Opinion: David Cameron – the Conservative Party’s answer to Harold Wilson

More and more, David Cameron reminds me of Harold Wilson.

Both became leaders of their party when a sequence of election defeats forced change upon it. Both briefly were the young leader with a new purpose for their political tradition; the white heat of technology in the 20th century, huskies in the 21st.

Both struggled to win over the public, with neither getting an overall majority at their first attempt. Both turned out to be heavily beholden to their party’s traditional, backward-looking wing.

Wilson’s opportunities to be a dominating figure who reshaped society and rejuvenated the economy were wrecked on the Labour Party’s trade union problems. He had a reputation as always dodging, looking for the political tactic to get himself out of the latest corner, rather than standing firm to his principles (if indeed he had any, critics would quickly add). Oh, and he had to dance some fancy political steps in order to keep his party together over Europe.

Along the way Harold Wilson managed a more than respectable collection of general election results, especially by the standards of the Labour Party (three times sneaking in to power just, once winning a convincing a majority).

But his post-retirement reputation was fairly dismal for many years until Ben Pimlott rehabilitated him, arguing persuasively that yes, Wilson was the arch-political tactician, always fighting battles with his own party – but given the state of that party, to have managed simply to keep it together and achieve even a little along the way was a massive achievement.

Cameron’s negatives increasingly look to be the mirror of Wilson’s. Will he match his positives too? The Tory right are certainly increasingly making it look like simply keeping his party together and at somewhere over 30% of popular support is quite an achievement in itself. Though not much of a reason for people to vote for him, of course.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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18 Comments

  • Wilson had an overall majority of four in 1964.

  • interesting historical perspective. Wasn’t Wilson the PM when income tax on top earners went over 80%?

  • To the best of my knowledge, Mr Cameron has never had to deal with accusations or insinuations that he is an agent of a foreign power.

  • So, Harold Wilson led his party for 13 years and was Prime Minister for 8 years, abridged by 4 years as opposition leader in the middle. So, to equal Wilson’s record of longevity in office, Cameron will have to still be leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister in 2023., having served/survived as opposition leader after defeat in 2015, and then regaining power in 2020 (assuming the Fixed Term Parliament is still in place). I wouldn’t put money on it.

    We should remember that, in his heyday, Wilson was very sharp indeed at the dispatch box, and reduced Heath to a laughing stock on several occasions. I don’t think Cameron has ever displayed that genuine sharpness – he sounds more like he is reading lines other people have written for him.

  • Wilson brought about the Europe referendum. In his case it was a smart move: he was able to bank on the overwhelming support of the opposition parties and the result put a dampener on anti Common Market voices in his own party/

    Possibly Cameron would like to do likewise, but it is difficult to envisage success: is there agreement that Cameron could gain that would turn the Europhobes in his own party, let alone UKIPers? Worse still, the more Cameron secures for the Tory right the less he can count on support from the opposition camps.

    Perhaps Cameron is banking on losing the 2015 election, in which case his strategy to put pressure on the opposition has tactical sense. Alternatively, he is actually planning a Brexit and it is only the Lib Dems, who for the moment, are holding him back

  • As already pointed out, Wilson had an overall majority in his first election in 1964. Majority election victories to date:

    Wilson 3 Cameron 0

    I think there’s a greater likelihood of Wilson increasing his lead than Cameron getting a consolation goal.

  • When Wilson resigned unexpectedly as Prime Minister he was asked what he felt his greatest achievement had been, and he replied, “I kept the party….I kept the country together”. He was right first time: obviously there have been great tensions in the Labour Party since its inception, but it was only in the fifteen years after Wilson that the party tore itself to pieces . I don’t “get” Cameron, but I am certain that he does not have Wilson’s political skills, and that it is inconceivable that he could lose the next election and still lead the Conservatives into the one after. The fissure in the Conservative Party is quite clear: the siren songs of UKIP have been resisted so far by many Conservative politicians only out of self-interest. If UKIP tops the poll at the Euro election and continues to perform well in by-elections and opinion polls the trickle of Tory defections will become a flood.

  • Julian Critchley 3rd Feb '14 - 9:59pm

    This is a very harsh verdict on Wilson. It’s arguable he was one of the three post-war prime ministers who changed this country significantly. The difference with the other two, Attlee and Thatcher, is that Wilson’s changes were not in the economic sphere but the social.

    After all, it was under Wilson that we saw legalised abortion, race relations legislation, equal pay acts, legalised homosexuality and so on. And whereas there was always a lot of opposition from the right to Attlee’s welfare state, and a there is still a lot of opposition from the left to Thatcher’s kleptocracy, there is remarkably little opposition to Wilson’s reforms in the social arena, except for at the nuttier end of the UKIP/BNP collective of idiots.

    I think Wilson got a very rough deal – and continues to do so – from the right wing press. If you look at his economic record, in terms of inflation, unemployment and GDP growth, it stands up really rather well by comparison to Macmillan, Heath and Callaghan. On top of that, he also managed to keep the UK out of Vietnam despite intense US pressure.

    So I wouldn’t compare Wilson with Cameron at all. Cameron is, to all intents and purposes, Heath. He started with a mission to change his party, with an approach based on sunny optimism. In office he has U-turned on his new agenda(granted, Heath wanted to move right and U-turned to the centre; while Cameron has gone the other way !), and like Heath over Rhodesia and Powell, finds himself increasingly under siege from the Tories often barely-hidden racist rightwing.

  • Julian: If you think the right-wing press treat Wilson harshly, you should look at what much of the Labour Party used to say about him 🙂

    More seriously – it’s a fair point that some very welcome social changes happened whilst he was Prime Minister, but I think they happened without him trying to stop them rather than with him actively pushing them. Credit to him for not blocking Roy Jenkins’s reforms at the Home Office, for example, but he didn’t actually trigger social changes in the way, say, Thatcher did.

  • Yes, Julian, the opening sentence is a long way off mark. It would make more sense to say that Cameron is trying to be like Wilson. However Cameron’s more obvious idol is T. Blair. Naturally a lot is clearer in retrospect, but despite Heath’s clumsiness, it is clear that he did have a vision. I suppose he did want to ‘move to the right’, but again in retrospect he seems very social democrat; nothing like Thatcher and overall to the left of Blair, so not really fair to Heath either.

    The trouble is that at this moment it is hard to see anything that Cameron stands for anything other than as a government manager. Perhaps he is too boxed in to be anything and of course teh Lib Dems are part of this. However we still cannot tell if Cameron welcomes Lib Dems as a counterweight to his unruly right wing or whether he yearns to shed the Lib Dems, to make peace with his right wing and to adopt much of their agenda. To highlight this, we can ask the question: if the Tories had had a majority in 2010, would Cameron have already attempted to negotiate special favours for the UK in Europe and be preparing for a referendum? The answer seems to be unfathomable.

  • ‘Credit to him for not blocking Roy Jenkins’s reforms at the Home Office’ and for appointing Jenkins in the first place. And Barbara Castle. And Shirley Williams. Abolition of the death penalty. 70 mph limit. Breathalyser. comprehensive schools. Open University.

    ‘…but he didn’t actually trigger social changes in the way, say, Thatcher did.’ Thank God for that!

  • tonyhill

    If Cameron looses the 2015 election I think you will see the Tory fissure move to be between to “less Europe” (the current Outers – EEA light etc)and “no Europe” the in group will be silent.

    They will probably move firmly in to take UKIP’s territory,

  • So in the respect Wilson kept his party together only for it to rip itself apart afterwards Cameron may very well see the same happen.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Feb '14 - 10:45am

    @Martin: ‘…the opening sentence is a long way off mark’

    The opening sentence was ‘More and more, David Cameron reminds me [ie Mark Pack] of Harold Wilson’.
    As this is a subjective statement, I don’t see why it can be wrong. You might argue that Mark Pack’s perception is flawed, but he cannot be factually wrong here as he is reporting his own perception.

    I think there is sense here, if (as many have pointed out) you allow for the completely changed political setting, which you always have to do when comparing leaders; ultimately this kind of thing is just a game – but it can be an illuminating game.

    What I take from this is that Cameron’s pretensions to the mantles of Blair and Thatcher are never deliverable; they had majorities and authority in their party; he has no majority and not complete authority, but he might be able to aspire to something of the wheeler-dealing, finessing talents of Wilson – and he is certainly attempting (although not always achieving) something a bit more like Wilson’s delicate cabinet handling of diverse, strong voices with their own agendas (to Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams, add George Brown, Tony Benn … imagine chairing that lot in a debate!) – this is not the Blair-Thatcher school of leadership, however much Dave spindoctors pretend.

    And in a situation where Labour sneaks a slim and insecure parliamentary majority (particularly if the Tory proportion of the overall vote is higher, and the Ukip threat is less effective than feared), it’s worth asking why Cameron would automatically stand down as leader, unless clear candidates emerge to take over?

    I don’t currently much like or trust Cameron, nor want him to be PM much longer – but I’d rather he was leading the Tories than any of the alternatives I can think of.

  • I can see that Cameron is in a similar position to Wilso in the 70s in that he can’t modernise his party, but this has been a problem for the Conservatives since John Major. My gut instinct tells me he’s more likely to replicate Jim Callahan in the next election because he’s up against his own party and is being forced into a corner by the opposition, I doubt that he will have a Wilson like career. Modern politics is very quick to punish failure.

  • @Martin Though you comment that I’m wrong to see similarities between Wilson and Cameron, the way you go on to describe Cameron (focused on party management, not clear if he really believes in anything etc.) is just the way many people have described Wilson. So in disagreeing with me, you’ve actually made my point for me 🙂

  • Mark: only up to a point; you also have to take account of Julian’s assessment. Having thought about it some more, my best guess is that Cameron sees himself of a manager of democracy, with the role of nudging political direction from time to time. Rather like the BBC’s attitude to neutrality which seems to determine neutrality according to the activity of opposing views, Cameron determines his path according to those with whom he has to compromise.

    It seems the Tory right cottoned on to this faster than the Lib Dem politicians and this perhaps led to compromises that we should have been able to resist. Cameron’s actions with respect to the EU can be interpreted in this light. This view supposes that Cameron has little idea of what he might negotiate and how he might portray a referendum: he just hopes to do something when the time comes. Unless Cameron actually wants to take the UK out of the EU, the only other view would imply that Cameron is banking on losing the 2015 election.

    I think it is generally agreed that the 70s politicians were a different breed: they had experienced the war and its aftermath which coloured their outlook. These were politicians who had seen the abyss and were certainly driven to avoid it again. This certainly did not apply to Blair and I think Cameron is willing to play with fire in other ways.

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