Friday, May 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Prime Ministers

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.


Anonymous said...

Neil, This is offtop here, but it is about your previous article
"Far-right extremism in central and eastern europe"

Could you write about Estonia, pls. Western media often views riots and conflict around the Bronze Soldier memorial as a conflict between Russia and Estonia. And they continue using overused cliches like "former agressor wants to repeat history, poor Estonia, bla bla".
I have not seen anybody write about what Russian community in Estonia really thinks. They formed public organization in Estonia, called Night Watch to protect the memorial from vandals about 1 or 2 years ago, before Estonian authorities decided to demolish/move it. Night Watch is also known for organizing numerous peaceful picketing against removal, one was even in Strasburg.
That was without any financial support or "orders" from Russia, they acted on they own and tried to raise private funds for such actions.

Recently we have seen outrageous acts of police violence, human and constitutional rights violations, fully backed by the state. Now authorities blame Night Watch activists - people known as organizers of peaceful meetings in plotting and organizing riots and treats them as a direct threat of Estonia's independence. One of the arrested activists, Mark Siryk is a 18 years old school kid(!)

So, how come that EU does not notice all that police terror, political prisoners and considers it only as Estonia-Russia conflict?

There is a discussion about this in English:

Anonymous said...

You conveneintly forget to mention devaluation, comprehensive schools or the strikes that plagued the country when Wilson was in charge.
Ever heard the phrase 'rose coloured spectacles' Neil?

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Neil. Wilson was the most underrated of post-war Prime Ministers and deserves far more plaudits than he actually got.

Anonymous said...

You conveneintly forget to mention devaluation, comprehensive schools or the strikes that plagued the country when Wilson was in charge.

Once you realise that Neil was ten the year Wilson resigned, his essentially childlike perspective makes a lot more sense.

Anonymous said...

ugaarwi: Wilson's economic achievements are a matter of record as is the fact that he kept British troops out of Vietnam. My age at the time of his resignation has nothing to do with it!
giyu: Wilson should have devalued before 1967, I grant you that. But has a govt ever lost office with such impressive economic figures as Wilson's govt did in 1970?. I don't think it's fair to blame him for the industrial unrest- it was rather worse under his predecessor, Heath and his successor James 'IMF' Callaghan!

Anonymous said...

What's the problem with comprehensive schools giyuniq?
do you want us to return to the days of the 11 plus? That was really fair wasn't it....

Anonymous said...

"What's the problem with comprehensive schools?"
Are you Roy Hattersley in drag?
He's about the only person left who still thinks they were a good idea.