Harold Wilson: The Authentic Portrait
Purpose in Politics
The campaign biography is essentially a democratic literary genre. It can only exist as an institution in a society where becoming is more important than being; such books lack plots, indeed are subversive, in a society such as England where status is settled by education and accent, not by achievement. Indeed it has been almost exclusively American—on no other kind of literature could one indulge such dialectic passions of cynicism and sentimentality as on, to go no further back, those hasty, loving books about Ike, Nixon, Barry, even Adlai, and even, alas, on poor Kennedy. It is an interesting sign of social change that such books now occur in Britain. The long awaited rise of democracy in English life—not just in electoral machinery—may yet be not that far off once again. Even the 14th Earl of Home was given one—a book best forgotten, except by collectors of the bizarre.
Leslie Smith’s book survives only because his horse won, for I suspect that by experienced American standards it will be found somewhat lacking both in political savvy and whole-hog sentimentality. It is just not good enough to dish-up a campaign biography without the slightest adaptation and only a perfunctory chapter added on the result of the election. The biography concentrates on “the person—as a son, a husband and a father.” Its scanty political judgments are wholly banal. (There was a better book last year, Harold Wilson: A Critical Biography, by a Tory M.P. and journalist, Dudley Smith, which had far less information, was a bit of a hatchet job, but did convey a realistic account of Wilson’s great political skill and strength.) What is interesting is that Wilson let Leslie Smith’s book go forward—or, to be more precise, didn’t stop his dad from talking so much.
So here is classic American campaign biography, redone in terms of provincial England. It blends two biographical genres: that of legitimate ambition rewarded in a democracy with that of the rewards that can come, with a little luck, to the respectable and relentlessly self-educating poor. It shows how “his meteoric scholarship progress” took him from a lower-middle or upper-working class home in Yorkshire to—just where he told his teacher when he was eight he wanted to go—No. 10 Downing Street. It is often debated whether the Labour Party “owes more to Methodism than to Marx,” the “Harold Wilson” of this book appears to owe more to Horatio Alger and to Samuel Smiles than to either. But this is part of his strength. He is remembered by politicians as the political friend and heir of Nye Bevan, yet his image to the general public combines the “self-made man” of earlier Radicalism with the “no-nonsense, business-like Yorkshireman” who loathes the inefficiency of old-school-tie management, and remembers as well, through his father’s brief but hurtful unemployment, the wrongs of the workers. The profound thing to say is that in Wilson’s socialism the classless society will be bourgeois in culture, not working-class. The obvious thing to say is that…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.