The Middle Way
By DAVID WATT
A YEAR ago today Harold Wilson topped the first
ballot for the leadership of the Labour Party. A week later he decisively beat George Brown in the second round. The cam- paign had been short, sharp and no more or less dirty than any similar struggle has ever been (which is to say moderately dirty) and it had left its scars. The Brownites were hurt and disgruntled. As they surveyed the new boss they inevitably made their comparisons with the dead leader and found the contrast bitter Some day,' remarked a prominent but typical trade unionist, 'we're going to have to support that b—. But,' he went on, remember- ing Kerensky, 'the support we'll give will be the support a rope.gives a hanged man.'
To the flock it all seems blissfully far away by now but it is necessary to cast the mind back in this tasteless fashion if one is to get any reliable measure of Wilson's achievements in his first year of office. One has to remember that three really strong doubts about Wilson were being tossed about at the time. First, it was said, he would pursue an extreme left-wing policy and split the party. Secondly, he would be unable to match the public panache and political cunning of Harold Macmillan in time before the election. Lastly, that he had not the integrity and sense of purpose to look (as Gaitskell undoubtedly did) like a prospective Prime Minister.
Twelve months have cast an ironical light on these unpleasant thoughts—not least on the first, Which seemed at the time the most plausible. It was generally supposed a year ago that if Wilson succeeded it would be by observing the old advice that the Labour Party can only be led from the left of centre. If any general lesson can be ex- tracted from Wilson's experience it is that the Labour Party can best be led by a man with a left- wing reputation who refuses to act in a left-wing fashion. Wilson has in fact strayed deep into Gaitskellite country in his search for unity and support. In terms of personalities this has meant hanging on grimly and not always successfully to Mr. Brown, showing the greatest deference to his trade union followers and openly making use of characters not notably beloved of the left, such as Mr. Jay, Mr. Crosland and Mr. Gunter. It is true that Mr. Michael Foot and his four rebellious friends were re-admitted to the fold, but the price exacted from them was high.
In terms of policy this has meant-sticking with almost religious constancy to the Gaitskell mani- festo Signposts for the Sixties. Where new policies have been demanded by new situations Wilson's reaction has been to produce merely the highest common factor. No arms for South Africa (but no economic boycott). More international liquidity (but no devaluation or radical reform of the IMF). The Greek prisoners should be released (but we deplore discourtesy to the Greek Queen). We recognise the Oder-Neisse frontier (but not East Germany). We don't want the independent bomb (but we are devotees of NATO). The party stands on Clause 4 (but won't nationalise any- thing except steel, road haulage) etc., etc. It is the left wing, of course, which might have been ex- pected to take exception to these statesmanlike
pronouncements as they would to Wilson's recent explanations that he resigned in 1951 on quite different grounds from Nye Bevan and that he stood against Gaitskell in 1960 because the leader had split the party. Yet most of the left have continued in happily docile state believing that 'Harold's heart is in the right place.'
It is doubtful whether this could have been done without the diversionary effect of a suc- cessful campaign against the Tories. The prin- ciple that a Labour leader should 'busy giddy minds with foreign wars' still holds good—pro- viding he wins. Apart from parliamentary tactics, which have been competently though not bril- liantly handled (Wilson has still not, to my mind, solved the problem of how to deal with Sir Alec Home), Wilson's achievement has been, once again, to go for the centre, and the usual pre-election scramble to the high ground where the floating voter resides has resulted in Labour getting there first. The brilliant decision to blazon science and technology on the party banner and all that stuff about academic study _groups has contrived to give the party precisely the home- spun New Frontier image that the mood of the country demands. In the result the Government's thoroughly commendable modernisation pro- gramme has been made to look like a belated copy of Labour ideas and that priceless Con- servative asset, the deep-seated mistrust of Labour amongst the professional classes, has been largely lost.
All this disposes triumphantly of the first two doubts which seemed so serious last February. Yet it merely serves to emphasis the third. All conversations about Wilson seem to start 'Harold hasn't put a foot wrong but . . .' and what generally follows is a qualification, accompanied by a puzzled frown, which gives the game away. On the major issue—what does Wilson really believe and what kind of Prime Minister will he make—no one is a whit the wiser than they were a year ago. This is in itself a serious in- dictment of a man who is putting himself for- ward to the public, more than any other Labour leader has done, on the basis of his personality. One can, of course, make some tentative attempts to pin down the man's style—and some surprising results one gets, too. One of his ardent admirers remarked the other day, 'Harold has complete control of the party but he doesn't feel it.' His detractors put it more brutally: 'as soon as there's a difficult decision Harold runs away.' What both sides are trying to convey is the positively Asquithian lengths to which Wilson will go in order to avoid trouble Those who work with him in the Shadkm Cabinet or the National Executive re- port that he is a quiet, almost passive chairman who waits to see which way the wind is blowing and then sides with the majority or, if the issue is really contentious and the sides evenly divided, he promptly postpones the discussion and enters complicated compromise manceuvres outside or sets up a sub-committee.
This is not necessarily weakness and could indeed be praised as the art of a good chairman or, in constitutional terms, of a traditional Prime Minister, the primus inter pares among his Cabinet colleagues. But it is very different from the image of the incisive, Attleean figure or the virile inspirer of men which the public is ex- pected to receive. In some cases, notably where George Brown has been concerned, extreme caution has been understandable, if not particu- larly noble. It was certainly difficult for Wilson to face a head-on clash with Mr. Callaghan over the future (and diminished) role of the Treasury under a Labour Government. It was good politics to withdraw discussion of the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill from the Shadow Cabinet when the going got tough. It would have been dangerous to have got involved with the Port Talbot steel strike. But when these difficult problems (and there have not been many) are ducked and far easier ones handled as if they were dynamite, an uneasy impression is built up which is not quite erased by the possibility that Mr. Wilson, the Prime Minister, may be quite different.
So much for Mr. Wilson's style, but what about his principles? The fact that he cannot be pinned down by the Tories is good politics; the fact that even those working close to him have no idea what makes him tick is quite another matter. Everyone knows that he is immensely interested and well-versed in eco- nomics; that he is genuinely enthused by his own technological, modernising image; that he appears to feel strongly about education. But where does he personally stand on anything else? Because he is deliberately making his main appeal to a narrow band of electors—the young professional—it is possible for his admirers to argue, amid their puzzlement, that his in- scrutability is deliberate and that his 'vision' (the commodity which Nye Bevan always said he lacked) will become apparent after the elec- tion. One wonders.
The nearest he has got to a declaration of faith was his Birmingham speech two weeks ago in which he said: 'We want a Britain in which everyone, not a small clique or class, feel them- selves to be part of a process of new policy- making, of taking national decisions, where every home, every club, every pub is its own Parliament in miniature thrashing out the issues of the day.' But this is precisely what no one that I have encountered in Parliament believes he really meant. Mr. Wilson lacks the common
touch. He has never shown more than the vaguest interest in reorganising regional and local government in order to produce a more democratic participation for ordinary people in the new Jerusalem nor does he seem concerned
with the reform of Parliament itself. These are
the kind of contradictions in which Mr. Wilson's first year has abounded and in spite of the long public exposure, the careful publicity, the calcu- lated image-building, he remains the unknown leader of the Opposition.