Harold Wilson turns 100

The Nixons and Wilsons stand on a red carpet surrounded by officials and officers.

Harold & Mary Wilson pose with Richard & Pat Nixon outside the White House, 27th January 1970

Britain’s longest-serving male prime minister of the post-war era, and so far the last to ever serve non-consecutive terms, Harold Wilson was born on 11th March 1916. He first entered the House of Commons in the Attlee landslide of 1945, winning the seat of Omskirk from Commander Stephen King-Hall of the National Labour Organisation. By that point, though, he already had a fascinating career behind him.

He was head boy of Wirral Grammar School, having moved there in 1932 after his father was made redundant. In 1934 he enrolled at Jesus College, Oxford to study Modern History. Here he became politically active as a member of the Liberal Party. Later he transferred to Philosophy, Politics & Economics and joined the Labour Party instead. At 21, Wilson was one of the century’s youngest Oxford dons, teaching Economic History at New College in 1937.

As war came to Europe, Wilson joined the civil service, rising swiftly through the Ministry of Fuel and Power to become Director of Economics and Statistics. For his work he was made an Officer of His Majesty’s Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

When the war ended and a general election seemed likely, Wilson resigned from the service in order to be secured immediately as a candidate (bridging the gap as a Praelector at University College). Having been returned as an MP, he was quickly brought into the Attlee government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (the department which managed the requisitioning and development of property). In 1947 he was promoted to Secretary for Overseas Trade, which consisted largely of negotiating supply contracts with the USSR. Later that year he was further raised to the presidency of the Board of Trade (a job now held by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills). This was a cabinet position and he, at 31, was Britain’s youngest cabinet member. During his early tenure, he led a “bonfire of controls” to get rid of wartime rationing and his reputation suffered during debates over the value in sterling when he was seen as having repeatedly changed sides. Opposition to the introduction of medical charges to the National Health Service caused him to resign in April 1951 from the government, which sixth months later fell from office as Winston Churchill’s second premiership began.

Attlee stood down as Labour leader after the party lost another general election in 1955. He was succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell, who returned Wilson to the front bench as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Wilson stayed there until 1961, facing down four Conservative incumbents (Rab Butler, Harold Macmillan, Peter Thorneycroft and Derick Heathcoat-Amory). He had the unusual distinction of serving on the shadow cabinet and simultaneously chairing the Public Accounts Committee, the latter role normally being given to backbenchers. After Labour lost its third consecutive general election in 1959, Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to replace Gaitskell as party leader. Later, George Brown beat him in the deputy leadership election of 1962. Wilson’s break came in January 1963 when Gaitskell died and he won the subsequent leadership election (ahead of both Brown and eventual successor James Callaghan). As the Profumo Affair sullied the government’s reputation, the opposition gathered greater public support. When Macmillan left office, the disclaimed earl (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) who followed him proved no match for Wilson at the dispatch box. The ultimate result was that the 1964 general election made Harold Wilson into Britain’s youngest premier for more than seven decades.

Yet his victory was, if anything, underwhelming: rather than the red landslide which pundits had expected, Labour in fact had a majority of only four seats. This is a curious part of Wilson’s legacy; he is famously remembered as the man who won four general elections – whereas Blair and Thatcher each only managed three. Wilson, however, had fewer years in office than either, and usually worked with much smaller majorities. Only the election of 1966 proved a decisive triumph, with Labour earning a 111-seat lead over the Conservatives whose rookie leader Edward Heath was still relatively unknown as a political figure. Heath and Wilson were vital figures in one another’s political careers: Born in the same year, they both broke the political mold by attending grammar schools rather than private, and they both came to the frontbench with records of wartime service. Their clashes across the dispatch box caused them to be seen as a modern-day Gladstone and Disreali, and began the path later completed by Thatcher and Kinnock of defining the modern day rivalry between party leaders, especially at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Another defining feature of Wilson government’s was their poor track records in by-elections, which caused the repeated whittling down of their parliamentary majorities. As the 1970s arrived Labour had lost control of sixteen constituencies. When polls suggested that their popularity had risen again, the prime minister called an election, only to find himself swiftly replaced by Heath. Wilson survived as Labour leader and after four years of Conservative rule Heath himself was in trouble with oil price rises and industrial unrest leading to three-day-weeks. A snap election was initiated. Wilson did not strictly win (it being a hung parliament in which the Conservatives actually outpolled Labour yet returned fewer MPs), yet after six days of negotiation he was once again posing before the black door. His minority government was unstable and so after just seven months Britain went back to the polls. On the second attempt Labour outpolled the Conservative and won a majority in the Commons – yet it was one even smaller than that of ten years before. This, though, would prove only a brief encore: Wilson did not intend to stay in office past the age of sixty years. On 5th April 1976 he resigned, by which point he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and drinking during the daytime. His resignation honours were derided as the “Lavender List” for giving gongs to businessmen and celebrities with little connection to public service. The list was so named after the suggestion that his political secretary Baroness Falkender had written the first draft on lavender notepaper.

James Callaghan (Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs and MP for Cardiff South East) won the Labour leadership election and took over as prime minister while Wilson was made a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Sir Harold remained on the backbenches while the government deteriorated until eventually in 1979 a vote of no confidence by the House of Commons forced a general election in which Margaret Thatcher brought the Conservatives to office. Sir Harold retained his seat and continued to serve in the House until 1983 when, after achieving her second (and largest) election victory, Thatcher included in her dissolution honours a peerage for her predecessor. he declined the earldom which retired prime minsters normally enjoyed, settling for the Barony Wilson of Rievaulx. He made his last speech to the House of Lords in 1986 (on the subject of Marine Pilotage) but continued to attend that place until 1994. One year after that, he passed away from a combination of Alzheimer’s and colon cancer at the age of 79. The noble Lord’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey was attended by Sir Edward Heath, the Baroness Thatcher, the Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and the Prince of Wales.

This year, Lord Wilson’s legacy is under renewed scrutiny as we approach a referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union. When he called a plebiscite in 1976 on the European Economic Community (or Common Market), his cabinet was split on the issue as seven senior ministers campaigned to leave as Wilson (and indeed Heath) pushed to remain. The decisive Europhile victory briefly settled the issue, but in the following decade the Labour Party was wrought by internal divisions which kept it out of government until 1997. Now it appears that David Cameron may be facing a similar situation as six of his own cabinet ministers campaign for Brexit while the Scottish National Party have repeatedly hinted at a renewed push to break up the United Kingdom itself. Time may tell a different story but for now it appears that Wilson’s troubles of forty-one years ago may soon return to haunt Downing Street once more.

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