A Sociological Autobiography: 23 – More Ships Passing

By | January 9, 2014


Harold Wilson, who was born in 1916, managed to avoid Eton. He was educated instead in northern grammar schools prior to entering and winning a ‘first’ at Oxford. He excelled at statistics and a spell working as a research economist for Beveridge and a meeting with G D H Cole led to an interest in politics and in the Labour Party. He subsequently worked as a ‘specialist’ in the wartime civil service. He married Mary (Baldwin) on 1 January 1940. His war work won him an OBE in 1945. He was elected to the Commons to represent Ormskirk the same year, one of the 393 MPs comprising Atlee’s landslide win.

What is shrewd in the political domain and what opportunistic? And can one make it into the Cabinet, let alone become a party leader or Prime Minister, without stepping full-square out of the Habermasian lifeworld? Only exceptionally: to enter the power elite is, de facto, to become strategic. Mannered conventions disguised the ambitions of Churchill’s Tory successors. In the welfare-statist era it was easier to be a chameleon in the Tory than in the Labour Party. Wilson’s aspirations left trails and scars: he was calculatingly principled. He had in fact never sampled life on the back benches. Deciding not to follow mentor Bevan into the wilderness in 1954, he enjoyed a rapprochement with Gaitskell, eventually becoming Shadow Chancellor. He defeated George Brown (another one, not my Ph.D supervisor) to assume the Labour leadership on Gaitskell’s death in 1963. His annihilation of Home in and out of the Commons was not reflected in the 1964 election statistics however: his overall Commons majority was four. Calling another election in 1966, he out-gunned a wooden Ted Heath to achieve an enhanced majority of 97.

Sociologically the status quo always has a head start, the more so if it leans rightwards. While I had in my innocence sympathized with ‘under-attack’ Macmillan and Home, now Wilson was the beneficiary. And he was a smart cookie. His stock among left-wingers dipped into the 1970s and after. Now he is being re-appraised. He certainly had his failures of will and ambition and made little headway towards socialism. His achievements? He kept the Labour Party together (a challenge confronting any Labour leader (including Ed Miliband); he kept British troops out of Vietnam, despite Johnson’s best efforts; and he founded the Open University.

The later sixties were characterized by Wilson versus Heath. Mike Yarwood had them off pat: Wilson’s throated, pipe-smoking witticisms versus Heath’s heaving-shouldered laugh (and appalling French accent). Abandoning the Daily Telegraph as a Surrey University undergraduate, I came to appreciate the witticisms more. But Health’s unanticipated victory in the 1970 general election proved a turning point. Events are events. It is structures qua generative mechanisms that matter for sociologists. The Health regime of 1970 to 1974 was – or so it seems to me – a turning point. Capitalism has experienced several ‘phases’. The early to mid-1970s witnessed the beginnings of a transition to a new phase. Sociologists have sought to capture it in different ways: most extravagantly, some have written of a move from modernity to postmodernity; exercising more caution, others have claimed a shift from organized or Fordist capitalism to dis- or re-organized or post-Fordist capitalism. I have more sympathies with the latter, but have myself come to deploy the term ‘financial capitalism’ for the era from 1970s on. Many autobiographical fragments will revisit this.

Heath’s period of office was defined by and culminated in the National Union of Mineworkers’ muscle-flexing and subsequent strike. The miners’ action prefigured Scargill’s. Wilson courted union leaders, preaching conciliation as Heath edged closer to confrontation. Refusing to yield to what he castigated as extravagant pay demands, Heath imposed a state of emergency and put the nation on a three-day week. Mid-winter power cuts and laid-off workers ensued as 1973 grated into 1974. Wilson and miners’ leader Gormley held clandestine talks; but Wilson effectively scuppered any prospects of an NUM-Heath compromise, as well as alienating Gormley, by judicious leaking details. The NUM went on to secure a four-to-one majority for all-out industrial action in a pithead ballot and on 5 February 1974 called a national strike. Two days later Health called a ‘Who Rules?’ election for 28 February. The turnout was unexpectedly high. Wilson was 17 seats short of an overall Commons majority. Health obdurately hung on, but Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was more willing to do a deal than were his fellow MPs. A jaded Wilson re-entered Number 10 with a further election immanent. From this second election of 1974 he emerged with an overall majority of three. By 1975 he had endured enough and suddenly, or so it seemed to us, resigned. It was a shock to us outsiders: I remember reading the headline in the Evening Standard as I travelled down the Northern Line to Waterloo, thence to Epsom. Rumours abounded, none of which survived for long.

It was Callaghan who inherited the leadership: calm, jovial and, in Labour’s terms, right-wing. Wilson’s former Chancellor, ‘chosen’ and stopgap successor laboured on until 1979. There was little but hanging on amidst trouble and strife prior to his Canute-like appeal: ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ There was a touch of desperation. The reign of Thatrcher was about to commence.



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