It was the Autumn of 1975, and Britain was on the brink of multiple political and economic crises. With inflation and unemployment rising to critical levels, Labour’s great election winner, Harold Wilson, began to wonder if he still had the solutions to Britain’s problems. According to his account of events, Wilson decided to tell the Queen of his plans to resign as Prime Minister in unusual circumstances. One night, after dining with her at Balmoral, he was driven to a secure chalet about a mile from the Castle. As the Queen washed the dishes, he informed her that the game was up.
Six months later, the Queen was one of the few who was not shocked by his resignation. In his final days at Number 10, Elizabeth II was the special guest for a farewell banquet in his honour. Twenty one years on from her last appearance at Downing Street, when she joined Winston Churchill, she sat with members of the Labour Cabinet for Wilson’s farewell. In his address, he said that her Elizabethan age would be seen as one of great progress: “Not because of voyages of discovery or colonisation but because of the ability of your people to influence governments and nations towards peace and stability.”
Since the death of Elizabeth II, much has been written about the fifteen people who served as her Prime Minister. Yet the relationship with Labour’s Harold Wilson in the 1960s and 1970s attracts the most interest. Part of this is due to longevity. Wilson is the only one of those fifteen who served for two separate periods, between 1964 and 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976.
It is also due to the timing. As depicted in the Netflix series The Crown, the pair steered the country through a series of crises as Britain carved out a new role for itself on the world stage. Whilst some within Labour have urged the party to adopt a more republican position on the monarchy, the Wilson model is the one that most Labour leaders still aspire to.
Working class voters supported the monarchy
Having only dealt with Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, there was initially intrigue and suspicion about Wilson. He had spent the 1964 election narrating the decline of Britain under the “weary cycle” of Conservative rule. The revolution in science and technology, the famous “white heat”, was about creating a different type of country. He argued that the 1960s would be “a time for choice” between “those who cling to a static society, those who aim to conserve and those on the other hand who want to see this country on the move again, dynamic, thrusting and extrovert”. What role there was for the monarchy in the “New Britain” was uncertain.
Historically, the Labour Party had skirted around the idea of republicanism. The party’s founder, Keir Hardie, caused a sensation in the late 19th century when he condemned the House of Commons for finding time to celebrate the birth of the future Edward when hundreds of coal miners had been killed in an accident in South Wales. As Hardie’s biographer Kenneth O’Morgan concluded, it gave Hardie a reputation for extremism which lasted for life. “It was more damaging for his reputation than his socialism, his feminism or his pacifism”.
In future years, Labour leaders understood that there were bigger issues to deal with. Remarkably, only once has the issue been debated at conference. In 1923, a motion asked whether the Royal family should have powers in a modern constitution? George Lansbury agreed that one day the country would not have a King or Queen. “But what is the use of bothering about that just now?” he warned them. “Why fool about with an issue that has no real importance.”
When Labour was in government in the 1920s, Ramsay MacDonald built a good working relationship with George V — which would later shape his decision to form a National Government in 1931. Critics in the media such as J.B.Priestley believed Labour was hypocritical towards the monarchy, however. “If you are royalists, then be genuine royalists”, he argued. “But stop being imitation royalists, imitation democrats, imitation progressives, imitation contemporaries and be something real.”
Some of Harold Wilson’s future allies broached the subject again in the 1950s. Michael Stewart, who became Foreign Secretary, wrote a book speculating on how the Royal Family could modernise. He noted that it should “engage in extravagant ceremonial less often”, “become something of a Scandinavian monarchy” and “dissociate itself from privilege”. Wilson, by contrast, took his lead from Clement Attlee. As the leader of the Opposition in the 1930s, Attlee had refused to engage with those within who wanted radical change: “We are concerned with fundamental economic changes. We are not to be diverted into abstract discussions about monarchy and republicanism”.
Wilson understood that his working class voters supported the monarchy. Alongside his narrative about reforming Britain’s institutions, he spoke about the need to preserve the country’s heritage. In an interview for the first major biography on him in 1963, Wilson admitted to a “great respect for tradition, especially in the House of Common”. He liked “the real ceremonies of the Monarchy, the opening of Parliament, the Coronation — all that”. If he became Prime Minister, “one would feel part of a long historical line — Peel, Disraeli, Gladstone, and so on”.
Wilson stuck to that approach whilst in office. As Ben Pimlott, the biographer of both Wilson and the Queen, observed, he neither patronised nor put her on a pedestal. “He behaved towards her — unexpectedly — as an equal, and talked to her as if she were a member of his own cabinet”. Wilson would tell aides of the “relaxed intimacy” of their meetings and was rumoured to have kept a photograph of them both in his wallet. In return, he was allowed to smoke his pipe in the weekly audiences.
The closeness of the relationship alienated some on the left of the party. Famously, Wilson clashed with Tony Benn who wanted to change the postage stamp to make it “part of the arts and not just as an adhesive money label”. This meant removing the Queen’s head from the stamp. After believing that she had agreed to the move, Wilson was told to reign in Benn. “It is clear that Harold’s intentions are that we should be more royal than the Tory Party,” he wrote in his diary.
Corbyn admitted that reform was not a priority
To Wilson’s surprise, the Queen emerged as a consistent and reliable confidant whilst he struggled to hold his party together. As paranoia grew about plots to get rid of him, Wilson described the meetings as the only time he could have a frank conversation with somebody who wasn’t after his job. After Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and James Callaghan took over, he too enjoyed good relations with the Queen. To mark the Silver Jubilee in 1977, he presented her with a silver coffee pot from the Cabinet. In his memoirs, he wrote that she had responded with a joke: “Oh! I’m so glad you haven’t repeated Mr Disraeli’s gift to Queen Victoria. He gave her a painting of himself!”
It has been historically important for Labour leaders to signal that they aren’t going to break with the traditions. For example, in the late 1980s, Neil Kinnock was mocked when he argued that the millions spent on the wedding of Andrew and Sarah Ferguson were “worth it” to see the smile on her face. Similarly, in the run-up to the 1997 election, Tony Blair invoked the image of the Queen to reassure voters that he would not give up the pound lightly: “I know exactly what the British people feel when they see the Queen’s head on a £10 note. I feel it, too”.
Others sensed there was a missed opportunity in the 1990s to push harder for reform when they appeared to be deeply unpopular and out of touch. Dennis Skinner remarked that they had done republicans’ jobs for them by failing to adapt to modern times: “They have stripped away those veneers of history”, meaning that people now wondered whether “the Queen could be the last reigning monarch”.
Indeed the recent revival depended greatly on the popular appeal of the Queen personally — and that was severely tested by her response to the Windsor fire in 1992 and her unemotional reaction to Diana’s death in 1997. Like Wilson, Blair saw no political benefit in tackling the monarchy and exploiting their problems, however.
There was an expectation that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership would offer a radically different approach. Having campaigned against the monarchy since becoming an MP in 1983, he was a signatory to Tony Benn’s 1991 Commonwealth of Britain bill. The bill was a left-wing push to finally make Britain a republic: “the monarchy would be abolished, the Royal Family pensioned off, the honours system disbanded, and the crown estates nationalised”.
Yet when Corbyn became the leader in 2016, he too recognised that it was not a fight worth having. Whilst he was criticised for not engaging in symbolic gestures — such as singing the national anthem and watching the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day — he admitted that reform was not a priority. Grilled by Jeremy Paxman ahead of the 2017 election, he said, “it’s certainly not on my agenda and, do you know what, I had a very nice chat with the Queen.” Only now, from the safety of the backbenches again, is Corbyn free to say what he really thinks.
It is little wonder then that Keir Starmer has adopted the Wilson approach this week. Like Liz Truss, Starmer was captured on film talking about abolishing the monarchy. But he has been praised across the political spectrum this week for being able to find the words that Liz Truss could not. “She did not simply reign over us, she lived alongside us.”
Wilson, too, has been rehabilitated by the Labour Party in recent years. As Nick Thomas-Symonds argues in his new biography of Wilson, The Winner, he was the “social conservative who presided over a period of profound social change”. His success in winning four elections out of five in the 1960s and 1970s was built upon his “connection to the people”. By reflecting the mood of the country this week, Starmer has put himself in a good position to do the same at the next election.
Back in 1976, as Wilson brought his premiership to a close, he used the final banquet with the Queen to acknowledge the importance of the Royal Family to the governance of Britain: “In a world where established order is being shattered almost daily,” he said, “in a world where democracy is ever-threatened — whether by authoritarianism or anarchy — the fundamental stability and decency of your United Kingdom is unshaken”. With Britain finally coming to terms with her loss, Starmer and King Charles both have the opportunity to show that they can take the people forward into a new age.
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