Thursday, March 16, 2006
The Late Baron Wilson of Rievaulx Was One Of The Last Of The Great Pipe Men, And It Made Him A Better Prime Minister
Today is the 30th anniversary of the resignation of Mr Harold Wilson (later Baron Wilson of Rievaulx) from the office of Prime Minister. Odd as it is to say it, 1976 was a more innocent time, and Mr Wilson's resignation went unexplained. If it happened today, one imagines it would be accompanied by days and weeks of soul-searching and revelation, followed by interviews, serialisations, lecture tours, and a guest appearance on a Saturday night celebrity ice dancing spectacular.
The most common explanation of Mr Wilson's departure is the suggestion that he was aware that his mental faculties were failing, and decided to leave his office with his dignity intact. In which case, it would be in bad taste to probe further.
But, in thinking about it, I began to wonder about Mr Wilson's pipe. In journalistic shorthand, this is usually known as his "trademark pipe", though I am doubtful that any such trademark existed. Indeed, the more cynical of his biographers have suggested that Mr Wilson smoked cigars in private, and sucked on his pipe because - like his Gannex raincoat - it made him look as if he was in touch with the common man. I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt, not least because I am nostalgic for a time when a pipe might have been perceived as a no-nonsense accoutrement, rather than a prop from a play by Mr Noel Coward which must remain unlit due to Safety Regulations and legislation on "passive smoking". Passive smoking had not been invented in Mr Wilson's time, and no one was any less happy.
My enquiries into Mr Wilson's pipe led me to some dark cul-de-sacs on the information superhighway. One of these is a campaign to nominate the "Icons of England", which is surely welcome. For years, we Scots have been droning on about our national identity, and it would surely be healthy if our nearest neighbours were able to embrace their more benign peculiarities. At the moment, the nominations are led by the English countryside, the English pub, Morris dancing, the red telephone kiosk, the Land Rover, the oak tree, and the English bobby. At the risk of invoking the West Lothian question, I have voted for Mr Wilson's pipe, though I am clearly in a minority in my advocacy of this cause.
Writing some years ago about Mr Ruskin Spear's portrait of Mr Wilson in the Guardian Mr Jonathan Jones declared that the magic of the painting could be located in the pipe smoke. "It's a disconcerting veil, a cloud of ambiguity around Wilson, partly concealing his features and smudging our perception of him. Through the smoke, his blue eyes look away from us and are impossible to read. Wilson's pipe was one of the props by which he communicated an unpretentious northern persona, but here it becomes an emblem of the masked, secret Wilson: his bluff act is a disguise. He wreathes himself in smoke, like a conjuror on stage, to conceal the machinery of his act."
I am reminded, too, of the famous anecdote - once recounted to the House by the cigarette-chewing Mr Charles Kennedy MP - of the time Mr Wilson was visited at Number Ten by the fearsome Miss Jean Rook of the Daily Express. In Mr Kennedy's telling, Miss Rook and Mr Wilson shared an early-evening dram, whereupon the Prime Minister pulled out his pipe, and said: "In your own time, Jean." Miss Rook steadied herself,and said, "Prime Minister Wilson, is it true that whenever you are asked a tough, awkward or difficult question that puts you on the spot and you don't want to answer, you always respond by means of a question?" Mr Wilson paused for a moment, removed the pipe from his mouth, and said: "Now who told you that, Jean?"
Contemporary politicians should take note. With a pipe, such a manoeuvre is charming. Without a pipe, it is merely evasive.