In contemporary Britain, political leaders are sewn into our cultural fabric and their attempts to don a guise of demotic accessibility seem commonplace and expected. Perhaps most explicitly, and contradictorily, Boris Johnson has used this strategy of appearing as ‘one of us’ to gain the trust of large swathes of his electorate, claiming to represent the apathetic sentiment of anti-Establishment politics which has engulfed the nation in recent years. Despite his actual identity being rooted in undeniable privilege and wealth, Johnson’s performances of normality were instrumental in securing the biggest Conservative majority since the 1980s in the 2019 election; a large portion of votes came from ‘Red Wall’ seats, proving Johnson’s success in traditional working class communities and constituencies previously loyal to the Labour Party despite the stark contrast between the background and identity of someone like Johnson and the lives of these voters. From offering the press tea in mugs that appear to be free gifts from Easter eggs, to zip-wiring in a Union Jack harness in Victoria Park, Johnson has become a symbol of just how valuable it can be to appear to be ‘one of us’.
Despite the current prominence of Johnson’s various identities, the use of images of ordinariness in British politics can be seen to have taken flight during the premiership of Harold Wilson. Often remembered for his economic failures, celebrated for pragmatism, or accused of betraying socialism, Wilson’s image throughout his tenure as Labour leader and Prime Minister was one of normality and accessibility, something that today is largely overlooked. Disparaging historical recollections of Wilson’s preference for tinned salmon, Coronation Street, and his famous pipe, regard these fixtures as hyperbolic and false; these castigations fail to appreciate the authenticity of Wilson’s image and its optimistic legacy in the political and social landscapes of contemporary Britain.
A Gallup poll taken before the 1964 election asked the electorate to rank the qualities that they look for in a political party and leader. Coming out on top were ‘forward looking plans for improving our standard of living and making the world a better place’ and ‘concern for the interests of myself and my family and people like us’. Rather than searching for the Establishment values of steady and respectable yet removed, somewhat patrician leadership as exhibited by the Conservative governments of the 1950s, Britons were seeking accessibility, comfort, and familiarity in their next leader. This demonstration of a national identity centred on notions of collectivism and the condition of the ordinary voter can clearly be seen to influence Wilson’s subsequent expression of his ageing Yorkshireman persona and provincial habits and behaviours. The relationship he and his wife Mary had with the Isles of Scilly might be seen to act as a microcosm of the relationship his image of ordinariness allowed him to build with his electorate. First visiting on their honeymoon, with Mary later choosing the Isles as Harold’s final resting place, the Scilly Isles became an ideal landscape for Wilson’s very visual expressions of his normality. Allowing the British public to witness their Prime Minister in his trunks on a British beach enjoying a picnic and smoking his pipe introduced a new implicit connection between the people and their political leader. No longer was the highest political office shrouded in formality and pretence; it was wandering the British shoreline with a rucksack on its back, baring its thighs in cargo shorts, and doing so with the utmost pride and modesty.
One key element of Wilson’s image of committed normality was its contrast to the era of comparative social liberalisation he oversaw, encompassing the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion, the free distribution of the contraceptive pill, and the easing of laws surrounding divorce. Liberalising spheres of sex and relationships saw social and moral mores shift, with the post-war solace found in these stullifying manifestations of stability eroded. Wilson’s image of ordinariness provided a bridge for those who did not fit into the 1960s narrative of music, mini-skirts, and sexual liberation; being led into the modern world by a man who looked and sounded like them allowed the ordinary people of Britain to realise that they too had a place in Labour’s ‘New Britain’. With his ageing man on holiday schtick secure in the minds of voters, Wilson maintained connections to the burgeoning cultural life of Britain, awarding the Beatles the Variety Silver Club Heart in 1964 and an MBE in 1965, and ensuring his physical presence on the pitch after the patriotic pinnacle that was the 1966 World Cup victory. Wilson was both an avid admirer of change as well as one of its primary agents as he led the government which took Britain beyond post-war affluence and prosperity, and oversaw the modernisation of its culture, society, and industry. It was this contradictory image of traditional modernity and its successful communication to the British public that helped Wilson to continue winning elections whilst promoting a potentially contentious social manifesto. The figure of Harold as a true representative of ‘people like us’ did not begin and end with his political career, but was the summation of cumulative attempts to connect with every section of the British electorate.
Countless political figures have copied this strategy of inserting themselves into British culture and society as a way of cultivating their place in the national psyche beyond the limits of their political career. Harold Wilson’s embrace of normality, and recognition of the importance of being ordinary, can be easily forgotten in popular representations of the 1960s as we tend to categorise it as a time of immense change and assume those who populated it were as excited about it as those we see represented in film, on television, and in literary depictions of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Wilson’s sustained image of ordinariness was therefore key in the survival of a British national identity which could include those who perhaps did not fit into a stereotypical view of the 1960s. Its imperative nature was aided by Wilson’s genuine provincial preferences and ties to an idiosyncratic British way of life. Using these features of his own life to bring the British electorate closer to their Prime Minister was an invaluable contribution to the political and social landscapes of Britain, and its significance cannot be underestimated.
In today’s politics, ordinariness has become performative, and the typical voter is something to be schematically won over rather than communicated with and related to. Ruminations over Keir Starmer’s political similarities to Wilson and Johnson’s vague attempts to hide his Establishment roots with exaggerations of normality ignore the distinct lack of something deeper that existed at the heart of Wilson’s ordinariness; a fundamental desire to reciprocate the trust and belief placed in the Prime Minister by their people, and a drive to empower the ordinary person. As a politician’s public ordinariness has now become a requirement for their political success, we should remember Harold Wilson for more than his governmental record. His image of ordinariness during a time of great change reminds us that there is more that brings us together than keeps us apart; a Scillonian remembered him in a local obituary as ‘a small balding man, rucksack on his back, Prime Minister of Britain’, Harold Wilson’s multiplicity allowed him to resonate in the minds of ordinary Britons, and remain influential in contemporary British politics.