Harold Wilson

The Rt Hon. Sir Harold Wilson

Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom


First term  October 16, 1964 - June 19, 1970
Preceded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Succeeded by Sir Edward Heath
Second term  March 4, 1974 - April 5, 1976
Preceded by Sir Edward Heath
Succeeded by Sir James Callaghan
Date of birth March 11 1916
Place of birth Huddersfield, Yorkshire
Date of death May 24, 1995
Place of death London
Party Labour
Retirement honours: Knighthood of the Garter
Life Barony (Wilson of Rievaulx)

This article is about the British politician. For the Olympic silver medallist, see Harold A. Wilson.

The Right Honourable James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (March 11, 1916May 24, 1995) was one of the most successful Labour Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and a 1960s icon. Wilson is regarded by many as probably one of the more intellectual politicians of the century.


Birth and Early Life

Wilson was born in Huddersfield in 1916, an almost exact contemporary of his great rival, Edward Heath. He came from a political family, his father Herbert having been active in the Liberal Party and then joined the Labour Party. When Harold was eight, he visited London and was photographed standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street.

Wilson passed the 11-plus examination and won a scholarship to attend the local grammar school. His education was disrupted in 1931 when he contracted typhoid fever after drinking contaminated milk on a Scouts' outing and took months to recover. The next year his father, working as an industrial chemist, was made redundant and moved to the Wirral to find work. Wilson attended the sixth form at the local grammar school, Wirral Grammar School for Boys, where he became head boy. Wilson did well at school and won a scholarship to study history at Jesus College, Oxford from 1934.

At Oxford, Wilson was moderately active in politics as a member of the Liberal Party but was later influenced by G. D. H. Cole to join the Labour Party. After his first year, he changed his degree to philosophy, politics and economics, and he graduated with an outstanding first class degree. He continued in academe, becoming one of the youngest Oxford University dons of the century.

Wilson was a lecturer in economics at New College in 1937 and a lecturer in economic history at University College from 1938 (and was a fellow of the latter college, 1938-45. For much of this time, he was a research assistant to William Beveridge on unemployment and the trade cycle.

On the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered for service but was classed as a specialist and moved into the Civil Service instead. Most of his war was spent as a statistician and economist for the coal industry. He was Director of Economics and Statatistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, 1943-4. He was to remain passionately interested in statistics for the rest of his life. As President of the Board of Trade, he was the driving force behind the Statistics of Trade Act 1947, which is still the legal authority used to collect most economic statistics in Great Britain. As Prime Minister, he was instrumental in appointing Claus Moser as head of the Central Statistical Office. He was president of the Royal Statistical Society in 1972-3.

In Parliament

As the war drew to an end, he began searching for a seat to fight at the impending general election. Eventually he was selected for Ormskirk, which was then held by Stephen King-Hall. Wilson accidentally agreed to be adopted as the candidate immediately rather than delay until the election was called, and was therefore compelled to resign from the Civil Service. He used the time in between to write A New Deal for Coal which used his wartime experience to argue for nationalisation of the coal mines on the basis of improved efficiency.

In the 1945 general election, Wilson won his seat in line with the Labour landslide. To his surprise he was immediately appointed to the Government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. Two years later he became Secretary for Overseas Trade, in which capacity he made several trips to the Soviet Union to negotiate supplies. Opponents would later class these trips as suspicious.

On October 14, 1947, Wilson was appointed President of the Board of Trade and became the youngest member of the Cabinet in the 20th century. He took a lead in abolishing some of the wartime rationing, which he referred to as a "bonfire of controls". In the general election of 1950, his constituency was altered and he was narrowly elected for the new seat of Huyton.

Wilson was becoming known as a left-winger and joined Aneurin Bevan in resigning from the government in April 1951 in protest at the introduction of NHS medical charges in order to meet the financial demands imposed on the budget by the Korean War. After the Labour Party lost the general election later that year, he was made Chairman of Bevan's "Keep Left" group, but shortly thereafter he distanced himself from Bevan. By coincidence, it was Bevan's further resignation from the Shadow Cabinet in 1954 that put him back on the front bench.


He soon proved a very effective Shadow Minister. One of his procedural moves caused the loss of the Government's Finance Bill in 1955, and his speeches as Shadow Chancellor from 1956 were widely praised for their clarity and wit. He coined the term "Gnomes of Zurich" to describe Swiss bankers whom he accused of pushing the pound down by speculation. In the meantime, he conducted an inquiry into the Labour Party's organisation following its defeat in the 1955 general election, which made several useful recommendations for improvements. Unusually, Wilson combined the job of Chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee with that of Shadow Chancellor from 1959.

Wilson was still identified with the Left, and launched an opportunistic but unsuccessful challenge to the Leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1960 after the Labour Party's 1959 defeat and Gaitskell's unpopular move to ditch Clause Four. He also challenged for the Deputy Leadership in 1962 but was defeated by George Brown. Because of these challenges, he was moved to the position of Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963, just as the Labour Party had begun to unite and look like it had a good chance of being elected to government. Wilson became the left candidate for the leadership, and defeated Brown. He coordinated Labour's response to the Profumo Affair, in which he made some political capital without getting the party involved in the less salubrious aspects. At the Labour Party conference later in 1963, he made a very significant speech in which he claimed "the Britain that will be forged in the white heat of (the scientific and technical) revolution will have no place for restrictive practices and outdated measures on either side of industry". This speech did much to set Wilson's reputation as a classless technocrat.

In September 1971, Wilson outlined his plans to unite Ireland, in response to the worsening political situation there. He set a target of 1986 for the British withdrawal. However, on his return to power, he did not act on these plans.

Prime Minister

In 1964, Wilson narrowly won the general election with a majority of 5 and became Prime Minister. This was not sufficient to last for a full term and after a short period of competent government, in March 1966 he won re-election with a landslide majority of 99. He was soon a familiar figure, known for his pipe-smoking, his Gannex raincoat, and his habit of taking holidays in the Isles of Scilly. On 1 June, 2005, files were released showing that Wilson was concerned that while on the Isles of Scilly, he was being monitored by Russian ships disguised as trawlers. MI5 found no evidence of this, but told him not to use a walkie-talkie.

As prime minister, his opponents accused him of deviousness, especially over the matter of devaluation of the pound in November 1967. Wilson had rejected devaluation for many years, yet in his broadcast had seemed to present it as a triumph.

During his first period of office, Wilson's government set up the Open University, which he would come to regard as his own greatest achievement.

Overseas, Wilson was troubled by crises in several of Britain's former colonies, especially Rhodesia and South Africa. Wilson gave diplomatic support but resisted pressure for military support to America in the Vietnam War. In addition to the damage done to its reputation by devaluation, Wilson's government suffered from the perception that its response to industrial relations problems was inadequate. A six-week strike of members of the National Union of Seamen, which began shortly after Wilson' re-election in 1966, did much to reinforce this perception, along with Wilson's own sense of insecurity in office.

In 1967, Wilson sued pop group The Move for libel after the band's manager published a promotional postcard for the single "Flowers In The Rain", which featured a cartoon caricature that depicted Wilson in bed with his reputed mistress. Wilson won the case and all royalties from the song (composed by Roy Wood), were assigned to a charity of Wilson's choosing. Remarkably, this arrangement remains in place a decade after Wilson's death.

By 1969 the Labour Party was suffering serious mid-term electoral reverses. In June 1970, Wilson responded to an apparent recovery in his government's popularity by calling a general election, but, to the surprise of almost all observers, was swept from power on a tide of anti-Labour feeling. Despite the shock defeat, Wilson survived as leader of the party and returned to 10 Downing Street in 1974, after his successor, Edward Heath, had failed to deal adequately with problems similar to those he had faced.

Wilson coined the term Selsdon Man to refer to the anti-interventionist policies of the Conservative leader Edward Heath developed at the Selsdon Park Hotel in early 1970. This phrase is the genesis of the habit of British political commentators of describing political developments by suffixing the word man (eg Essex man), comparable with the (originally American) practice of identifying scandals by suffixing the word gate. Wilson's most famous attributed quote is 'A week is a long time in politics' around the time of the devaluation of the pound – this is taken to mean that a government doing badly at the beginning of a week may be doing well at the end and vice-versa. Other memorable phrases attributed to Wilson include the comment he made to attempt to reassure the British public after the 1967 devaluation of the pound: "This does not mean that the pound here in Britain — in your pocket or purse — is worth any less...", usually now quoted as "the pound in your pocket".

In May 1974 he condemned the unionist-controlled Ulster Workers' Strike as a "sectarian strike" which was "being done for sectarian purposes having no relation to this century but only to the seventeenth century. However he refused to pressure a reluctant British army to face down the unionist paramilitaries who were intimidating utility workers. In a later television speech he referred to the "loyalist" strikers and their supporters as "spongers" who expected Britain to pay for their lifestyles. The strike was eventually successful in collapsing the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive, prompting Idi Amin to telegram Wilson, offering to host a peace conference in Uganda.


Missing image
Arms of Harold Wilson

On March 16, 1976, Wilson shocked the nation by announcing his resignation as prime minister and his intention to retire from politics altogether. He claimed that this was a step he had always planned to take when he reached the age of sixty and that he was physically and mentally exhausted. In reality he was probably aware that he was suffering from the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer's disease as both his memory and powers of concentration, which up until this point had been excellent, were now starting to fail him drastically.

Queen Elizabeth II came to dine at 10 Downing Street to mark his resignation, an honour she has bestowed on only one other prime minister, Winston Churchill.

Wilson's resignation honours list included many businessmen and showbusiness stars along with his political supporters, and caused lasting damage to his reputation when it was revealed that the first draft of the list had been written by Marcia Williams on lavender notepaper (it became known as the Lavender List). Some of those Wilson honoured were later revealed to have been corrupt, including Lord Kagan who went to jail for fraud and Sir Eric Miller who committed suicide while under investigation.

Six candidates stood in the first ballot to replace him: Tony Benn, James Callaghan, Anthony Crosland, Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins. Jenkins was initially tipped as the favourite but only came third on the initial ballot. In the final ballot, on the evening of 5 April, Callaghan defeated Foot by 176-137 parliamentary votes and became Wilson's successor as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party.

As Wilson wished to remain an MP after leaving office he was not offered the customary peerage offered to retired prime ministers, but instead was created a Knight of the Garter. On leaving the House of Commons in 1983 he was created Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.


Not long after Wilson's retirement, his mental deterioration from Alzheimer's disease began to be apparent. He rarely appeared in public after 1985 and died of colon cancer in 1995, at the age of 79. He is buried on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly.

MI5 plot?

Apparently in 1963, Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn secretly claimed that Wilson was a KGB agent. The majority of intelligence officers did not believe that Golitsyn was a genuine defector but a significant number did (most prominently James Jesus Angleton, CIA deputy director of counter-intelligence) and factional strife broke out between the two groups. The book Spycatcher (an exposé of MI5) alleged that 30 MI5 agents then collaborated in an attempt to undermine Wilson. The author Peter Wright (a former member of MI5) later claimed that his ghostwriter had written 30 when he had meant 3. Many of Wright's claims are controversial, and a Ministerial statement has been made that an internal investigation failed to find any evidence to support the allegations. In March 1987, James Miller, a former MI5 agent, claimed that MI5 had encouraged the Ulster Worker's Council general strike in 1974 in order to destabilise Wilson's government.

Harold Wilson's First Cabinet 1964-1970

Harold Wilson's Second Government March 1974 - April 1976


  • October 1974 - John Silkin although working to the Secretary of State for Environment enters the cabinet as Minister of Planning and Local Government.
  • June 1975 - Fred Mulley succeeds Reginald Prentice as Secretary for Education and Science. Prentice becomes Secretary for Overseas Development. Tony Benn succeeds Eric Varley as Secretary for Energy. Varley succeeds Benn as Secretary for Industry.

Titles from birth to death

Preceded by:
Stafford Cripps
President of the Board of Trade
Succeeded by:
Hartley William Shawcross
Preceded by:
Hugh Gaitskell
Leader of the British Labour Party
Succeeded by:
James Callaghan
Preceded by:
Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Prime Minister
Succeeded by:
Edward Heath
Preceded by:
Edward Heath
Prime Minister
Succeeded by:
James Callaghan

Template:End box

See also

eo:Harold WILSON fr:Harold Wilson he:הרולד_וילסון ja:ハロルド・ウィルソン pl:Harold Wilson fi:Harold Wilson sv:Harold Wilson



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