This piece of mine appears on The Guardian's Comment is Free website.
Watching Tony Blair's resignation speech yesterday, reminded me of another time when a Labour prime minister left Downing Street. Harold Wilson's resignation, unlike Blair's. was unexpected, but that was not the only difference between the way both men left office. For Wilson, there was to be no six week farewell tour, no trip to the U.S. to line up lucrative book contracts. From Wilson, no egotistical clap-trap about believing what he did was right or Hollywood-style sentimentality about his children never making him forget his failings.
Yet Wilson was in many ways far more deserving of the grand, prolonged farewell that Blair has mapped out for himself. Wilson's impact on his party, the country and the world was immeasurably more positive than Blair's. He held Labour together by allowing all wings of the party to have their say: just look at his cabinet of February 1974, which, (like his 1960s Cabinets) included left-wingers such as Barbara Castle, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Michael Foot, as well as social democrats such as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. Wilson's genius in party management was best illustrated by his decision to hold a referenda on EEC membership in 1975 and to suspend collective responsibility for the duration of the campaign. The rude health of Labour Party democracy in the Wilson era can be seen in candidates in the leadership election which followed his resignation: compare a contest between Benn, Callaghan, Crosland, Jenkins, Foot and Healey with the virtual coronation of Gordon Brown.
Wilson unlike Blair, left Britain in an unquestionably better shape than when he took office. In 1964, he inherited a balance of payments deficit of £800m, in 1970, thanks to shrewd economic management, it had been turned into a surplus of £550m, a 20th century record. On returning to power in February 1974, Wilson had to deal with the consequences of a quadrupling of the price of oil caused by the Yom Kippur War. By the time of Wilson's departure, inflation was already falling and the recession, which was none of Wilson's making, was coming to an end. Under Wilson, Britain still had a manufacturing base, under Blair, we have been transformed into a service economy with record levels of personal debt, and record balance of payments deficits. Wilson's economic achievements are all the more commendable when one considers that, unlike Blair, his governments didn't benefit from North Sea oil revenues.
In the field of foreign policy, the achievements of the two men could also not be more contrasting.
Blair will forever be associated with involving our country in a disastrous military adventure at the behest of a foreign power. Wilson's greatest achievement was not involving our country into an an equally misguided military adventure at the behest of the same foreign power.
While we should never forgive Blair for taking us into in Iraq, we should never forget how much we owe to Wilson for keeping us out of Vietnam.