Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Harold Wilson on a stamp? Seriously?

Four of the British eight prime ministers selected to appear on a new set of Royal Mail stamps are heroes of mine: Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Although I’m decidedly not an admirer, Clement Attlee has to be there to appease left-wingers, I suppose. Grey and Gladstone – well, yes, of course. But Harold Bloody Wilson? Really?

Wilson was an unprincipled, deluded twit whose Walter Mittyish nature was summed up by his remark to Richard Ingrams at a ‘60s Downing Street party stuffed with pop singers and footballers: “Y’know, Jack Kennedy’s White House soirées had nothing on this.” Christopher Booker summed him up perfectly in 1978 in The Spectator when he described him as “this strange little womble”.

Of course, the reason Wilson is on the list is because there are so few “influential” Labour prime ministers to choose from. Ramsey Macdonald is considered a traitor by his own party, Jim Callaghan’s record was marginally even more lamentable, Gordon Brown was possibly the worst prime minister this country has ever endured, and Tony Blair – hugely influential, of course – is generally despised, especially by the inept pygmies who now run the Labour Party.

But, still – Harold Wilson? The man who, along with his Conservative Tweedledum, Ted Heath, reduced this country to the status of an international laughing-stock – the sick man of Europe? I suspect that, apart from a handful of political historians, the number of foreigners who’ve even heard of the twerp is infinitesimally tiny. As for Britons, I would imagine that the only awareness of him amongst those under the age of 50 is the result of watching endless repeats of that episode of Fawlty Towers in which John Cleese ends one of his towering rages by clenching his fist and shouting “Bloody… Wilson!”, a phrase which must have been spat out by at least 75% of British adults during the man’s 13-year  stint at the forefront of this nation’s politics.

Oddly, my most abiding memory of Wilson – and further proof of his humungous and utterly unfounded sense of self-regard – was of him guest-hosting a TV chat show soon after he had resigned as Prime Minister. After the episode was broadcast, Britain’s hospitals must have been flooded with viewers begging to have their toes surgically uncurled. A brilliant Clive James review at the time, entitled “Really Terribly” (available here), captured the horror:
Latest guest host of Friday Night … Saturday Morning (BBC1) was Sir Harold Wilson, erstwhile Prime Minister of Great Britain. Those of us who expected him to be terrible received a shock. He was really terrible. 
His guests did their best to help him out, especially Harry Secombe, who was first on. Harry attempted to lighten the atmosphere by saying ‘Whee hee hee!’ That having failed to produce results, he switched to ‘Na-hah! Na-hah na-hah na-hah!’ He then addressed Sir Harold disarmingly as ‘Sir Harold Parkinson’, to see how that would work. The audience dutifully convulsed itself, a cue for Sir Harold to remind Harry about the longevity of their friendship. ‘We’ve known each other for years.’ 
Pat Phoenix, Freddie Trueman and somebody calling himself Tony Benn succeeded Harry in the role of interlocutor. Sir Harold’s wit sparkled fitfully as he attempted to make his presence felt, usually when someone else was talking. He read the autocue as if it was the Rosetta Stone arranged on rollers. Interviewing somebody on the air is a cinch as long as you listen to what he says. This, however, is not easy to do if you are busy trying to remember what to ask him next. Interviewing somebody on the air is consequently not as easy as it usually looks. The great merit of Sir Harold’s stint as a chat-show host was that he made it look as tricky as it is. 
What had he expected? What arrogance led him to take the job on with so little preparation? Was he as thoughtless and conceited when he was Prime Minister?

Given that Wilson's various political initiatives were invariably as disastrous as his talk show, I think we know the answer to Clive James’s question.

And this is the incompetent, undignified, meaningless pimple preferred to the likes of Lord Salisbury, Lloyd-George and Benjamin Disraeli?

I met that “Baroness” Falkender once at a do to publicise the paperback publication of her political memoirs, Inside No.10. I ended up sitting at a table with her and her hardback publisher, George Weidenfeld. I had to be extremely nice to them, because I was the paperback publisher’s press officer. The task proved beyond me (I’d had a few). After spending ten minutes listening to her whingeing about everybody and everything, I decided to lob a hand grenade into her mo(a)nologue. “Why do you think Private Eye hates you so much?” I really wish I had a recording of the resulting explosion: it was  hilarious.

11 comments:

  1. If Disraeli is not in the new collection of stamps...then the collection of stamps sucks.
    If Gladstone gets one, and Disraeli is not in the collection, then the collection sucks a**.

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    1. What's rather odd is that every damned major party throws the phrase "One Nation" around the whole time - and yet the chap who invented it doesn't get a mention!

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  2. This is an excellent post. Much enjoyed reading it. Have been putting off starting a book on Disraeli by Christopher Hibbert and will now get my ass in the proverbial. Bro, nice to have you back.

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  3. John Simpson, the BBC World Editor (?), was reminiscing about his early days in journalism. He recalled wandering into one of the big London stations where Wilson was arriving back from some event. No interview had been arranged and when Simpson stuck a microphone in front of Wilson's face and asked a question, the Prime Minister punched him in the stomach and walked on by.

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    1. I think he's known as the World Affairs Editor. Actually, that was quite brave of Wilson, as Simpson, who was always a hefty chap, must have been at least ten inches taller than the PM. Respect!
      BBC journalists are still being attacked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3jWVDyl7v4

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  4. John Simpson doorsteps HWilsonPM:
    He joined the BBC at 25, as a sub-editor in the Radio Newsroom, before becoming a political reporter. He attracted publicity early, when the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson apparently punched him in the stomach when John asked him whether he was about to call an election.

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  5. It's difficult to get across to those who weren't there at the time the sense of acceptance among the populace that Britain in the late 1960s and 70s was ungovernable and was fated to be so whichever party was in power. That explains the enduring appeal of Maggie to those of us who lived through the 70s and simply wanted some sort of order out of chaos. Still, at least it gave us a rich array of comic figures to enjoy such as your dining partner Lady Forkbender, Lord Kagan the Gannex raincoat magnate, the disappearing John Stonehouse, as well as the The Thorpe trial and pillow biting . It's odd how many of Harold's political clique ended up in jail or disgrace. Thank goodness no could say that about…err..

    One question that has interested me recently in the way that counter-factual history sometimes does when bored: if Tony Blair rather than Wislon had been PM at the time, would we have stayed out of the Vietnam war?

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    1. Good question! I wonder if America's treachery over Suez (which Eisenhower later deeply regretted) would have made it impossible to get the UK involved - plus the unlikeliness of a bromance between Wilson and Johnson. And the fact that Vietnam was one of the few places on the globe in which Britain hadn't had any serious involvement. Plus, the fact that the French had been sent running out of Vietnam with their little Gallic tails between their little Gallic legs might have rendered any British involvement diplomatically awkward (mind you, it would have worth it just to see De Gaulle's face.

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  6. Of course, one important difference between the Wilson years and today is that, back then, we had Private Eye, which sprayed it around without fear or favour. Much of it landed on Wilson & Co, as well as on the Tories.

    Today we have, er, Marcus Brigstocke, who I understand is some kind of comedy poodle act.

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  7. During his term of office,Wilson had a nagging fear that he was being spied on,possibly by MI5.

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