Tired and emotional

Was Harold Wilson drunk for much of his second premiership 1974-1976?

It has become a  commonplace that Wilson’s “rapid decline, and growing paranoia, in his second stint as premier were fuelled by his excessive fondness for brandy” (Harry Reid, http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/let-us-make-westminster-a-drink-free-zone-for-mps.16871394).  If this is so, Wilson is not alone among British PMs.  Asquith was so often thought to be drunk at the dispatch box that he was known as “Squiffy”, there are suggestions that Antony Eden could hit the bottle at times of stress.  People tend to accept in good faith Churchill’s claim that “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”  Similarly, Thatcher, who often had a drink before lunch, is not commonly seen as a lush.  None destroyed their political careers as George Brown did in the 1960s, there are many stories here, but in the end Brown’s is a sad story of a man destroyed by a disease of addiction.

The focus here is, however, on Dominic’s understanding of Wilson.  I am dealing with this here since in this review of Seasons DeGroot states that “who   fiddled while Britain burned. Unable to decide whether he preferred brandy   or whisky, he drank both in huge quantity.”  This is more than Dominic claims, and may be a case of the rot of bad apples spreading.

There is no clear assessment of the affect on Wilson’s drinking on his premiership in Dominic’s book.  What we have (and this is typical) are a number of comments dispersed through the book in an unstructured way that suggest that Wilson had a drink problem.  The book is driven by a cut and paste methodology of repeating sources, rather than an organised analysis of them, as I will show below.  What is needed, but is entirely lacking here, is a good paragraph or two assessing the degree to which Wilson drank and the impact of this.  At the end of this post, I will attempt to supply that paragraph.

What we have in Seasons is not a concise paragraph, but a steady drip of isolated but repetitive comments.  The index to Seasons contains no less than 10 references to Wilson’s drinking.  Two of these (Seasons, pp38, 418) are about Wilson’s health in general, without specific mention of his drinking.   I will examine the rest in more detail.

The first states that Wilson became “ever more reliant” on the bottle, but that his aides kept this from the press and the public (Seasons, p39).   Dominic presents no evidence for this second assertion, although such evidence is supplied by Ben Pimlott’s biography of Wilson where he suggests that when one newspaper suggested that Wilson was “a late night brandy-addict” Lord Goodman dispatched a libel writ  (Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (London: HarperCollins, 1992), p675).   (This is based on Pimlott’s interviews with Wilson’s Press Secretary Joe Haines and the head of his Downing Street Policy Unit Bernard Donoughue, as well as confidential interviews).

On the more general issue of the drinking, he also quotes Haines from Glimmers of Twilight (London: Politicos, 2003, ppviii) that Wilson was drinking too much, but Haines does not elaborate.  It is clear that Haines sees this as symptom of, not cause of Wilson’s decline.  Dominic goes on to state that on 14th October 1975 Wilson had 5 brandies before PMQs.  This is referenced, as is nearly all of Dominic’s comments on Wilson’s drinking, in Bernard Donoughue’s Downing Street Diaries (London: Pimlico, 2006)  (I am working from the one volume paperback, Dominic from the two volume hardback, but I think I have married up the references).   In this source, Donoughue states that on 14th October Wilson had only 4 brandies before PMQs, and two after.  The 5 brandy reference relates to PMQs on 30th October  (Donoughue, Diaries, pp529, 547).  Dominic’s use of the source is very sloppy.  Dominic adds that Wilson had too much to drink at a diplomatic lunch on 27th November 1975 Dominic adds after which PMQs went badly (this is based solely on Donoughue, Diaries,  p548).  I have dug a little deeper here, certainly Wilson alleged poor performance at PMQs of 27th November is reflected neither in The Times or The Guardian (28/11/1975) but these were gentler times of political reporting.

For the next reference to Wilson’s drinking in Seasons Dominic jumps back to May 1974 to state that the “PM drank three neat whiskeys before lunch, and three large brandies afterwards. ‘I will have to stick to water tonight,’ Wilson muttered”.  (Seasons, p66)  Again, the use of the source is a mess.  The entry in Donoughue’s Diaries on which this is based refers to only the three whiskeys, then more at lunch, and then brandy without any mention of a number.  The “water” comment was much later in the day, the muttering is “poetic licence” on Sandbrook’s part (and as far as I know historians carry no such licence) (Donoughue, Diaries, p127-8).  Further references to drinking from Donoughue follow, although one of them is to Donoughue sharing a bottle with Bill Rogers, and not a reference to Wilson’s drinking (Donoughue, Diaries, p145) and in another he gets the date wrong (Donoughue, Diaries, p152).

The same section has a reference to the diaries of the British ambassador to West Germany.  Although this is there for a different point, there is no record from the diplomat of excessive drinking on Wilson’s part, just that he was an exemplary guest.   Dominic does not report this.  (Nicholas Henderson, Mandarin, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), pp69-73

The next reference in Seasons relates to drinking brandy heavily in the evening in September 1974 (Seasons pp152-3) (again, repeating Donoughue).  But in this paragraph the references to drinking are more broadly referenced.  Dominic states that after the October 1974 election rumours of Wilson’s drinking  were “common currency in Westminster and Whitehall:  civil servants gossiped that during ministerial meetings he would often send out for whisky and water, while he needed at least a couple of large brandies for any major meeting.”   This is, shockingly, based on Philip Ziegler,  who states that “civil servants noted with mild disapproval his habit of sending for a glass of brandy or whisky during the ministerial meetings and sipping it alone” Wilson (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p470).  There is no reference to a couple of large brandies or to gossip etc.  The details are either based on another unreferenced source, or have been made up.  Worse than this, the account that Ziegler gives is contrary to Dominic’s.  Ziegler states that “he had increasing recourse to alcohol, though never beyond a mild mistiness in the late evening….. On no one day was the input dangerous, but over the year the accumulated damage to his health must have been considerable.”  This is based on interviews with Haines and Goodman (Ziegler, Wilson, pp470-1).  The point here is that Dominic is working only form secondary sources.  Where he has found something in these sources that supports his thesis (Wilson was a drunk) he quotes it, where what he finds doesn’t, it is ignored or distorted.

In the next reference Dominic again quotes Haines who thought Wilson was drinking too much. (Seasons, p172)  The evidence for Haines thinking this is the same quote as Dominic used on p38/9 (see above).  Added to this, quite bizarrely, is a reference by Haines  to the editor of the Times, William Rees Mogg, saying that” George Brown was a better man drunk than Wilson was sober” (Haines, Glimmers, p116), nothing to do with Wilson’s intake.  This is backed with some evidence from Ben Pimlott’s Harold Wilson (London: HarperCollins, p p648 , 674-5) but this would appear to be based on interviews with Haines and Donoughue.

The next reference jumps to early 1975, when Wilson heard that Thatcher had become Conservative leader, he bemoaned that he would have to learn to play a new opponent and “characteristically” drank a brandy (Seasons, p253)  This is based on Donoughue (Diaries, p310) and more brandies before PMQs (Seasons, p258 based on Donoughue again).   Finally we have a reference to Wilson still drinking too much after his resignation (Seasons p431, again based on Donoughue)

After such evidence, Dominic offers two short judgments on Wilson’s drinking.  In the first Dominic comments that it is an understandable reaction to the pressures of office (Seasons, p39) and much later that Wilson was consoling himself with brandy when he should have been sorting out the economy (Seasons, p429)

I find this latter judgement questionable.  There is evidence that Wilson was bored and maybe generally losing his mental powers, this is well known.  But it is a false dichotomy to say he was drinking instead of fixing the economy.  No-one would say that Churchill in 1941 was “consoling himself with a bottle of Pol Roger when he should have been fighting Hitler”.  With Wilson, there is a question of how much he drank and whether it was a cause of or a consequence of his decline.

So to draw some conclusions:

Firstly, how much did he drink?  It is by no means clear how much he drank.  Most of the evidence comes directly or indirectly from Donoughue, and a little from Haines.  It would appear that he was drinking more than was healthy, but little evidence that he was often what could be called drunk.

Secondly, what effect did it have?  Some of Donoughue’s evidence is that Wilson performed poorly after drinking, and could be “heavy and slow” or performed poorly in the Commons and Sandbrook reports this (e.g. Seasons, 39).  What Dominic does not reproduce are examples of the fortified Wilson giving “splendid” performances (e.g. .Donoughue, Diaries, p195).  Ziegler’s evidence is that it had little effect on him in his core working hours (if Prime Ministers have these).

Thirdly, when did he drink?  The evidence that Donoughue gives is that the drinking went up and down (or certainly, his reporting of it does).  Wilson’s drinking appears to be situational.  There seem to be two triggers. The first is PMQs, which he hated, and he often steeled himself before them with a drink (and with this he is most definitely not alone amongst PMs on both counts).  The second, is Marcia Falkender, Wilson’s Political Secretary.  The two had a fraught and bizarre relationship, and this may have driven Wilson to drink.  Consider this from Pimlott, “If Wilson travelled abroad unaccompanied by political staff, one of his daily rituals was a lengthy telephone conversation with Marcia, in which the Prime Minister seemed wearily to defend himself against attack, and which would be followed by a stiff drink.”  (Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p675).  Donoughue’s Diaries contain similar evidence (p190, 193).  But much of the evidence for this comes from Donoughue one way or another, and he was certainly in the anti-Marcia camp (as was Haines) so we might have to take this construction of the facts with a healthy pinch of scepticism.

So what is the real story here?  There is an interesting omission in the Wilson story in Seasons in the Sun, Wilson’s relationship with his assistant press secretary, Janet Hewlett-Davies.  It is often assumed that Wilson had something sexual going on with Marcia Falkender, but there is no evidence of this.  Nor is there evidence that Wilson had an affair in this sense with Janet Hewlett-Davies, but Pimlott makes it clear in his biography (675-6), and it is abundantly clear from Donoughue’s Diaries  that Wilson and Janet Hewlett-Davies were very close (and Marcia very jealous, Mary Wilson very suspicious).  Hewlett-Davies appears to have offered an emotional haven in Downing St. that Wilson craved.  He felt isolated, lonely and unhappy.   Wilson may have turned to drink in this context, when he felt ill at ease, at PMQs, around elections, maybe when Marcia kicked off.

What Dominic needs is a paragraph saying this.  What we have is an exaggerated view of Wilson’s drinking which repeatedly turns up like a bad penny without any analytical context.  This is largely based plundering on one source (Donoughue) in a derivative way and often referenced in a sloppy manner.

Next time I will be turning to the issue of Star Wars as metaphor in the book’s preface.


About Matthew Cooper

This blog is written by Matthew Cooper.
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One Response to Tired and emotional

  1. Christopher Eva says:

    As you say, the index to Seasons in the Sun contains no less than 10 references to Wilson’s drinking. In addition to these, there are two further index references for Wilson that seem quite uncalled for from a professional historian: first “polishes off five brandies 39”, followed by “polishes off six brandies 39”. Is this Dominic Sandbrook’s idea of humour? When you have already referenced page 39 under “drinking habits”, this “polishes off” business seems unnecesssary and gratuitous. Another index entry for Wilson is “complains of the ‘squitters’ 38, 418” – rather than, for example, “stomach complaints” (which is the wording actually used on page 418). There’s also the way that Sandbrook constantly uses the adjective “crumpled” in connection with Wilson, even when it doesn’t apply (as in Wilson’s return to Downing Street on the evening of 4 March 1974). Dominic Sandbrook seems to have a considerable bias against Harold Wilson, which leads him – as you say – to selective and distorted use of sources; I wonder why?

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