0 or A level, or other required qualifications; or housewives who might like to secure qualifications in English Literature, Geography or History.
The problem is this: since technological progress, left to the mechanism of private industry and private property, can lead only to high profits for a few, a high rate of employment for a few and to mass redundancy for the many, if there had never been a case for socialism before, automation would have created it. Because only if technological progress becomes part of our national planning can that progress be connected to national ends.
So the choice is not between technological progress and the kind of easygoing world we are living in today. It is the choice between the blind imposition of technological advance, with all that means in terms of unemployment, and the conscious, planned, purposive use of scientific progress to provide undreamed of living standards and the possibility of leisure ultimately on an unbelievable scale.
Now I come to what we must do, and it is a four-fold programme. First, we must produce more scientists. Secondly, having produced them, we must be a great deal more successful in keeping them in this country. Thirdly, having trained them and kept them here, we must make more intelligent use of them when they are trained than we do with those we have got. Fourthly, we must organize British industry so it applies the results of scientific research more purposively to our national production effort. Russia is at the present time training ten to eleven times as many scientists and technologists. And the sooner we face up to that challenge the sooner we shall realize what kind of a world we are living in.
Until very recently over half our trained scientists were engaged in defence projects or so-called defence projects. Real defence, of course, is essential. But so many of our scientists were employed on purely prestige projects that never left the drawing-board. Many more scientists are deployed not on projects that are going to increase Britain's productive power, but on some new gimmick or additive for some consumer product which will enable the advertising managers to rush to the television screen to tell us all to buy a little more of something we did not even know we wanted in the first place. This is not strengthening Britain.
What we need is new industries, and it will be the job of the next Government to see that we get them. This means mobilizing scientific research in this country to produce a new technological breakthrough. We have spent thousands of millions in the past few years on misdirected research and development contracts in the field of defence. If we were now to use the technique of R and D contracts in civil industry I believe we could within a measurable period of time establish new industries which would make us once again one of the foremost industrial nations of the world.
Relevant also to these problems are our plans for a University of the Air. I repeat again that this is not a substitute for our plans for higher education, for our plans for new universities and for our plans for extending technological education. It is not a substitute; it is a supplement to our plans. It is designed to provide an opportunity for those, who, for one reason or another, have not been able to take advantage of higher education, to now do so with all that the TV and radio state-sponsored correspondence courses, the facilities of a university for setting and marking papers, conducting examinations and awarding degrees, can provide. Nor, may I say, do we envisage this merely as a means of providing scientists and technologists. I believe a properly planned University of the Air could make an immeasurable contribution to the cultural life of our country, to the enrichment of our standard of living.
Vaguely Liberal at Oxford, and a civil servant during the war, Harold Wilson had won fame as Attlee's President of the Board of Trade, by promising 'a bonfire of controls'. He applied himself seriously to Labour Party politics for the first time when he threw in his lot with Bevanism in 1951, as 'Nye's little dog', to use Dalton's words. Then, as Bevan's star faded, he moved far enough towards the centre to be elected leader of the Labour Party when Gaitskell died in 1962. By now he had become an accomplished speaker; he roused the Party Conference to wild enthusiasm by talking of 'the white heat of the technological revolution'. In the General Election of 1964 he made rings round the skeletal inadequacy of Sir Alee Douglas-Home.
No prime minister ever interfered so much in the work of his colleagues as Wilson did in his first six years - though I am glad to say that he gave me a pretty free hand on defence, except when there was a crisis. Unfortunately, since he had neither political principle nor much government experience to guide him, he did not give Cabinet the degree of leadership which even a less ambitious prime minister should provide. He had no sense of direction, and rarely looked more than a few months ahead. His short-term opportunism, allied with a capacity for self-delusion which made Walter Mitty appear unimaginative, often plunged the government into chaos. Worse still, when things went wrong he imagined everyone was conspiring against him. He believed in demons, and saw most of his colleagues in this role at one time or another. I was no exception. Fearing that if he left a minister too long in the same department he might develop a power-base from which to challenge him, he shifted his ministers around far too often.
Twenty years later it is possible to make a balanced assessment of Harold Wilson's contribution to our political life, particularly in his first period as Prime Minister. There was then no doubt about his skill as a professional politician. Although he won the 1964 general election with a majority of only four, his personality appealed to a considerable section of the electorate, and he certainly developed a manner which carried the viewer, the listener and the reader with him. After the 1966 election, however, he never hesitated to reverse his position when he found his own forces lining up against him. Barbara Castle's attempt at trade union reform was a major example of this. He also had little lasting success in foreign affairs, and became far less effective after the elections of 1974, when he had not really expected to win again. He was already tired and no longer possessed that freshness and energy which had previously served him so well. Nevertheless it came as a surprise when he resigned on his sixtieth birthday. It may be that he himself already realised the impact which his illness, later to prove fatal, was having upon him. Jim Callaghan later told me that he thought that Wilson had realised soon after 1974 that he was past it. 'That,' I said, 'rather backs up what Roy Jenkins said to me recently, namely that Wilson was ten years older than he had publicly admitted and, when he resigned, he was really seventy and not sixty.' 'Yes, that is very interesting,' commented Jim, 'and I suppose that, when all those well-known photographs were taken of him outside No. 10 when he claimed to be eleven, he was really twenty-one!' Harold Wilson's lasting achievements are difficult to discern, except for the fact that he held the Labour Party together for nearly fifteen years, whereas under his successors it collapsed, thereby helping to sustain eighteen years of Conservative government. Harold was, above all else, a great political survivor, a fine politician if, perhaps, never truly a statesman.
The major problems inside MI5 concern its relationship with the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. As the Minister responsible for trade in the Attlee Government, he attempted to increase exports to the USSR. He constantly ran up against United States Government opposition towards any growth in such trade. Wilson felt that the United States used the hysteria of the cold war to prevent Britain from increasing its trade with the USSR. His was not a position that was likely to be viewed with favour in MI5. In fact, there was near hysteria in MI5 when he was sent to the USSR to negotiate the sale of 20 advanced jet engines. Wilson was only a junior Minister carrying out a Cabinet decision, but from that point on he was viewed with suspicion by MI5 officers.
When the unexpected death of Hugh Gaitskell led to the election of Wilson in 1963, MI5 immediately tried to recruit Wilson's campaign manager, George Caunt, to spy on the Labour leader. Shortly before the 1964 election, the FBI told MI5 that it had discovered a KGB mole who had been operating inside MI5 in the key post-war period. The fact that Sir Anthony Blunt was a KGB agent and had close connections with the Queen was certain to create a spy scandal as damaging as that of Kim Philby. Even worse for MI5 was the knowledge that it had been tipped off about Blunt's spying a decade earlier and had failed to take action. It now feared that Wilson would use the opportunity of the scandal to dismember its organisation. Sir Roger Hollis, then director-general of MI5, and Arthur Martin, head of the counter-espionage department, decided on a cover-up and did not even tell the outgoing Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Instead, Blunt was granted immunity and was interrogated by Peter Wright, who made the position clear in Spycatcher, when he wrote: "We had strict orders from successive Director-Generals to do nothing that might provoke Blunt to go public." All that was concealed from Wilson when he became Prime Minister, and he was also not informed when Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell, eventually came under suspicion as KGB moles.
Other news was kept from Wilson. In 1961, Anatoli Golitsin, a KGB defector, had arrived in the USA with all sorts of wild allegations few of which yielded anything of substance except the identity of the Admiralty spy, John Vassall. By coincidence, shortly after Wilson's election as Leader of the Opposition, Golitsin was sent to Britain to be interviewed by MI5. His agreed fee was £10,000 a month - £70,000 at today's prices - which was a considerable incentive to keep the interest of his MI5 hosts. Although he had made no mention of it during his two-year interrogation in the USA, Golitsin now told MI5 that he had heard of a KGB plot to kill the leader of a west European political party so that its man could take over. That was all that Peter Wright and other extreme right-wingers inside MI5 needed to confirm the suspicions that had been hanging around ever since the jet engine trade deal and Wilson's annual visits to the USSR while in opposition. They believed that the assassinated party leader had to be Gaitskell.
Oblivious to the suspicions of MI5 and the CIA, the new Labour Prime Minister Wilson issued instructions that MI5 was to stop tapping the telephones of Members of Parliament, although it never occurred to him that MI5 could continue to get access to the information gleaned from taps on Members of Parliament run by the CIA or GCHQ. He also instructed that MI5 should stop using Members as agents without knowing that one Tory Member, Captain Henry Kerby, had been used by MI5 to ingratiate himself with Wilson's shadow Cabinet colleague George Wigg by spying on the Tory party for Wigg. It gives one great encouragement that such people might have a greater role in law enforcement in the future.
The instructions from Wilson caused deep resentment inside MI5, where some officers retaliated by leaking damaging bits of gossip about members of Wilson's Government from MI5 files to the press. That was of course a breach of the Official Secrets Act 1911, but no one has ever been prosecuted.
MI5 believed that seven members of Wilson's Government and three other Labour Members of Parliament were either spies or at the very least security risks. Only one of those 10, Will Owen, the Member of Parliament for Morpeth, eventually turned out to be guilty. He had been taking £500 a month from Czechoslovakian intelligence in exchange for low-grade information that it could most probably have got cheaper by buying Hansard and reading the quality press. All the other names on MI5's list were completely innocent, but that did not stop MI5, in particular Peter Wright, hounding Bernard Floud, who had been devastated by the death of his wife. MI5 pursued him until he finally committed suicide in a moment of despair.
When Treasury Minister Niall MacDermot had his promotion to the Cabinet blocked following MI5 pressure on Wilson, he resigned from politics in disgust. The other seven Members on MI5's list were John Diamond, Tom Driberg, Judith Hart, Stephen Swingler, John Stonehouse, Barnet Stross and, of course, Wilson.
The MI5-inspired rumours about Wilson eventually reached the ears of former Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who asked James Scott-Hopkins, a former MI6 officer who had become a Tory Member of Parliament, to conduct his own investigation to discover whether there was any danger of Wilson's being blackmailed.
In the summer of 1967, people from MI5 met people from the CIA, the FBI and the Australian and New Zealand security services in Melbourne, Australia, where they were addressed by Golitsin about his Wilson allegations.
Matters began to hot up when the press baron Cecil King, a long-standing MI5 agent, began to discuss the need for a coup against the Wilson Government. King informed Peter Wright that the Daily Mirror would publish any damaging anti-Wilson leaks that MI5 wanted aired, and at a meeting with Lord Mountbatten and the Government's chief scientific adviser, Solly Zuckerman, he urged Mountbatten to become the leader of a Government of national salvation. Lucky old Britain. Zuckerman pointed out that that was treason, and left the meeting. The idea came to nothing because of Mountbatten's reluctance to act.
The late Harold Wilson was not the only one under suspicion. While the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) was Leader of the Opposition, the Tory Member of Parliament, Captain Henry Kerby - as I have explained, he was an MI5 agent who had ingratiated himself with George Wigg - was used to spread rumours that the right hon. Gentleman was a homosexual who had had an affair with a Swedish diplomat.
Doubts about the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup were not confined to the more extreme elements who clustered round Peter Wright. The newly appointed head of MI5, Mr. Hanley - otherwise known as Jumbo - did not inform the right hon. Gentleman that investigations were taking place to try to determine whether Sir Roger Hollis had been a KGB agent.
The head of MI5 did not inform the Leader of the Opposition of MI5's doubts about Wilson, either, or reveal the contents of the file on Wilson that he had inherited from his predecessor, Furnival Jones, and which was kept in his safe, filed under the name "Henry Worthington".
The second factor that increased MI5's alarm at the time was the rise in trade union militancy and the swing to the left in the Labour party. Any pretext that MI5 existed to catch Russian spies went right out of the window at that point. From 1972, there was a vast growth in the sections of MI5 that were involved with domestic surveillance.
Trade unionists, peace campaigners, Cabinet Ministers and political activists in their tens of thousands became the objects of illegal telephone taps and letter intercepts. Recruitment of agents on a scale not considered necessary even at the height of the cold war meant that, by the mid-1970s, even a small group of left-wingers meeting anywhere was likely to have an MI5 agent reporting back on its activities. By the end of the 1970s, 2 million British citizens had security files held on them by MI5.
A constant drip of innuendo about Wilson's loyalty was fed by MI5 to Private Eye, and Michael Halls, the liaison officer between No. 10 and MI5, considered Marcia Williams to be a security risk and funnelled damaging smears about her and Wilson to Private Eye. As Peter Wright put it in his book: "most people in MI5 didn't have a duty to Parliament. They have a duty to the Queen . . . It's up to us to stop Russians getting control of the British government."
Although it is easy to dismiss some of what I have described as the work of a lunatic fringe, the views of MI5 chief Sir Michael Hanley are well known. When he was asked at a seminar for junior MI5 officers what would happen if Michael Foot became Prime Minister, he replied: "I and every other officer in the service will have to consider our position."
Other officers in MI5 did not share Hanley's sense of resignation, and 30 MI5 officers, including Peter Wright, engaged, on Wright's own admission, in 23 criminal conspiracies and committed 12 acts of treason against the elected Government of the day.
Finally, what was happening came to the attention of Sir Maurice Oldfield, then head of MI6, who took Wright to dinner at Lockets restaurant in July 1975 and asked him about the extent of the plot in MI5 against Wilson. Having heard Wright out, Oldfield told him to put MI5 chief Hanley in the picture. This Wright did the next day, and in his book he says: "Hanley . . . went white as a sheet . . . he was learning that half of his staff were up to their necks in a plot to get rid of the Prime Minister."
When we consider that record, we realise that it involves more than one or two eccentrics such as Peter Wright, and that there is clearly a culture of extreme right-wing politics in MI5, which has been there throughout this century. Occasionally there are brought to the surface very deep links with individual Conservative Members of Parliament who have been able to use MI5, disinformation and black propaganda to damage Labour Members of Parliament and Governments.
The extent to which the Security Service suspected trade union leaders and protesters of being potential subversives during the cold war has been revealed with the publication of the official history of MI5. Targets for surveillance included Jack Jones, the doyen of the Labour movement, and the Greenham Common women's peace camp.
The book, The Defence of the Realm, suggests that leaders of both main political parties were often more keen than MI5 to monitor the activities of their MPs or trade union leaders.
The authorised history, by the Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew, says Jones, who the Guardian has been told was the subject of more than 40 volumes in MI5 archives, was not "being manipulated by the Russians". But Andrew says MI5 was "right to consider the possibility that he was".
Britain's top spy in the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky, said Moscow "regarded Jones as an agent" and he provided it with Labour party NEC documents, Andrew writes. He adds that Jones received some money from the KGB, though the trade union leader broke contact with Moscow after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Three Labour MPs are named as Soviet bloc agents: John Stonehouse, who became postmaster general in Harold Wilson's government, Bernard Floud and Will Owen. The three were "outed" by a Czech defector but there is no evidence they passed over sensitive information.
MI5 opened a file on Wilson under the name Norman John Worthington. Officials were alerted by his east European friends and his role in trade with the Soviet Union. Andrew dismisses claims of a "Wilson plot" under which MI5 tried to smear the Labour prime minister and destabilise his administration. However, a footnote in the 1,000-page history says that claims Wilson was a Soviet agent derive from conspiracy theories perpetuated by a KGB defector, Anatoli Golitsyn. Andrew adds: "Sadly, a minority of British and American intelligence officers … were seduced by Golitsyn's fantasies."
This is a strange and rather suspect production. Inside its more than 1,000 pages, there seem to be two different volumes. The first is a ripping read and just the kind of work one would hope for from a well-qualified academic who has been given the run of MI5's treasure trove of files. It is scrupulously documented, covering both the glory days of war, when MI5's deception operations outsmarted Hitler, and the later nightmare penetrations by the double agent Kim Philby and friends, in which the KGB thoroughly outsmarted the British.
Book two, however, is a different matter. This covers more sensitive occasions when MI5 officers have been accused of batty behaviour, including the persecution of "subversives", deranged denunciations of one another, and the targeting of the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson.
Christopher Andrew's book has been sanitised in "an extensive clearance process involving other departments and agencies". The present head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, writes that information has been censored not only for "national security" but also "if its publication would be inappropriate for wider public interest reasons". So readers are asked to take much on trust as they plough through reams of uncheckable footnotes merely labelled "security service archives" or "recollections of a former security service officer".
When it comes to the Wilson affair, Andrew's scholarship appears to slip. He repeats insistently the MI5 party line that there never was misbehaviour against Wilson or his ministers by "the Service", and that it was all mere conspiracy theories. Yet he withholds the fact that the cabinet secretary Lord Hunt authoritatively confirmed the central allegation. Hunt, who conducted a secret inquiry, said in August 1996: "There is absolutely no doubt at all that a few, a very few, malcontents in MI5 . . . a lot of them like Peter Wright who were rightwing, malicious and had serious personal grudges – gave vent to these and spread damaging malicious stories about that Labour government."
Separately, Andrew is silent on the well-documented case in which Wilson's treasury minister, Niall McDermot, was driven from office in 1968 when Patrick Stewart of MI5 accused his Russian-born wife of having KGB contacts. It was a most unpleasant miscarriage of justice.
Andrew does, however, write his own chapter on Wilson. He calls it "The 'Wilson Plot'". Puzzled readers may conclude that he is seeking, bu using those quotation marks, to explode the 1988 book of that title, written by this reviewer who coined the phrase. Yet no references at all follow in the footnotes or bibliography. It has become an Un-book, and the reader is not able to consider its countervailing evidence.
Nonetheless, it turns out in the end that Andrew must be using a sort of code. To one's surprise, underneath the MI5-approved bluster against "conspiracy theories", there lurks the real story in obscure footnotes and cryptic mentions. Andrew has in fact substantiated the thesis of the "Wilson plot", and more besides. It transpires that there is even more damning material in the MI5 files than was ever realised.
For example, the Labour MP Bernard Floud was indeed bullied with false allegations that he was a communist while in a state of grief after his wife's death. Thanks to the files, Andrew exonerates him and confirms that Peter Wright lied about the relevant dates of interrogations to try to make Floud look guilty. Dramatically, it is confirmed that there was indeed a secret Wilson MI5 file, under the pseudonym "Worthington". (One of my own errors is corrected. It was "Norman" not "Henry" Worthington.) The file was opened in 1947, when a communist civil servant spoke approvingly about Wilson on a tapped phone. It detailed Wilson's postwar trips to Moscow working for a timber firm (which we knew of) and his secretly observed encounters in London around 1955 with an undercover KGB man called Skripov (which we didn't).
There is more. Wilson's Lithuanian manufacturer buddy Joe Kagan was indeed discovered in 1971 to be hanging out with another undercover KGB officer, Richardas Vaygauskas, and the prime minister's friendships were indeed put under prolonged MI5 scrutiny, just as has been alleged. And finally it transpires that a KGB defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, could have seen the file the Russians once temporarily opened on Wilson. "Golitsyn . . . claimed . . . that Wilson was a Soviet mole. When [the Labour leader Hugh] Gaitskell died suddenly in 1963, Golitsyn developed the . . . theory that he had been poisoned by the KGB to enable Wilson to succeed him . . . Sadly a minority of British and American intelligence officers . . . among them Angleton [head of CIA counter-intelligence] and Wright [MI5 assistant director] . . . were seduced by Golitsyn's fantasies."
So, apparently, the "Wilson plot" was true enough after all. It just seems to be impermissible for an official author to say so too loudly.
Blunders usually arise out of the taking of a positive action, albeit one that is ill-advised, but occasionally they result from a decision not to act in a certain way even though the option of acting in that way is readily available. Probably the biggest single blunder committed by Harold Wilson's post1964 Labour government was its decision not to devalue the pound, if not immediately, then at least within a year or two of taking office. Ministers were divided on the issue, hut Wilson and his chancellor of the exchequer, James Callaghan, were adamant that devaluation would damage Labour politically, tarnish Britain's international reputation and relax the economic pressures on British industry to reform and modernise itself. From late 1964 onwards, Wilson as prime minister forbade ministers from discussing even the remote possibility of devaluation. But the financial markets had other ideas. They decided that, whatever the government might think, the pound was overvalued and would have to be devalued sooner or later. Eventually, in November 1967, amidst mounting market pressures, Wilson and Callaghan did devalue it. Callaghan felt honour-bound to resign as chancellor. Wilson as prime minister clung on.
Two of the most spectacular government blunders of the postwar period - one by Harold Wilson's first Labour government, the other by Edward Heath's Conservative government - concerned industrial relations. Both were committed against a backdrop o£weak industrial management, belligerent trade unions and rampant restrictive practices. The postwar decades in Britain witnessed a seemingly endless succession of "wildcat" strikes, works-to-rule, go-slows and demarcation disputes between workers belonging to rival unions - in short, by every imaginable form of industrial disruption. The Wilson and Heath governments set out, by legislative means, to tilt the balance of power in industry away from the unions towards employers and to curb the power within individual trade unions of "irresponsible" leaders and militant shop stewards. Both attempts failed miserably. It was left to Norman Tebbit more than a decade later to tread more warily.
In January 1969, the Wilson government published a White Paper entitled In Place of Strife. It was intended to be a preliminary to legislation and proposed to give the government and a newly created Commission on Industrial Relations powers to order a ballot of workers in the case of some industrial disputes, to impose a "cooling-off" period in the case of some wildcat strikes and in extremis to fine unions in the case of some disputes between rival unions. Trade unions would be required to register with the new commission under pain of a fine. The White Paper included several proposals to strengthen the unions' position, but the unions' leaders were more impressed by the sticks in the paper than the carrots. They feared what a future Tory government might do. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) came out in opposition to the document and, with the support of Labour backbenchers and Labour ministers, forced the cabinet, including the prime minister, to back down. They withdrew the threat of legislation. Wilson and his main ally, the minister of labour, Barbara Castle, had seriously underestimated the strength of pro-union and anti-interventionist sentiment throughout the labour movement - a strange mistake for two long-serving Labour politicians to make.