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Harold Wilson: Paranoid, ruthless, but ultimately noble (Allan Warren CC BY-SA 3.0)

Forty years ago this month Harold Wilson stood down, utterly unexpectedly, as Prime Minister. It was a mark of the low esteem in which Wilson had come to be held that the subsequent rumours and speculation were almost entirely negative. A sexual scandal was about to engulf him. Dodgy financial dealings had been uncovered. He was being blackmailed by the KGB, or apartheid South Africa’s security forces. He was a Soviet agent and British security was closing in on him.
You can argue that Wilson asked for it. He was a secretive and sometimes ruthless operator, and he suffered from advanced political paranoia. But we now know that Wilson stepped down primarily because he felt old and tired and feared that his mental powers were slipping. By 1976 he no longer felt up to the job and he was not prepared to short-change his country by struggling on. In short, his resignation was at best noble and at worst decent.

Just about remember Harold Wilson? If so, you will surely recall two of his defining soundbites, both deeply cynical, and one downright dishonest. “A week is a long time in politics” came first. Then, broadcast soon after devaluation in 1967, “It does not mean that the pound in the [British housewife’s] pocket is worth 14 per cent less than it was.” The first quote reinforced Wilson’s image as an opportunistic hustler, lurching from day to day, gambling that something would turn up. The second was uttered after he had been forced to devalue, having lost his economically illiterate, utterly unnecessary crusade to “defend the pound”. Of course there were still as many pence to the pound. But what mattered was that the value of goods and services sold abroad had indeed been devalued, while the cost of our imports had risen.

Then there was the bizarre nature of Wilson’s relationship with his one-time secretary, Marcia Williams, elevated to be his most powerful personal adviser and confidante. There were endless — utterly untruthful — rumours of a sexual relationship, or that she was blackmailing him over some past indiscretion or crime. But what was true was the astonishing way in which she screamed and shouted and bullied him into submission. Endless examples appear in published diaries of key political figures. I remember one or two relatively mild examples myself. Finally, there was the growing paranoia which led him to believe that, inter alia, MI5, the KGB and the South African secret service were plotting against him.

But what was Wilson really like? There is a revealing study of him by Ruskin Spear in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a a brutalist work: head and shoulders on a dark red background. Wilson is lighting his trademark pipe, puffing away and hiding himself behind swirling clouds of smoke — as he did deliberately when he wanted to deflect attention from some awkward question. The inscrutable smile suggests just a hint of mischief, a touch of menace, and ultimately, a deep mystery.

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