Portrait of Harold Wilson by Ruskin Spear
Prime ministers are usually assessed historically by what they did. With the Chilcot Report giving a damning report on Tony Blair’s decision to support America’s invasion of Iraq, it is instructive to recall a prime minister who in a similar situation did nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is very difficult, and achieves more than any grand scheme. Prime ministers of the past such as Robert Walpole and Lord Melbourne were masters of doing nothing. But it is Harold Wilson’s success in holding off the people who wanted him to act which is most relevant at the moment. The best illustration of Harold Wilson’s cunning ability to do nothing is seen in his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson, like Tony Blair after him, came under intense pressure from the United States to commit British troops to a highly dubious foreign war. Unlike Blair, Wilson resisted the pressure. The situation was complex. Britain was relying on American aid to support a weak pound. So Wilson tried to give an impression of involvement. Foreign secretary Michael Stewart publicly defended the American position in Vietnam, and offered to mediate in peace talks. This was a lost cause, but it gave the impression of action, while keeping British soldiers from getting involved. Hopeless peace initiatives also helped keep certain aggressive elements in the Labour party happy. Wilson was to be heavily criticised for his seeming support for America in the Vietnam War. He couldn’t visit a university campus without students – supported by grants his government had instigated – calling him a fascist pig. Wilson it seemed had done nothing. Little did the students know the effort and resilience that had gone into doing nothing.