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Harold Wilson

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The Right Honourable

The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx

Wilson in March 1964
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
4 March 1974 – 5 April 1976
Monarch Elizabeth II
Preceded by Edward Heath
Succeeded by James Callaghan
In office
16 October 1964 – 19 June 1970
Monarch Elizabeth II
Preceded by Alec Douglas-Home
Succeeded by Edward Heath
Leader of the Opposition
In office
19 June 1970 – 4 March 1974
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Edward Heath
Preceded by Edward Heath
Succeeded by Edward Heath
In office
14 February 1963 – 16 October 1964
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
Alec Douglas-Home
Preceded by George Brown
Succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home
Shadow Foreign Secretary
In office
2 November 1961 – 14 February 1963
Leader Hugh Gaitskell
George Brown (Acting)
Preceded by Denis Healey
Succeeded by Patrick Gordon Walker
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
14 December 1955 – 2 November 1961
Leader Hugh Gaitskell
Preceded by Hugh Gaitskell
Succeeded by James Callaghan
President of the Board of Trade
In office
29 September 1947 – 25 October 1951
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Stafford Cripps
Succeeded by Hartley Shawcross
Secretary for Overseas Trade
In office
10 July 1947 – 29 September 1947
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Hilary Marquand
Succeeded by Arthur Bottomley
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works
In office
5 July 1945 – 10 July 1947
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Reginald Manningham-Buller
Succeeded by Evan Durbin
Member of Parliament
for Huyton
In office
23 February 1950 – 9 June 1983
Preceded by Constituency established
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Member of Parliament
for Ormskirk
In office
5 July 1945 – 23 February 1950
Preceded by Stephen King-Hall
Succeeded by Ronald Cross
Personal details
Born (1916-03-11)11 March 1916
Huddersfield, United Kingdom
Died 24 May 1995(1995-05-24) (aged 79)
London, United Kingdom
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Mary Baldwin
Alma mater Jesus College, Oxford
Profession Academic
Religion Congregationalist

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British Labour politician. One of the most prominent British politicians of the latter half of the 20th century, he served two terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, first from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1976. He emerged as Prime Minister after more general elections than any other 20th century premier, contesting five general elections and winning four of them (in 1964, 1966, February 1974 and October 1974). He is the most recent British Prime Minister to have served non-consecutive terms.

Harold Wilson first served as Prime Minister in the 1960s, during a period of low unemployment and relative economic prosperity (though also of significant problems with the UK's external balance of payments). His second term in office began in 1974, when a period of economic crisis was beginning to hit most Western countries. On both occasions, economic concerns were to prove a significant constraint on his governments' ambitions. Wilson's own approach to socialism placed emphasis on efforts to increase opportunity within society, for example through change and expansion within the education system, allied to the technocratic aim of taking better advantage of rapid scientific progress, rather than on the left's traditional goal of promoting wider public ownership of industry. While he did not challenge the Party constitution's stated dedication to nationalisation head-on, he took little action to pursue it.

Though generally not at the top of Wilson's personal areas of priority, his first period in office was notable for substantial legal changes in a number of social areas, including the liberalisation of censorship, divorce, homosexuality, immigration and abortion (see Social issues, below), as well as the abolition of capital punishment, due in part to the initiatives of backbench MPs who had the support of Roy Jenkins during his time as Home Secretary.

Overall, Wilson is seen to have managed a number of difficult political issues with considerable tactical skill, including such potentially divisive issues for his party as the role of public ownership, British membership of the European Community, and the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, his stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance remained largely unfulfilled.

Early life

Wilson was born in Huddersfield, England on 11 March 1916, an almost exact contemporary of his rival, Edward Heath (born 9 July 1916). He came from a political family: his father James Herbert Wilson (December 1882–1971) was a works chemist who had been active in the Liberal Party and then joined the Labour Party. His mother Ethel (née Seddon; 1882–1957) was a schoolteacher prior to her marriage. When Wilson was eight, he visited London and a later-to-be-famous photograph was taken of him standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street.


Wilson won a scholarship to attend the local grammar school, Royds Hall Secondary School, Huddersfield. His education was disrupted in October 1930 when he contracted typhoid fever after drinking contaminated milk on a Scouts' outing. It took him three months to recover. In December 1930, his father, working as an industrial chemist, was made redundant and it took him nearly two years to find work. He had to move to Spital on the Wirral in order to do so. Wilson attended the sixth form at the Wirral Grammar School for Boys, where he became Head Boy.

Wilson did well at school and, although he missed getting a scholarship, he obtained an exhibition; which, when topped up by a county grant, enabled him to study Modern 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 field of study to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He graduated with "an outstanding first class Bachelor of Arts degree, with alphas on every paper" in the final examinations a popular urban myth at Oxford University states that Wilson's grade in his final examination was the highest ever recorded up to that date. He also received exceptional testimonials from his tutors, including a comment from one that "he is, far and away, the ablest man I have taught so far".

Although Wilson had two abortive attempts at an All Souls Fellowship, he continued in academia, becoming one of the youngest Oxford University dons of the century at the age of 21. He was a lecturer in Economic History at New College from 1937, and a Research Fellow at University College.


On New Year's Day 1940, in the chapel of Mansfield College, Oxford, he married (Gladys) Mary Baldwin who remained his wife until his death. Mary Wilson became a published poet. They had two sons, Robin and Giles (named after Giles Alington); Robin became a Professor of Mathematics, and Giles became a teacher. Both his sons went to the same independent school, University College School, in Hampstead. In their twenties, his sons were under a kidnap threat from the IRA. After becoming a teacher at a comprehensive school for two years, Giles later returned to teaching, becoming a Maths master at Salisbury Cathedral School, and later, Northcliffe Preparatory School, Nursling, Southampton. In November 2006 it was reported that Giles had given up his teaching job and became a train driver for South West Trains. He is a devotee of rail restoration, specifically the Tarka Line.

Wartime service

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Wilson volunteered for service but was classed as a specialist and moved into the civil service instead. For much of this time, he was a research assistant to William Beveridge, the Master of the College, working on the issues of unemployment and the trade cycle. He later became a statistician and economist for the coal industry. He was Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power 1943–4, and received an OBE for his services.

He was to remain passionately interested in statistics. As President of the Board of Trade, he was the driving force behind the Statistics of Trade Act 1947, which is still the authority governing most economic statistics in Great Britain. He was instrumental as Prime Minister in appointing Claus Moser as head of the Central Statistical Office, and was president of the Royal Statistical Society in 1972–73.

Member of Parliament

As the War drew to an end, he searched for a seat to fight at the impending general election. He was selected for Ormskirk, 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 served as Praelector in Economics at University College between his resignation and his election to the House of Commons. He also used this time 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 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 official trips to the Soviet Union to negotiate supply contracts. Conspiracy-minded commentators would later seek to raise suspicions about these trips.

In government

On 29 September 1947, Wilson was appointed President of the Board of Trade and, at 31, 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". His role in internal debates during the summer of 1949 over whether or not to devalue sterling, in which he was perceived to have played both sides of the issue, tarnished his reputation in both political and official circles. In the general election of 1950, his constituency was altered and he was narrowly elected for the new seat of Huyton, Merseyside.

Wilson was becoming known as a left-winger and joined Aneurin Bevan and John Freeman in resigning from the government in April 1951 in protest at the introduction of National Health Service (NHS) medical charges to meet the financial demands imposed 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 Wilson back on the front bench (as a spokesman, initially, on finance).


Wilson soon proved to be a very effective Shadow Minister. One of his procedural moves caused a delay to the progress 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 compared the Party organisation to an antiquated "penny farthing" bicycle, and made various 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 , holding the chairmanship of the PAC from 1959 to 1963.

Wilson steered a course in intra-party matters in the 1950s and early 1960s which left him neither fully accepted and trusted by either the left or the right within the Labour Party. Despite his earlier association with the left-wing Aneurin Bevan, in 1955 he backed Hugh Gaitskell, who was considered the right-of-centre candidate in internal Labour Party terms, against Bevan for the party leadership He then launched an opportunistic but unsuccessful challenge to Gaitskell in November 1960, in the wake of the Labour Party's 1959 defeat, Gaitskell's controversial attempt to ditch Labour's commitment to nationalisation in the shape of the Party's Clause Four, and Gaitskell's defeat at the 1960 Party Conference over a motion supporting Britain's unilateral nuclear disarmament. Wilson also challenged for the deputy leadership in 1962 but was defeated by George Brown. Following these challenges, he was moved to the position of Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Hugh Gaitskell died unexpectedly in January 1963, just as the Labour Party had begun to unite and appeared to have a good chance of being elected to government, with the Macmillan government running into trouble. Wilson became the left candidate for the leadership. He defeated George Brown, who was hampered by a reputation as an erratic figure and who was mistrusted by the likes of Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland, in a straight contest in the second round of balloting, after James Callaghan, who had entered the race as an alternative to Brown, had been eliminated in the first round.

Wilson's 1964 election campaign was aided by the Profumo Affair, a 1963 ministerial sex scandal that had mortally wounded the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan and was to taint his successor Sir Alec Douglas-Home, even though Home had not been involved in the scandal. Wilson made capital without getting involved in the less salubrious aspects. (Asked for a statement on the scandal, he reportedly said "No comment... in glorious Technicolor!"). Home was an aristocrat who had given up his title as Lord Home to sit in the House of Commons. To Wilson's comment that he was the 14th Earl of Home, Home retorted, "I suppose Mr. Wilson is the fourteenth Mr. Wilson".

At the Labour Party's 1963 annual conference, Wilson made possibly his best-remembered speech, on the implications of scientific and technological change, in which he argued that "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry". This speech did much to set Wilson's reputation as a technocrat not tied to the prevailing class system.

First term as Prime Minister (1964–1970)

Labour won the 1964 general election with a narrow majority of four seats, and Wilson became Prime Minister. This was an insufficient parliamentary majority to last for a full term, and after 18 months, a second election in March 1966 returned Wilson with the much larger majority of 96.

Domestic affairs

Economic policies

In economic terms, Wilson's first three years in office were dominated by an ultimately doomed effort to stave off the devaluation of the pound. He inherited an unusually large external deficit on the balance of trade. This partly reflected the preceding government's expansive fiscal policy in the run-up to the 1964 election, and the incoming Wilson team tightened the fiscal stance in response. Many British economists advocated devaluation, but Wilson resisted, reportedly in part out of concern that Labour, which had previously devalued sterling in 1949, would become tagged as "the party of devaluation".

After a costly battle, market pressures forced the government into devaluation in 1967. Wilson was much criticised for a broadcast in which he assured listeners that the "pound in your pocket" had not lost its value. It was widely forgotten that his next sentence had been "prices will rise". Economic performance did show some improvement after the devaluation, as economists had predicted. The devaluation, with accompanying austerity measures, successfully restored the balance of payments to surplus by 1969. However, this unexpectedly turned into a small deficit again in 1970. The bad figures were announced just before polling in the 1970 general election, and are often cited as one of the reasons for Labour's defeat.

A main theme of Wilson's economic approach was to place enhanced emphasis on "indicative economic planning." He created a new Department of Economic Affairs to generate ambitious targets that were in themselves supposed to help stimulate investment and growth. The government also created a Ministry of Technology (shortened to Mintech) to support the modernisation of industry. Though now out of fashion, faith in this approach was at the time by no means confined to the Labour Party—Wilson built on foundations that had been laid by his Conservative predecessors, in the shape, for example, of the National Economic Development Council (known as "Neddy") and its regional counterparts (the "little Neddies").

Harold and Mary Wilson with Richard and Pat Nixon at the White House in 1970.

The continued relevance of industrial nationalisation (a centerpiece of the post-War Labour government's programme) had been a key point of contention in Labour's internal struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s. Wilson's predecessor as leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had tried in 1960 to tackle the controversy head-on, with a proposal to expunge Clause Four (the public ownership clause) from the party's constitution, but had been forced to climb down. Wilson took a characteristically more subtle approach. He threw the party's left wing a symbolic bone with the renationalisation of the steel industry, but otherwise left Clause Four formally in the constitution but in practice on the shelf. Wilson made periodic attempts to mitigate inflation through wage-price controls, better known in the UK as "prices and incomes policy" (as with indicative planning, such controls—though now generally out of favour—were widely adopted at that time by governments of different ideological complexions, including the Nixon administration in the United States). Partly as a result of this reliance, the government tended to find itself repeatedly injected into major industrial disputes, with late-night "beer and sandwiches at Number Ten" an almost routine culmination to such episodes. Among the more damaging of the numerous strikes during Wilson's periods in office was a six-week stoppage by the National Union of Seamen, beginning shortly after Wilson's re-election in 1966, and conducted, he claimed, by "politically motivated men".

With public frustration over strikes mounting, Wilson's government in 1969 proposed a series of changes to the legal basis for industrial relations (labour law) in the UK, which were outlined in a White Paper " In Place of Strife" put forward by the Employment Secretary Barbara Castle. Following a confrontation with the Trades Union Congress, however, which strongly opposed the proposals, and internal dissent from Home Secretary James Callaghan, the government substantially backed-down from its intentions. Some elements of these changes were subsequently to be revived (in modified form) during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.

Wilson's administration made a variety of changes to the tax system. Largely under the influence of the Hungarian-born economists Nicholas Kaldor and Thomas Balogh, an idiosyncratic "selective employment tax (SET)" was introduced that was designed to tax employment in the service sectors while subsidising employment in manufacturing (the rationale proposed by its economist authors derived largely from claims about potential economies of scale and technological progress, but Wilson in his memoirs stressed the tax's revenue-raising potential). The SET did not long survive the return of a Conservative government. Of longer term significance, Capital Gains Tax (CGT) was introduced for the first time in the UK on 6 April 1965.

Social issues

A number of liberalising social reforms were passed through parliament during Wilson's first period in government. These included the abolition of capital punishment, decriminalisation of sex between men in private, liberalisation of abortion law and the abolition of theatre censorship. The Divorce Reform Act was passed by parliament in 1969 (and came into effect in 1971). Such reforms were mostly via private member's bills on ' free votes' in line with established convention, but the large Labour majority after 1966 was undoubtedly more open to such changes than previous parliaments had been.

Wilson personally, coming culturally from a provincial non-conformist background, showed no particular enthusiasm for much of this agenda (which some linked to the "permissive society"), but the reforming climate was especially encouraged by Roy Jenkins during his period at the Home Office.

Wilson's 1966–70 term witnessed growing public concern over the level of immigration to the United Kingdom. The issue was dramatised at the political level by the famous " Rivers of Blood speech" by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, warning against the dangers of immigration, which led to Powell's dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet. Wilson's government adopted a two-track approach. While condemning racial discrimination (and adopting legislation to make it a legal offence), Wilson's Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced significant new restrictions on the right of immigration to the United Kingdom.

Education policies

Education held special significance for a socialist of Wilson's generation, in view of its role in both opening up opportunities for children from working class backgrounds and enabling the UK to seize the potential benefits of scientific advances. Under the First Wilson Government, for the first time in British history, more money was allocated to education than to defence. Wilson continued the rapid creation of new universities, in line with the recommendations of the Robbins Report, a bipartisan policy already in train when Labour took power. However, the economic difficulties of the period deprived the tertiary system of the resources it needed. Nevertheless, university expansion remained a core policy. One notable effect was the first entry of women into university education in significant numbers.

Wilson also deserves credit for grasping the concept of an Open University, to give adults who had missed out on tertiary education a second chance through part-time study and distance learning. His political commitment included assigning implementation responsibility to Baroness Lee, the widow of Aneurin Bevan, the charismatic leader of Labour's Left wing whom Wilson had joined in resigning from the Attlee cabinet.

Wilson's record on secondary education is, by contrast, highly controversial. A fuller description is in the article Education in England. Two factors played a role. Following the Education Act 1944 there was disaffection with the tripartite system of academically-oriented Grammar schools for a small proportion of "gifted" children, and Technical and Secondary Modern schools for the majority of children. Pressure grew for the abolition of the selective principle underlying the " eleven plus", and replacement with Comprehensive schools which would serve the full range of children (see the article Debates on the grammar school). Comprehensive education became Labour Party policy. From 1966 to 1970, the proportion of children in comprehensive schools increased from about 10% to over 30%.

Labour pressed local authorities to convert grammar schools, many of them cherished local institutions, into comprehensives. Conversion continued on a large scale during the subsequent Conservative Heath administration, although the Secretary of State, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, ended the compulsion of local governments to convert. While the proclaimed goal was to level school quality up, many felt that the grammar schools' excellence was being sacrificed with little to show in the way of improvement of other schools. Critically handicapping implementation, economic austerity meant that schools never received sufficient funding.

A second factor affecting education was change in teacher training, including introduction of "progressive" child-centred methods, abhorred by many established teachers. In parallel, the profession became increasingly politicised. The status of teaching suffered and is still recovering.

Few nowadays question the unsatisfactory nature of secondary education in 1964. Change was overdue. However, the manner in which change was carried out is certainly open to criticism. The issue became a priority for ex-Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher when she came to office as prime minister in 1979.

Another major controversy of the first Wilson term was the decision that the government could not fulfil its long-held promise to raise the school leaving age to 16, due to the investment required in infrastructure such as extra classrooms and teachers. Baroness Lee considered resigning in protest, but narrowly decided against this in the interests of party unity. It was left to Margaret Thatcher to carry out the change, during the Heath government.

In 1966, Wilson was created the first Chancellor of the newly created University of Bradford, a position he held until 1985.

Domestic policy accomplishments of the 1964–70 government

In spite of the economic difficulties faced by the first Wilson Government, it was able to achieve important advances in a number of domestic policy areas. As reflected by Harold Wilson in 1971,

"It was a government which faced disappointment after disappointment and none greater than the economic restraints in our ability to carry through the social revolution to which we were committed at the speed we would have wished. Yet, despite those restraints and the need to transfer resources from domestic expenditure, private and public, to the needs of our export markets, we carried through an expansion in the social services, health, welfare and housing, unparallelled in our history".

Upon taking office, prescription charges for medicines were abolished immediately by the government and pensions were raised to their highest level in history at 21% of average male industrial wages. In 1966, the system of national assistance (a social assistance scheme for the poor) was overhauled and renamed Supplementary Benefit. The means test was replaced with a statement of income, and benefit rates for pensioners (the great majority of claimants) were increased, granting them a real gain in income. Before the 1966 election, the widow’s pension was tripled and redundancy payments for laid-off workers were introduced. Due to austerity measures following an economic crisis, prescription charges were re-introduced in 1968 as an alternative to cutting a hospital building programme, although those sections of the population who were most in need (including supplementary benefit claimants, the long-term sick, children, and pensioners) were exempted from charges. A new system for settling teachers’ pay was also established, whilst the widow’s earning rule was abolished.

Housing construction was markedly increased, and the proportion of council housing rose from 42% to 50% of the total. The number of council homes built increased steadily under the First Wilson Government, from 119,000 in 1964 to 133,000 in 1965 and to 142,000 in 1966. Allowing for demolitions, 1.3 million new homes were built between 1965 and 1970. To encourage home ownership, the government introduced the Option Mortgage Scheme (1968), which made low-income housebuyers eligible for subsidies (equivalent to tax relief on mortgage interest payments).

More new houses were built between 1964 and 1970 than in the last six years of the previous conservative government, and a great deal of emphasis was placed on town planning and other forms of planning, with new conservation areas introduced and a new generation of new towns built, notably Milton Keynes. The government also switched from encouraging the construction of cheap, high-density and often high-rise council-house building to instead subsidising the renovation of old houses, rather than destruction and replacement.

Increased funds were allocated to social services during the First Wilson Government's time in office. Between 1963 and 1968, spending on housing increased by 9.6%, social security by 6.6%, health by 6%, and education by 6.9%, while from 1964 to 1967 social spending increased by 45%.

The Leasehold Reform Act (1967) was passed in order to enable holders of long leases to purchase the freehold of their homes. This legislation provided about one million leaseholders with the right to purchase the freehold of their homes. Controls were introduced over increases in the rents of council accommodation, a new Rent Act froze the rent for most unfurnished accommodation in the private sector, and a system was introduced whereby independent arbitrators had the power to fix fair rents. A Land Commission was established to purchase land for building and therefore prevent profiteering in land values, although it only had limited success. Government expenditure was also increased on both sport and the arts, while National Health expenditure rose from 4.2% of GNP in 1964 to 5% in 1969 and spending on hospital construction doubled.

The Docks and Harbours Act (1966) and the Dock Labour Scheme (1967) reorganised the system of employment in the docks in order to put an end to casual employment. Another important reform, the 1967 Welsh Language Act, granted ‘equal validity’ to the declining Welsh language and encouraged its revival. A new Ministry of Overseas Development was established, with its greatest success at the time being the introduction of interest-free loans for the poorest countries.

Public expenditure on education rose as a proportion of GNP from 4.8% in 1964 to 5.9% in 1968, and the number of teachers in training increased by more than a third between 1964 and 1967. The percentage of students staying on at school after the age of sixteen increased similarly, and the student population increased by over 10% each year. The University of the Air (later renamed the Open University) was established to provide a system of university education for those who missed out on the opportunity at the usual age, by means of summer schools, postal tuition, and television programmes. By 1981, 45,000 students had received degrees through the Open University.

Regional development was also given increased attention under the First Wilson Government. A policy was introduced in 1965 whereby any new government organisation should be established outside London and in 1967 the government decided to give preference to development areas. A few government departments were also moved out of London, with the Royal Mint moved to South Wales, for instance. A new Special Development Status was also introduced in 1967 to provide even higher levels of assistance.

The Industrial Development Act (1966) changed the name of Development Districts (parts of the country with higher levels of unemployment than the national average and which governments sought to encourage greater investment in) to Development Areas and increased the percentage of the workforce covered by development schemes from 15% to 20%, which mainly affected rural areas in Scotland and Wales. Tax allowances were replaced by grants in order to extend coverage to include firms which were not making a profit, and in 1967 a Regional Employment Premium was introduced. Whereas the existing schemes tended to favour capital-intensive projects, this aimed for the first time at increasing employment in depressed areas. Set at £1.50 a man per week and guaranteed for seven years, the Regional Employment Premium subsidised all manufacturing industry (though not services) in Development Areas.

Funds allocated to regional assistance more than doubled, from £40 million in 1964/65 to £82 million in 1969/70, and from 1964 to 1970, the number of factories completed was 50% higher than from 1960 to 1964, which helped to reduce unemployment in development areas. In 1970, the unemployment rate in development areas was 1.67 times the national average, compared to 2.21 times in 1964. Although national rates of unemployment were higher in 1970 than in the early Sixties, unemployment rates in the development areas were lower and had not increased for three years.

The 1969 Housing Act provided local authorities with the duty of working out what to do about ‘unsatisfactory areas.’ Local authorities could declare ‘general improvement areas’ in which they would be able to buy up land and houses, and spend environmental improvement grants. On the same basis, taking geographical areas of need, a package was developed by the government which resembled a miniature poverty programme. In July 1967 the government decided to pour money into what the Plowden Committee defined as educational priority areas. In 1968 the Urban Programme was launched to provide community and family advice centres, centres for the elderly, money for schools, and other services. Central government paid 75% of the costs of these schemes, nominated by local authorities in areas of ‘acute social need'.

In 1969, the government set up twelve Community Development Projects (CDPs) as part of the first national initiative to deal with inner city problems. The aim of these projects, which were set up in areas with high levels of deprivation, was to encourage self-help and participation by local residents in order to improve their communication and access to local government and the services that it provides.

In terms of social security, the welfare state was significantly expanded through substantial improvements in national insurance benefits and the creation of new social welfare benefits. The National Assistance Board was merged with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance to become the new Ministry of Social Security, whilst the real value of most existing benefits was increased. Redundancy payments were introduced (1965) to lessen the impact of unemployment, earnings-related benefits for unemployment, sickness, industrial injuries, and widowhood were introduced in 1966, followed by the replacement of flat-rate family allowances with an earnings-related scheme in 1968. In 1968, the universal family allowance was raised for the first time in a decade. This measure was considered to be redistributive to some degree,

“from richer to poorer and from mainly male taxpayers to mothers who received family allowances, a tentative move towards what Roy Jenkins called ‘civilised selectivity’".

The Transport Act (1968) established the principle of government grants for transport authorities if uneconomic passenger services were justified on social grounds. A National Freight Corporation was also established to provide integrated rail freight and road services. Public expenditure on roads steadily increased and stricter safety precautions were introduced, such as the breathalyser test for drunken driving. Personal social services were integrated, expenditure increased and their responsibilities broadened following the enactment of the Children and Young Persons’ Act (1969) and the Local Authority Social Services Act (1970).

In 1967, local authorities were empowered to provide family planning advice to any who requested it and to provide supplies free of charge. That same year, partners were given an equal share of household assets following divorce via the Matrimonial Property Act. The Race relations Act was also extended in 1968 and in 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed.

Despite the economic difficulties faced by the First Wilson Government, it succeeded in maintaining low levels of unemployment and inflation during its time in office. Unemployment was kept below 2.7%, and inflation for much of the Sixties remained below 4%. Living standards generally improved, while spending on housing, social security, transport, research, education, and health went up by an average of more than 6% between 1964 and 1970. By 1970, income in Britain was more fairly distributed than in 1964, mainly because of increases in cash benefits, including family allowances”.

According to one historian,

"In its commitment to social services and public welfare, the Wilson government put together a record unmatched by any subsequent administration, and the mid-sixties are justifiably seen as the ‘golden age’ of the welfare state".

The First Wilson Government had an admirable record in regards to economic equality, with social and economic inequalities reduced during Wilson’s time in office. This was brought about by many increases in social welfare benefits, such as supplementary benefit, pensions, and family allowances, the latter of which were doubled between 1964 and 1970 (although most of the increase in family allowances did not come about until 1968). A new system of rate rebates was introduced, which benefited one million households by the end of the Sixties.

Public expenditure as a percentage of GDP rose significantly, from 34% in 1964-65 to nearly 38% of GDP by 1969-70, whilst expenditure on social services rose from 16% of national wealth in 1964 to 23% by 1970. These measures had a major impact on the living standards of low-income Britons, with disposable incomes rising faster for low-income groups than for high-income groups during the course of the Sixties. When measuring disposable income after taxation but including benefits, the total disposable income of those on the highest incomes fell by 33%, whilst the total disposable income of those on the lowest incomes rose by 104%.

A number of private members’ bills related to consumer affairs, put forward by Co-operative MPs, became law under the First Wilson Government, and much of the consumer legislation taken for granted by contemporary British shoppers can be attributed to the legislation passed during this period. In 1968, the Trade Descriptions Act (the “shoppers charter) was enacted by parliament, and a farm and garden chemicals bills also became law that same year. Other co-operative bills enacted during this period included a new Clean Air Act, a bill removing restrictions on off-licences, and a bill to promote agriculture co-operatives passed in 1967, which established “"A scheme administered by a new Central Council for Agriculture and Horticulture Co-operation with a budget to organise and promote co-operation with agriculture and horticulture". The 1970 Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act, regarded as a groundbreaking measure, was the first kind of legislation in the world to recognise and give rights to disabled people, and set down specific provisions to improve access and support for people with disabilities. The government effectively supported the passage of these bills by granting them the necessary parliamentary time.

External affairs


Wilson with West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard.

Among the more challenging political dilemmas Wilson faced during his two terms in government and his two spells in Opposition before 1964 and between 1970 and 1974 was the issue of British membership of the European Community, the forerunner of the present European Union. An entry attempt had been issued in July 1961 by the Macmillan government, and negotiated by Edward Heath as Lord Privy Seal, but was vetoed in 1963 by French President Charles de Gaulle. The Labour Party in Opposition had been divided on the issue, with former party leader Hugh Gaitskell having come out in 1962 in opposition to Britain joining the Community.

After initially hesitating over the issue, Wilson's Government in May 1967 lodged the UK's second application to join the European Community. Like the first, though, it was vetoed by de Gaulle in November that year.

Following his victory in the 1970 election (and helped by de Gaulle's fall from power in 1969), the new prime minister Edward Heath negotiated Britain’s admission to the EC, alongside Denmark and Ireland in 1973. The Labour Party in opposition continued to be deeply divided on the issue, and risked a major split. Leading opponents of membership included Richard Crossman, who was for two years (1970–72) the editor of New Statesman, at that time the leading left-of-centre weekly journal, which published many polemics in support of the anti-EC case. Prominent among Labour supporters of membership was Roy Jenkins.

Wilson in opposition showed political ingenuity in devising a position that both sides of the party could agree on, opposing the terms negotiated by Heath but not membership in principle. Labour's 1974 manifesto included a pledge to renegotiate terms for Britain's membership and then hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EC on the new terms. This was a constitutional procedure without precedent in British history.

Following Wilson's return to power, the renegotiations with Britain's fellow EC members were carried out by Wilson himself in tandem with Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, and they toured the capital cities of Europe meeting their European counterparts (some commentators have suggested that their co-operation in this exercise may have been the source of a close relationship between the two men which is claimed to have assisted a smooth change-over when Wilson retired from office). The discussions focused primarily on Britain's net budgetary contribution to the EC. As a small agricultural producer heavily dependent on imports, the UK suffered doubly from the dominance of:

(i) agricultural spending in the EC budget,
(ii) agricultural import taxes as a source of EC revenues.

During the renegotiations, other EEC members conceded, as a partial offset, the establishment of a significant European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), from which it was clearly agreed that the UK would be a major net beneficiary.

In the subsequent referendum campaign, rather than the normal British tradition of "collective responsibility", under which the government takes a policy position which all cabinet members are required to support publicly, members of the Government were free to present their views on either side of the question. The electorate voted on 5 June 1975 to continue membership, by a substantial majority.


Prior United States military involvement in Vietnam intensified following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. US President Lyndon Johnson brought pressure to bear for at least a token involvement of British military units in the Vietnam War. Wilson consistently avoided any commitment of British forces, giving as reasons British military commitments to the Malayan Emergency and British co-chairmanship of the 1954 Geneva Conference which agreed the cessation of hostilities and internationally supervised elections in Vietnam. His government offered some rhetorical support for the US position (most prominently in the defence offered by the Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart in a much-publicised " teach-in" or debate on Vietnam). On at least one occasion the British government made an unsuccessful effort to mediate in the conflict. On 28 June 1966 Wilson 'dissociated' his Government from American bombing of the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. In his memoirs, Wilson writes of “selling LBJ a bum steer” a reference to Johnson’s Texas origins, which conjured up images of cattle and cowboys in British minds. Wilson's approach of maintaining close relations with the US while pursuing an independent line on Vietnam has attracted new interest in the light of the different approach taken by the Blair government vis-a-vis Britain's participation in the Iraq War (2003).

Harold and Mary Wilson greeting the Prime Minister of Australia Harold Holt and wife Zara in 1967.

Since World War II, Britain's presence in the Far East had gradually been run down. Former British colonies, whose defence had provided much of the rationale for a British military presence in the region, moved towards independence under British governments of both parties. Successive UK Governments also became conscious of the cost to the exchequer and the economy of maintaining major forces abroad (in parallel, several schemes to develop strategic weaponry were abandoned on the grounds of cost, for example, the Blue Streak missile and the TSR2 aircraft).

In 1967, as the result of a defence review made by Defence Secretary Denis Healey, Wilson announced that Britain would withdraw its military forces from major bases “ East of Suez”, primarily in Malaysia, Singapore and Aden. While criticised in right-wing circles at the time, over the longer-term the decision can be seen as a logical culmination of the withdrawal from Britain's colonial-era political and military commitments in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere that had been underway under British governments of both parties since the Second World War—and of the parallel switch of Britain's emphasis to its European identity.

Wilson was known for his strong pro-Israel views. He was a particular friend of Israeli Premier Golda Meir, though her tenure largely coincided with Wilson’s 1970–1974 hiatus. Another associate was German Chancellor Willy Brandt; all three were members of the Socialist International.


In 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his important Wind of Change speech to the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. This heralded independence for many British colonies in Africa. The British "retreat from Empire" had made headway by 1964 and was to continue during Wilson’s administration. However, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland came to present serious problems.

The Federation was set up in 1953, and was an amalgamation of the Protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the colony of Southern Rhodesia. After struggles for independence, the Federation was dissolved in 1963 and the states of Zambia and Malawi achieved independence. However, the colony of Southern Rhodesia, which had been the economic powerhouse of the Federation, was not granted independence, principally because of the regime in power. The colony bordered South Africa to the south and its governance was heavily influenced by the apartheid regime, then headed by Hendrik Verwoerd. Wilson refused to grant independence to the white minority government headed by Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith which showed little inclination to extend political influence to the native African population, let alone to grant majority rule.

Smith’s defiant response was a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, timed to coincide with Armistice Day at 11.00am on 11 November 1965, an attempt to garner support in the UK by reminding people of the contribution of the colony to the war effort (Smith himself had been a Spitfire pilot). Smith was personally vilified in the British media. Wilson’s immediate recourse was to the United Nations, and in 1965, the Security Council imposed sanctions, which were to last until official independence in 1979. This involved British warships blockading the port of Beira to try to cause economic collapse in Rhodesia. Wilson was applauded by most nations for taking a firm stand on the issue (and none extended diplomatic recognition to the Smith regime). A number of nations did not join in with sanctions, undermining their efficiency. Certain sections of public opinion started to question their efficacy, and to demand the toppling of the regime by force. Wilson declined, however, to intervene in Rhodesia with military force, believing the UK population would not support such action against their "kith and kin". The two leaders met for discussions aboard British warships, Tiger in 1966 and Fearless in 1968. Smith subsequently attacked Wilson in his memoirs, accusing him of delaying tactics during negotiations and alleging duplicity; Wilson responded in kind, questioning Smith's good faith and suggesting that Smith had moved the goal-posts whenever a settlement appeared in sight. The matter was still unresolved at the time of Wilson’s resignation in 1976.

Elsewhere in Africa, trouble developed in Nigeria, brought about by the ethnic diversity of the country and the wealth being generated by the nascent oil industry. Wilson's government felt disinclined to interfere in the internal affairs of a fellow Commonwealth nation and supported the government of General Yakubu Gowon during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–1970.

Electoral defeat and opposition

By 1969, the Labour Party was suffering serious electoral reverses. In May 1970, Wilson responded to an apparent recovery in his government's popularity by calling a general election, but, to the surprise of most observers, was defeated at the polls by the Conservatives under Heath.

Wilson survived as leader of the Labour party in opposition. Economic conditions during the 1970s were becoming more difficult for the UK and many other western economies as a result of the ending of the Bretton Woods Agreement and the 1973 oil shock, and the Heath government in its turn was buffeted by economic adversity and industrial unrest (notably including confrontation with the coalminers which led to the Three-day week).

Second term as Prime Minister (1974–1976)

When Labour won more seats (though fewer votes) than the Conservative Party in February 1974, and Heath was unable to persuade the Liberals to form a coalition, Wilson returned to 10 Downing Street on 4 March 1974 as Prime Minister of a minority Labour Government. He gained a three-seat majority in another election later that year, on 10 October 1974. One of the key issues addressed during his second period in office was the referendum on British membership of the EEC (see Europe, above).

The Second Wilson Government implemented a wide-ranging programme of social reform during its two years in office. In March 1974, an additional £2 billion were announced for benefits, food subsidies, and housing subsidies, including a record 25% increase in the pension. Council house rents were also frozen. In 1975, a state earnings related pension scheme (SERPS) was introduced. A new pension, which was inflation-proofed and linked to earnings, was added to the basic pension which was to increase in line with earnings for the first time ever. This reform assisted women by the linking of pensions to the ‘twenty best years’ of earnings, and those who worked at home caring for children or others were counted as contributors. However, this scheme was eroded by the Thatcher Government, and insufficient pension rights had been built up by that time to establish resistance to its erosion. The Sex Discrimination Act (1975) gave women the right in principle to equal access to jobs and equal treatment at work with men, while the Employment Protection Act passed that same year introduced statutory maternity leave.

To help those with disabilities, the government introduced an invalid care allowance, a mobility allowance, a non-contributory invalidity pension for those unable to contribute through national insurance, and other measures. To combat child poverty, legislation to create a universal Child Benefit was introduced in 1975 (this reform was later implemented by the Callaghan Government).

Northern Ireland

In the late 1960s, Wilson's earlier government had witnessed the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. In response to a request from the Stormont government, the government agreed to deploy the British Army in an effort to maintain the peace.

Out of office in the autumn of 1971, Wilson formulated a 16-point, 15 year programme that was designed to pave the way for the unification of Ireland. The proposal was welcomed, in principle, by the Heath government at the time but never put into effect.

In May 1974, when back in office as leader of a minority government, Wilson 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 pressurise a reluctant British Army to face down the loyalist paramilitaries who were intimidating utility workers. In a televised speech later, 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 breaking the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive.

On 11 September 2008, BBC Radio Four's Document programme claimed to have unearthed a secret plan – codenamed Doomsday – which proposed to cut all constitutional ties with Northern Ireland and transform the province into an independent dominion. Document went on to claim that the Doomsday plan was devised mainly by Wilson and was kept a closely guarded secret. The plan then allegedly lost momentum, due in part, it was claimed, to warnings made by both the then Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan and the Taoiseach as to its viability.


On 16 March 1976, Wilson surprised the nation by announcing his resignation as Prime Minister (taking effect on 5 April 1976). He claimed that he had always planned on resigning at the age of sixty, and that he was physically and mentally exhausted. As early as the late 1960s, he had been telling intimates, like his doctor Sir Joseph Stone (later Lord Stone of Hendon), that he did not intend to serve more than eight or nine years as Prime Minister. Roy Jenkins has suggested that Wilson may have been motivated partly by the distaste for politics felt by his loyal and long-suffering wife, Mary. Beyond this, by 1976 he might already have been aware of the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which was to cause both his formerly excellent memory and his powers of concentration to fail dramatically.

Garter Banner of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, Jesus College Chapel, Oxford

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, Sir Winston Churchill (although she did dine at Downing Street at Tony Blair's invitation, to celebrate her 80th birthday).

Wilson's Prime Minister's Resignation Honours included many businessmen and celebrities, along with his political supporters. His choice of appointments caused lasting damage to his reputation, worsened by the suggestion that the first draft of the list had been written by Marcia Williams on lavender notepaper (it became known as the "Lavender List"). Roy Jenkins noted that Wilson's retirement "was disfigured by his, at best, eccentric resignation honours list, which gave peerages or knighthoods to some adventurous business gentlemen, several of whom were close neither to him nor to the Labour Party." Some of those whom Wilson honoured included Lord Kagan, the inventor of Gannex, who was eventually imprisoned for fraud, and Sir Eric Miller, who later committed suicide while under police investigation for corruption.

Six candidates stood in the first ballot to replace him, in order of votes they were: Michael Foot, James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland. In the third ballot on 5 April, Callaghan defeated Foot in a parliamentary vote of 176 to 137, thus becoming Wilson's successor as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, and remained prime minister until May 1979, when Labour lost the general election to the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first female prime minister.

As Wilson wished to remain an MP after leaving office, he was not immediately given the peerage customarily 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 Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, after Rievaulx Abbey, in the north of his native Yorkshire.

Last years and death

Lord Wilson in 1986

Shortly after resigning as Prime Minister Wilson was signed by David Frost to host a series of interview/chat show programmes. The pilot episode proved to be a flop as Wilson appeared uncomfortable with the informality of the format. Wilson also hosted two editions of the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. He famously floundered in the role, and in 2000, Channel 4 chose it as one of the 100 Moments of TV Hell. Wilson also coined the name of charity War on Want

A life-long Gilbert and Sullivan fan, in 1975, Wilson joined the Board of Trustees of the D'Oyly Carte Trust at the invitation of Sir Hugh Wontner, who was then the Lord Mayor of London. At Christmas 1978, Wilson appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. Eric Morecambe's habit of appearing not to recognise the guest stars was repaid by Wilson, who referred to him throughout as 'Morry-camby' (the mis-pronunciation of Morecambe's name made by Ed Sullivan – who read announcements from cue-cards – when the pair appeared on his famous American television show).

Not long after Wilson's retirement, his mental deterioration from Alzheimer's disease began to be apparent, and he did not appear in public after 1988 when he unveiled the Clement Attlee statue at Limehouse Library. He died from colon cancer and Alzheimer's Disease in May 1995, aged 79. His memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey on 13 July 1995. It was attended by Prince Charles, former Prime Ministers Edward Heath, James Callaghan and Baroness Thatcher, then Prime Minister John Major and future Prime Minister Tony Blair. Wilson was buried at St. Mary's Old Church, St. Mary's on the Isles of Scilly on 6 June. His epitaph is Tempus Imperator Rerum (Time the Commander of All Things).

Political "style"

Wilson regarded himself as a "man of the people" and did much to promote this image, contrasting himself with the stereotypical aristocratic conservatives who had preceded him. Features of this portrayal included his working man's Gannex raincoat, his pipe (the British Pipesmokers' Council voted him Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1965 and Pipeman of the Decade in 1976, though in private he smoked cigars), his love of simple cooking and overuse of the popular British relish, ' HP Sauce', his support for his home town's football team, Huddersfield, and his working-class Yorkshire accent. Eschewing continental holidays, he returned every summer with his family to the Isles of Scilly. His first general election victory relied heavily on associating these down-to-earth attributes with a sense that the UK urgently needed to modernise, after "thirteen years of Tory mis-rule....". These characteristics were exaggerated in Private Eye's satirical column " Mrs Wilson's Diary".

Wilson exhibited his populist touch in June 1965 when he had The Beatles honoured with the award of MBE (such awards are officially bestowed by The Queen but are nominated by the Prime Minister of the day). The award was popular with young people and contributed to a sense that the Prime Minister was "in touch" with the younger generation. There were some protests by conservatives and elderly members of the military who were earlier recipients of the award, but such protesters were in the minority. Critics claimed that Wilson acted to solicit votes for the next general election (which took place less than a year later), but defenders noted that, since the minimum voting age at that time was 21, this was hardly likely to impact many of the Beatles' fans who at that time were predominantly teenagers. It did however cement Wilson's image as a modernistic leader and linked him to the burgeoning pride in the 'New Britain' typified by the Beatles. The Beatles mentioned Wilson rather negatively, naming both him and his opponent Edward Heath in George Harrison's song " Taxman", the opener to 1966's Revolver—recorded and released after the MBEs.

One year later, in 1967, Wilson had a different interaction with a musical ensemble. He sued the pop group The Move for libel after the band's manager Tony Secunda published a promotional postcard for the single "Flowers In The Rain", featuring a caricature depicting Wilson in bed with his female assistant, Marcia Williams (later Baroness Falkender). Wild gossip had hinted at an improper relationship, though these rumours were never substantiated. Wilson won the case, and all royalties from the song (composed by Move leader Roy Wood) were assigned in perpetuity to a charity of Wilson's choosing.

Wilson had a knack for memorable phrases. He coined the term ' Selsdon Man' to refer to the anti-interventionist policies of the Conservative leader Edward Heath, developed at a policy retreat held at the Selsdon Park Hotel in early 1970. This phrase, intended to evoke the 'primitive throwback' qualities of anthropological discoveries such as Piltdown Man and Swanscombe Man, was part of a British political tradition of referring to political trends by suffixing 'man'. Another famous quote is "A week is a long time in politics": this signifies that political fortunes can change extremely rapidly. Other memorable phrases attributed to Wilson include "the white heat of the [technological] revolution" and his comment 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".


Despite his successes and one-time popularity, Harold Wilson's reputation has yet to recover altogether from the low ebb reached immediately following his second premiership. Some accuse him of undue deviousness, someclaim he did not do enough to modernise the Labour Party's policy positions on issues such as the respective roles of the state and the market or the reform of industrial relations. This line of argument partly blames Wilson for the civil unrest of the late 1970s (during Britain's Winter of Discontent), and for the electoral success of the Conservative party and its ensuing 18-year rule. His supporters argue that it was only Wilson's own skilful management (on issues such as nationalisation, Europe and Vietnam) that allowed an otherwise fractious party to stay politically united and govern. In either case this co-existence did not long survive his leadership, and the factionalism that followed contributed greatly to the Labour Party's electoral weakness during the 1980s. The reinvention of the Labour Party would take the better part of two decades, at the hands of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and — electorally, most conclusively – Tony Blair.

In 1964, when Wilson took office, the mainstream of informed opinion (in all the main political parties, in academia and the media, etc.) strongly favoured the type of technocratic, "indicative planning" approach that Wilson endeavoured to implement. Radical market-orientated reforms, of the kind eventually adopted by Margaret Thatcher, were in the mid-1960s backed only by a 'fringe' of enthusiasts (such as the leadership of the later-influential Institute of Economic Affairs), and had almost no representation at senior levels even of the Conservative Party. Fifteen years later, disillusionment with Britain's weak economic performance and troubled industrial relations, combined with active spadework by figures such as Sir Keith Joseph, had helped to make a radical market programme politically feasible for Thatcher (which was in turn to influence the subsequent Labour leadership, especially under Blair). To suppose that Wilson could have adopted such a line in the late 1960s or early 1970s is, however, unrealistic: like almost any political leader, Wilson was for the most part fated to work (sometimes skilfully and successfully, sometimes not) with the ideas that were in the air at the time. That said, there is an argument that 'In Place of Strife' foreshadowed 'Thatcherism' and that its rejection was followed by stealthy, piecemeal implementation.

Discussion of possible plots and conspiracy theories

MI5 plots?

In 1963, Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn is said to have 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, the Deputy Director of Counter-Intelligence at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 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 reported that an internal investigation failed to find any evidence to support the allegations.

Several other voices beyond Wright have raised claims of "dirty tricks" on the part of elements within the intelligence services against Wilson while he was in office. In March 1987, James Miller, a former MI5 agent, claimed that MI5 had encouraged the Ulster Workers' Council general strike in 1974 in order to destabilise Wilson's Government. See also: Walter Walker and David Stirling. In July 1987, Labour MP Ken Livingstone used his maiden speech to raise the 1975 allegations of a former Army Press officer in Northern Ireland, Colin Wallace, who also alleged a plot to destabilise Wilson. Chris Mullin, MP, speaking on 23 November 1988, argued that sources other than Peter Wright supported claims of a long-standing attempt by the intelligence services (MI5) to undermine Wilson's government.

A BBC programme The Plot Against Harold Wilson, broadcast in 2006, reported that, in tapes recorded soon after his resignation on health grounds, Wilson stated that for eight months of his premiership he didn't "feel he knew what was going on, fully, in security". Wilson alleged two plots, in the late 1960s and mid 1970s respectively. He said that plans had been hatched to install Lord Mountbatten, Prince Charles's uncle and mentor, as interim Prime Minister (see also Other conspiracy theories, below). He also claimed that ex-military leaders had been building up private armies in anticipation of "wholesale domestic liquidation".

In the documentary some of Wilson's allegations received partial confirmation in interviews with ex-intelligence officers and others, who reported that, on two occasions during Wilson's terms in office, they had talked about a possible coup to take over the government.

On a separate track, elements within MI5 had also, the BBC programme reported, spread "black propaganda" that Wilson and Williams were Soviet agents, and that Wilson was an IRA sympathiser, apparently with the intention of helping the Conservatives win the 1974 election.

In 2009, Defence of the Realm, the authorised history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, held that while MI5 kept a file on Wilson from 1945, when he became an MP – because communist civil servants claimed that he had similar political sympathies – there was no bugging of his home or office, and no conspiracy against him. However in 2010 newspaper reports made detailed allegations that the bugging of 10 Downing Street had been omitted from the history for "wider public interest reasons". In 1963 on Macmillan's orders following the Profumo Affair, MI5 bugged the cabinet room, the waiting room, and the prime minister’s study until the bugs were removed in 1977 on Callaghan's orders. From the records it is unclear if Wilson or Heath knew of the bugging, and no recorded conversations were retained by MI5 so possibly the bugs were never activated. Professor Andrew had previously recorded in the preface of the history that "One significant excision as a result of these requirements (in the chapter on The Wilson Plot) is, I believe, hard to justify" giving credence to these new allegations.

Other conspiracy theories

Richard Hough, in his 1980 biography of Mountbatten, indicates that Mountbatten was in fact approached during the 1960s in connection with a scheme to install an "emergency government" in place of Wilson's administration. The approach was made by Cecil Harmsworth King, the chairman of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), which published the Daily Mirror newspaper. Hough bases his account on conversations with the Mirror's long-time editor Hugh Cudlipp, supplemented by the recollections of the scientist Solly Zuckerman and of Mountbatten’s valet, William Evans. Cudlipp arranged for Mountbatten to meet King on 8 May 1968. King had long yearned to play a more central political role, and had personal grudges against Wilson (including Wilson's refusal to propose King for the hereditary earldom that King coveted). He had already failed in an earlier attempt to replace Wilson with James Callaghan. With Britain's continuing economic difficulties and industrial strife in the 1960s, King convinced himself that Wilson's government was heading towards collapse. He thought that Mountbatten, as a Royal and a former Chief of the Defence Staff, would command public support as leader of a non-democratic "emergency" government. Mountbatten insisted that his friend, Zuckerman, be present (Zuckerman says that he was urged to attend by Mountbatten’s son-in-law, Lord Brabourne, who worried King would lead Mountbatten astray). King asked Mountbatten if he would be willing to head an emergency government. Zuckerman said the idea was treason and Mountbatten in turn rebuffed King. He does not, however, appear to have reported the approach to Downing Street.

The question of how serious a threat to democracy may have existed during these years continues to be contentious—a key point at issue being who of any consequence would have been ready to move beyond grumbling about the government (or spreading rumours) to actively taking unconstitutional action. Cecil King himself was an inveterate schemer but an inept actor on the political stage. Perhaps significantly, when King penned a strongly worded editorial against Wilson for the Daily Mirror two days after his abortive meeting with Mountbatten, the unanimous reaction of IPC's directors was to fire him with immediate effect from his position as Chairman. King's resignation was considered a serious enough matter for the BBC to have senior journalist William Hardcastle announce it in a news flash. More fundamentally, Denis Healey, who served for six years as Wilson's Secretary of State for Defence, has argued that actively serving senior British military officers would not have been prepared to overthrow a constitutionally-elected government.

By the time of his resignation, Wilson's own perceptions of any threat may very well have been exacerbated by the onset of Alzheimer's disease; his inherent tendency to chariness was undoubtedly stoked by some in his inner circle, notably including Marcia Williams. He reportedly shared with a surprised George H. W. Bush, at the time the Director of the CIA, his fear that some of the portraits in 10 Downing Street (specifically including Gladstone's portrait in the Cabinet Room) concealed listening devices being used to bug his discussions. Files released on 1 June 2005 show 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.

Wilson's Government took strong action against the controversial, self-styled "Church" of Scientology in 1967, banning foreign Scientologists from entering the UK, a prohibition which remained in force until 1980. In response, L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, accused Wilson of being in cahoots with Soviet Russia and an international conspiracy of psychiatrists and financiers. Wilson's Minister of Health, Kenneth Robinson, subsequently won a libel suit against the Scientologists and Hubbard.


  • Wilson was an Honorary Fellow of Columbia Pacific University. The former British Prime Minister also delivered a speech at a CPU graduation ceremony


Two statues of Harold Wilson stand in prominent places. The first, unveiled by then Prime Minister Tony Blair stands outside Huddersfield railway station in St George's Square, Huddersfield. Costing £70,000, the statue designed by sculptor Ian Walters, is based on photographs taken in 1964 and depicts Lord Wilson in walking pose at the start of his first term as Prime Minister. His wife Mary specifically requested that the eight-foot tall monument did not show Wilson holding his famous pipe as she feared it would make the representation a caricature.

In September 2006, Mr Blair also unveiled a second bronze statue of Harold Wilson in his former constituency of Huyton, near Liverpool. The statue was by Liverpool sculptor, Tom Murphy, and Blair paid warm tribute to Wilson's legacy at the event, including the Open University. He added: "He also brought in a whole new culture, a whole new country. He made the country very, very different". .

Titles from birth to death

  • Harold Wilson, Esq (11 March 1916–1 January 1945)
  • Harold Wilson, Esq, OBE (1 January 1945–26 July 1945)
  • Harold Wilson, Esq, OBE, MP (26 July 1945–29 September 1947)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Wilson, OBE, MP (29 September 1947–6 December 1969)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Wilson, OBE, FRS, MP (6 December 1969–23 April 1976)
  • The Right Honourable Sir Harold Wilson, KG, OBE, FRS, MP (23 April 1976–9 June 1983)
  • The Right Honourable Sir Harold Wilson, KG, OBE, FRS (9 June–16 September 1983)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (16 September 1983–24 May 1995)

In popular culture


  • In the Fawlty Towers episode 'The Germans' Basil blames his fire extinguisher exploding in his face on "...bloody Wilson"
  • The Lavender List (2006), played by Kenneth Cranham - a BBC Four fictionalised account by Francis Wheen of the Wilson Government of 1974–76, with Gina McKee as Marcia Williams and Celia Imrie as Wilson's wife. The play concentrated on Wilson and Williams' relationship and her conflict with the Downing Street Press Secretary Joe Haines.
  • The Plot Against Harold Wilson (2006), played by James Bolam - aired on BBC Two at on Thursday 16 March. The drama detailed previously unseen evidence that rogue elements of MI5 and the British military plotted to take down the Labour Government, believing Wilson to be a Soviet spy.
  • Longford (2006), played by Robert Pugh - Channel 4 drama on the life of Lord Longford. In one scene, Wilson was seen dismissing Longford from his cabinet in 1968, in part because of the adverse publicity the latter was receiving for his public campaign to support the Moors Murderer Myra Hindley.


  • The Boat That Rocked (2009), played by Stephen Moore (character not actually addressed or credited by name, only as 'Prime Minister')
  • Made in Dagenham (2010), played by John Sessions


  • A viking in the Asterix story Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975) is named Haraldwilssen, and shares his physical features


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