Wilson: Man and Superman
Labour’s leaders are a queer lot. They come in all shapes and sizes; crafty Attlee, blundering Gaitskell, pious Lansbury, and the traitorous MacDonald are a representative selection. But, if you search for one word to sum them all up, it must be ineffectual. One replaces the other in dreary succession and yet the impact they make on the capitalist world is barely detectable. After Hugh Gaitskell died, one of his biographers wrote” “He is gone, but mankind is better for his life. He was as great man a man as I have known at any time.” But it would have been more convincing if he had explained just what services Gaitskell—or any of the others—was supposed to have done for ‘mankind’.
The latest in this line, of course, Harold Wilson. There was a good deal of excitement among supporters of the Labour party when he beat George Brown in the fight for the leadership. Here was a proved left-winger, they told us. A man of principle. Hadn’t he resigned from the government with Bevan over national health charges? With him as leader, who could doubt that Socialism was not just round the corner? There was a general atmosphere of euphoria, with the Labour party and all its dissident hangers-on singing Wilson’s praises. Only the Socialist Party of Great Britain stayed calm and analysed the new leader’s prospects in an article, in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, which turned out to be virtually prophetic. One passage had this to say:
“The next Labour Prime Minister will run capitalism, as far as he can, just as the Tories have run it — in the interests of the capitalist class. He will make war, if British capitalism demands it. He will oppress the working class just as much as ruling class interests say they must be oppressed. He will fight the workers over their wages and working conditions just as any other Prime Minister has done. He will, for example, be concerned to restrict wage claims as far as possible.” (See ‘Labour’s New Leader’—SOCIALIST STANDARD, March 1963).
At the time this was confidently dismissed as sectarian dogmatism and most Labour party supporters remained convinced that Wilson would make a better leader than his predecessor. In a very limited sense, there s probably something in that. Gaitskell’s public image was bad. He came across as a rather neurotic intellectual, with an irritating public school accent. Wilson, on the other hand, had a far more polished performance. A Conservative MP, with a keen eye of the professional politician, assessed Wilson’s craftsmanship as follows:
“He . . . needed to play his hand coolly. This he did consummately and could not be faulted for the first ten months. On the television screen he appeared as the quiet, reasonable family man with a knowledge of ordinary people’s problems. He fingered his pipe perhaps a little too obviously, but his performance bore all the signs of the best expert guidance and he made an excellent impression.”
Compared to MacMillan and Home, his Conservative opponents, Wilson was youngish and marginally better looking—definite assets in the Kennedy era. His wife was prepared to swear that “he is a good man. He is conscientious and sincere . . . ” and so on ad nauseam. From the serious political standpoint such considerations can be dismissed as nonsense but, in those parties which set out to grab every available vote by any possible methods, they are vitally important bait for the electorate. There is no doubt about it; pipes and fancy raincoats can, on occasions, work wonders. If gimmicks were all that was needed to achieve Socialism, the Labour party would be home and dry.
Another aspect of Wilson’s personality which received a good deal of attention from his publicity men was his “intelligence.” It was stressed that he was a trained economist and Oxford don, with a first class honours degree to his credit. Capitalism was to be tamed by a magical combination of brains and ruthless integrity, Wilson having nothing but contempt for the Conservatives’ inept handling of the economy—which forced them to stagger from one crisis to another:
“The pattern is only too familiar to us all now. Crisis and seven per cent bank rate in 1957, crisis and seven per cent bank rate in 1961. Panic cuts, wage freezes, deflation leading to unemployment.” (Speech at Nottingham, 19th September, 1963).
“The labour unions are threatened with all the pains of hell in a holy wages freeze or ‘pay pause’ . . . We are forced to borrow abroad on a prodigious scale.
Foreign capital is reassured, the economy is once again ‘sound’—and Britain is reduced to below-capacity working and a measure of short-time and unemployment on the labour market, growing in intensity at each repetition of the circle. (The Relevance of British Socialism).”
Wilson wasn’t to know that this scathing attack on the Tory government was to become a summary of his own administration’s policy. He might have seemed brilliant in the secluded environment of Oxford, but, in the jungle of capitalism, his clumsy manoeuvres look amateurish and pathetic. Although some workers may still draw comfort from the sight of Harold puffing at his pipe, most are finding it a poor antidote for the wage freeze and unemployment.
In fact, millions of working men and women have been bitterly disappointed by Wilson. The Labour party, with all its dissenting satellites, maintained that a Labour government would improve wages and working conditions. Now that just the opposite has been achieved the left wing organisations are trying to cash in on the widespread resentment. Groups like the ‘Communist’ party and ‘Socialist’ Labour League, both of which ardently campaigned for a Labour victory at the last election, now denounce Wilson as a turncoat and traitor. This is typical of the confusion of these parties. Failing to understand the nature of capitalism, they identify its problem with one man. They protest against the fall in real wages and the increase in unemployment, but never against the wages system or the class division of a society which separates men into employers and employed. Their solution amounts to changing the leadership, but they never question the need for leaders. They are the eternal optimists. Time and again they claim to have been ‘stabbed in the back’—by MacDonald, by Attlee and now by Wilson. Yet they go on searching for the right leader, the one who will make capitalism run smoothly and operate fairly—how he is to do it they never explain. They are the Labour rump, with nothing to offer the working class but a repetition of past mistakes.
Our criticism of Wilson is quite different. We do not condemn him for failing to run capitalism in the interests of the working class; such a thing just can’t be done. The damage which a man like Wilson does is in the disillusionment which follows his broken promises. Many workers still believe the Labour party is a Socialist organisation and, when they see the sorry mess Wilson’s government is in, they take this as the failure of Socialism. They should remember the concluding words of our article on ‘Labour’s New Leader’ back in March, 1963:
“Leaders come and go, but capitalism will go on until the very people who support and admire the leaders come to understand the social system they live under. The leaders always say . . . that they stand for a world of peace and human dignity. But only when the system which needs the leaders is gone will their empty and cynical words become reality.”