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Harold Wilson, photographed in his research at dwelling in Westminster, in 1986. Allan Warren/Wiki Commons.

Nick Thomas-Symonds has beforehand written two excellent biographies of Labour titans – Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan; now he has turned his consideration to Harold Wilson. It’s definitely time for Wilson to be revisited, though there are already a number of glorious biographies of him, not least Ben Pimlott’s 1993 tome and Philip Ziegler’s authorised biography revealed in the identical yr. Wilson’s political fame is tough to pin down. For some, he was the final word shapeshifter, a realistic politician whose rules, had been he to carry any, had been very effectively hidden from view. For others, his pragmatism made him a superb chief, somebody who was not doggedly wedded to ideology however capable of recognise the strengths in those who had been. Thomas-Symonds is an unashamed admirer of Wilson and his pragmatism, though he does attempt to tread a cautious path on this well-researched and readable biography. In The Winner, we meet a Wilson who’s each pragmatic and principled, capable of be versatile on sure points, rigid on others. From time to time, the guide does really feel a little bit too forgiving of its topic.

In frequent with all profitable politicians, Harold Wilson knew how one can lead, how one can work together with individuals and who to speak to. He additionally knew how and when to take his shot and benefit from any alternative that got here his means. If that concerned a sure diploma of disloyalty, then so be it. Within the Nineteen Fifties, the Labour Celebration was cut up into factions. The Gaitskellites, following Hugh Gaitskell, represented the revisionist voice of the occasion, opposing conventional insurance policies on taxation and nationalisation. The Bevanites, following Nye Bevan, advocated Labour’s adherence to sturdy socialist rules. Wilson belonged to neither group, although he did have sturdy hyperlinks to Bevan and Richard Crossman, one other staunch Bevanite. For Thomas-Symonds, this lack of affiliation is an asset. By standing on the Bevanite sidelines, Wilson created a circle of associates and backers with out ever needing to be within the trenches of the ideological battlefield. This excluded him from the Gaitskell set, however they’d by no means have thought of him a possible ally anyway. In the end this labored for Wilson, however to painting it as a advantage is beneficiant to him.

That stated, Thomas-Symonds’ excessive regard for Wilson is just not misplaced. Wilson was prime minister for eight years and received 4 common elections (in 1964, 1966 and October 1974, though he served as prime minister of a minority authorities from February 1974). He oversaw the creation of the Open College, his authorities allowed time for liberal payments in Parliament (most notably on abortion rights and the legalisation of homosexuality), he efficiently resisted stress from the US to ship UK troops to Vietnam and he managed to maintain the Labour Celebration collectively for greater than a decade. Not a nasty file and one undoubtedly constructed on his pragmatism and his potential to recognise the strengths in even essentially the most treacherous of colleagues and associates. For all this, Wilson deserves his place on the checklist of profitable Labour leaders alongside Attlee, Tony Blair and possibly even Ramsay MacDonald.

At instances, the glowing portrayal of Wilson threatens to undermine the guide. Wilson made errors, and this biography does moderately gloss over them. However I might heartily advocate The Winner to anybody considering postwar British politics. Mixing anecdote and reality, Thomas-Symonds paints a vivid image of the period that’s laborious to search out elsewhere. In its pages, we meet the key political figures of the postwar interval – however there isn’t a doubt who the primary participant is.

Harold Wilson: The Winner
Nick Thomas-Symonds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 544pp £25
Purchase from bookshop.org (Affiliate hyperlink)

Victoria Honeyman is Affiliate Professor of British Politics on the College of Leeds.

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