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A week is a long time in politics

14 April 2012

I must start with an apology for having taken so long with writing a new entry. With the Budget fallout (granny tax, pasty tax, donations tax etc), petrol panic and Bradford West by-election there has certainly been enough going on to have warranted an entry or two! Indeed, as Harold Wilson is supposed to have said, ‘A week is a long time in politics’…

As an unexpected Labour leader who went on to win four General Elections during the 1960s and 70s, Wilson is often regarded as a master of the political art. His eight years in Downing Street certainly left a notable cultural legacy. Seeing himself as a “man of the people”, Wilson worked hard to cultivate an image of ordinariness and sought to use this against his Conservative opponents. Yet the reality has remained a point of much historical debate, with both his image and legacy often regarded as something of an illusion.

Wilson’s famous claim that ‘A week is a long time in politics’ provides an interesting case in point.

The saying has often been portrayed as symbolic of Wilson’s approach to political issues. In recognising that fortunes can change rapidly, whilst implying that short-term gains can be played to your advantage, the phrase certainly encapsulates a nuanced political awareness. For some, it has also been used as evidence of Wilson’s apparent ‘short-termism’ – his tendency to play politics, rather than pursue any real political change.

Despite this, the exact context of the saying remains unclear and there is very little evidence that he ever said it at all.

Although often referenced in the press, the phrase remains elusive within the archives. The Times first made reference to it in December 1967 during a round-up of the year (disparagingly described as ‘the year of the doldrums’) but no further detail was given. Similarly, there was no reference made in The Economist until 1970 (although it would later run with the phrase as a front cover headline – superimposed over a picture of Wilson – on October 7th 1972) or the Guardian until the 1980s.

By this point, it had already been taken on board by a number of politicians. The Conservative MP for Peterborough, Sir Hamar Nicholls, for example, used it as a joke during a debate on the Economic Situation on 22 November 1967. According to the records, this was the first recorded use of the saying in Parliament. It also hints at the phrase’s origins.

Nicholls’ joke came during a debate on the economic situation brought about by a Budget Crisis and the forced devaluation of the pound on the 19th November 1967. It was at this point that another famous phrase – about ‘the pound in your pocket’ – backfired and Wilson’s government came under increasing attack. And it was at this point that the famous words appear to have first been uttered, probably by Jim Callaghan – who would replace Wilson as Labour leader in 1976.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter who first coined the phrase. It is simply interesting that it became synonymous with Wilson and appeared to encapsulate his political identity. In so doing, it helped to consolidate the very myths upon which it was based and have helped to foster the illusions surrounding Wilson’s time in office.

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