LONDON — Harold Wilson may be less well-known internationally than Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, but he dominated British politics for much of the 1960s and 1970s — and remains the only modern-day prime minister to win four general elections.
His return to office 45 years ago this month was as unexpected as his defeat had been four years previously when, having rewarded him with a landslide victory in 1966, the voters unceremoniously ejected his Labour government in June 1970.
But, in many regards, Wilson’s roller-coaster ride in the decade between 1964 and 1974, from victory to defeat and back again, was completely predictable.
Famously pragmatic — critics claimed unprincipled — the former prime minister’s name became for a time synonymous with the wheeler-dealing and political game-playing in which he undoubtedly reveled.
As one contemporary newspaper columnist suggested, Wilson’s image was “a dark serpentine crawling trimmer, shifty and shuffling, devious, untrustworthy, constant only in the pursuit of self-preservation and narrow party advantage.” For the historian Dominic Sandbrook, Wilson was “a brilliant opportunist.”
There was, however, a limit to Wilson’s alleged opportunism. As the left wing and veteran Zionist Labour MP, Ian Mikardo, once argued: “I don’t think Harold … [had] any doctrinal beliefs at all. Except for one, which I find utterly incomprehensible, which is his devotion to the cause of Israel.”
Wilson’s leadership arguably marked the high point of the relationship between Labour and British Jews, a bond which has today been strained by Jeremy Corbyn’s strident anti-Zionism and the allegations of anti-Semitism which continue to rock the party. It is a reminder not simply of happier times, but of the staunch support that the left once offered to Israel and the rather more ambivalent stance adopted by British conservatives.
As Bernard Donoughue, a young aide to Wilson and now a member of the House of Lords, commented on the centenary of the former prime minister’s birth three years ago, “He would have been shocked and appalled by what’s happening on the hard left of the Labour party, because he was a strong supporter of the Jewish community and a great supporter of Israel.”
Another peer, Tony Clarke, who knew Wilson well from their involvement in the campaign group Labour Friends of Israel, similarly suggested that he would have been “ashamed” at the party’s current hostility towards the Jewish state.
Wilson was by no means alone in his Zionist sympathies in the postwar Labour party.
On both the left and the right of the party, there was strong support for the newly established Jewish state: Nye Bevan, the revered founder of the National Health Service; Michael Foot, a future Labour leader; Barbara Castle, one of the most senior female politicians of the time; and fellow stalwarts of the left such as Eric Heffer and Richard Crossman were all prominent backers of Israel.
Indeed, while some, such as Foot, would later turn into strong critics and advocates of the Palestinians, in 1975, a year after Wilson’s return to Downing Street, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) was estimated to have four times as many supporters in the parliamentary party as the anti-Zionist Labour Middle East Council.
Nonetheless, as Mikardo told the audience at the close of LFI’s annual dinner in October 1975 — the last Wilson would attend before shocking the country by suddenly resigning the premiership the following spring — the prime minister was “not only Israel’s most important friend in the Labour party, but also her most consistent friend.”
Roots of support
The roots of Wilson’s “incomprehensible” support for Israel were complex — and that perhaps explains why they ran deeper than some of his former comrades who later distanced themselves from Zionism.
In its early years, many British politicians projected their own political sympathies on the young Jewish state. Wilson’s long-standing former political secretary Marcia Falkender claimed he had “in many ways a romantic” view of Israel and was attracted to it as a “wonderful experiment in socialist politics.”
By contrast, Thatcher, who shared Wilson’s Zionist inclinations and was similarly close to the UK Jewish community, found in Israel traits which reflected her own conservative philosophy, at the heart of which was the virtue of personal responsibility and individual enterprise.
“They don’t pay people for being idle in Israel,” she admiringly told a meeting in her constituency after visiting the country for the first time in 1965.
In 1947, at the age of 31 and barely two years after entering parliament, Wilson became the youngest member of a British Cabinet in the 20th century. As a rising Labour star in the 1950s, Wilson developed strong relationships with many of his counterparts on the Israeli left, later describing Yigal Allon as his closest friend in Israel.
Alongside his political mentor, Bevan, and Crossman and Castle, who would later become his staunchest Cabinet allies, Wilson was also close to Chaim Herzog, Teddy Kollek and Abba Eban. To Wilson, they were “social democrats who made the desert flower.”
A lover of factional politics, Wilson also followed the intriguing within Mapai, the Alignment and the Labor party with the same close interest with which he watched the internal machinations of his own party.
Wilson’s support did not go unacknowledged. As Eban wrote in his memoirs: “Among European statesmen whom I have known, some have stood out in the special preoccupation that Israel evoked in their hearts. Harold Wilson is preeminent among these.”
For another of the former prime minister’s close Israeli comrades, Shimon Peres, Wilson was “a true friend of Israel.”
Support beyond mere politics
Like Thatcher, there was something about Wilson’s support for Israel which went beyond mere politics. After he left Downing Street, the former prime minister published a weighty history of the tangled relationship between Britain, the US and Israel.
“The Chariot of Israel: Britain, America and the State of Israel” was, according to Roy Jenkins, Wilson’s deputy leader, chancellor and home secretary, “one of the most strongly Zionist tracts ever written by a non-Jew.”
The book provides some clues into the development of his own thinking.
Wilson wrote of the “courage and tenacity of Israelis,” a people who had achieved “miracle after miracle” and “created a nation… fought war after war to assert their freedom [and] who conquered desert and mountain range.”
Thatcher likewise enthused about Israelis’ “tremendous courage and self-reliance … in the face of a threat which is ever present.”
As Yehuda Avner, Israel’s ambassador to Britain for five years of Thatcher’s premiership, later argued, Thatcher admired “the old fashioned patriotism of Israelis and [the country’s] ‘grit and guts.’”
The two former prime ministers also shared a Christian nonconformist upbringing which appeared to shape their attachment to Israel, with Wilson writing in “The Chariot of Israel” that his support for the Jewish state was “in part a response to the teaching of religious history in our day schools and Sunday schools, chapels, churches, kirk and conventicles.”
But, for Wilson, who entered parliament in 1945 and watched in horror as Clement Attlee’s government abandoned the Zionist commitments which the party had first made in its infancy prior to the Balfour Declaration, there was also a determination to redeem his party’s record.
As Wilson later wrote: “There cannot have been in twentieth-century British history a greater contrast between promise and performance than was shown by the incoming government over Middle East issues.”
It was a big claim, but one that Wilson felt deeply. He placed the blame for this seeming betrayal squarely at the feet of Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin.
Hands-on for Israel
Once he had assumed the Labour leadership in 1963, writes his biographer, Philip Ziegler, Wilson was thus determined to “expiate Bevin’s sins.”
His second-term foreign secretary (and successor in Downing Street), James Callaghan, recalled that, when he appointed him, Wilson said he would give him a free hand “with the exception of two areas — Israel and South Africa,” the latter because of Wilson’s detestation of apartheid.
At Israel’s two moments of maximum danger — in 1967 and 1973 — Wilson proved its strongest, most powerful and reliable friend in British politics.
When president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran in May 1967, Wilson pledged to his Israeli counterpart prime minister Levi Eshkol to “promote and secure free passage.”
The British leader, wrote Eban in his memoirs, was prepared “for the maximum degree of commitment compatible with his country’s real strength and responsibility.”
Some in his Cabinet were wary of the financial and military cost of Wilson’s pledges, but the prime minister vigorously fought their objections. Wilson and his then-foreign secretary, George Brown, “passionately advocated intervention to aid Israel,” fellow Cabinet minister Crossman recalled in his diaries.
When war broke out, Britain joined other nations in declaring its neutrality, but Wilson’s own sympathies were clear. They were certainly attuned to public opinion, as Crossman wrote a few days later as the scale of Israel’s triumph over its adversaries became clear.
“The pro-Israel feeling in the country is absolutely overwhelming and there is a great sense of triumph and victory. No one worried about the Israeli preemptive strike being an act of aggression,” he recorded.
Indeed, while Wilson hoped to avoid war, he was, he later wrote, in no doubt that “the first act of aggression” had been committed by Nasser.
Six years later, as the Arab armies struck on Yom Kippur, Israel was in far greater danger, but Wilson had been replaced in Downing Street by the Conservative Ted Heath. He remained, however, leader of the opposition in parliament.
Keeping abreast of developments thanks to daily updates from the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Wilson was angered by the government’s decision to impose an arms embargo on both sides in the hope of appeasing the oil-producing Arab states.
Heath presented his policy as “genuinely even-handed.” He refused to allow the US to resupply Israel from British bases and effectively denied the Jewish state spare parts for weapons, including shells for the Centurion tanks it had previously sold the country. All the while, though, Egyptian pilots were continuing to be trained in the UK.
It was, said the future Labour Foreign Secretary, David Owen, “the most cynical act of British foreign policy since Suez.”
Encouraged by his Israeli friends, Wilson demanded that Britain lift the arms embargo on the basis that the Arab states were already being resupplied by their allies. Deciding to push the matter to a vote in parliament, Wilson now sought to persuade the Shadow Cabinet to impose a three-line whip on Labour MPs to vote as a block to back his opposition.
Jenkins, a senior members of the Shadow Cabinet, objected.
“Look Roy,” Wilson told the passionately pro-European Jenkins. “I’ve accommodated your fucking conscience for years. Now you’re going to have to take account of mine. I feel as strongly about the Middle East as you do about the [European] Common Market.”
In a fiery debate, Wilson lashed the government in parliament. He accused it of “dishonoring contractual obligations [to supply arms and spare parts] at the very moment of Israel’s greatest need.”
And, in a bid to win the support of left-leaning Labour MPs, he raised the specter of Britain’s policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War and the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. “Democratic socialist” Israel, he told the chamber, was fighting for its life against “oil-rich monarchs and presidents.”
Wilson’s concern about developments in Israel also had a personal dimension: his youngest son, then in his early 20s, had gone to spend time at Kibbutz Yagur shortly before the outbreak of war.
Wilson lost the vote, but his intolerance of any sign of anti-Semitism in his party was on display when he sacked one of his frontbenchers shortly afterwards for “uncomradely behavior” in suggesting during the debate that some Jewish MPs had dual loyalties.
Aiding Jews beyond British — or Israeli — borders
When Wilson resigned in 1976 after a second, two-year stint as prime minister, his first overseas trip was to Israel, where he received an honorary doctorate and visited a forest near Nazareth that had been named after him.
In retirement, Wilson took up the role of president of Labour Friends of Israel. Its then director, Valerie Cocks, recalled: “I never had to ask him to say anything pro-Israel — it came naturally. He spoke about Israel in the most loving, warmest possible way.”
Beyond Israel, although he was less publicly critical of the Soviets than Thatcher, Wilson nonetheless used his close contacts with the country’s Communist rulers to improve the lot of Russian Jews. On one occasion, for instance, he refused an invitation to the Bolshoi Theatre until two of its stars were given their exit visas.
Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s leadership buttressed the traditionally close relationship between many British Jews and the Labour party. As Ziegler facetiously suggested, Wilson was “abnormally free of racial prejudice except insofar as it was a racial prejudice to find Jews generally more attractive than the rest of mankind.”
Thus, like Thatcher’s, Wilson’s “court” was a welcoming one for Jews. He had long been close to George Weidenfeld, a refugee from Vienna, who published his first book in 1945 and would publish many more. A number of other Jewish businessmen were similarly close to the Labour leader.
Again like Thatcher, Wilson had a soft spot for Jewish self-made men, outsiders from the establishment like himself, whose entrepreneurship and drive he contrasted favorably with the stuffy and conservative culture which he believed hobbled British corporate life. In Wilson’s landslide victory of 1966, there were a record number of Jewish Labour MPs and Jews held prominent ministerial roles in the Wilson-Callaghan governments.
But Jewish backing for Labour did not simply rest on the prime minister’s evident philo-Semitism or his support for Israel.
As Stephen Brook wrote in “The Club,” his account of modern Anglo-Jewry, “Growing up in the 1960s it was natural to assume that anybody with a social conscience supported Labour. Jews of my age were attracted almost en masse to the … Labour party, largely because of its enlightened views on social matters.”
Indeed, Jewish Labour MPs led the campaigns in parliament for some of the great liberalizing reforms which took place during Wilson’s premiership. Sidney Silverman, for instance, introduced the bill which abolished the death penalty, while Leo Abse led the fight for the decriminalization of homosexuality and changes to the law on illegitimacy.
Forty-five years after Wilson entered Downing Street for a second time, his premiership is now passing into the mists of time. And a Labour party led by a passionate Zionist with a strong appeal to British Jews feels even more like ancient history.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”