I watched with interest last night’s docu-drama about the suspected coup by the ‘establishment’ to oust the Wilson government in 1975. He was the first heavyweight politician I ever saw in action when I heard him speak at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in the late 60s. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he was charismatic and left an impression on me.
I presume the programme was transmitted yesterday as 16 March was the 30th anniversary of Wilson’s resignation as prime minister: as he said at that time, “I wish I could have been prime minister in happier times and easier times.”
I know what he meant: that was the time of the three-day week, the Cold War, power cuts, the US planting nuclear missiles in the UK and an economy in meltdown, well he wasn’t alone in that wish.
But if it was a turbulent time of change, it was also the cusp of the old and new order and it isn’t hard to believe that the ‘establishment’ — MI5, the military and the royal family, Fleet Street and the CIA — might have plotted to remove a leftish-government which posed a threat to the old order.
There were some significant social changes going on. Under Wilson, the Open University was founded, he resisted pressure to provide the US with military support for the Vietnam War (a leson to be learned there) and the Beatles got their MBE (a luvvie-lesson very much learned.)
We voted to join the Common Market, he had a plan to unite Ireland, homosexuality was decriminalised, abortion was legalised and I think it was they who decided on currency decimalisation, although Ted Heath was in No 10 on D-day.
The cult of youth and self was born under Wilson’s sixties administration, though I don’t think you can blame that on his Gannex and pipe.
The hard left believed revolution was at hand and former military figures were building private armies, in preparation for the coming conflict. You can see how the old guard could believe that Hugh Gaitskill had been murdered by the Russians to open the way for Wilson to lead the Labour Party, suspicions confirmed by his Moscow frequent flyer status.
I suppose I should pass comment here, but I can’t. Was Harold Wilson the cause of cultural change, or was he a product of it? I don’t know, but we live with the consequences.
“Could it happen today? No, I am afraid not. The political landscape has changed beyond recognition. Cruise missiles are long gone. MI5 has been cleared of dead wood such as Peter Wright and his friends. A Labour government is in power – and on excellent terms with Washington.”
And the point was well made last night that all political parties are now the establishment.
Forgive this foray into the past. MI5 will be after me next.