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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sir Harold Wilson and the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool

We were given a key to the joint entrance to rooms 100 and 101 in Liverpool’s most iconic hotel, The Adelphi. Four years earlier I had only managed to get as far as the plaque outside that very modestly marks the fact that Harold Wilson - the 20th Century’s most electorally successful party leader - had used the suite as his Constituency Room.

The entrance to the Sir Harold Wilson suite, replete with modest plaque

The dark wooden doors led you into two rooms that are virtually unchanged since the Labour leader had used the hotel to conduct constituency business for his Liverpool seat of Huyton, located close to the city centre where the hotel stands. Opening the door to the sitting room, we were struck by the large dark marble fire place, replete with electric fire that looked vintage 1960s, an original looking dining table and even a fold-out green beige card table. The sofa was decidedly of a different vintage. However the huge windows, subtly painted mock Georgian wall panels, and phenomenal ceiling plaster moulding that would in Harold’s time have sported a chandelier not an electric mock candelabra, made it easy to imagine yourself in a time when the PM needed somewhere very comfortable to, perhaps once a month, conduct meetings with local party officials and trade unionists or to simply be based for a night in advance of a Saturday morning constituency surgery in Huyton.

Harold's sitting room (Room 100)
Room 100 at the Adelphi was handy on election night too (1966) (c/o 'Harold Wilson' by Ben Pimlott, HarperCollins, 1992)

Harold’s bedroom was equally original, minus the bed with its mock leather headboard. The huge, fitted wood and marble washstand cum chest of drawers, replete with deco-looking chrome towel rack, and the large marble fire place were not only in place when Wilson used these rooms but when this incarnation of the famous hotel opened in 1914. 

Harold's washstand

A huge wooden, mirrored, wardrobe had certainly been in the room for more than half a century. It is hard to imagine that a hotel that for several decades has had a funding problem – one not remotely alleviated by its comparatively recent transfer to the ownership of the Britannia chain – would replace anything that wasn’t broken, save for maybe the odd light bulb and, sadly, the original carpet. 

Sir Harold Wilson's bedroom

The bathroom separated the two main rooms; its tasteful frosted glass lattice work door opened to a porcelain furniture set that may not have been 1914 but was probably at least 1950s. Valerie mused on the idea that Sir Harold had used the very same bath as her. From the bathtub you can look out via an enormous window to the rather grand building opposite that in Wilson’s time housed Lewis’ department store. Above the entrance to Lewis’ (now no doubt housing offices or flats) is a slightly odd but no less iconic stone sculpture of a naked male, which was referenced in a famous local tune popularised by a mostly local act, The Spinners. The sculpture almost matches the campness of a much smaller, metallic one depicting a naked young soldier sporting what looks like a Teutonic hard hat, which is located in the Adelphi Hotel ballroom.

The view from Harold's bathroom

When I booked the Sir Harold Wilson suite, I discovered the rather odd fact that it is actually known as Room 101. In fact it isn’t really known as the Sir Harold Wilson suite at all. The scouse-sounding and very helpful guy who took my phone reservation confirmed that he had typed into the booking that the ‘Sir Harry Wilson suite’ i.e. Room 101 had been requested. After successfully checking in to the suite we heard an older person’s voice outside the door informing her husband that Harold Wilson had stayed here, and evincing a disinterested response.

Wilson is mentioned on the Adelphi Hotel’s website, as is his ‘preferred suite’ where we stayed. However the Huddersfield-born man, part schooled in Liverpool, who represented a Liverpool constituency for 33 years, 13 of which as Labour leader and eight of which as prime minister, remains almost an incidental figure in the catalogue of famous people who’ve either made Liverpool their home or who were born and raised there.

If that’s true of Liverpool, it’s much more so nationally. In 2006, a decade after his death, a metal sculpture of Wilson was unveiled in Huyton by the then Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (the only Labour leader to serve more years as PM than Wilson). Blair is reported as saying that his fondness for Wilson was because he was the first ‘modern British prime minister’, more or less code for the fact that he was (more or less) working class. Wilson was a ‘modern prime minister’ because unlike every predecessor save Lloyd George, and patently unlike Blair (or his successor but one, Cameron), he wasn’t privileged. Wilson’s immediate predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, was, according to Wilson's biographer Ben Pimlott, superiorly conscious of the huge class gulf between them, while some of the upmarket press mocked Wilson for being a philistine. Yet he had a first class brain, got a first class degree from Oxford, and founded the Open University – the only Wilson policy legacy that Blair noted. Only a year before Blair unveiled the sculpture, he gave a speech to the Labour conference in which he attacked the Wilson-led Labour governments of the 1960s for being responsible for Thatcherism by failing to understand the depth of economic and social change. Ironically, just prior to entering No 10 for the first time Wilson urged change on both sides of industry in his famous ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech. As prime minister Harold Wilson would be weakened by often senseless industrial action; his successor and close colleague Callaghan was destroyed by it. However Mr Blair’s simplistic attack on, in effect, Wilson’s legacy was rich coming from the man ultimately responsible for fiscal mistakes that subsequently helped undermine the Brown Government amidst global economic meltdown. In supposedly praising Wilson, Blair failed to mention the neo-colonial American war that he kept British troops out of (Vietnam), in marked contrast to the one Blair sent British troops to fight in (Iraq). If, as the comment attributed to Churchill has it, ‘to govern is to decide’, then Wilson’s decision to in effect break with Washington (and for which the UK economy was punished by the US) was very much about governing - and doing so in the national interest.

Perhaps you don’t get remembered or properly respected as a British prime minister for the wisdom of what you didn’t do – as opposed to the damage caused by much of what you did (Margaret Thatcher). However Wilson did much in general to expand higher education and its availability to people of his background. A BBC story written in 2009 about long abandoned car production in the Merseyside town of Speke begins with a reference to what it calls ‘the dark days of the 1970s’. While there was much industrial action, there was also much less inequality pre-1979, and, for all the faults of Wilson’s public housing and welfare programmes, far less homelessness. As we walked around the centre of Liverpool the number of very visible homeless people on the streets was shocking. No doubt they congregated in the centre to try to tap visitors coming out of pubs, but their plight in the middle of winter was, and is, very real.


Mike Anderson said...

A dozen or so years ago I stayed at the Adelphi so I could attend the opening of an exhibition celebrating the Merseyside men and women who went to Spain to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. The exhibition was opened by Jack Jones who had fought in Spain against fascism as part of the International Brigade. Jack and his son Mick were also staying at the Adelphi and I had the pleasure of joining them for breakfast, one of a number of occasions I was privileged to meet a true working class hero.

Neil Partrick said...

Thanks Mike for your moving and very interesting comment; a nice accompaniment to my blog post.

Al said...

Really insightful, as ever. Interesting, though, how Liverpool CLPs continue to try & bugger up the Labour Party - Hatton/Militant in the 1980s & now with Luciana Berger, Frank Field (currently independent) - & Corbyn as inept as ever in providing any leadership. But aside from that, as you know Neil, I was born on the day of Wilson's 1966 victory, and BBC Politics channel gave me the best 50th birthday present possible, on 1st April 2016, by reshowing its continuous election coverage for about eight hours. With Bob MacKenzie & his swingometer, who happened to be my Dad's lecturer at the LSE at the time. Serendipity.

I've always gad a deep respect for Wilson, though he did have some poor advisors. But some of his cabinets did represent the great talent around post-war. So many formidable characters when compared with the lightweights in government today (e.g. Grayling) Compare and contrast - Defence Secretary - Healy or Gavin Williamson?

Neil Partrick said...

I loved all of your comments, Al. Very sad that a figure like Frank Field, who represents all that is best about the Labour tradition, will probably never be able to return to the Party. More importantly, the coincidence of you being born on the exact date of what, in my view, was one of only two strong Labour majorities worth celebrating (out of only 5 in total), is wonderful. And that, exactly 50 years later, you no doubt spent eight hours waiting up to see what the outcome would be, is just excellent. In terms of the great Labour post-war politicians, there's zero comparison with any Labour front bencher from the Noughties onwards. Just as you're so right to say that Private Pike comes off very badly against Healey as a defence secretary comparison, so would whoever the current Labour nonentity is serving as shadow defence secretary. Thanks Al, Neil