Theresa May – the Tories’ Harold Wilson?

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Mark Pack recently tweeted:

It is a very interesting parallel.

Firstly, we ought to say that, in contrast to Theresa May, Harold Wilson ran a pretty happy Number Ten at a staff level and had a quite brilliant political aura around him for his early years. As he castigated the old Tory aristocratic government and took over as PM, he got on well with the press and was pretty much in control of all he surveyed. I don’t think T May has had that sort of period. It was only when he had to finally cave in to devaluation in 1967 that the shine was knocked off his prime ministership and he tended to lurch from crisis to crisis.

One characteristic May perhaps shares with Wilson is the ability to suffer a major setback but then try to convince people it is fantastically good and what she wanted all along. Despite spending years trying to avoid devaluation, when it came, Harold Wilson put a remarkably positive spin on it, telling the nation:

From now on, the pound abroad is worth 14 per cent or so less in terms of other currencies. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.

Charitably, this could be described as “gilding the lilly”, an activity in which Theresa May also seems to excel – see her attempts to sell repeated red line defeats in the Brexit negotiations and last weekend’s NHS spending promise.

But I came across a sentence last night in Ben Pimlott’s excellent biography of Harold Wilson. It seems to encapsulate a key similarity between Wilson and May in their attempts to find a way through controversies where their respective parties are at internal loggerheads. Regarding the debates following the 1967 devaluation, Pimlott quotes Roy Jenkins, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, as saying:

His own patience being apparently limitless, he allowed Cabinet to bore itself into exhaustion.

This appears to be Theresa May’s tack at the moment with respect to the Max Fac versus Customs partnership versus ????? debate about Brexit.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • John Marriott 20th Jun '18 - 6:10pm

    The Tories’ ‘Harold Wilson, heh? I’m waiting for her to say to her next party conference; “People ask what’s going on. Well, I’m going on!”

  • Innocent Bystander 20th Jun '18 - 9:34pm

    I would have thought the current Labour leadership, following McDonnell’s recent announcements on his plans to restore our productivity, aligns better with Baron Wilson of Rivelaux and his National Enterprise Board, which was set up to do exactly that and also to rescue British Leyland, Alfred Herbert Machine Tools, Ferranti, Inmos and Sinclair Radionics.
    That turned out well and Corbyn and McD will fare no better than HW.

  • As someone originally from Huddersfield, and unlike some actually experienced his terms as Prime Minister, I am proud of Harold Wilson – a very underestimated PM of considerably higher intellectual firepower than the present sorry PM.

    I’m also proud of another Yorkshire lad who was partly schooled in Huddersfield – and also a man of great intellect – Herbert Asquith.

    Appropriately, the statue of Uncle Harold outside the station is frequently adorned by the colours of the team we both love – the mighty Terriers.

  • Graham Evans 20th Jun '18 - 11:54pm

    Labour governments under Harold Wilson certainly had their economic difficulties, particularly the balance of payments deficit (which incidentally has never been subsequently addressed but these days no one seems to care). However socially it was one of the most transformative governments of the 20th century. The swinging 60s were characterized by the abolition of the death penalty, abortion and divorce law reform, and partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts for men. While Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary was perhaps the driving force in supporting the relevant Private Members Bills, without Wilson’s support change would have been a long time coming.

    As others have said, intellectually Wilson was streets ahead of May, and the economic problems the country faced were not of his making. As Major learnt decades later devaluation is not necessarily a sign of economic mismanagement but rather a sensible cause of action to revitalise a flagging economy. But like Major perception of the subsequent economic upswing came too late to save the Government from electoral defeat.

    While TM may not have been responsible for the referendum decision to leave the EU, rather than set a course to at least alleviate the subsequent problems, May’s mismanagement of Brexit has made a difficult situation far worse.

  • I think Wilson, Heath and Callaghan were all under-estimated PMs in their time.
    The 1967 devaluation was a politically difficult issue at a time when poor trade figures made headline news. The National Union Seaman strike halted shipping of exports in May 1966. Wilson declared a state of emergency saying communist agitators were “endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation”. Unemployment doubled between July 1966 and the summer of 1967.
    Fears that there would be a run on sterling by speculators forced the government to borrow money to prop-up the currency.
    In September 1967, dockers went on strike and goods for exports piled up on the quaysides . The trade deficit more than doubled for October compared to September.

    In November, the Chancellor, Jim Callaghan, told Wilson Britain would have to devalue
    Wilson did not want to devalue and tried to get the US to lend the money to prop up the economy. He floated a loans plan in a telegram to President Johnson…but it went nowhere – Congress would have to approve such a plan and they were not going to in the middle of the Vietnam War.
    The refusal of a loan from the US made devaluation certain and Wilson, Callaghan and the treasury civil servants planned for devaluation of the dollar/pound exchange rate from $2.80 down to $2.40 on 18th November. Rumours started to circulate and the markets started selling sterling requiring heavy intervention from the Bank of England in the days prior to the devaluation.

    Callaghan resigned as chancellor but was appointed as home secretary shortly afterwards. To top it all, at the end of a tough year, de Gaulle refused Wilson’s application for Britain to be part of the Common Market.

  • Martin Walker 21st Jun '18 - 8:05am

    Though that may be a similarity, Wilson and his Government actually delivered far more than they are given credit for – Equal Pay, Race Discrimination legislation, Sex Discrimination legislation, the first Government to spend more on education than defence, the Open University. Teresa May has no such list of achievements, and her only objective at the beginning of each day is to get through the day and still be Prime Minister at the end of it.

  • Tony Dawson 21st Jun '18 - 4:48pm

    I fear the comparison is not a valid one. Wilson was an incredibly intelligent though not particularly nice man. There are several dozen women in the House of Commons who are more intelligent than Theresa May.

  • @JoeB that’s as good a description of the devaluation crisis as I’ve read in a long time. I’ve read entire books about it and understood it less! The only two things I would add are Wilson’s ‘The pound in your pocket or purse will not be worth less’ speech – which damaged his credibility long-term – and the fact that when Callaghan went from the Treasury to the Home Office he swapped jobs with Roy Jenkins, who then did an excellent job of steadying the economy, but that switch perhaps ended the chances of further progressive social reforms.
    In terms of the wider thread I’d say a better comparison for Theresa May is John Major. He too had a small majority, depended on Ulster Unionists and was completely the prisoner of his Euro-sceptics. He was also weak, and accident-prone. I’d say that’s a direct match for TM.

  • @ Tony Dawson Did you ever meet Harold Wilson, Mr Dawson? I did, and I can tell you he was indeed a nice man on a personal level. One could add that his wife Mary, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago, was an incredibly nice and dignified woman.

    His great achievements included keeping this country out of the Vietnam war when LBJ was turning the screws – and his support of Barbara Castle and Jenny Lee was also commendable.

  • When Wilson was interviewed just after his resignation he was asked what he felt his greatest achievement was. He replied, “I kept the Party toge….I kept the country together”. Both are debateable, but in Theresa May’s case they won’t be because she will have left a disintegrating party and an deeply divided country.

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