Tristram Hunt joins campaign for new Harold Wilson statue

The Labour MP and historian is joining the growing number of MPs pressuring the Government for a new statue of late Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Labour MP, writer and historian Tristram Hunt.
Labour MP, writer and historian Tristram Hunt.

Mr Hunt has today signed an Early Day Motion asking the Government to ensure that a small bust of the late Labour Prime Minister is replaced with a full length statue in the House of Commons' Chamber.

It is understood the motion is being presented by Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman who has been a long-standing campaigner for a memorial that mirrors Mr Wilson's significant political achievements, and matches the scale of other Prime Ministers' statues located nearby.

Mr Sheerman has long argued that while Labour stalwarts such as Denis Healey, who passed away last year, had decades in which to defend their record, but Mr Wilson's resignation from politics in part due to ill health meant he faded into the background.

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

With the centenary of his birth this week, an attempt to commemorate the Huddersfield-born former Prime Minister's influence on British politics and his particular post-war brand of socialism should be 'cherished', Mr Hunt said.

In a lecture given in the House of Commons assessing his legacy, Mr Hunt said: "Mr Wilson’s restless modernity, classless patriotism, media guile, and total disconnect from the Tory old guard – with their plus-fours and grouse-moors; Profumo scandals and Establishment cover-ups – catapulted him into Downing Street."

However he explained how some felt his reputation plummeted due to his kitchen-cabinet style of governance, regular reshuffles and short-termism.

He said: "To the Left, Wilson was an apologist for capitalism, lackey of the Americans, and institutional conservative; for New Labour, in the words of Philip Gould, ‘Wilson failed to modernise Labour, which put the genuine modernisation of Britain beyond his reach’.

Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

"Inevitably, Harold Wilson himself, the self-styled centre forward turned sweeper of two governments, has been held personally responsible for the disappointments and, in theprocess, become the subject of remarkable personal obloquy (a trend assisted by the number of highly readable diarists and memoir writers in his Cabinets).

"For Denis Healey, Wilson ‘had no sense of direction, and rarely looked more than a few months ahead. His short-term opportunism, allied with a capacity for self-delusion which made Walter Mitty appear unimaginative, often plunged the government into chaos.’"

However his appraisal has been unkind, argues Mr Hunt while acknowledging he could have done more, particularly in relation to trade union reform and nationalised industries.

"And, from a Labour perspective, most damagingly of all, his habitual tendency to balance and cajole, avoid confrontation and just ‘keep going on,’ arguably set in train the political fissures which would see, by the early 1980s, radical Bennite Leftism on the one hand and the creation of the SDP on the other," he said.

"That said, I maintain that the modern Labour Party has much to learn from Wilson. A belief in the merits and virtue of power – indeed, Labour as ‘the natural party of government.’

"A confidence to junk old dogma and develop a new vision of socialism, with a charismatic leader able to sell it to the British public.

"A political acumen which placed the party on the side of aspiration, ambition and a sense of what Britain could and should be. An ability to ‘do’ politics which kept together a herd of such big political wildebeests as Jenkins, Callaghan, Benn, Williams, Castle and Crosmann.

"For far too long these skills have been decried as weakness, but as a back-bench opposition Labour MP stuck in 2016 I can only see them as strengths."

Harold Wilson: His life in quotes

1916: He was born on 11 March to James Herbert, a chemist who joined the Labour Party and Ethel, a teacher.

1924: Aged 8, he visited 10 Downing Street, which would eventually become his home.

1934: Attends Jesus College, Oxford and later marries Mary Baldwin.

1945: Becomes MP for Ormskirk and then MP for Huyton

“Everybody should have an equal chance - but they shouldn’t have a flying start.”

1947: Then Prime Minister Clement Attlee made him President of the Board of Trade. Aged 31, he had become the youngest member of the Cabinet in the 20th century.

1963: Makes a speech to the Labour Party conference after he becomes the party’s leader about the “The white heat of the [technological] revolution.”

He passes an act that founds the Open University, then the University of the Air, in the same year.

1964: Wins General Election with a majority of 4 and in 1966, he increases his majority to 98.

“A week is a long time in politics.”

1966: Harold Wilson refuses to commit troops to fight alongside America in Vietnam. At home doctors and dentists get a significant payrise.

1965: Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965: suspended the death penalty in England, Wales and Scotland.

1967: Sexual Offences Act 1967: decriminalisation of certain homosexual offences.

“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”

Defending his decision to devalue the pound...

“From now on, the pound abroad is worth 14 per cent or so less in terms of other currencies. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.”

1969: He was struck in the eye by a stink bomb thrown by a schoolboy. Wilson’s response was “with an arm like that he ought to be in the English cricket XI″

1970: Calls General Election and is defeated by Edward Heath.

“The main essentials of a successful prime minister are sleep and a sense of history.”

1974: Wins the General Election, but with a minority Government.

“I am an optimist, but I’m an optimist who carries a raincoat.”

1975: On increasing division within the Labour Party.

“This Party needs to protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion, extreme so-called left and in a few cases extreme so-called moderates, having in common only their arrogant dogmatism.”

1976: He resigns five days after his 60th birthday and James Callaghan becomes Prime Minister.

“I have not wavered in this decision and it is irrevocable.”

1983: He becomes a life peer in the House of Lords.

1984: Reflecting on Tony Benn, with whom he had long-standing differences with.

“The trouble with Tony is he is a king of ageing perennial youth. I’ve used the phrase about him ‘he immatures with age’ and he certainly does.”

1995: He dies on May 24 in London.

Prime Minister John Major said in the House of Commons: “I do not believe that it is too generous to describe Harold Wilson as one of the most brilliant men of his generation.”