10 JULY 1964, Page 5

Political Commentary

Wilson Week

By DAVID WATT Consider, first, the anti-Franco outfit. We shall Presumably never know whether the Spanish Government was in fact impelled to cancel its contract to build British frigates under licence because of Mr. Wilson's remarks in the House of Commons, or whether other unseen pressures from America or France played their part. Per- haps it really was all Mr. Wilson's doing—valiant efforts by Labour back-benchers to suggest that the real cause of the trouble was the premature leak of the terms of the agreement by a Ministry of Defence spokesman seem doomed to failure, since the negotiations, in fact, con- tinued satisfactorily after the leak. But the in- teresting thing about the episode was that Mr. Wilson originally believed he was behaving with exemplary moderation and statesmanship.

What happened was this. At the meeting of the Shadow Cabinet, after the leak, the whole matter was debated. During the discussion it became clear that neither Mr. Gordon Walker, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, 'nor Mr. Healey, the Shadow Defence Minister, was particularly outraged about the deal. On the other hand, some of the older members felt a strong stand should he taken, and everyone felt a definite distaste about exporting arms to a Fascist country. It Was therefore agreed as a kind of compromise that some reference should be made to the deal in a forthcoming foreign affairs debate, but that tt should not be made a major issue. If one re- reads Mr. Wilson's speech it is plain that he Was actually trying to carry out this mandate. There is plenty of barbed comment in it about the pre-war sympathies of the Prime Minister and Mr. Butler, and cracks about our being hard up and all that sort of thing, but there is no forth- right pledge of what a Labour Government Would do or any direct threat to cancel any agree- ment the present Government might come to.

After the deal collapsed, of course, the Prime Minister pressed the prophet's staff into Mr. Wilson's hand and, cast in this role, Mr. Wilson Was not the man to underplay it, especially since he could now do so with impunity and even profit.

A recent affair which throws another light on M. Wilson's current performance is the matter of interest rates for housing loans. In May, in

* HAROLD WILSON. By Leslie Smith. (Hodder and Stoughton, I6s.)

response to an anxious request from the chair- man of the Building Societies' Association, Mr. Wilson replied in a letter saying that a Labour Government would see that local authorities got their capital for housing 'at rates which repre- sent the Government's power to borrow' and that Labour was 'not proposing to introduce through the public sector some special or dis- criminatory form of subsidised loans for house purchase.' This letter, when it was published, in- furiated three important sections of the party. First, it outraged the left, who have pinned great hopes on schemes for lending money to local authorities at special subsidised rates for council house building. This group observed that, even if interest rates in general were brought down, a Labour Government would be unlikely for some time to be able to borrow at a rate low enough to really help local authorities. Secondly, the letter alarmed those who believed that if the party is to capture the floating voter it must extend its benefits to the many people who want to buy their own houses.

Lastly, the letter embarrassed and enraged the party's experts because it was sent without any consultation and flatly contradicted most of their statements for the past year. The unfortun- ate Mr. Michael Stewart, the party's spokes- man on housing, for instance, had written an article in the Stock Exchange Gazette, which by a malign chance came out two days after the letter, and in which he came out flatly in favour of a 'specially favourable rate both for council borrowing for council house building and for mortgage loans' until the economic climate makes possible a general lowering of the long-term in- terest rate.

A stormy meeting of the Home Policy Com- mittee of the Labour National Executive fol- lowed, at which Mr. George Brown is said to have blown his top in defence of the owner- occupier and been supported by the many on his left and right who were alarmed for council house building. It seems that Mr. Wilson's re- ,action, after a preliminary spirited attempt to explain that his letter hadn't meant that at all, was to bow his head humbly, and to admit that he had signed the letter on a draft from the re- search department without much thought. One more meeting of the Committee was enough to persuade him to make a public recantation in the next week or two (it will be fascinating to see how it is done), while a paper should be presented shortly to the National Executive setting out the ways in which subsidised loans for housing of all sort would be provided by a Labour Govern- ment. Here we get a glimpse of a side of Mr. Wilson which I believe may be of great import- ance if he becomes Prime Minister: his tendency to avoid confrontations when he can and to go with the majority when he cannot.

There is more than one way of looking at this trait. His enemies regard it as weakness and shiftiness. His admirers have a very different ex- planation. Mr. Leslie Smith's biography can only be described as the Labour Party's answer to 'Crawfie.' One extract from Harold's school- days will be quite enough:

The powers of leadership he demonstrated gained him the respect of the boys as well as of the staff. He enjoyed testing his ability to ex- ercise his authority. At one stage he was con- cerned about what he regarded as unwholesome tendencies among some boys in the Fifth Form. With the approval of the Headmaster he organ- ised soccer matches believing the mischief re- sulted simply from idleness. The smuttiness evaporated, and if Harold's puritanical instincts were thus satisfied, so too was his mighty en- thusiasm for organising others.

But what does emerge with great clarity from this ineffable work is Wilson's almost feverish belief that his motivation throughout the Bevan- ite resignations and the clash with Gaitskell was entirely the desire for party unity. One takes leave to have some reservations about this, but there is no doubt that the will to prove it so is now a major factor in determining Wilson's attitude. It accounts partly for his caution and his conservatism. It accounts, for instance, for his refusal until this week to tackle the vital subject of parliamentary reform and then only in a careful version of the brief of a National Executive working party. The truth is that Mr. Wilson is now in complete control of his party but still hesitates to lead it from the van.

It is impossible and unnecessary to draw any great conclusions from the TV strike affair ex- cept to repeat that Mr. Wilson is a brilliant opportunist and an accomplished publicist. It is difficult to know which to admire more—the way in which he moved in on Mr. George Elvin and his union and induced them to climb down with- out, so far as one can see, more than the faintest concession from their opponents; or his remark to a specially summoned meeting of journalists when he said that he was talking to them be- cause his part in the affair was bound to come out anyway.

Nevertheless, it is this adroitness which is for the moment the most important factor in poli- tics and the thing which Conservatives hate and fear most. One can produce an infinite number of reasons why Wilson is more detested by his opponents than was Gaitskell even at the time of Suez. Wilson belongs to a class which is now threatening old certainties in many ways, and fear combined with snobbery is a potent mixture. He is often sarcastic and withdrawn, and is always difficult, if not impossible, to pin down to any commitment, either personal or doctrinal. But in the last resort this is not the point. What matters now to Tories is that he is the enemy, he is clever, and he can be devil- ishly effective.