New Statesman & Society leader, 26 May 1991
Tony Blair appears to have learned the bits of Harold Wilson he needs to emulate. But does he know what he should not copy in power?
The death of Harold Wilson this week has prompted a flood of commentary on his legacy to British politics – and that is hardly surprising. Although, as a result of illness, Wilson was not an active player for the last decade ofhis life, his contribution to British politics in the 30 years immediately after the second world war was immense.
Consider the achievements. He won four elections out of five he fought as Labour leader – and he would have won the fifth, in 1970, but for a combination of bad luck, the political naivety of chancellor Roy Jenkins and, it has to be said, a dulling of his own political instincts, brought on in part by several years of vicious party in-fighting. His first election victory, in 1964, saw Labour winning an absolute majority in the Commons, ending 13 years of Tory rule – the first and only time since 1906 that an opposition party has won such a majority against a Conservative administration. Today, after 16 years that have seen four consecutive Tory general election victories, this appears even more remarkable than it did at the time. Then there was the revolution in social legislation in the 19605 – on abortion, homosexuality, divorce and reduction of the voting age – and the massive expansion of educational opportunities achieved between 1966 and 1970 (including the creation of the Open University, very much the brainchild of Wilson and his arts minister, Jennie Lee).
Even on the economic front, once the huge psychological hurdle of devaluation had been cleared, the record of the 19605 Labour government is remarkably good: the best sustained growth of any period since the war, and the transformation of the balance of payments and the budget deficit. Edward Heath was handed the most favourable set of economic circumstances of any incoming prime minister this century. In short, the first Wilson administration bears comparison with the great reforming Labour government of 1945-51.
And yet, for all this – and despite the warm glow of nostalgia with which the British view the 19605 – Wilson's reputation has languished. It is only recently that there has been anything of a revival as time begins to lend some objectivity to assesments of his record.
Some of that is down to the persistence of baseless smears about his private life and his alleged sympathies with the Soviet Union, put about by paranoiacs on the far right throughout his period in office. But Wilson hardly helped matters with his dubious choice of friends – to some of whom he gave peerages and knighthoods – and by his endless opportunist wheeling and dealing on everything from Vietnam and Rhodesia to trade union policy and nuclear weapons. Even – particularly – among those on the left who admire his abilities as a populist electoral politician, there are few who defend the way in which he governed.
In the run-up to the 1992 general election, when Labour was well ahead in the opinion polls, the Tories toyed seriously with the idea of casting Neil Kinnock as a latter-day Wilson in their election propaganda – vigorous, attractive and even effective in opposition, but a certain slave to prevarication, procrastination and unprincipled compromise in office. In the end, the plan was shelved, partly because Kinnock stopped looking quite as dangerous, but largely because the Tories discovered that many voters didn't know why they were supposed to be afraid of a new Wilson.
Three years on, memories of the Wilson years are still hazier – yet Tony Blair looks and sounds more like the Wilson of 1963 than Kinnock ever did, right down to the rhetoric of modernity at the core ofhis political message. Blair appears to have learned the bits of Wilson that he needs to emulate. The big unanswered question is whether he knows what he should not try to copy when he gets to Number Ten.