Revealed after 30 years: Harold Wilson’s failing memory and MI5’s secret file on his links with Soviets

Harold Wilson in 1981
Harold Wilson in 1981
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THE FORMER prime minister Harold Wilson was urged by Whitehall officials to cut down the length of a visit to the Soviet Union because of concern about his failing memory, newly released Government files show.

Mr Wilson - who was by that time Lord Wilson - wrote to then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher to ask for guidance having accepted an invitation to visit Moscow in 1986.

But advisers close to the Tory leader - warned of the political implications of the visit.

The concerns have come to light today in a tranche of documents released by the National Archives in Kew, under the 30 year rule. It includes correspondence between Whitehall mandarins voicing concerns about Mr Wilson’s “failing memory” and his tendency “to indulge in irrelevant and repetitive reminiscence”.

Mr Wilson, who resigned as Labour prime minister in 1976, was known to have suffered with mental health problems in the final years of his premiership and died of colon cancer and Alzheimer’s in 1995.

One letter, from Colin Budd, the assistant private secretary to foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, to his Downing Street counterpart Charles Powell, in November 1986 warned of potential problems with the trip.

The concerns raised in this letter included what it is described as “Lord Wilson’s own failing memory and increasing tendency (demonstrated during his last visit in 1983) to indulge in irrelevant and repetitive reminiscence at meetings with Soviet hosts”.

Previously, there had been private concerns about Mr Wilson’s close ties to the Soviet Union, to the point where MI5 kept a secret file on him throughout his time in office because of his friendships with eastern European businessmen and contacts with the KGB.

The letter added: “We believe that the Embassy should not be too closely associated with Mr WIlson’s visit, and that their involvement should be limited to what is required by the courtesy due to an ex-Prime Minister.”

Mr Budd described it as “rather sad” that the Government “should be put in this position, which we should much prefer to avoid”, and added: “But Lord Wilson shows no signs of calling a halt to his overseas travel.”

Handwritten annotations from Mr Powell to Mrs Thatcher appeared to underline the potential for problems a visit by Mr Wilson would cause.

He wrote: “Prime Minister, Oh dear! This is probably right, but perhaps Lady Young should speak directly to Lord Wilson to explain.”

However, Mrs Thatcher had other ideas. She replied: “It would better if the FCS (foreign secretary, Mr Howe) spoke to him.” She signed off with her trademark “MT”.

Experts believe Mr Wilson may have been showing the first signs of Alzheimer’s before his resignation as PM in 1976.

BBC boss struck off party list over Thatcher’s ‘final solution’

A BBC radio documentary was deemed so defamatory about Margaret Thatcher that the then-prime minister’s husband wrote a stinging letter to the corporation’s chairman - and then crossed his name from a party guest list.

Denis Thatcher complained about an excerpt from a report on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, entitled Thatcherism: The Final Solution, which hinted the Government’s perceived economic liberalism, such as legalising hard drugs, was a ruse for killing off “the weak”. The programme, which aired on January 14 1988, included the line: “With growing confidence she (which lawyers subsequently took to mean Thatcher herself) legalised hard drugs. Prices fell sharply. Legitimate outlets replaced bankrupt drug syndicates. Crime figures plunged. Crematorium shares surged. City populations thinned as the weak-spirited succumbed. Unemployment vanished. Only the worthiest survived. Nobody could complain. The unfit died of freedom.”

Michael Saunders, at the Attorney General’s office told Downing Street that the report was defamatory. However Mrs Thatcher did not want to take legal action.