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 Wilson’s own career can justify every lower-middle-class (or upper-working-class) mum’s ambition for her son. Even at seven when badly ill with appendicitis:
While Herbert and Ethel were visiting him on the evening of the day after the operation, most other people were going to the polling booths: it was voting day in the General Election of 1923. Harold greeted his parents with two major concerns. Had they brought his copy of Bubbles? They had. And had they cast their votes for Philip Snowden, the Colne Valley Labour candidate? They had not. In that case, they must hasten to do so. He urged them to leave him in time to vote before the polls closed…in fact, he took it so seriously that for years afterwards his parents did not dare to tell him that after leaving him that evening, thick fog had delayed their tram and they had arrived at the booth too late to vote.
The accounts of his early and continued enthusiasm for the Boy Scout Movement (pages 19-23) and of his honeymoon (page 76) are by now famous parts of the folk-lore of British politics. American readers may be more interested in the unintentionally horrific side-lights thrown by Mr. Smith on the British school system:
His scholastic ability was high. Why, therefore should he not seek to be Prime Minister?…His self-assurance never appeared to his schoolmates in the guise of boastfulness or arrogance.
With the staff, however, the position was different. Although they all found him exceedingly bright and alert, several of them found his manner and outlook execssively precocious. He…never realized that his attitude to them, to his work, and to his professed future career, was sometimes interpreted as an attempt either to impress or to curry favour.
Or this final indulgence, to show how successfully Mr. Leslie Smith has brought the great genre of William M. Thayer to terms with another culture:
Harold became School Captain at the age of seventeen…He enjoyed testing his ability to exercise authority. At one stage he was concerned with what he regarded as unwholesome tendencies among some boys in the fifth form. With the approval of the Head Master, he organised lunch-time soccer matches, believing the mischief resulted simply from idleness. The smuttiness evaporated, and if Harold’s puritanical instincts were thus satisfied, so too was his mounting enthusiasm for organising others.
Now I am a Wilson man. I admit that had I read Mr. Smith’s book before forming this political allegiance, I might have scrawled “Harold Wilson is a prig” on the wall of No. 10 and left it at that. But he is, for all the uncertainty of the immediate moment, the only British Labour leader who has shown any signs of carrying votes beyond his normal party following. He is regarded not as someone to be swallowed, if one must swallow the Labour Party (on an occasion when the Tories have failed with special flagrancy), but as an ordinary son of an ordinary family who could get to the top and—what is more—get there without compromising his intelligence or becoming a snob. Much of England and nearly all of Scotland and Wales thinks it could organize things better than the boss (when the boss is seen not as a managerial type, but as the son or grandson who has been to a public School).
This is the relevance of a homely campaign biography to Wilson. In Gaitskell’s day, Wilson was seen as his left-wing foe, the stalwart of old-fashioned doctrinaire socialism against modernization and empirical planning. Now one doubts if these caps ever fitted either man. But certainly he has achieved the image of modernity and moral passion which Gaitskell sought to get, but beyond the House of Commons and the inner Party, never could. What always appeared to be noblesse oblige or else sheer intellectualism with Gaitskell (as it had before with Attlee) in Wilson appears to be a social and personal reality. In a deferential society, cleverness in men of upper-class speech is always held suspect by the majority of the British people. They have liked Conservatives and have liked them to be not overly clever: Home was preferred to Butler. But cleverness where it belongs is another matter, in a man who needed it to have got where he is.
Mr. Smith’s book (he used to work for the BBC) falls over backwards trying to show that Wilson is not a cold fish or a wearer of many masks. But his reserve and his almost too brilliant adaptability to different company and different moods are probably more the product of varying experience than of a trimming temperament. The scholarship boy at Oxford in the late 1930s learned to live with two cultures and thus developed a far greater adaptability than those who taught him possessed.
Wilson knows the character of the Party he is leading—as Gaitskell never did. Both intellectually and intuitively he knows that it is a coalition: the grand alliance of nonconformist Britain against the Establishment and the deference shown to it by the classes. If several kinds of intellectual socialism have been the brain and the motor, he is aware that the main body of support is labor—in a trade union sense, still very pragmatic and only marginally doctrinaire; and also aware that no election can be won without some middle-class support. Wilson has fired the imagination of Labour supporters as no one before: by cutting oratory in Parliament and by a kind of super-solid commonsense before the cameras, occasionally showing a very deliberate whiff of anger at “them,” but mainly an assured sarcasm in a Yorkshire accent which cuts the Tory leaders down to very human size. Something of this comes out in his collected speeches, Purpose in Politics—otherwise a rather humdrum made-up volume; for they need his voice to give them point, otherwise they are at times dull or even evasive, slightly sermonizing.
He shows left-wing sentiment and right-wing realism, the perfect poise for the leader of the Labour Party. He knows the truth of an old Labour axiom: “the man who can’t ride two—ing horses at once doesn’t deserve a job in the—ing circus.” And he led Labour to—after all—victory, the only absolute majority it has ever won in normal peace-time circumstances. Such a slender victory, but he has seized the opportunity with both hands, as well he may; there is no Constitution in Britain, only the General Election. He means to be judged by the country not by Parliament.
Perhaps there is a permanent Conservative majority. But if Wilson can hold out long enough, he might affect a basic change just by being there. The Conservatives have usually won because of one factor alone: that about a third of those who regard themselves as working class normally vote Tory, whether out of deference or aspiration. He could break this class pattern of deference, or at least shatter the margin; and he may attract some of the aspiration. Many of these working-class Tories may in fact be men whose primary identification is with strong government. Wilson will give them that—if he can hold out long enough. He has broken the myth that Labour could not form a government nor even look like one. Only time will tell. The Conservatives will not overthrow the Government in the House until they feel sure of winning a General Election, but the longer Wilson stays the more the old divisions of the Labour Party will be forgotten, and the more violent grow the Conservative struggles to oust Sir Alec and find a better leader.
Wilson has the temperament to succeed. Leslie Smith was at least wise enough to ask him why he went into politics at all:
“Don’t forget,” he said to me, “that I’m a political animal. I was born with it in my blood. And why does a duck go into the water? Because that’s its natural habitat. Well, to me political conflict—the whole political game—is enjoyable.”
The politician who pretends not to like politics is not thereby a statesman: he is either an incapable amateur or a fool in the wrong job. Wilson is neither.
April 8, 1965