‘What Labour needs right now is the talent of a Harold Wilson for holding together a fissiparous party’. So wrote Polly Toynbee in The Guardian reviewing the latest book by Dr. Kevin Hickson, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Liverpool, our first guest speaker this year at Kingston University’s History Speaker Series.
Describing the work, a reappraisal of Wilson, which marked the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and fifty years since Wilson’s landslide election victory in 1966, as ‘a book of thoughtful essays [which]… could hardly arrive at a better time’, Toynbee noted that Wilson was ‘the agile, cunning, clever rider of many horses’, a rather unglamorous role for a party leader perhaps, but also an approach that managed to largely unite, for a time, Labour’s diverse factions and, in the 1960s and 1970s, see the party in government for a sustained period, an aspiration which seems very distant to today’s Labour Party, with all its recent turmoils.
So it was with both historical and present-day affairs in mind that a large turnout of Kingston historians and political scientists, and undergraduate and postgraduate students, came to hear Dr. Hickson elaborate on his revisionist rehabilitation of Wilson. In a very well-received talk that mixed humorous anecdotes about Wilson’s often warring Cabinet colleagues, and Wilson’s own penchant for witty one-liners, with a stustained defence of his record, Hickson set out the case for Wilson, not necessarily as a political great, but one who had a proud, and still under-appreciated, record of achievement in difficult economic times. Whilst accepting that Wilson presided over economic instability, marked most notably by the forced devaluation of the pound in 1967, Hickson pointed out that indicators like economic growth and unemployment levels were actually relatively robust under Wilson, as compared with other periods before or since.
But it was in the social and cultural sphere that Dr. Hickson’s defence of Wilson was propounded most powerfully, as he reminded us of the whole range of socially progressive and egalitarian measures that the Labour leader enacted, from the expansion of educational opportunities and the creation of the Open University, to liberalising measures on divorce, homosexuality, and race relations, and the abolition of capital punishment.
The audience was very keen to put its questions to our speaker at the end, and issues probed ranged over whether Wilson was more of a tactician than a visionary, the circumstances surrounding his somewhat abrupt early retirement in 1976, and the question of how far parts of the security services were ‘out to get’ him. Also debated was how Wilson, and Labour as a whole, lost the ability by the mid-1970s, which it had exhibited so successfully ten years ealier, to hold together an alliance of working and middle-class voters, with an agenda that focused on the tackling of poverty, but also appealed to the affluent and aspirational.
That, of course, is another way in which the challenges facing Wilson back then remain very much alive for the Labour Party today. But, overall, the mood by the end of the session seemed to be heightened awareness of Wilson’s achievements, and Dr. Hickson left us with much food for thought about both the politics of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ and its application to the fast-changing political times through which we are presently living.
Kevin Hickson’s book, Harold Wilson. The Unprincipled Prime Minister? (Biteback, 2016), co-edited with Andrew Crines, was published earlier this year.
Dr. Jeremy Nuttall is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University