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In all likelihood the UK’s next prime minister will be Sir Keir Starmer. Last month, Sir Keir had signalled that he intends to abolish the House of Lords if he is elected. The significance of the HoL is that all previous “progressive” prime ministers have left it largely as they had found it. The HoL is Augean stables that are still to meet their Hercules. Indeed, previous Labour prime ministers have often got some of the dung on their shoes. Under Tony Blair Labour had been accused of receiving “cash for peerages,” whilst Harold Wilson had been widely condemned for a resignation-honours list that had awarded several peerages and knighthoods to shady businessmen.

We might better switch from Hercules to Alexander the Great for the correct analogy for the Lords. It is more like “the Gordian Knot,” which had seemed like an impossibly complicated puzzle to unpick, but that in reality could have been solved at any time with a single stroke. Anyone with a parliamentary majority can simply pass a law abolishing the HoL. The wretchedness of our political class is that they have never managed to climb down from their own esotericism and into this common sense. Sir Keir will have thus symbolically monopolised common sense, on a major historical scale, if he can emulate Alexander and chop through the knot.

Lords abolition is precisely the sort of policy that will appeal to somebody such as myself, who so far views Starmer as being unimaginative and technocratic. If Sir Keir can succeed here then he might cheer up progressives, after years when progressive politics has achieved so pitifully little. Yet such a feat would be simultaneously a somewhat nostalgic one, in harkening back to a time when it had been altogether easier for progressives to be bold.

With the Tories having recently gotten thoroughly lost in power, in misplacing both the conservatism of the shires and the dynamism of the free market, it might be time to look to Labour for a more durable vision-and-values package. With this in mind I have paid a visit to this new biography of Harold Wilson, which has been written by Nick Thomas-Symonds, the current shadow minister for international trade. The challenge is to patch together a sense of continuity in Labour power politics. Were the Wilson governments merely the product of long-lost historical conditions from the 1960s and 70s, or is there instead an ongoing narrative – a kind of political equivalent of genealogy – running from Wilson back then all the way up to Sir Keir today?

Wilson had never managed to add HoL abolition to the superb programme of reforms that had distinguished his governments. If he had skipped the Lords he had been too busy abolishing the death penalty, legalising homosexuality and abortion, and outlawing racial discrimination and unequal pay for women.

Another significant achievement was in fact an indirect one. Wilson had kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, whilst deftly maintaining the UK’s “special relationship” with the USA. When Blair had upended his own premiership by committing the UK to a similar US intervention in Iraq, it might seem that he was failing to follow the perfectly sensible guidelines that Wilson had bequeathed to him. Alternatively, one might decide that Blair did not have as many important reforms to undertake as Wilson had had, and that therefore, like an absentee landlord, he was freer to direct his energies into foreign flirtations.

This is where Wilson’s example grows problematic. One imagines that he is always there waiting in the history books and that any new Labour PM can pick up from where he had left off. Blair had himself introduced the minimum wage, civil partnerships, devolved assemblies and freedom-of-information requests, which at least adds up to a fairly respectable list. No subsequent prime minister could list their achievements so handily. But Thomas-Symonds leaves his reader questioning the continued relevance of Wilson’s politics. Can Wilson’s reforming zeal and his technocratic approach be easily got going again for the 2020s?

Wilson had been effectively browsing in incognito mode when pursuing many of his social reforms. He had been wary of hurrying Labour’s voters off beyond some reputed socially-conservative comfort zone. Thomas-Symonds desires that we celebrate the legalisations of homosexuality and abortion when Wilson himself had never voted for them or even, amazingly, made any public comment upon them.

Such a spectacular “legacy” is sometimes identified as being really Liberal moonlight rather than Labour sunshine. This is not least because Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary who had piloted many of Wilson’s reforms through the Commons, had afterwards moved on to the SDP and the Liberal Democrats. Previously of course, the NHS – supposedly Labour’s greatest achievement in power – had been proposed and planned by the Liberal politician William Beveridge.

With this, we might fancy that liberalism was always the progressive engine in Wilson’s clapped-out old banger. The granting of new freedoms to persecuted minorities during the 1960s certainly appears more heroic than the stances that tend to be taken by Labour politicians today. These days you are more likely to hear them calling for freedoms to be removed, for choices to be restricted, for unhealthy products to be banned and for improper speech to be censored. Yet Thomas-Symonds’ biography reminds us that this illiberalism was not unknown during Wilson’s golden age of liberty. Wilson had himself harassed journalists and even, at one point, used the Lord Chamberlain’s power to censor theatre (a power that would be rolled back by his own government).  

One might mistrust Wilson today because his approach had been a consciously technocratic one. Many of his contemporaries had certainly not warmed to his outwardly passionless and calculating politics. It is important, however, to apprehend this in its correct context.

There had been even more frigid personalities available to lead the Labour party. For example, the crusading left-winger Nye Bevan had called Wilson’s predecessor Hugh Gaitskell a “desiccated calculating machine.” Wilson had gotten off lighter, with Bevan dismissing him as “All bloody facts. No bloody vision.” Even so, this does not mean that Bevan’s more lyrical or emotional politics should be necessarily assigned to the left, with a drier, technocratic approach lying correspondingly on Labour’s right.

Thomas-Symonds notes that “Wilson’s own instincts were far closer to those of Nye Bevan than those of Gaitskell.” The consensualism that Wilson had brokered had represented a midpoint between Bevan and Gaitskell’s politics, one that had synced Bevan’s emotional power with Gaitskell’s pragmatism and managerial skill. But this synthesis was ultimately rather apolitical. Wilson’s insight was that Labour could govern only if it was led by a spectral organiser, who had put aside their own active involvement in politics in order to serve and prioritise an agreed position. He had once joked that “I’m at my best in a messy, middle-of-the-road muddle.”

We might dislike this approach because it appears to be sublet from the civil service. The heart’s desire of both Wilson and Gaitskell was indeed a socialism that spoke with the voice of a British civil servant. Still, the civil service are generally regarded today as being mundane, blank, and obstructive whereas in Wilson’s time they had been conceivably a more progressive force. In 1957 Wilson had inveighed against the “essentially amateurish way in which vital decisions affecting our whole economic well-being are taken – the ‘old boy’ network, the grouse moors…” He would tell people to vote Labour “to sweep away outmoded ideas, the old boy network that has condemned so many of our noblest young people to frustration.”

The ideal here was a streamlined administrative elite that had been selected meritocratically, rather than due to class privilege. Wilson had been himself a grammar-school student and Thomas-Symonds describes him as “one of the most gifted scholars of his generation in any field,” noting that he had “achieved the first ever alpha-plus mark in PPE Finals.” The point where Wilson’s unobtrusive, down-to-earth politics had become finally airborne was indeed in his ideals for meritocracy and his plans for a “University of the Air.” He had wanted the UK to have a fourth television channel that would serve as a university for lifelong learning. This would be more or less realised in 1969 with the founding of the Open University.

During this biography it seems increasingly that Wilson is being shuffled into a kind of club. For one thing, he resembles the book’s author, since Thomas-Symonds comes from the same provincial, petit-bourgeois background as Wilson had done and he matches this with Wilson’s extraordinary educational achievements. Both biographer and subject had gained firsts in PPE at Oxford. For another thing, Wilson resembles Sir Keir, who not only shares in the common class background and educational aplomb but whose entrance-point into politics had been also an apolitical public service. Whereas Wilson had been a virtuoso civil servant, Sir Keir was Director of Public Prosecutions.

Thomas-Symonds assures us that Wilson “did not stretch” civil service neutrality and you could argue that he actually enhanced it. When Wilson had weaponised his opponent George Brown’s alcoholism – or else the snobbery at his alcoholism – to defeat him, the ideal at base had been the professionalism of the civil service. The civil-service ethos had been at a natural disadvantage, though, whenever it was time for another appointment with the electorate. “In order to develop a folksy connection with the public,” Thomas-Symonds relates, “it was obvious that Wilson was going to have to evolve.” Sir Keir’s name could double with Wilson’s in this sentence.

A political consensus was far easier to achieve during the 1960s because everybody was so poor and everybody wanted the country to be rich again. Today, however, the UK’s middle class is aggressively defending its wealth and property, its monopolising of university places and its beloved Green Belt. The obvious reality of class warfare today renders Wilson’s consensus a spurious and increasingly unworldly fantasy. It had nonetheless collapsed in any case during Wilson’s own lifetime, with Labour being riven between centrists and the left once he had left office and with the electorate thereafter eloping with Margaret Thatcher.

Wilson today looks like a grand but somewhat shabby monument. The social-democratic economics that he had practised has been since transformed beyond recognition by Thatcher and her successors. Wilson had once had control over the value of the pound whereas the Bank of England is now entirely independent. The membership of the EEC that Wilson had engineered politically has been since wiped off the map by Brexit. Wilson’s famous “white heat” conference speech had alone, in the words of the BBC’s Robert Mckenzie, “moved the Labour Party forward fifty years in fifty minutes.” The problem was that it was just a speech and that Labour is still to move on fifty years from Wilson.  

[Previously on Tychy: “Am I a Liberal? (or, a Book Review of Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities).”]