258. Message From Prime Minister Wilson to President Johnson1

I think I ought to tell you that I have decided to advise the Queen to dissolve Parliament and to hold an immediate general election. This is being announced tomorrow (Monday) just after mid day your time, and the election will take place on March 31.

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I do not need to worry you with all the reasons why I have reached this conclusion. As a more accomplished politician you may possibly have reached the same conclusion before I did. But although we have managed to do everything that we tried to do with our majority—the smallest majority in British Parliamentary history—I think we are moving into a period where the things we are going to want to do may be more difficult. We want to toughen up and speed the measures needed to strengthen our economy and this will mean some pretty tough confrontations with various vested interests.

These confrontations will be easier if we can get a more substantial mandate and if there is not expectation of an early election. I don’t know whether you are fortunate or unfortunate in having a fixed election date. In our case the so-called freedom a Prime Minister has is somewhat limited. If I do not do it now, the whole of the spring and late summer, because of holidays and other reasons, will be closed to me and I might become a prisoner of a very constricted Parliamentary situation just at the moment of time when we want to put on the legislative heat. Moreover, I am, of course, at the mercy of the Almighty in respect of the deaths of sick M.P.s. So far he has been extremely merciful but should he become more unselective in his choice of legislative advisers, I might be left with a long period with no majority at all when I want it most.

I am not proposing to ask you to come and help us during the election. There are, of course, abundant precedents. Eisenhower in 1955 agreed to Eden’s request for an early Summit meeting to which in fact Eisenhower was strongly opposed. In 1959 he conferred the same electoral benefit on Macmillan and indeed allowed himself to be toted through 14 London marginal constituencies in an open car with Macmillan beside him. I have no such requests except that if you were thinking of doing anything which might be positively unhelpful, I hope that you would at any rate give me a little notice.

Heath is now attacking our defence review on the grounds that it drives us too closely into relations with you. Douglas-Home in a presumably ghosted article in today’s Sunday Express listing the election issues, calls on the electors to vote Conservative so that we do not accept satellite status to the United States. I have no doubt that this will be one of their themes and that they will make an appeal to the latent anti-Americanism amongst some of our electorate which they called into being with some success at the time of Suez. If I took this particular threat seriously, I might suggest to you that we should have a row in order to help me, but quite honestly I cannot think of anything to have a row about. Should you think of a suitable subject you will no doubt let me know.

It may be that during the next four weeks difficulties may arise and as I am very anxious to safeguard our future relations not only bilaterally [Page 532] but within the Alliance generally, you may find me getting in touch with you. If I get too hysterical you will no doubt dismiss it as the election fever. Quite honestly you may find me, if driven, taking a slightly anti-German line. If I have to employ xenophobia, which I hope will not be necessary, I would rather it be of that variety than the Tory anti-Americanism, and the Germans have been warned that this is possible since they quite unscrupulously attacked me in their last election as a means of discrediting the S.P.D. I did not react at the time because I know what politicians are like during elections, though I made it clear to them that I reserved the same right when the time came. But I would hope it would not go too far.

The other big issue relates to sterling. Election speculation has led to a little weakness in the last week or two because elections mean instability and also because there has been some fear that if the Conservatives got in they would do what we did not do and devalue sterling on the day they took office blaming it on their predecessors. But now the expectation of a Conservative victory is quite small. The polls give us an all-time high in our lead and the betting odds are 6-1 on Labour, 7-2 against Tories. I am not, however, as complacent as this since an expectation of easy victory leads some times to people not bothering to vote. After all there is 1948 in your country as a warning to me.

So far as sterling is concerned I am convinced an early election is essential. If we do not go now we shall have a continual period of electioneering through the spring, summer and autumn which could have a more serious effect on sterling. Moreover my colleagues and I feel that we may need tougher measures and these would be easier in a post-election rather than pre-election situation, though we do not intend during the election to disguise from the electors the seriousness of the situation and what measures we may have to take.

I am sorry to trouble you with all these arguments about our internal situation and I am addressing them to you less in your capacity as head of government than in your other capacity as a full-time student of political affairs. But during the next month we may need to be in touch with you should the election situation create difficulties which may have more prolonged effects either bilaterally or in the wider field of international affairs.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 70 D 209, United Kingdom. No classification marking. A notation on the message indicates the President saw it.