The first subject in an occasional series of short biographies of former prominent Yorkshire politicians is Harold Wilson. A man of notable intellect and charisma, he served as prime minister on two separate occasions; the first from 1964 to 1970 and then again from 1974 to 1976. His tenure was marked by a tumultuous period of change and transformation, both in the UK and on the global stage.
History, however, has not always been kind to Wilson and – Tony Blair apart – he is probably the party leader most reviled by Labour’s left wing. His eventual downfall was brought about by both the Bennite left and the (Roy) Jenkinsite right who, in the best political tradition, were happy to “destroy the reputation of the government in which they had served, and of the man who had promoted them both … in their fight for a different kind of Labour, their version of progressive politics” (Jonathan Freedland).
Early life and education
Harold Wilson was born on 11 March 1916, in Huddersfield. His father, James Herbert Wilson, was a chemist and his mother, Ethel Seddon, was a schoolteacher. Young Harold’s upbringing was shaped by the economic hardships of the interwar years, in response to which he developed a keen sense of social justice and a commitment to improving the lives of working-class people.
Wilson’s academic prowess was evident from an early age. He attended Royds Hall Grammar School in Huddersfield and later won a scholarship to study at Jesus College, Oxford. At Oxford, he excelled in economics and politics, gaining a first-class degree in philosophy, politics and economics. It was during this time that he joined the Labour Club and began to develop his political ideology as a committed socialist.
The early years in politics
After completing his studies at Oxford, Wilson briefly worked there as a lecturer in economics, before entering politics. He unsuccessfully contested the Ormskirk constituency in the 1935 general election and then served as a research assistant to William Beveridge, who was instrumental in developing the welfare state. This experience further deepened Wilson’s commitment to social reform and his belief in the power of government to effect positive change.
During the second world war, Wilson worked for the civil service in various capacities, including as an economist and statistician. He gained a reputation for his analytical skills and ability to work across party lines. His wartime experiences provided him with valuable insights into the workings of government and bureaucracy.
On January 1, 1940, at the Mansfield College chapel in Oxford, Wilson married Mary Baldwin, a union that endured until his death. Mary made her mark as a published poet. The couple had two sons, Robin and Giles, with Robin pursuing a career as a mathematics professor, while Giles ventured into teaching before eventually becoming a train driver.
Rise in the Labour Party
In 1945, Wilson was elected as the MP for Ormskirk, Lancashire, a seat he would hold until 1950 when boundary changes led to its abolition. However, he quickly found a new constituency in nearby Huyton, on the outskirts of Liverpool, which he represented until his retirement from politics. Within the Labour Party, Wilson’s rise was meteoric. He was recognised for his intellectual prowess and became a prominent figure in the party’s leadership.
In the late 1950s, the Labour Party was in opposition and Wilson was instrumental in shaping its policies and strategies. He advocated for a modernised party that could appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, not just the traditional working-class base. His vision, often described as ‘pragmatic socialism’, aimed to combine traditional Labour values with economic efficiency and technological progress. One of his most famous quotations puts this quite succinctly yet extremely forcefully: “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects change is the cemetery.”
Becoming prime minister
The 1964 general election marked a turning point in Wilson’s career. The Labour Party, under his leadership, won a narrow victory and on 16 October 1964, Wilson became the prime minister of the United Kingdom. His first term in office was characterised by a commitment to social reform and a desire to modernise British society.
One of Wilson’s early accomplishments was the launch of the Open University in 1969, which aimed to provide higher education to people who did not have access to traditional universities. This initiative embodied his belief in equal opportunities and social mobility.
However, Wilson’s first term was also marked by economic challenges, including the devaluation of the pound in 1967 and ongoing industrial disputes. Despite these challenges, his government was re-elected in 1966 with a larger majority, a testament to his political skills and appeal.
Years in opposition and return to power
The 1970 general election saw the Conservative Party, led by Edward Heath, come to power, and Wilson and Labour found themselves in opposition. During these years, Wilson continued to lead the party, offering a strong critique of Heath’s policies, particularly in the context of Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).
In February 1974, Wilson’s leadership took centre stage once again. The general election resulted in a hung parliament and Wilson was called upon to form a minority government. This marked the beginning of his second term as prime minister, a period in which he faced some of the greatest challenges of his career.
Challenges and achievements in the second term
The Labour government was elected on an agreement with the Trade Union Congress (TUC) promising a redistribution of income and wealth, known as the Social Contract, whereby in exchange for union cooperation on the control of wages and incorporating improved social welfare, Labour promised action on prices and a ‘social wage’. A National Enterprise Board and compulsory planning agreements with private industry were created.
One of the most significant challenges, however, was the economic crisis which gripped the country at this time, including high inflation and rising unemployment. The government immediately began to marginalise the commitments in the Social Contract in favour of preferences for income policy and public expenditure cuts. These solutions, though, were often deeply contentious.
Another major issue was the question of Britain’s membership in the EEC, which had been a contentious matter for years. In 1975, Wilson called for a referendum on EEC membership, allowing the British people to decide. The result was a decisive vote in favour of remaining in the EEC, reflecting Wilson’s pragmatic approach to European integration.
Wilson’s second term also saw the emergence of the Scottish and Welsh devolution movements, which called for greater self-governance for these regions. Although Wilson was initially cautious about devolution, he eventually supported the idea and played a role in the passage of the Scotland and Wales Acts in 1978.
Retirement and legacy
In March 1976, Wilson shocked the nation by announcing his resignation as prime minister and leader of the Labour Party, citing health reasons. He was succeeded by James Callaghan in both roles. Wilson’s retirement marked the end of an era in British politics.
After his retirement, Wilson remained active in public life, writing books, delivering lectures, and serving on various boards and committees. He was made a life peer in the House of Lords, taking the title Baron Wilson of Rievaulx.
He died on 24 May 1995, at the age of 79. His legacy in British politics endures.
During his time as prime minister, Wilson faced substantial criticism from the left wing of the Labour Party. The primary areas of contention included his perceived moderate economic policies, which were criticised for not being sufficiently interventionist to advance socialist economic goals and his government’s handling of issues such as inflation and unemployment.
Critics from the left also accused Wilson’s government of being too aligned with corporate interests, compromising the party’s socialist principles. Additionally, his stance on international matters, particularly the Vietnam War, drew criticism for not being forceful enough in condemning US involvement, while some on the left were disappointed with his approach to nuclear disarmament and the perceived lack of commitment to peace.
His support for Britain’s continued membership in the EEC was another source of controversy on the left, with some viewing the EEC as representing capitalist interests. Left-wing dissent within the party was also seen by some as being suppressed, and there was a perception that he lacked a clear socialist vision, compromising too readily and not pushing aggressively enough for transformative socialist policies.
Wilson, though, did garner support from the right wing of the Labour Party, with his leadership style and policies finding favour among them. His ability to secure electoral victories in 1964, 1966 and 1974, by appealing to a broad spectrum of voters, was highly praised. Wilson’s pragmatic political approach, striking a balance between traditional Labour values and broader appeal, was seen as necessary for effective governance, and his commitment to modernisation and reform, though not radical, was considered valuable.
Balancing a broad church
Some on the right lauded his economic policies for maintaining relative stability during challenging times and preventing more severe economic crises. Wilson’s adept management of internal party divisions, support for Nato and a strong defence policy, willingness to hold a referendum on EEC membership, introduction of progressive social reforms such as the Open University, and steady leadership during global change, including the Cold War and decolonisation, all earned him praise from the right wing of the Labour Party.
Whatever your view, Harold Wilson was a major figure in British political history, a man who rose from modest Yorkshire beginnings to become a two-time prime minister. His career was marked by a commitment to social reform, economic modernisation and a pragmatic approach to politics. These are issues that resonate strongly with the position of the Labour Party under leader Sir Keir Starmer today, as it seeks to become the party of government over the next twelve months.