Is Theresa May the Next Harold Wilson?

Harold Wilson campaigned for a Yes vote in 1975, despite achieving office on a Eurosceptic manifesto the year before.

Josh Hockley-Still
University of Exeter

The Windrush scandal and the subsequent resignation of yet another Cabinet Minister, Amber Rudd, means that Theresa May’s continued occupancy of No. 10 Downing Street appears ever more insecure. Her political obituary has already been written on multiple occasions, and yet she continues to survive.

Has there ever been a British Prime Minister who has displayed such resilience when their odds of political survival looked so bleak?

Yes. His name is Harold Wilson.

These days Wilson is more commonly compared to David Cameron, as in 2016 when Cameron attempted without success to follow Wilson’s playbook on how to win a European referendum. However, in political style and temperament Wilson has far more in common with May than Cameron.

So what are the similarities between Wilson and May, and what does this mean for British politics?

The similarities between the two leaders are intriguing. Wilson became Labour Leader when his predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, died suddenly in 1963, and the change in leadership was considered to move Labour significantly to the Left.

However, the gulf between them was not confined to the left-right axis, but crucially their social origins. Whereas Gaitskell was a Wykehamist, Wilson’s northern accent revealed his Huddersfield roots. Moreover, as public appetite for the class-ridden politicians and Establishment that dominated Britain was waning, Wilson embodied the new, meritocratic age. He may have been an accidental leader, but quickly inspired great optimism, and was often referred to as ‘Britain’s Kennedy’.

Unlike Gaitskell, Cameron did not pass away, but his career certainly suffered a sudden unexpected death, from which May was the beneficiary. Like Wilson, not only was she an accidental leader, but she was also never included in the gilded social circle of her predecessor. In contrast to the Old Etonian son-of-a-millionaire Cameron, May took pains to emphasize that she grew up as the humble vicar’s daughter. Her supporters stressed that, in contrast to the image surrounding Cameron and Osborne, politics was a vocation to May rather than a game. Her 2016 speech on the steps of Downing Street spoke of the ‘just about managing’ and promised to take decisions in the interest of ordinary people against the powerful.

This is the kind of rhetoric that many politicians indulge in, but certainly at the start May was widely perceived as being a very different kind of Tory, and far more in-touch with the average voter.

Then reality struck both Prime Ministers, and neither could live up to the high levels of expectation they set for themselves. Wilson owed his narrow electoral victory in 1964 to a campaign of relentless optimism, promising to ‘forge a new Britain in the white heat of the technological revolution.’ He was young, vigorous and the man to turn around Britain’s economic decline. However, like May 50 years later, in truth he was more of a technocrat (having worked as a civil servant and an assistant to William Beveridge during World War II) than an inspirational leader, and being cast in the latter role proved unfortunate once this became clear.

Even more importantly, Wilson inherited an economic crisis, rendering his flagship ‘National Plan’ for the economy unworkable, whilst the decline of Britain as a world power and the humiliation of having to reduce its overseas commitments, while not Wilson’s fault, continued on his watch. Wilson was dealt a difficult hand, and perhaps played it skillfully, but the unrealistic levels of expectation he faced did not help him.

May’s poor election campaign (lacking Wilson’s famous campaigning skills) and the subsequent loss of her Parliamentary majority in 2017 likewise irrevocably altered her public image, and May too has been hindered in her attempts to fundamentally reshape the country. Like Wilson, this is partly due to arithmetic – both leaders have found it is impossible to get controversial legislation through Parliament without a large majority, although Wilson is often acclaimed as a more successful Prime Minister when he did not have a large majority, than when he did from 1966-70.

Both leaders also lost their reputation for integrity, amidst a media fixation upon their chief advisers who appear to have perfected the unsavoury aspects of politics. For Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy under May, read Wilson’s advisor Marcia Williams – indeed, the machinations of this young, powerful and ambitious woman in the macho world of the 60s and 70s caused far more of a stir for Wilson than Hill and Timothy did for May. A difference is that May was prepared to abandon Hill and Timothy when it was politically expedient to do so – Wilson never did likewise for Marcia, even ennobling her as Lady Falkender in 1974, to press outrage.

Furthermore, as with Wilson, May has had her premierships dominated by Europe. The huge logistical and political task of delivering Brexit threatens to overwhelm her Government, with the inevitable consequence that other areas of domestic policy are neglected. Likewise, Wilson’s answer to repeated economic crisis was to submit an application for Britain to join the EEC (European Economic Community, predecessor to the EU) in 1967; then, in his second spell as Prime Minister, in 1975 called and won a referendum to keep Britain in the EEC, which Britain had joined in 1973, while Wilson was in opposition.

But Wilson was no ardent European – whilst he did grow to believe that, on balance, Britain was better off within the EEC, he was no passionate believer in the European ideal. For him, the issue was primarily one of party management; carefully balancing the crumbling fissures in the Labour Party that threatened to become a gulf. At various times, Wilson’s rhetoric varied to placate either the pro or anti-EEC supporters in his party, depending on who he needed most at that particular moment. Eventually, of course, he swung decisively towards the pro-EEC side (although not enough to avoid their contempt), but still gave the anti-EEC MPs a referendum, and the freedom to express their own view. However, Wilson knew it was a referendum that they were very unlikely to win, unless they were prepared to bring the Government down and split the party. His calculations proved correct.

This is remarkably similar to the attitude that May has shown on the EU. In the 2016 referendum, she was for Remain, but at no time behaved as an ardent supporter. Indeed, now that she leads a Government whose primary policy is to deliver Brexit, her lack of original opinion on the matter is remarkable. She also appears to veer between the rhetoric of the Brexiteers and Remainers depending on what she needs to satisfy her short-term political interests. Her Brexit policy appears to be whatever both wings of her divided party will accept, not to mention the limitations imposed on what the EU and its member nations will accept in the negotiations for a Brexit deal.

This has significant effects for British politics, and indeed for Britain’s global role. The 1970s and the present day are probably the two moments when Europe has loomed largest on the British political scene, and on both occasions the country has been led by politicians who viewed the issue primarily through the lens of party management and not any grand ideological designs about Britain’s role in the world.

Perhaps this style of leadership helps to explain both why Britain never wholeheartedly embraced a role at the heart of Europe from the 1970s onwards, and why the current plans for a ‘Global Britain’ outside the EU appear destined for a similar fate. Moreover, neither Britain’s overwhelming public vote in favour of the EEC nor its impending departure from the EU have fundamentally changed the nature of European integration, something that could have been very different with more transformative leadership.

Yet this is not to call either leader a failure on their own terms. Both have achievements that would have been beyond many lesser leaders. Wilson may have, in his own words, ‘waded through shit’ to keep his party happy over Europe, but it enabled him to survive as Labour leader for 13 years, winning 4 general elections in that time. He could have gone on even longer had he not retired of his own accord. Even though his popularity never recovered to its pre-1966 levels, Gallup polling shows that almost 50% of voters were satisfied with his performance when he stepped down in 1976.

Is this a guide to the future?

Predictions, particularly in the current febrile atmosphere, are very difficult, but the fact May has survived in office this far is remarkable. If the comparisons with Wilson are accurate, she will attempt to repeat what he achieved; namely, that all sides of his party knew that they had something to lose by getting rid of him, however much they disliked him.

How could May achieve a similar result? She knows that staying in the single market or customs union would be unacceptable to the Brexiteers, but what if Britain stays in very similar arrangements that have a different name? Could both sides of her fractured party accept this compromise?

Only time will tell, but Wilson’s precedent should certainly offer her remaining supporters hope.

Josh Hockley-Still is a PhD student in the University of Exeter History Department, supervised by Richard Toye and David Thackeray. His thesis is about Euroscepticism in the Labour Party after 1975.

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