What Wilson Thought of Marx. (Prime Ministers at 50)

By Cole, John | New Statesman (1996), May 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

What Wilson Thought of Marx. (Prime Ministers at 50)


Cole, John, New Statesman (1996)


Arash of "Tony Blair is 50" articles sent me back to my cuttings, in search of a 50th-birthday interview I conducted with Harold Wilson during the 1966 general election campaign. A Guardian sub-editor, in his headline, committed the first known use of the word "pragmatic" in this context: "The pragmatic side of 50". A modern equivalent of "pragmatic", I suppose, is "focus group politics".

One of Harold's endearing qualities was that he enjoyed his own cleverness. When I met him, be was crowing with delight over a recent phone call to the then director-general of the BBC, Hugh Greene. The prime minister's political secretary, Marcia Williams, leafing through the Radio Times, had noted with horror that Step roe and Son, then the most popular television programme, went out on election night.

The received wisdom was that Labour supporters, many of them still working in factories, came out in droves between 6.30 pm and 10 pm. What if they stayed at home to watch Sreproe? Wilson explained to Greene that he wasn't just worried about Labour voters: Tories liked Steptoe as well. Surely the BBC would not wish to subvert the democratic process? The DG asked drily for an alternative. "Classical drama, preferably in the original Greek," Wilson offered. The BBC did not take up that idea, but Step toe was shifted.

When we got to the substance, Wilson explained that he was a pragmatist because all government was pragmatic. The idea of a proletariat was nonsense. Karl Marx had not understood people; did not know about them as individuals, only in the mass. Wilson said that he had given up on Das Kapital when he found, on an early page, a footnote longer than the text. …

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