241. Telegram 4202 From the Embassy in the United Kingdom to the Department of State1
CINCUSAFE, USDOCOAIRSOUTH and CINCEUR for POLADS. Subject: Why Wilson Resigned and Some Implications. Ref: (A) London 4122 (NOTAL); (B) London 4140 (NOTAL); (C) State 64364.
Summary—In our view, Prime Minister Wilson resigned precisely for those reasons stated in his official statement: at age 60 he had led Labor Party for 13 years, 8 of them as Prime Minister; he did not wish to deny others a chance to serve; he felt it essential to allow successor to have time to make his (or her) imprint on government and party before facing general election; and he was concerned that continuation in office might preclude searching consideration of new solutions to recurring problems. We discount totally other reasons which have been suggested in public and private speculation. Health, last week’s left-wing revolt, family pressures, or incipient scandal, among them. Foreign Secretary Callaghan is favorite to succeed Wilson but his election is by no means assured. Chancellor Healey, Employment Secretary Foot and Home Secretary Jenkins are other leading contenders. Whoever is selected, however, can probably count on honeymoon period in terms of internal Labor Party strife—Wilson resignation will be factor for cohesion. We also take issue with several specific points raised in INR’s assessment (reftel C). End summary.
1. Wilson’s March 16 announcement of his intention to resign as soon as Labor Party can choose successor came as surprise to everyone but Queen and his closest personal advisors whom he informed last December. Latter group included George Thomas, now Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Goodman (his attorney), Joe Haines (press advisor) and Deputy Leader Ted Short. Foreign Secretary Callaghan, who appears to be Wilson’s personal preference to succeed him, was also advised several days in advance, perhaps over previous weekend.[Typeset Page 765]
2. Wilson’s formal announcement set forth four basic reasons for his decision, allegedly taken in March 1974, to resign near his sixtieth birthday which occurred last week. They were:
—He had led Labor Party for 13 years, 8 of them as Prime Minister, longer than any peacetime predecessor this century, and served on the Front Bench nearly 30 years;
—He had duty to country and party not to remain in office so long that others were denied chance to lead (at this point he made particular reference to age factor, asserting that while 60 was proper age for him to retire, it should have no bearing on question of his successor—this was generally regarded as boost for Callaghan who will be 64 this month);
—This is proper time for change, as it will allow successor to make his (or her) mark on government and party before having to face general election, and not prejudice next month’s budget or upcoming negotiations with unions over next round of wage restraints; and
—He believes there is danger, to which he had always been alert, that long-time incumbents tend not to give fresh consideration to recurring problems.
3. Announcement immediately sparked speculation as to “real” reasons for Wilson’s resignation—poor health, family pressures, last week’s left-wing revolt which necessitated confidence vote and impending scandal involving Wilson were among the more popular possibilities suggested. Wilson denied them all, except the scandal hypothesis which was not raised publicly. His health, he said, was excellent, and he cited his last medical examination in support. His robust appearance provides further substantiation, if such is necessary. Family pressures, he said, played no role in his decision, and he asserted that “I always make such decisions in my family.” This too would seem to be supported by observation during his 30 years in the public eye. He explicitly discounted suggestions that last week’s revolt by tribune group MPS and the subsequent vote of confidence had anything to do with his decision. Indeed, he hinted that the rebellion and concern that resignation might weaken the pound on international financial markets actually delayed his announcement (we believe this to be the case). Some private speculation has centered on possible (but undefined) scandal involving Wilson, though there is not one shred of evidence that would support this suggestion.
4. We are inclined to accept reasons set forth in Wilson’s statement at face value, adding only that throughout his long career he has had a penchant for the surprise masterstroke which left his adversaries confounded and, on closer examination, proved to be a brilliant maneuver. His snap resignation may well come to be regarded as one of his most astute moves. As he noted, it will give his successor a chance to make [Typeset Page 766] his mark before elections. It should also increase internal cohesion, at least in short run. His successor is likely to enjoy a honeymoon period respite from Labor’s left/right feuding, since all elements of the party are acutely aware that a general election immediately following a change in leadership could prove disastrous. TUC will be particularly conscious of this factor and it may well have bearing on outcome of government/TUC negotiations over next round of wage restraints. Finally, resignation provides a perfect opportunity to replace several of the older Cabinet members (e.g., Ted Short, Barbara Castle, Fred Peart, William Ross) without disturbing Labor’s narrow majority.
5. It is too early to predict who will eventually emerge as next leader—indeed the candidates have yet to be identified—though Callaghan remains clear favorite. Other principal contenders, in accord with our current assessment of relative strength, are: Chancellor Healey, Employment Secretary Foot and Home Secretary Jenkins (Callaghan, Foot, and Tony Benn have already announced). Foot will clearly be strongest and perhaps only viable left-wing candidate. Jenkins may well run ahead of Healey on first ballot, but we believe latter is more likely to attract additional support in successive rounds, should they prove necessary. Other prospective candidates, all of whom must be considered long shots, include: Environment Secretary Crosland and Prices Secretary Shirley Williams.
6. INR’s initial assessment (reftel C) arrived as this cable was being prepared. We would take exception to following points therein:
—Wilson’s closest confidants, in addition to Queen, have been aware for several months of his intention to resign near his sixtieth birthday;
—Best explanation for resignation is the simplest, i.e., Wilson’s own publicly announced reasons; recent left-wing revolt, if it had any effect, merely delayed announcement a few days;
—Michael Foot is favorite candidate of left-wing; Benn’s candidacy will enjoy substantial left-wing support only if Foot does not stand;
—While Healey’s brutal attack of last week on left-wing has hurt his chances, he cannot be entirely discounted if Callaghan fails to win on first ballot, especially if, as has been reported by some parliamentary Labor Party sources, Michael Foot would prefer him to Callaghan; Healey also enjoys close relationship with TUC leader Jack Jones;
—Election of new leader is likely to have positive effect on party cohesion, at least through October and perhaps later;
—While Conservative leader Thatcher has already called for general election, government will resist and we believe prospects for early election are remote; moreover, assumptions about outcome of general[Typeset Page 767]
election based on projection of five percent swing to conservatives are misleading, if only because of highly volatile situation in Scotland.
Summary: The Embassy discussed the reasons behind, and implications of, Wilson’s resignation as Prime Minister.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1976, [no film number]. Confidential; Priority. Sent priority for information to Bonn, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, The Hague, Luxembourg, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Helsinki, Cairo, New Delhi, Tokyo, Peking, the Mission to the EC, the Mission to NATO the Mission to the OECD, CINCUSAFE, USDOCOSOUTH, USCINCEUR, CINCUSNAVEUR, CINCUSAREUR, and USNMR SHAPE. Wilson resigned on March 16; Callaghan took over as Prime Minister on April 5. In telegram 5600 from London, April 9, the Embassy concluded that Callaghan would “have little room to maneuver and that his capacity to impose significant change on current government policies and programs, should he desire to do so, will be severely limited.” (Ibid.)↩