Harold Wilson, who would be 105 March 11, was Britain’s Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. He was the P.M. during the three years I spent in England as a young airman.
As leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Wilson did his best to conceal the reality that he was an Oxford Don, a lecturer in economic history at New College. Purportedly, he intended his ubiquitous pipe to signal working class roots. He hid his preference for cigars because he thought they would make him appear aristocratic. Not so in the U.S., where a pipe would have made him look professorial and a cigar would invoke a humble man of the people. In 1963 the future P.M. visited President Kennedy in the White House and I wish I knew whether he and JFK shared one of the president’s Cuban cheroots.
I once stood in a small crowd outside 10 Downing Street to see what would happen. After twenty minutes a limousine pulled up to the door and Harold Wilson stepped out, the requisite pipe clenched in his teeth. I joined the crowd in a smattering of applause and he smiled, raised his arm and waved – the pipe still in his mouth. There was a faint whisp of Dunhill in the air when the limo pulled away.
I began smoking a pipe at about that time, mostly because my Dad was a pipe smoker and partially because Mr. Wilson made it look so cool. I would still be smoking a pipe if doctors’ advice and insurance premiums hadn’t mitigated against it.
In 1966 I took a couple days leave to visit London. On the first night I went to see a musical, The Barretts of Wimpole Street starring June Bronhill and Keith Michell. The second night I sat in the visitor’s gallery of the House of Commons to watch a debate on British policy toward the American War in Vietnam. The debate was more animated than the musical and I watched as Mr. Wilson sparred vigorously with Tory leader Edward Heath and other Parliamentary luminaries. The Vietnam War was unpopular in Britain, and I felt self-consciously American as I sat quietly in the gallery.
I continued to follow Mr. Wilson and the Labour government throughout my time in England and searched for news reports from the UK after I returned home. In the days before the World Wide Web it wasn’t easy to stay on top of overseas news; at one point I even subscribed to the Manchester Guardian, which arrived weekly on translucent onion skin.
In June 1970 I watched with disappointment as the Tories won control of Parliament and Mr. Heath moved into Downing Street. I despised Heath, an impolite impression I shared with Mr. Wilson. Labour returned to office in March 1974 and Mr. Wilson returned as Prime Minister until April 1976 when he resigned because of encroaching Alzheimer’s syndrome. The Queen invited Mr. Wilson and his spouse to dinner – the first such royal invitation since the retirement of Winston Churchill – and elevated Mr. Wilson to the House of Lords as Baron Wilson of Rievaylx. He died May 24, 1995, in Lambeth, London.
Episodes of the Netflix series The Crown portrayed Mr. Wilson as a far-left radical who so frightened the establishment that they plotted a coup to remove him from office. This is dubious history, and in fact he was far more moderate, a member of the party’s “soft left.” He would not have had the political support to, as Tories feared, nationalize all of Britain’s independent vital institutions. He once compared himself to a Bolshevik revolutionary presiding over a Tsarist cabinet.
But that in itself required a fair amount of tactical skill and political acumen. I admired the man tremendously. And I’ll always be glad that my three years in England coincided with Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
Happy birthday, M’Lord.