The time is ripe for a re-examination of Harold Wilson. The year is 1992. History has just been declared ended by Francis Fukuyama and Ben Pimlott’s biography of Harold Wilson has just been released. Pimlott sought to discard the then conventional wisdom of figures like Paul Foot and Denis Healey, who – for very different reasons – considered Wilson unprincipled and unable to acknowledge his own shortcomings because of his belief that he was being conspired against.
In the vast majority of the history written on Wilson before and since, the focus has been entirely on his achievements and attempting to discover if the man himself actually had principles. In fact, this particular question still animates those closest to the Labour leadership of today, with Progressive Britain’s Nathan Yeowell devoting a chapter to rethinking Harold Wilson’s government in his book Rethinking Labour’s Past.
The debate hasn’t moved beyond the year 1992, and neither will this review. Not because what’s needed is a fresh take on Pimlott’s biography, but because a different work of the previous year that did not achieve the seminal status Pimlott did has been overlooked in examining his achievements and failures.
By looking carefully at the information contained within Smear!: Wilson and the Secret State. I aim to see if Wilson’s failure can be explained at least in part by the hostile involvement of the secret state and others in actively undermining Wilson. Denis Healey said of Wilson “He believed in demons, and saw most of his colleagues in this role at one time or another.” I wish to look at whether Wilson’s demons in fact existed. And if they did, perhaps it is time to look again at the popular perception that Wilson was paranoid and had a persecution complex. After all, it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.
This is something of an under researched area and one that often goes undiscussed even in political circles. Which may go some way to explaining the necessity of reviewing a book first published in 1991. Smear!: Wilson and the Secret State is nothing if not extensive. The book covers the period from 1916 to 1979 and is detailed to the point of being rather dense.
Some will simply write off a book like this as conspiracy theory. There are some who would do so on any book about the secret state or Civil Service that isn’t an extended press release. They can be safely dismissed as a book like this isn’t for them. Those that come with reservations but an open mind should find much more of value in this book. One major advantage of its density is that every single claim is meticulously referenced in the book’s forty-four pages of footnotes and can be checked independently by the reader. This by itself is a marked difference from the crankier end of the conspiracist market.
Overall it’s an impressive work. I’d go as far as to say that the evidence provided is enough to give strong support to the book’s central thesis; that the secret state and the Civil Service didn’t like Harold Wilson, especially in his approach to MI5 surveillance of the Labour Party (this seems inarguable and confirmed by sources independent of the Labour Party, and Norman Tebbit’s lockdown admissions) and that they worked actively to undermine Wilson.
Another particularly interesting section was in the book’s re-examination of the coup plots against Wilson, the most important of which was headed up by Cecil Harmsworth King, owner of the Daily Mirror. (King’s motivations are still unclear, but may have been down to pure venality due to Wilson refusing to make him an Earl after the Mirror’s support for Labour in the general election).
When acknowledged at all, much media commentary has treated the plot as a bit of a joke. But this from Hugh Cudlipp’s autobiography (then editor of the Mirror and an eyewitness to the alleged coup meeting) sounds much more serious and sinister:
[Cecil] awaited the arrival of Sir Solly and then at once expounded his views on the gravity of the national situation, the urgency for action, and then embarked upon a shopping list of the Prime Minister’s shortcomings… He explained that in the crisis he foresaw as being just around the corner, the Government would disintegrate, there would be bloodshed in the streets and the armed forces would be involved. The people would be looking to somebody like Lord Mountbatten as the titular head of a new administration, somebody renowned as a leader of men, who would be capable, backed by the best brains and administrators in the land, to restore public confidence. He ended with a question to Mountbatten- would he agree to be the titular head of a new administration in such circumstances?
Quite obviously, the failure of a coup plot doesn’t mean the plot never happened. It is hard to disagree with Jonathan Freedland’s conclusion that this was the UK’s Watergate. Freedland remains one of the very few mainstream journalists to ever have tackled the issue head on.
I can only scratch the surface of what the book covers in this review, but I hope I’ve demonstrated why it’s a vital work for any activist, whether in the Labour Party or outside it.
This isn’t to say it’s perfect. While the revisionist approach to Wilson is necessary, it leads to a leniency that isn’t always deserved. Wilson, in my view, took the fight to the secret state and Civil Service too late and chose to isolate himself. His paranoia may have been understandable considering the circumstances, but it was still ineffective. Tony Benn’s assessment rings true:
It is manifestly true that Wilson’s four governments were far better than those that followed, and he had real achievements to his credit which future generations will be readier to recognize than we are now. It is also true that he was the target of a systematic attempt to destroy him by the combined forces of the secret state, and that that process has, with the help of the Tory press, continued to cast its shadow over the memory of his administration. But he did not actually tackle the secret state itself, as he should have done, nor did he ever candidly disclose his own anxieties to his cabinet colleagues, many of whom would have been only too glad to have helped him get the facts across to the public in a concerted way that would have made the argument credible and made reform possible.
It would be remiss not to include MI5’s side of the story (the Civil Service has largely remained silent on the matter). Though there has never been an inquiry that went beyond the internal investigation by MI5 into the matter. Who you believe may partially come down to your own politics, but that’s an argument for reading Smear! Wilson and the Secret State – not against it.
This is a vital book for anyone with an interest in state power, particularly the more covert elements of it. The history of this affair and its implications have consequences that reach far beyond the 1970s or 1992. With a Labour leader who still attempts to evoke Harold Wilson’s memory today, and with a history of (to be generous) blind trust in the activities of the secret state, more attention should be paid to this chapter of the history of Harold Wilson. The lack of similar works on the left should be taken as an indictment of us all. These issues matter and are far too important to leave to believers in reptoids.