Harold wilson

The costly legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism

Post-war British economic history is littered with failed policy panaceas. Keynesian demand management would solve the unemployment problem; the Exchange Rate Mechanism would provide an anchor for stability and end sterling’s perennial weakness; the Barber and Kwarteng budgets – separated by 50 years – would throw off the shackles of Treasury orthodoxy and put the country on a path to higher growth. On the face of it, monetarism – the theory that if you control the money supply, you control inflation – fits squarely into this paradigm. As soon as government sought to control the money supply, the historic relationship between money and inflation broke down. But partly because inflation

A lot to ask

David Cameron is now facing the biggest challenge of his leadership: how to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU without destroying his party. His dilemma mirrors the situation of Harold Wilson 40 years ago this month. So far, the old Labour man looks the better strategist. Wilson, who had a majority of three, avoided mass resignations from his cabinet by suspending the convention that members of the government must back its entire programme in public. Of his 23 cabinet ministers, seven joined the campaign for Britain to leave the EU. They didn’t win the argument — but they ensured that the question was properly debated, and settled for many years

Harold Wilson’s secret Downing Street affair

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On this special Saturday edition of Coffee House Shots we discuss Patrick Maguire’s scoop this week about former Labour leader Harold Wilson’s secret affair with his deputy press secretary. Where does this rank in the history of parliamentary affairs? And – on a more serious note – are there any lessons that Keir Starmer can learn from Harold Wilson?  Katy Balls speaks to Patrick Maguire and James Heale. 

In the dark early 1960s, at least we had the Beatles

‘These things start on my birthday – like the Warsaw Uprising – and spoil my day,’ wrote the understandably self-pitying Barking housewife Pat Scott in her diary on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. ‘And then to spoil it more, Ted [her husband] took his driving test for the second time and failed.’ It is clashes like these, of the personal and humdrum against the political and global, that make David Kynaston’s close surveys of Britain in the second half of the 20th century such fascinating and lively documents. Yes, the world might be about to end, but that was no excuse to spoil Pat’s

How sport helped shape the British character

Faith in state planning was central to Harold Wilson’s pledge to modernise Britain. It was his rhetorical vision of a country guided by strategic foresight and ‘forged in the white heat of technology’ that helped him win the 1964 election. But Wilson also displayed the same attachment to planning in his personal life. Back in 1934 he joined the Port Sunlight tennis club, not because he was interested in the sport but because he felt it would provide the right environment to approach one of its young female members, a shorthand-typist called Gladys Baldwin. Unlike his ‘white heat’ agenda, the policy worked. After a lengthy courtship, during which Gladys dropped

Love and loathing at Harold Wilson’s No. 10

If Marcia Williams is thought of at all today, it is in terms of hysterical outbursts, a mysterious hold over the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson and, above all, the ‘Lavender List’ – Wilson’s 1976 Resignation Honours List in which Marcia is believed to have played a significant part. Linda McDougall, the widow of the Labour MP Austin Mitchell, gives an infinitely more nuanced and sympathetic picture of this extraordinary woman. I found her biography gripping, with its insider knowledge of government, its picture of the emotional dynamics of Downing Street and its sensational claim that Marcia may have been drugged by Wilson’s own doctor.  She took Purple Hearts to

A dutiful exercise carried out in a rush

Like department stores, empires and encyclopaedias, the multi-volume narrative national history is an invention of the later 18th century. It reaches its apogee, promising to bring everything important within a single enclosure, in the 19th and early 20th century. After that, ambitious examples appear to be fighting against a general lack of enthusiasm. Most of these works are little read now, from David Hume’s 1750s The History of England all the way through to Winston Churchill’s idiosyncratic A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s. The grand sweep has a tendency to define the significant in advance. Many of these histories can explain a sequence of legislation, such as

Is it time for Keir Starmer to forget about uniting his party?

Campaigning to become Labour leader last year, Keir Starmer said Harold Wilson was his favourite party leader of the last fifty years because he had unified the party. This was hardly a coincidence as putting an end to ‘factionalism’ was then one of Starmer’s main promises to Labour members. Subsequently Starmer has name checked Wilson in various speeches, especially noting his predecessor’s electoral success – and repeating his 1962 claim that Labour was ‘a moral crusade or it is nothing.’ From these references, Wilson who died in 1995 emerges (and so, presumably was the intention, also Starmer) as a man of principle and an election winner: what’s not to like?

General de Gaulle’s advice to the young Queen Elizabeth

There were so many ear-catching moments in Peter Hennessy’s series for Radio 4, Winds of Change, adapted from his new book by Libby Spurrier and produced by Simon Elmes. Harold Wilson answering a journalist’s question after a sleepless night while awaiting the results of the 1964 election, quizzical, cheeky and so quick off the mark. When asked if he felt like a prime minister, he replied: ‘Quite honestly, I feel like a drink.’ Later he was waylaid at Euston station having just got off the morning train from Liverpool and was still unsure of the result. (Labour won by just four seats after 13 years of Conservative rule.) At 3.50

The Isles of Scilly

‘You can get away from everything,’ said Harold Wilson of the Isles of Scilly, ‘not only in distance but also in time’. During recess, Wilson would frequently catch the sleeper from Paddington to Penzance before making the notoriously choppy crossing to Britain’s most westerly archipelago. There he would unwind in his cottage on St Mary’s — a place where the red box could not easily follow. This family of five islands 28 miles off the nose of Land’s End has always enjoyed a somewhat secretive coterie of admirers — Jude Law and Michael Morpurgo to name but two. Deserted beaches with a Caribbean colour palette are surely part of the

Long life | 16 June 2016

It was 41 years ago that The Spectator first urged its readers to vote Brexit in a referendum, but the circumstances were different then. In 1975 the Establishment was generally enthusiastic for Europe. Most of the Tory party, including its new leader, Margaret Thatcher, was keen to keep Britain in the Common Market it had only recently joined. The dissenters were few among the Tories and were mostly on the left wing of the Labour party and the trade unions, which saw Europe as inimical to socialism. Almost a third of Harold Wilson’s cabinet members were Eurosceptics, and he set the precedent (later followed by David Cameron) of suspending cabinet

An age of broken promises

An intelligent middle-aged, middle-class woman told me the other day that she plans to vote Leave on 23 June because she no longer believes a word that David Cameron says. She cited his pre-election pledges on repatriation of powers from Brussels, repeal of human right legislation and — of course — immigration. I said that, should she get her Brexit, the Prime Minister is likely to be supplanted by Boris Johnson, who conducts one-night stands with truth only on alternate wet Wednesdays. She was unmoved. She has convinced herself that Johnson the outsider, the roly-poly bundle of fun, Mr Feelgood, should be judged by different rules. He is not one of ‘them’,

Anarchy in the EU

It is 40 years since the band in which Paul Cook banged the drums, the Sex Pistols, detonated a bomb called punk in post-war Britain. The shards are still visible. ‘We didn’t have a manifesto, but we wanted to shake things up,’ he says. ‘We didn’t know how much we would shake things up. Music, art, design, films, books. Punk is part of our social and cultural history.’ We’ve come a long way from 1976, when Johnny Rotten and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ put the pestilential Pistols on the front pages, and a prime-time television exchange with Bill Grundy, the celebrated ‘fucking rotter’ interview, kept them there. The band were

Barometer | 7 January 2016

The outsiders Did the seven members of Harold Wilson’s cabinet who campaigned to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum damage their careers? Michael Foot, Employment Secretary. Made deputy leader by Jim Callaghan in 1976. Elected leader in 1980. Tony Benn, Industry Secretary. Challenged Denis Healey unsuccessfully for Labour deputy leadership in 1981. Barbara Castle, Social Services Secretary. Sacked from cabinet by Jim Callaghan when he became prime minister in 1976. Eric Varley, Energy Secretary. Swapped jobs with Tony Benn after referendum. Fifth in shadow cabinet elections in 1979. John Silkin, Planning and Local Government Secretary. Became agriculture secretary in 1976. Stood for Labour leadership in 1980 but was

The art of political biography remains in intensive care if Giles Radice’s latest book is anything to go by, says Simon Heffer

With the odd exception — I think principally of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher — the genre of political biography has known hard times lately. There are few faster routes to the remainder shop, other, of course, than the political memoir, most of which I presume are now written to create a tax loss for their publishers. This decline is not down to poor scholarship, but, I suspect, to the general distaste so many literate and inquiring people feel for politicians. Reading accounts of the New Labour years in particular is rather like touring an abattoir before the cleaners have been in. So those who want to write about

Five of the best celebrity biographies of 2014

Cilla Black has become a strange creature during her 50 years in showbiz. When her husband Bobby was in hospital she found to her dismay that she didn’t now how to take the dogs for a walk. That was some time ago, for Bobby Willis died of liver cancer in 1999. ‘They lived their lives almost like Siamese twins,’ writes Douglas Thompson in Cilla, Queen of the Swinging Sixties (Metro, £7.99, Spectator Bookshop, £7.59). He is an old hand in Cillagraphy, having published Cilla Black: Bobby’s Girl in 1998 and Cilla: the Biography in 2002. He is not the author of this year’s Cilla: the Adventures of a Welsh Mountain

Yanks buy stacks of tickets in the West End. Why is Made in Dagenham so rude to them?

Go slow at Dagenham. The musical based on the film about a pay dispute in the 1960s starts as a sluggish mire of twee simplicities. We’re in Essex. Grumbling Cockney wage slaves inhabit cramped but spick-and-span council flats. Russet-cheeked kiddiwinkies are scolded and cosseted by blousy matriarchs married to emotionally reticent beer guts. The doll’s-house infantilism of Rupert Goold’s production is challenged by designer Bunny Christie whose set is an essay in conceptualism. She uses a vast plastic grid, like an unmade Airfix kit, to suggest the Dagenham car plant. It’s ingenious and intricate but irritating too. Trouble brews at the factory when the executives downgrade the leather workers, who

Was Roy Jenkins the greatest prime minister we never had?

In any list of the-best-prime-ministers-we never-had, the name of Roy Jenkins is likely to be prominent. He was intelligent, moderate, courteous, thoughtful: he was exactly the sort of man whom any civil servant would wish to see installed in No.10. That, no doubt, is why he never got there. John Campbell makes no bones about the fact that he is a fan of Jenkins. He was, writes Campbell, ‘the first public figure I was aware of and always the one I most admired’. Campbell is far too sensible a man and good a biographer, however, to allow his book to degenerate into a paean of praise. Jenkins’s frailties are unsparingly

Profumo. Chatterley. The Beatles. 1963 was the year old England died

Shortly before his death, David Frost rang to ask me to take part in a radio series he was making to mark the 50th anniversary of ‘the year, Chris, that I know is closest to your heart, 1963’. This was not because 1963 was the year when he and I worked together on the BBC satire show That Was The Week That Was (TW3), which overnight made Frost a television superstar. It was because he remembered the importance I had given to the events of that year in The Neophiliacs, a book I wrote long ago analysing the tidal wave of change which swept through British life in the 1950s

Why David Cameron can’t copy Harold Wilson on EU renegotiation

It’s at times like this I’m glad I’m not a Europhile. I imagine that Lord Lawson’s article in today’s Times is causing Brussels-lovers up and down the land a number of headaches this afternoon, not least because it is incredibly detailed and hard to find fault with: The EU’s desire for ‘ever-closer union’ is undiminished? Accurate. British businesses are being hindered by the EU’s daft regulations? Very true. We need to start looking beyond Europe for growth opportunities? Another tick. From a purely economic perspective, Lord Lawson’s argument is spot on. However, there is a political problem with Lawson’s article which I can’t seem to get my head around –