Harold Wilson: A view from the gallery
Harold Wilson did not start off as an acclaimed orator, either in parliament, on the hustings or at party conferences. But eventually he became one of the most formidable political speech-makers of his time.
He also had a knack of making statements containing phrases that have lived on well beyond his own time, such as "the pound in your pocket" (after devaluation), the "parliamentary leper" (his description of the Conservative MP who won Smethwick from Labour in 1964 after an allegedly racist campaign), and "a tightly-knit group of politically-motivated men" (about the leaders of a London docks strike).
Other choice Wilson targets of derision included "The Gnomes of Zurich" (the shady group of Swiss bankers who seemed to control the world's economy) and "thirteen wasted years" (the period between 1951 and 1964 when the Conservatives were in power).
Although he had a rather whining Yorkshire accent, it was a distinctive voice which he used to its best advantage. Combined with a razor-sharp brain and a flair for comedy, it was a voice that became the sound of the sixties as much as the music of the Beatles.
[Wilson] was on top form during the 1975 party conference when he found himself having to deal with extremism from both the right and left.”
Wilson's greatest talent was his ability to deal with hecklers. This first became apparent during the 1964 general election campaign when he was making a speech at the old Birmingham Rag Market and found himself being barracked by some ferocious heckling.
His biggest test was getting through his speech - so that it corresponded with the printed version already handed out to the media - but once he'd done this he swotted away the hecklers like flies.
At the same location on another evening, his Conservative opponent - Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home - was all but destroyed by the self-same tormentors.
Wilson's consummate mastery on the podium was sometimes at its most polished at Labour Party conferences. He had already made his mark at the conference of 1963 - his first as party leader - with his much remembered, still oft-quoted, line about the "white heat of technology". But that was when the party under his command was straining at the leash to become the government after well over a decade of being out of office.
But his parliamentary performances were not always spot on.
In opposition in 1973, Labour initiated a censure debate against Edward Heath's Conservative government, condemning an impending state visit to Britain by the Portuguese Fascist dictator President Caetano who was overthrown the following year in a revolution that ushered in democracy in that country. Wilson led Labour's attack, only to be undone by his old foe Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who at that time was foreign secretary.
In response to Wilson, Home made a series of statements which praised Britain's relationship with Portugal, including a line referring to Portugal being our "oldest ally" (which was an historical fact). The punch-line came when Sir Alec revealed that these pro-Portugal sentiments had been voiced by none other than Harold Wilson when he himself was prime minister in the 1960s.
Another occasion on which he was not exactly covered in glory was when he had to make a prime ministerial statement to the Commons about a land speculation scandal involving the brother of his legendary secretary, Marcia Williams - who later became Lady Falkender. This was not "land speculation" said Wilson, visibly sweating from the strain of defending the apparently indefensible, but "land reclamation". This was not one of his greatest moments.
However, he was still on top form during the 1975 party conference when he found himself having to deal with extremism from both the right and left within Labour. When it came to the part of his speech dealing with supporters of right-winger and former Labour minister Reg Prentice—who later went on to become a Tory minister under Margaret Thatcher—there were huge cheers from within the hall.
But when he turned on the left—the so-called Militant Tendency—the heckling started. After an interruption from one individual, Wilson suddenly said: "I didn't ask anyone to identify themselves!" This prompted the great Daily Telegraph political correspondent H B Boyne to immediately remark to a colleague on the press bench: "The old master hasn't lost his touch!"
Rise and fall
The Wilson era
- Labour MP from 1945 - 1983
- Replaced the late Hugh Gaitskell as Labour leader in 1963
- Prime Minister from 1964-1970 and 1974-1976
- Suffered from Alzheimer's Disease in later life
- Died in 1995, aged 79
Wilson's humour was not confined to set piece events. After the second election of 1974, which gave him a working majority, journalists who had covered his campaign around the country were invited to drinks and nibbles at Number Ten.
Around this time Whitehall was engaged in a legal tussle to try to prevent the serialisation of former Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman's diaries in The Sunday Times.
When everyone was appropriately seated in an ante room, a reporter from the Daily Mirror asked Wilson: "What's all this business about the Crossman Diaries then?"
Wilson - smoking a cigar, which he usually did in private, rather than the pipe he used for public appearances—said: "It's like this. Dick Crossman was a great teacher. His classics students at New College Oxford loved him. One day in 1967, after a cabinet meeting at which we'd discussed the issue of arms to South Africa, Dick learned that lobby correspondents - just like his New College students, thirsting for knowledge—wanted to see him. They asked him what had happened at the cabinet meeting. Dick told them, 'On the one hand there was this argument, and on the other hand that argument'. It never occurred to Dick for one minute that the correspondents would go to their phones and dictate stories saying, 'Cabinet Split'!"
By 1985, however, the maestro was losing his memory.
I remember interviewing him on film for a television programme commemorating the 40th anniversary of Labour's 1945 landslide victory. At one point he said: "Can you stop the camera?" We duly obliged, and Wilson asked me: "What was that first job I gave to Tony Benn?" I said: "Postmaster General." He said: "That's right. I knew it was something colourful, something to do with stamps..."
Harold Wilson Night: BBC Parliament 6pm -11pm on 14 February 2013.