I confess: I was always going to be personally, professionally and critically supportive of this engaging and intriguing novel. For between all the various British, American and Soviet spies who populate this book, the real hero is……Harold Wilson. I’ve had a soft spot for the maligned (maligned that is by right-wingers and ultra leftists) Labour Prime minister. After all, it was the Wilson government whose education reforms gave me, a working class boy, the chance to go to university. I ended up at Wilson’s old college and recall as a truculent undergraduate almost literally bumping into him in the mid-1980s as he was led around the college grounds by the then Principal. He looked both ill and ill-at-ease.
Edward Wilson’s novel interweaves fictional characters within the fabric of reported history to show how Wilson the politician, at that point the President of the Board of Trade, was a marked man the moment he delivered Rolls Royce engines – in return for food and timber – to Stalin’s embattled country in the 1940s at the behest of Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps. The CIA – and the bourgeois elements in the British secret services - needed a fall guy as a lever to tighten their growing grip on the right-wing of the Labour Party. From then on, Wilson was the subject of a continuous surveillance and destabilisation campaign. No wonder he was paranoid. The Cold Warriors in the West were indeed always out to get him.
Through the eyes of William Catesby, a fictional and utterly sympathetic left-wing British agent, the plots to stymie Wilson and the socialist wing of the Labour Party are exposed in all their duplicitous and serpentine detail.
The relentless campaign to undermine Wilson (codenamed ‘Oatsheaf’ in CIA records) reaches a peak as he refuses US requests to send troops to Vietnam and the book suggests that his subsequent resignation in 1976 was the result of a ‘soft’ coup d’etat, with tanks and troops discreetly positioned near to airports and key areas in Westminster should muscle be needed to back up the media and political campaign of hatred.
Author Wilson does for his namesake what DM Thomas does for JFK. For just as the latter’s Flying into Love humanises and quite possibly sentimentalises the 35th US president, so this novel shows Harold Wilson as a good and decent man, beset by rogues, traitors and the combined might of the military-industrial complex.
Catesby is a spy who can never shake-off his moral mantle and so once Wilson has been removed he finds himself alone and vulnerable on the Suffolk shore to await his fate.
Edward Wilson himself is a most assured writer; adept more than most in this factual/fiction genre combining first rate characterisation and depth that entwines itself around real and supposed events. This is a fantastic read and a prophecy, should one be needed, of how the Reaction will intervene if the Labour Party ever elects a socialist as its leader this coming autumn. Best start preparing the militias now.
This is an edited version of a review first published in the Morning Star