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'Insightful': Baroness Smith reviews 'Harold Wilson: The Winner'

'Insightful': Baroness Smith reviews 'Harold Wilson: The Winner'

Harold Wilson, November 1963 | Alamy

3 min read

A detailed and thorough account drawing on previously unavailable sources, Nick Thomas-Symonds’ biography of Harold Wilson offers fresh insights into one of Labour’s greatest prime ministers

Reading this book against the backdrop of the Conservative leadership battle as the cost of living crisis escalated, it was impossible not to compare Harold Wilson’s approach to dealing with similar issues with that of today’s government.

Wilson and his ministers faced enormous challenges, including rising inflation and international issues, namely Europe, as well as seeking to harness and manage dramatic technological changes. 

But their response was so different.

A comment about Wilson in the 1950s (although from a critic) was that he had “a fantastic belief in the power of government”. He sought to resolve national and international disputes through direct intervention, refused to use unemployment as a tool to reduce inflation, and had an ideological belief in the power of government to effect change in the public interest.

He was a different kind of prime minister. Having earned his Oxford University place after winning a scholarship to grammar school, his jibes that Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home were from the Edwardian era found resonance with post-war Britain. 

On Wilson’s election to Parliament in 1945, Clement Attlee immediately appointed him to government. Whilst obviously extremely able, he hadn’t yet become the witty and engaging speaker and parliamentarian, and didn’t initially shine in the Commons.

Yet, although slightly overshadowed by other events at the time, his speech opening the science debate at Labour’s 1963 Party Conference set him apart as having a vision of a challenging but optimistic future. It was a unifying message for both party and country.

He also knew who he was appealing to. The outcry at MBEs for Coronation Street’s hugely popular actor Violet Carson (Ena Sharples) and The Beatles drew howls of anguish from some commentators, but it proved that he was the first prime minister to really understand the power of television.

The book offers many examples of his political skills, or some might say machinations

And we see glimpses of his humour. When hosting the Apollo astronauts at Downing Street, he delighted in adding my Labour predecessor from Basildon to the invitation list, enjoying the pun on his name – Eric Moonman.

The book offers many examples of his political skills, or some might say machinations, admired by many foes as well as friends. It provides further insight into his relationship with, and management of, colleagues, and his belief in party unity.

Too often we completely divide ideological belief and pragmatism. The reality is less clear cut. Yes, Wilson was a pragmatist. But to fully understand what motivated him, one has to appreciate the depth and strength of his political beliefs that, with his government, led to unprecedented social and political change. 

This book is a detailed and thorough account of the life of a Labour prime minister whose government delivered unprecedented social and economic change, and doesn’t shy away from a wider critique of mistakes as well as successes. 

With political biographies, it is easy to praise and criticise with the benefit of hindsight. Nick Thomas-Symonds avoids this by also understanding the political mood at the time – and, in having access to new material, is able to take a broader view. 

I’d make it compulsory reading! 

Baroness Smith of Basildon is a Labour peer and shadow leader of the Lords

Harold Wilson: The Winner
Written by: Nick Thomas-Symonds
Publisher: W&N

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