Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Henry Midgley, Harold Wilson and the Public Accounts Committee 1959-63

At our first ‘Parliaments, Politics & People‘ seminar of the new academic year, Henry Midgley discussed his work on Harold Wilson before he became Prime Minister…

Harold Wilson is well known for many things – his Premiership and long leadership of the Labour Party and his role in key debates such as those around the UK’s recent referendum on membership of the European Union and questions about devolution. Wilson’s government’s work is still cited by current politicians- for example the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee referred back to Wilson’s work on the civil service [Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee The Work of the Civil Service: key themes and preliminary findings] and a recent collection of writings on Wilson’s government was introduced by several serving politicians, including Tom Watson [A. Crines and K. Hickson eds. Harold Wilson: the unprincipled Prime Minister? Reappraising Harold Wilson (London 2016)].

However, some aspects of Wilson’s career remain obscure. In my paper to the seminar, what I tried to do was to shed some light on one little known area of Wilson’s career – his period as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (1959-63). Wilson took on the role unusually in combination with his roles in the Shadow Cabinet. He left it to become leader of the Labour party and what my paper tried to show was that there were links between the work he did at the Committee and his work as an opposition politician.

As Chair of the Committee, Wilson questioned civil servants about major projects and programmes of work where value for money had been compromised. These instances could range from individual misconduct – such as the failure of the Ministry of Aviation’s procedures to stop civil servants acting corruptly – to more systematic failings, like the Ministry of Transport’s failure to budget successfully for the construction of roads. Wilson’s committee was supported by the Exchequer and Audit Department who collected evidence for their inquiries and issued bipartisan reports.

This all may sound fairly interesting to a historian of administration but not to a historian of politics or of Wilson, but Wilson’s period as Chair was significant in three ways. Firstly it enabled him to build up a reputation as an impartial, expert critic of the government. Secondly it gave him a critique of government policy that he could turn into the language of partisanship – railing against Tory waste and incompetence. Later Wilson could bind this into an attack on Alec Douglas-Home and his match stick approach to economics. Lastly Wilson’s tenure on the committee informed his own attitudes to Parliamentary and especially select committee reform.

Our discussion of Wilson’s time at PAC was really interesting. I had focussed very much on Wilson’s own use of and interest in the committee, what I found fascinating was that the discussion focussed on broadening out the scope of what I was thinking about – for example people were asking about how Wilson got away with what he was doing on PAC, were others aware of his work, was this model of chairing a precedent for future chairs? Some of these questions are by their nature unanswerable or hard to answer given the evidence but they have made me think about how I develop this project in the future.

HM

Join us tonight for the latest seminar: Henrik Schoenefeldt (University of Kent) will speak on ‘The challenges of designing the House of Lords’ nineteenth-century ventilation system: a study of a political design process, 1840-47.’ Full details here.

 

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