A Political Illustration of the Theory of Relativity

By Watkins, Alan | The Independent (London, England), April 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Political Illustration of the Theory of Relativity


Watkins, Alan, The Independent (London, England)


TONY BLAIR differs from Harold Wilson in all kinds of ways. It may nevertheless be instructive to compare their first years of office. Both came to power relatively young, at 43 and 48 respectively, with Mr Blair only days short of his 44th birthday. Yet we still think of him as young - at any rate, as youthful - whereas Wilson was well into middle age.

Perhaps this reflects no more than my own changed perspective, many years on: a kind of illustration of the theory of relativity. Certainly attitudes towards age generally have changed over the last 30 years, as they have throughout the century. In any case, Wilson was born middle aged; whereas Mr Blair has not progressed much beyond playing as an undergraduate in a rock band.

For three years or so Wilson was almost a popular hero. He was a bit of a card. People were tired of the Tories and their "13 wasted years", as the Labour slogan-writers of the day put it. In retrospect they were rather good years. Likewise people were tired of the same party and their 18 years before the accession of Mr Blair. Despite the Labour slogan, Wilson looked back with admiration to Harold Macmillan; rather as Mr Blair does to Margaret Thatcher. Pop music had then been going for, I suppose, half-a-dozen years. It was not the pervasive force in our national life, second only to television, that it is today. But Wilson still thought it worth his while politically to keep a finger on the amplifier. He anticipated Mr Blair in several other respects as well. He too appointed a professional journalist, Sir (as he later became) Trevor Lloyd-Hughes, as his press spokesman at No 10, though he was not the first to do so: C R Attlee had previously given the job to Francis Williams. His representative among the lobby journalists was Mr Gerald Kaufman, who, together with the sinister economist Thomas Balogh, the half-crazed MP George Wigg and the mysterious woman of business Mrs Marcia Williams, formed a quartet regarded with as much fascinated apprehension as Mr Alastair Campbell and Mr Peter Mandelson are today, though with less justification. Wilson mastered television as no previous prime minister had. His patent flame-throwing gas lighter for lighting his pipe discomposed interviewers and opponents alike, and greatly entertained the public - for in those more tolerant days clouds of smoke drifted across our screens, and it was thought neither curious nor reprehensible. He also vulgarised Prime Minister's Questions, turning it into the bad- tempered, noisy, points-scoring occasion which it remains to this day. When Wilson took over the leadership of the Labour Party to confront Sir Alec Douglas-Home, this parliamentary event was under three years old. The site was, so to speak, ripe for development. All Mr Blair has done is to substitute one session of 30 minutes for two of 15 minutes each. Otherwise Wilson's formula remains unchanged, despite Mr Blair's earlier promise to rededicate the occasion to sweetness and light. The phrase "sound bite" did not exist in 1964. Besides, politicians were quoted at greater length on television and elsewhere. So to that extent the reality which the words describe did not exist either. Still, there was a premium on simple, catchy, short phrases, of which Wilson was a master. He thought in headlines rather than in sound bites. One of his favourite words, hardly used at all outside old-fashioned school stories, was "funk", because it was nice and short "Tories Funked It - Wilson" was a good all- purpose headline. Though Wilson was the first modern prime minister, he was as much a postscript as a prelude. He was the last prime minister to have a romantic view of the past, to say to himself: "Harold, you are treading where Fox and Chatham trod.

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