History has not been kind to Harold Wilson. His administrations are remembered primarily for their crises - devaluation, In Place of Strife, rocketingHistory has not been kind to Harold Wilson. His administrations are remembered primarily for their crises - devaluation, In Place of Strife, rocketing inflation and the turmoil of the seventies. The circumstances of his resignation were strange, the only British Prime Minister last century to leave office at a time of his own choosing, when not forced to do so by political events, illness or electoral defeat. The infamous lavender list left a nasty taste in a country recently rocked by Poulson.
Yet it the achievements of Wilson's governments were significant. They represented a sea-change from the previous administration (13 of Macmillan's cabinet had gone to Eton) which was much more in tune with a rapidly changing society. Wilson's famous words on the "white heat of the technical revolution" stuck a chord with the voters, and Labour was swept to power in 1964 with a mandate to modernise. Whilst the its attempt to direct investment more efficiently through a National Plan created by the new Department of Economic Affairs was a failure, its attempt to create a fairer society through the expansion of university education was undoubtedly of lasting significance. Capital punishment was abolished, abortion and homosexuality were legalised, the Lord Chancellor's censorship of the theatre was swept away. Later events were to show that the ideas behind In Place of Strife were undoubtedly correct, and the subsequent emasculation of the Trade Union movement under Thatcher indicate that the Trade Union movement's opposition to the White Paper was misplaced.
Wilson's administration redefined the nature of Britain's armed forces, reduced defence spending from 8% to 5% of GDP in keeping with Britain's post-colonial role, whilst withdrawing from traditional commitments "East of Suez". Perhaps his greatest achievement was to keep British troops out of Vietnam despite intense pressure from a United States government on whom Britain was dependent for economic support during recurring balance of payments crises. Only a funambulist with the skill of Wilson could have achieved this balancing act.
Yet Wilson's tragedy came in two electoral shocks - his unexpected defeat in 1970, and his equally unexpected victory in 1974. He was shaken to the core by his loss, and when he regained power in 1974 the drive and attention to detail was no longer there. Pimlott shows conclusively that Wilson was planning his resignation almost as soon as he had taken power, thus dispelling rumours of lurking scandals or MI5 conspiracies to unseat him.
Pimlott's is a classic political biography: comprehensive, detailed, sympathetic but not uncritical. He presents Wilson as a highly capable administrator, whose mercurial brilliance allowed him to paper over the deep divisions between right and left in the labour party. He felt deeply betrayed by his protégée Anthony Wedgwood Benn's swing to the left, and the widening chasm between him and the Jenkinsites of the right contributed to his deepening sense of disillusionment. Wilson was no ideologue, but Pimlott gives a sense that in Wilson's final administration he no longer believed that he was capable of transforming Britain into the fairer, more efficient and better run state that he had worked for all his life.
Is greatness entirely contingent on being the right man in the right place at the right time? If, when Churchill was struck by a car in New York CityIs greatness entirely contingent on being the right man in the right place at the right time? If, when Churchill was struck by a car in New York City in 1931, the injuries had proved fatal, then he would be remembered no more than as a colourful actor on the British political stage, whose positive contributions, such as the introduction of Labour Exchanges and Employment insurance in 1909, were more than overwhelmed by his political disasters - such as his advocacy of Gallipoli, the return to the Gold Standard (against his better judgement and on the advice of John Maynard Keynes, no less) and his emerging opposition to the end of British rule in India.
He was a controversial politician, crossing the house twice and apparently disliked on both sides as a result. Yet, like Gladstone and Lloyd George but probably no others, he could speak. Members filled the chamber to hear his meticulously prepared speeches, his rhetoric usually soaring even if they disagreed with his content.
Yet, Churchill's time came in 1940. He had been consistent in opposing Naziism throughout the 1930s, and the fall of Chamberlain and Churchill's ascent to power is meticulously detailed in this fine autobiography. Chamberlain wanted to hand the Premiership over to Halifax, who, as a peer, demurred. Power passed to Churchill. As Halifax favoured peace with Hitler, who knows what the world would look like today if Halifax had not declined the chance of power.
As Premier, Churchill reinvigorated the faltering war effort, brought in some talented ministers from all sides of the House and from Industry, and galvanised the population with his keynote speeches.Yet for long periods he was absent. Amazingly, in the year from 12 January 1943, he was out of the country for 172 days, plus a further 35 days absent from Parliament due to pneumonia contracted whilst travelling. No-one can doubt the importance of his meetings with Roosevelt and Stalin, nor the bravery of travelling huge distances by air and sea at great risk to himself, yet to be away for half the year displays inordinate confidence in his deputy, Attlee.
Yet the War coalition was surprisingly unpopular. Bye-elections were lost with a surprising frequency, which was a foretaste of the upheaval of 1945. But by this time, Churchill's star had stated to decline. He was a poor leader of the opposition, and his second premiership, marred as it was by ill-health, was undistinguished. His much-delayed departure was anxiously awaited by more than just Eden.
Roy Jenkins' biography is exemplary. Based on copious secondary sources rather than original research, it is an admirable and compendious work of synthesis. Jenkins can turn a phrase almost as well as Churchill himself, though with less extravagance, and the result is a compellingly readable account which presents Churchill as gifted, wildly ambitious, egotistical, infuriating but always touched with greatness. In the final analysis he may be too kind to Churchill's final administration which in my opinion led Britain to a damaging period of stasis, yet overall he is admirably balanced throughout. He is respectful and admiring, yet this is no hagiography. And that is how it should be. Churchill was a flawed character in many ways - a drinker, a gambler, an egotist of frequently flawed judgement, yet when Britain faced its darkest hour, he was the one who to whom we turned, and he delivered.
When one thinks of Denis Healey, one tends to remember a rumbustious character who never shied away from a confrontation, and whose troubled Chancello When one thinks of Denis Healey, one tends to remember a rumbustious character who never shied away from a confrontation, and whose troubled Chancellorship included inflation of 27%, interest rates of 15%, industrial strife and an IMF bailout. What is less familiar is the lover of poetry and theatre, the fluent linguist who broadcast on BBC World Service in French, Italian and German,who made deep and lasting friendships with so many people in so many walks of life around the world. In this splendid political autobiography, Healey attempts to put the record straight, and prove that there was more to him than the political bruiser that he was often taken for.
There is an element of self-justification in how he presents his time in office, but in his biggest battles history looks quite favourably on the outcomes he achieved. His first love was International Affairs, and one senses that the fact that the Foreign Secretaryship eluded him was a cause for regret. As defense secretary he oversaw Britain's withdrawal from unsustainable commitments East of Suez, whilst maintaining a nuclear deterrent with a degree of independence from the United States.
As Chancellor, he claims that if treasury PSBR forecasts had been accurate, he needn't have had to go cap in hand to the IMF - and indeed the loan was repaid by the time that Healey left office. After the traumas of 1975 and 1976 the economy had been dramatically turned round. By 1977, the Balance of Payments was positive, the pound was worth more than $2, interest rates had fallen to 5% and both inflation and unemployment were falling.Yet from that unnaturally propitious position, Callaghan's government persisted with an income policy too far, and the result was the Winter of Discontent. Healey is understandably scathing on the asinity and self-interest of Union chiefs such as Moss Evans and Clive Jenkins, who failed to show the leadership of their predecessors and whose dogmatism and lack of foresight indirectly led to twelve years of Thatcherism.One of the great pleasures of this book is its incisive pen-portraits - Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon and Vic Feather are accorded deep respect, but his scorn for those implicated in Labour's implosion following their loss in 1979 is withering.
This great pleasure of this book is to accompany such a warm and engaging companion through his rise from a relatively humble background through Balliol and up through the ranks of the Labour party to the highest offices of state. His perspective from the inside of negotiations with the likes of the Americans on nuclear detterence, is eye-opening, his analysis of the events in which he was involved acute. Yet it is the characters that he has met which make this book special, many names with which one won't be familiar but all described with a warmth when deserved and a brutal dismissal when not. Everyone knows his description of Geoffrey Howe - who he liked and respected- from the House of Commons, yet not nearly as savage as his dismissal of his old foe Tony Benn in this book: "It is ironic that Tony Benn's ministerial career should have left only two monuments behind - the uranium mine in Namibia that he authorised as Energy Secretary which helps to support apartheid...and an aircraft [Concorde] which is used by wealthy people on their expense accounts, whose fairs are subsidised by much poorer taxpayers." Like the man himself, insightful, uncompromising but ultimately fair.