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Last Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
The white heat of Wilson
Brian Walden
By Brian Walden

Brian Walden looks at the phases of fascination and disillusion with "new visions".

When I was first taught history it was done in a most enjoyable way. Personalities dominated the subject.

Great figures were discussed in the lessons and the schoolbooks were full of kings and queens, who were often violent and impulsive. I learnt quite a lot about bygone centuries, because historical tales were so entertaining.

Later in life, I was told that I should have been taught more about impersonal social forces. For instance, the Marxists I met at Oxford were very keen on the importance of economic ownership and the class war as the crucial factors in history.

I was shouted down when I suggested that it wouldn't be a bad idea to find out how many people Stalin had murdered and why he'd done it. This was thought to be a secondary and rather unimportant by-product of Soviet rule.

I'm an unrepentant believer in the significance of individuals in history. Without the leadership of William the Conqueror, the Normans may not have tried to occupy England.

People versus production

Without Winston Churchill, Britain may have accepted Hitler's peace terms in 1940. I've never agreed with the view that the Gandhis, Churchills and Stalins are an untidy nuisance, who should be pushed into the background so that we can get on with studying the only kind of history that matters, such as who owned the means of production?

Harold Wilson was quick to respond to changing times

Nor is it only great historical figures who enliven the story of an age.

Programmes about Harold Wilson, the former Labour Prime Minister, have become a feature of British television in the spring of 2006. Not even Harold's admirers would claim that he ranked with Gandhi, but the twists and turns of his extraordinary life are thought, quite rightly in my view, to be more interesting than the dry as dust facts of the Wilsonian Age.

Watching one of the programmes on Harold Wilson I became increasingly distracted by the thought that he reminded me of somebody else.

Try as I would I couldn't work out who it was. Then Gerald Kaufman, who prior to becoming an MP in 1970 had been Wilson's parliamentary press officer, was interviewed and made a point of how quick Wilson was to respond to a new situation.

Quick answer

"The quickest I've seen. If I may say so, even quicker than my hero Tony Blair," said Kaufman.

Tony Blair shows no sign of wanting leave the stage

The penny dropped for me. Of course, Wilson reminded me of Blair. They share no physical resemblance, which is why I hadn't immediately thought of him. But the perkiness and rapid responses so characteristic of Wilson can easily be seen today in Blair.

Nor is that the only thing they have in common. Wilson and Blair have been the great champions of what might be termed the New Vision way of handling politics.

Jim Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith were all leaders of the Labour Party but in their various ways they stressed traditional Labour themes. Wilson tried something quite new. I heard his 1963 oration to the Labour Party conference, now usually paraphrased as "the white heat of technology" speech.

What Harold Wilson actually said was: "The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry."

Political science

To be truthful I didn't understand what Wilson was talking about. What was this coming revolution which was going to attain "white heat." But everybody around me was excited by the New Vision.

John Kennedy's White House defined "new vision" politics

That night a trade union leader said to me "Harold's captured science for the Labour Party." Astonishingly enough there turned out to be a measure of truth in this unlikely claim.

I'd seen something akin to this New Vision rhetoric in the 1960 Presidential campaign in America when Kennedy spoke of the New Frontier.

But it was the first time I'd seen the technique tried in sedate and steady Britain.

Tony Blair tried essentially the same thing with New Labour. Perhaps every generation needs to have its New Vision. Whichever is on offer the message never varies. Boring old British society needs to be jazzed up and all sorts of problems quickly solved.

New Vision politics passes through well-defined phases and some obvious characteristics - once you know what you're looking for. For instance, there is at first a great coming together.

Westminster fashion

Even those who are insistent that there's no New Vision, or new age, or new anything else, but only the same old problems and challenges, quickly give in.

Soon they're announcing that they're part of the New Vision. This is particularly true of London-based business and media. It's as if London simply can't resist the prevailing fashion. Nobody who's in the swim can bear to be thought of as untrendy.

Watch out for the technological appeal. Harold Wilson cooked this one up and he was a master of political tactics. Technology means the use of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.

That's a little vague and hard to pin down. So another characteristic of New Vision politics is that it promises a fresh set of technological toys to solve problems. New Visions never have any sympathy with anybody who wants to sit whittling a piece of wood in the back garden.

A New Vision demands a get-out-there-and-do-things outlook. Which requires familiarity with all the latest technological gadgets. Notice how the highest echelons of New Labour are falling over themselves to be seen listening to their iPods.

Vision fades

The New Vision can't stay forever in its super-active phase. Slowly it deflates. I don't mean it collapses, or that everything it tries fails. I mean that a lot of the wind goes out of it and it shrinks to a normal size.

Most of its supporters stick with it, but they're not dancing in the streets any more. There's a rather sulky, disillusioned atmosphere around and a lot of recrimination. Some pundits claim that matters can't go on like this and big changes are on the way. Perhaps they are, but I sound a word of caution.

It's quite false that we can't struggle on in a messy, unsatisfactory, unidealistic country for very long. On the contrary, we can and usually do. One of the reasons why when it comes along New Vision politics sweeps everything before it is that it doesn't happen very often.

Tony Blair, who was in the Southern Hemisphere this week, has been damaged by the loans scandal and sees his own particular New Vision, called New Labour, in a restless, uneasy state.

But he can take hope from what happened to the man - in this respect at least - he resembles, Harold Wilson. After the devaluation of the pound in 1967 Wilson ceased to be regarded as the custodian of the white hot technological revolution.

The whole subject disappeared more or less without trace. But Harold Wilson didn't. He may have been diminished in stature, but he went on leading the Labour Party until 1976 and could have gone on a lot longer if he'd wanted to.

Knife wielding

I can offer Tony Blair further consolation from my personal experience. When I was an MP most of my friends wanted Harold Wilson to go. Truth to tell they'd never wanted him in the first place.

Many were the discussions I heard about getting rid of Harold. I soon realised that nothing was going to happen. The reason was this. Those willing to stab Wilson in the back were nobodies who had no following.

The people who did have support wouldn't touch the dagger. They thought that he who kills the king can never inherit the crown.

But, you may say, Wilson never told the world he wouldn't fight another election whereas Blair has. I admit that I've never been able to understand why Blair's kitchen cabinet let him make such a foolish statement.

But he didn't put a date on it. Even if he goes on for years he won't have told a lie. Some Labour MPs are now asking for a date to be announced. But supposing Blair doesn't offer a date, or picks some time in 2008? Who's going to go down in history as the person who wielded the dagger? I very much doubt it will be Gordon Brown.

So this historic shift of power won't be decided by impersonal forces, but by what was once called High Politics - the view that it's the machinations of key players that decide events.

I know it would be more orderly for the Labour Party if Tony Blair announced he was resigning this autumn.

I would expect that to happen if he showed the slightest desire to go. But he doesn't. Everything about him bespeaks a man who can't bear to come off the stage. Those New Visions last longer than you'd think.

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