Not the truth, not the whole truth, not nothing but the the truth.

Having given us the sketch of Britain on the day Wilson was returned to power, chapter 1, offers us a quick history of that return to power.  This is well written, and it reads like a novelisation of events.  The problem is that this is what this is, there are areas of colour filled in which are entirely fictitious (or based on sources that are not referenced).  Elsewhere, selective and one-sided quoting gives a misleading picture

So we have a wonderfully written evocation of Wilson as a lost man, at first contemplating defeat, “downcast”, “trudging” (on both pages 7 and 8 of Seasons), hushed,  dimmed and somehow reduced.    Dominic is keen to point out that he was not there, this is what he has gleaned from the sources.  The problem is this is not what the sources say.

In a paragraph based on Bernard  Donoughue’s Downing Street Diary, Dominic tells us that on election day Wilson had “drafted an elaborate escape plan” although as the election result started to come, the plan was no longer needed  (Seasons, p7).  But what we have here is half the story, Donoughue tells us that Wilson also had plans of what to do if he won, he would stay for a couple of years, unite the party, maybe line up Roy Jenkins as successor (Donoughue, p42).  The full picture is that Wilson had a plan of what to do if he won, and what to do if he lost.  Very reasonable given how close the election was.  By painting a picture of Wilson only considering what to do when he lost, Dominic is giving us a distorted picture.

Dominic continues his caricature of Wilson.  Behind in the polls, he is a  solitary, pathetic figure “a downcast  little figure trudging through the rain” (Seasons, p7).  Again, this is based on Donoughue’s vignette of the evening of election where Wilson and Donoughue accompanies Wilson on a walk through his Liverpool constituency,  “He looks like the local candidate and I sensed that everybody saw him as a loser, who would soon be just a back bench MP  At times we walked in the rain, just the two of us…. rather lonely figures lost in anonymous wet streets.” (Donoughue, p43).   But this is a moment when defeat seems likely.  But elsewhere that day Wilson and his team were “very cosy” and in “good form”. (p41).  The picture is of an up and down rollercoaster, the ghost train all the way.  Again, what does not fit “the thesis” is missed out.

That was Thursday, election day.  Jump forward to Monday 4th March and the portrait of Wilson as a sad, tired man continues.  So we have Wilson who “looked older than his fifty-seven years, a white haired little man in a crumpled suit.”   Wilson is trudging (again) into number 10,  “And as he laconically raised his hand in victory, there were no fine words….”We have a job to do,” he said slowly, his flat Yorkshire voice barely audible above the mingled cheers and boos of the crowd…..” (Seasons, p8).

Again the picture is clear, a tired man, being booed, slouching into Number 10.  There are three references for this paragraph, and I have read them all.  They are Time 18/3/1974, The Times and The Daily Mirror 5/3/1974.

What Time says is:

“With practiced aplomb, Harold Wilson last week took charge of Britain as if he had been swept into power by a landslide. Shortly before 8:30 last Monday night, a black Rover drew up in front of No. 10 Downing Street; the crowd that had gathered outside gave an approving cheer. Pausing on the doorstep, the new Prime Minister impatiently waved aside the applause. “We have a job to do,” he said in his flat Yorkshire accent.”  (Time, 18/4/1974).  No boos, no tired, no crumbled.  The impatience of a man wanting to get back into power of the Time article becomes the terse irritability of a man who has “no fine words” but is, indeed, trudging.

Similarly, The Daily Mirror is, unsurprisingly for a Labour paper, positive, and there is no sign of these negative words in The Times (5/3/1974)

Donoughue is not referenced in this paragraph, but it is good to see what his diary has to say here.  “Back to No. 10 Downing Street and everyone feels marvellous….. This is rubbing out the past…” (Donoughue, Diaries p54).  Or this from Ian Aitken and Peter Chippindale in The Guardian (5/3/1974)  “Mr Wilson arrived at No. 10 two hours after Mr Heath had left.  He was given a rapturous ovation by a crowd of about three hundred people outside.  As he stepped from his car he looked serious, but then he stood on the steps and smiled at the crowd.”   Even the Daily Express who one might expect to be critical, has “To cheers from the crowd of around 300, Mr. Wilson in a dark grey suit and  white shirt with club tie walked into to Number 10…. and Mrs. Wilson looking as if she had come from the hairdresser said she was feeling “just fine”” (5/3/1974).

In the next paragraph, Dominic has “It wasn’t like old times.  Things have changed too much for that” quoted from The Mirror  (5/4/1974)  The optimism had “evaporated” says Dominic on this evidential base.  But this is about the circumstances inherited, not optimism, The Mirror continuing, “now there are problems with roaring inflation, runaway prices, huge balance of payments deficits…And not even the comfort of an overall majority” (The Daily Mirror, 5/3/1974).

So having created a sense of pessimism that the facts simply do not bear, Dominic can contrast this to the 1964 election full of hope.  But “British morale” had been battered and dented by the previous “almost eight years” in a “litany of disaster”.   And now comes one of Dominic’s lists.  Throwing things at the proposition in the hope that some of them will stick without the need for anything like analysis.  The list is devaluation (presumably 1967, the start of the “nearly eight years”), The outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland”, “A crippling miners’ strike”, The collapse of the stock market.  (Seasons, p8).  The point is that this is not an analysis, it is a list of things that are not shown to have dented morale, just assumed to have.   But at least he hasn’t made these up.


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4 Responses to Not the truth, not the whole truth, not nothing but the the truth.

  1. Christopher Eva says:

    The first point to make is that the single paragraph in Seasons in the Sun (page 7) covering Election Day, Thursday 28 February 1974, is a condensed recapitulation of a more detailed account at the end of State of Emergency (pages 633-636). The more detailed account in State of Emergency fills out the picture (“Wilson seemed a bit chirpier, however…”) while emphasizing that almost everyone was expecting a win for the Conservatives, followed by a change of Labour leader. (Hence Sandbrook’s description in Seasons in the Sun of Wilson touring his Huyton constituency on Thursday evening: “Wilson had seemed yesterday’s man”. (Page 7.)

    Incidentally, you suggest that Dominic Sandbrook gives a misleading picture by means of “selective and one-sided quoting”, but you show the same tendency yourself when analysing Sandbrook’s prose (as well as misquoting what Sandbrook actually writes, for example substituting “downbeat” for “downcast”). You write: “By painting a picture of Wilson only considering what to do when he lost, Dominic is giving us a distorted picture.”

    Here is what Sandbrook writes:

    “Behind his bullish public statements, he had even drafted an elaborate escape plan… so that he could escape the press after his second successive election defeat.”

    The reference to “bullish public statements” gives a more balanced picture than you suggest. Similarly you write that Sandbrook gives us an “evocation of Wilson as a lost man”. No he doesn’t; he uses the phrase “yesterday’s man” in a precise context, describing the impression Wilson gave as he took a last tour on foot of his Huyton constituency. Interestingly, the word “lost” actually occurs in Bernard Donoughue’s account of that Thursday evening: “I sensed that everybody saw him as a loser, finished, who could soon be just an old back-bench MP. At times we walked in the rain, just the two of us, HW and myself, rather lonely figures lost in anonymous wet streets.” (Quoted by Sandbrook in State of Emergency, page 634.)

    When it comes to Wilson’s return to Downing Street on the evening on Monday 4 March (and again this is a condensed recapitulation of State of Emergency, pages 643-645), I agree with you that Sandbrook’s account is one-sided and misleading, particularly in his overuse of the loaded word “trudged”. In State of Emergency (page 644-645) Sandbrook’s prose is even more overloaded, almost comically so:

    “Now, as he trudged almost disconsolately to the familiar spot, his shoulders hunched, his smile thin, his eyes weary, he looked older than his 57 years, a white-haired little man in a crumpled suit.”

    (Seasons in the Sun has the same descriptive details, but at least Sandbrook omits “almost disconsolately”). Given this sort of writing, it’s a very useful corrective to go back to contemporary accounts, instead of allowing the picture to be distorted by what we retrospectively know is coming in the period 1974-76, and you do a good job here.

    As for your last paragraph, this is what Dominic Sandbrook actually writes:

    “For almost eight years, British morale had suffered blow after blow,” (not “been battered and dented” as you suggest), “from the devaluation of the pound and the outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland to a crippling miners’ strike and the collapse of the stock market.”

    Devaluation was announced on 18 November 1967 ( not 1968 as you presume). Sandbrook’s reference to “almost eight years” is clearly intended to take us back to the strike by the National Union of Seamen in May 1966, Wilson’s attack on industrial militancy in June 1966 (“It would be foolish to say that Harold is finished,” wrote Tony Benn, “but the magic has definitely gone”), and the sterling crisis of July 1966, when the choice was between devaluation (urged by the deputy Prime Minister George Brown) and the tough package of cuts and economic austerity that was eventually passed (after which Wilson’s reputation was never the same again). All this is of course covered in detail in White Heat. Dominic Sandbrook could have compiled a much longer “litany of disaster”, but I would imagine he is using a sort of shorthand here to avoid bogging down the story with things he has covered in depth in other books.

  2. Yes, you are of course right about the date of devaluation, careless error on my part (both the date and the poor arithmetic). Downbeat is a typo that makes little material difference, actually I quote it twice, and the first do so rightly as downcast. I will edit the post to correct these factual errors but leave these comments so people can see the tracks of my carelessness if they are as obsessive as me.

    But no. Dented and battered are not in quotes, they are my paraphrase. Similarly, the term “lost man” is not a quote, it is my summary of the picture painted, but it is clearly the picture painted. As you point out, “lost ” is in the Donoughue quote, but I am not quoting that either.

    As I have said in my reply to your comment under “just not cricket”, I will always be open to being criticised for not looking back to the previous three books, and your point about the “litany” is, I would accept, valid. I was going to do a more thorough crit on it, but did have time. I should have just cut it, you are right. . But now you have drawn my material to it, I will have a look back at this material to see if there is any support for the crumpled/boos point.

    But on the selective quoting, I think I stand by it. The post is a piece, and while the benefit of the doubt might be given on the election day material alone, in the context of the March 4th material, it does rather add up to a pattern of behaviour. And anyway, I am not sure that ” Behind his bullish public statements” creates balance, “Behind” implies a facade (although politicians are all facade, Wilson more than most, but that is not the point here), and bullish might imply an over-assertion that comes from weakness. So behind this was a plan to flee. My point is behind this, he was uncertain, not disconsolate. But Wilson as dejected is the impression given and it is not faithful to the source.

    Although it could use a bit more editing, I would defend Dominic’s prose, it is accessible, readable ahs drive and is engaging and the errors that he makes are attempting to make the story more human and accessible, which I think is laudable. The problem is it allows “evidence” to creep in to support this thesis (Wilson bad, seventies bad, trade unions bad etc.) which is misleading (and, ultimately, I think are wrong, but I will see if the evidence supports my view, which is at least part of what this blog is about).

    The thing that I did not put in my blog, I couldn’t get it to work structurally, is the more interesting thing in Donoughue. The way that Wilson acted later than evening (when he appears to think he had lost again, it swung back and forth into Friday, and I am not calling Dominic on that, the book is already 900 pages long), and basically running away and hiding, BD describes as depressed. Obviously, stressed and tired at the end of an election this might happen. But the first time I read it seemed a little bipolar. But on reflection (and I really must read David Owens’s In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government During the Last 100 Years he must have an opinion here) avoiding social occasions and mood swings are early indicators of Alzheimer’s. ( Perhaps this is just a rather sad story in the end.

  3. Christopher Eva says:

    Wilson’s return to Downing Street on the evening of 4 March 1974 can be found on YouTube (as part of “Heath vs Wilson – The 10 Year Duel”). Watching it makes you wonder what source Dominic Sandbrook is drawing on for his description of the scene. Sandbrook describes how Wilson’s car drew up in Downing Street and Wilson “trudged to the familiar spot” (Seasons in the Sun p.8) or alternatively “trudged almost disconsolately to the familiar spot” (State of Emergency p.644). Watching the film, though, you see the black official car draw up just a few yards from the front door of 10 Downing Street; Wilson emerges from the car, waits for Mary to get out, then walks four or five steps to the front step – in a measured way, as befits a Prime Minister – before turning to face the waiting crowds and photographers; there is no suggestion of “trudging”. Sandbrook continues with: “And as he laconically raised a hand in victory, there were no fine words.” In fact Wilson clearly waves his right hand in a modest acknowledgement of the cheers from the crowd. And where does Sandbrook get the “crumpled suit” from? Wilson looks smart and crisp in a dark suit, white shirt and dark tie; he looks no more “crumpled” than David Cameron arriving in Downing Street in 2010. “His shoulders hunched, his smile thin, his eyes weary, Wilson looked older than his 57 years, a white-haired little man in a crumpled suit.” This is awfully subjective writing from a professional historian, and, as you rightly point out, it’s not supported by the sources that Sandbrook gives in his notes.

  4. Good work. I spent a while looking on youtube for something like this, but couldn’t find anything and didn’t have the hour to do the Heath vs. Wilson, so ended up trying to make judgements on less than satisfactory newsspaper photos I’m afraid I’m having to take a week off this – I have this PhD I had to submit two years ago – but I will be back on task after that. Have to get past the ecomony and trade unions so I get to class in 1970s sitcoms, northern soul and red wine the last three I think are areas in the book is strong in (at least) looking at the right areas to show something of the emotional state and materiality of the time (to use the current jargon of the more trendy history departments).

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