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Harold Wilson is One Hundred Years Old Today

March 11, 2016

wilson

Harold Wilson was the very first politician I had any sense of.  His face communicated to my infant mind a vague sense of “the government” – and this sense was essential benign.

People did impressions of him.  Mike Yarwood had an entire career based around doing impression of him, a career which never really recovered from Wilson’s resignation.  Wilson’s was a friendly face.

He came to my school once, in retirement.  Unfortunately, in his sorry anecdotage, he only managed to expose the fact that his intellectual decline had probably set in a long time earlier.  Indeed, it’s possible, with hindsight to suggest that his otherwise inexplicable departure from office in 1976 might have been prompted by an honest estimation of his own waning mental capacity.  He knew he wouldn’t be up to the job for much longer, so he stepped aside.   If this is the case, then it was a rare and admirable decision.  (Ronald Reagan was intellectually incapable of performing his executive responsibilities for the duration of his entire time in office.)

In hindsight, Wilson’s time in office can be more fairly assessed.  At the time, of course, he was judged not according to what he achieved but what he ought to have achieved.  He was judged very harshly according to very progressive standards.  Now that we live in a political environment devoted to strengthening hereditary oligarchy and kicking people who have failed to exit the correct birth canal savagely about the head and shoulders, Wilson’s Britain looks like a time of extraordinary opportunity and egalitarian imagination.  His administrations (especially the longer more important administration of 1964-1970) were bold and redistributive.  His government built social housing.  His government invested in health and education.  His government gave time and support to private members bills that decriminalised being gay, made divorce humane and abolished capital punishment.  It is impossible to outlaw racism and sexism by acts of parliament but legislation is still needed, desperately needed, in order to set a standard and hold people to account.  Wilson’s governments were responsible for the Race Relations Act (1965) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975).

Wilson could be paranoid (usually about the wrong people), devious and alienating.  Apparently.  He kept Britain out of the Vietnam War despite endless promptings – but gave LBJ verbal support. “You don’t kick your creditors in the balls” was his response to those who wanted an actual British condemnation of US military policy.  But for all its faults, its fears, its compromises and its actual failures, Harold Wilson presided over governments that actually made life better for most people.

If this fact is not celebrated in the twenty-first century, it’s because making life better for most people is no longer considered any kind of political aspiration.  If Wilson is regarded as an economic failure, it’s because the dominant conception of economics is so much narrower than it used to be.

I miss Harold Wilson.   I will think of his friendly face on this his hundredth birthday.  He was, I think, the first and nicest prime minister I have ever known of.

I even miss people dissing Wilson, because they were setting him to a very high standard, a standard that no longer exists, perhaps.

 

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