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Harold Wilson

Prime Minister 1964 - 70, and 1974 - 76

Plutarch said that politics is not an ocean voyage or a military campaign with an end in view. It is a way of life. Through history there have been prime ministers who have been "way of life" politicians, following Plutarch's example. There have also been warriors and crusaders who have tried to give the impression that their administration is sailing to a definite destination. Harold Wilson who was prime minister 1964 - 70, and 1974 - 76, set out apparently as a crusading politician, and ended up a way of life politician. But even in his fiery youthful days, Wilson's crusade was in many ways an illusion designed to keep earnest crusaders happy. Often history is presented like a school report. How did he/she do in the great school of life? If history had a goal towards which it was heading, such judgments would be possible. It would be reasonable to assess how much progress towards the supposed goal was made. But in a situation where life goes on, and where there is no specific destination, things become much more complicated. As Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace: "The activity of Alexander or of Napoleon cannot be termed beneficial or harmful, since we cannot say for what it is beneficial or harmful. If that activity fails to please someone, this is only because it does not coincide with the restricted conception of what constitutes good" (War and Peace P1341). Wilson was an enigmatic man. He knew that people needed the impression of direction, and he also knew that life always went on. There was no goal line. He did not stick rigidly to principles since he knew that an open ended journey was basically incompatible with fixed ideas. He is often judged in the sense of a sea voyage with an end in view, and found wanting. In reality he was Plutarch's man, and for people like that judgment is never final.

Harold Wilson was born in Cowersley near Huddersfield on 11th March 1916. His clever father, Herbert Wilson, an industrial chemist, had a continual feeling of resentment that lack of family resources meant he was never able to fulfill his educational potential. Herbert's son represented an attempt to make up for this, and was given every encouragement by his parents to succeed academically. Harold worked hard, and was an enthusiastic scout in his spare time, loving all the learning of knots and singing around camp fires. A trip was made to Australia in 1926 to meet an uncle who was a politician in Western Australia. The trip was something of an inspirational experience, and returning home young Harold announced to his mother Marjorie that he was going to be prime minister one day. There was also a trip to London whilst recovering from surgery for appendicitis, aged eight. Herbert photographed his son standing outside the door of 10 Downing Street.




Jesus College Oxford

In 1930 Herbert Wilson lost his job. It was two years before he found another one, and this necessitated a move to the Wirral, across the Mersey from Liverpool. Harold attended Wirral Grammar School, and won an Exhibition award to study economics at Jesus College Oxford. At Oxford Harold Wilson, after a modest beginning, shut himself away and worked. Rather unexpectedly a promising student transformed himself into one of the most outstanding students of his generation. Politics definitely took a back seat. Communism was all the fashion at Oxford in the 1930s, but Wilson wasn't interested in the Oxford communist lifestyle, which demanded money and leisure to maintain. He studied, dabbled in liberal politics, went to hear a young Edward Heath play the organ at Balliol College, and then went back to work again. He took no part in the Oxford Union, where Heath won the presidency in his fourth year.


After graduating with a first class degree, Wilson became a research assistant to social scientist William Beveridge, and then worked in the Economics Section of Britain's wartime government during World War Two. In the 1945 general election, Wilson stood as a Labour candidate for Ormskirk, and won. The new MP became parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Works, - a major job with so much war damage to repair. This led on to overseas trade secretary, and president of the Board of Trade in September 1947. Wilson then took great pleasure in removing restrictions and controls which had been set up during the war years. Ration books would be torn up with obvious relish. This made many in the Labour Party uneasy, as they were naturally a party of social direction and control. Wilson, even in these early energetic years was not it seems quite in tune with earnest crusading elements of Labour. He was more in tune with ordinary housewives who didn't have to put up with ration books anymore. Of course he tried to align himself with Labour crusades, but often came unstuck when he did so. A decision to take children's shoes off ration was the occasion for a damaging speech given in Birmingham in July 1948: "The school I went to in the north was a school where half the children in my class never had boots or shoes on their feet" he declared (quoted in Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott P122). Naturally the schools that young Harold attended were soon objecting strongly. The Mayor of Huddersfield declared that when Wilson had been at New Street Council School in Milnsbridge, there had never been any children walking around without shoes on. There was awkward backtracking, with confused excuses about clogs not counting as boots or shoes. The "barefoot speech" gave the impression of great crusading progress, which made a good story. In reality, as the Mayor of Huddersfield pointed out, it wasn't true.




The barefoot episode was embarrassing, but did not cause long term difficulties. Perhaps enough people wanted to believe in urchins wandering around without shoes in Huddersfield, saved by the clear thinking of later governments. Wilson's career at the Board of Trade continued until 1951, when he resigned. Quite why he did this, according to biographer Ben Pimlott, is not clear. There are claims that his motivation was a protest against defence spending. But whatever the real reason, some distance was now found from a government which was to lose the 1951 general election. In the ensuing Labour leadership contest, which Hugh Gaitskell won, Wilson did not strongly align himself with any group. While Gaitskell and the fearsome radical Aneurin Bevan gave rabble rousing speeches, Wilson came through as a non threatening figure who could be given the job of shadow chancellor. Wilson was acting as a conciliator, "standing between the wild men". The position of shadow chancellor sounds very important, as though Wilson was doing well. But in reality nobody liked this man who walked the middle of the road. He would often eat alone in the member's cafeteria. His loyal personal secretary Marcia Williams would eat with him to reduce the embarrassment. Wilson now realised that at least the appearance of a crusade was required to give a feeling of belonging and direction. At the 1961 Labour Conference Wilson said in his speech: "The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing" (quoted by Pimlott P248). This was said, for the most part, to keep the many Labour Party fundamentalists happy. And it worked, with Wilson's position improving. Towards the end of 1962 Hugh Gaitskell became ill with lupus. He died in January 1963. Harold Wilson, at one time loved by no one, now found himself acceptable to everyone. His former loneliness, the result of not aligning himself exclusively with one group, now made him acceptable to all wings of the party. Wilson was elected as leader. At the Labour Party conference in Scarborough Wilson made his famous speech about a new Britain being "forged in the white heat" of a technological revolution. This was a revolution which would leave "no place for restrictive practice or for outdated methods on either side of industry". There would also be great stress laid on education.

On 10th October 1963 conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan resigned, and was succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas Home. Douglas Home put up a brave fight in the general election of October 1964, but it was Wilson and his Labour Party who won, with a majority of five seats. Then the real business of government had to begin. In many ways it was necessary to present an illusion of crusade, while quietly combining this with the stability of a continuing way of life. Publicly much was made of the government's determination to push ahead with nationalisation of the steel industry. Privately Wilson had decided to put this controversial plan off. Then there was a National Plan to supposedly coordinate national economic activity. Inspite of a great deal of effort, the impact of the plan "on behaviour or performance was barely visible" (Pimlott P363). Lack of apparent movement might give the impression of a weak prime minister, but in many ways this was not the case. Sometimes not doing anything itself becomes a kind of art requiring its own strength. Prime ministers of the past such as Robert Walpole and Lord Melbourne had been masters of this game. In the case of Wilson, the best illustration of his cunning ability to do nothing is provided by his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson, like Tony Blair after him, came under intense pressure from the United States to commit British troops to a highly dubious foreign war. Unlike Blair, Wilson resisted the pressure. The situation was complex. Britain was relying on American aid to support a weak pound. So Wilson tried to give an impression of involvement. Foreign secretary Michael Stewart publicly defended the American position in Vietnam, and offered to mediate in peace talks. This was a lost cause, but it gave the impression of action, while keeping British soldiers from getting involved. Hopeless peace initiatives also helped keep certain aggressive elements in the Labour party happy. Wilson was to be heavily criticised for his seeming support for America in the Vietnam War. He couldn't visit a university campus without students - supported by grants his government had instigated - calling him a fascist pig. Wilson it seemed had done nothing. Little did the students know the effort and resilience that had gone into doing nothing.


Portrait by Ruskin Spear - National Portrait Gallery

The 1966 general election was fought against Edward Heath. Heath clearly wanted Britain to enter the Common Market and become more integrated in Europe. Wilson, as a politician, put his own view - a changeable one - second to the needs of unity. He saw that this was a potentially explosive issue, and so said some vague things about only entering when the time was right, when there was a "fair wind" behind the proposal. This did not rule out entry, keeping pro Europeans happy. But the "fair wind" required for entry was vague enough to mean anything. Entry could thus be put off indefinitely, which kept the anti Europeans from grumbling too much. Labour won in 1966 with an increased majority of 97. This was in many ways a high point, after which events began to turn against Wilson. The illusion of planning and control was beginning to evaporate. The world economy went through its cycles and the Wilson government responded as best it could, devaluing the pound in 1967 after a futile battle to maintain its value. Economists have since argued in their usual impenetrable way that devaluing the pound was not in itself a bad thing. But the value of the pound was symbolic of British prestige, and its loss of value on international exchanges was a blow. There were also battles to control powerful trade unions. In 1969 Barbara Castle, minister for employment and productivity suggested regulation of union behaviour in her paper In Place of Strife. Union leaders were furious. Through all of this Wilson kept trying to maintain unity and find a middle way. To get a sense of Wilson sitting impassively - most of the time at least - at the centre of the storm, go and see Ruskin Spear's portrait of him at the National Portrait Gallery. This was painted in March 1968. At this time the government was still struggling to maintain sterling's value. In the early hours of 15th March 1968, unstable, alcoholic foreign secretary George Brown had, in the words of Anthony Wedgewood Benn, "shrieked and bellowed and shouted abuse" at Harold Wilson, before screaming his resignation and storming out of the Cabinet Room. This was only one of many such scenes. After a few hours sleep, Wilson got up and went and sat for Ruskin Spear. He is shown smoking his pipe and looking only slightly preoccupied!

In late 1969 economic prospects improved, taking Wilson's popularity up with them. Labour had been blamed for economic problems, and was now credited with bringing about improvement, though the role of government in both downturn or upturn might be questionable. Even with better economic news, Labour was unable to win the general election of 1970. The Conservative party led by Edward Heath took over, and Wilson went back into opposition. Here he abandoned even the appearance of the crusading fervour which had characterised his early 1960s Labour government. Now his instinct was to play down any suggestion of extreme views to avoid causing alarm. This approach seemed to work, and Harold Wilson was back in Number 10 Downing Street following the 1974 general election. In place of grand visions Pimlott describes Labour taking office in 1974 "on the basis of a ragged series of compromises which amounted to an election formula rather than a collective belief" (Pimlott P617). Wilson continued to have to deal with crusaders, notably Anthony Wedgewood Benn, now restyled Tony Benn who had unusually become more fervent as he grew older. The idea of economic planning recurred, in the views of Benn and the Number 10 economic advisor Stuart Holland. But Wilson had seen it all before and wasn't interested. By 1976 he'd had enough and decided to resign. Some wild conspiracy theories surrounded his departure. Surely nobody can resign from a job like prime minister as if it were any other job. But once you've read of the long hours, the constant rows and stress, the only real mystery is how anyone sticks it for long.



The Garter Banner of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx in Jesus College Chapel. This image is copyright free

Harold Wilson may not have been a captain steering his ship to the promised land. He has been criticised for this. But perhaps he was a better sort of captain. Macaulay wrote the following about George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, a minister to Charles II. He could have been writing about Harold Wilson: "He was chief of those politicians whom the two great parties contemptuously called Trimmers. Instead of quarreling with this nickname, he assumed it as a title of honour, and vindicated with great vivacity the dignity of the appellation. Every good thing, he said, trims between extremes. The temperate zone trims between the climate in which men are roasted and the climate in which they are frozen" (quoted in The Prime Ministers Vol 2 P396). During his watch Wilson trimmed to the breeze and kept the ship upright on its endless voyage.

Harold Wilson left Parliament at the 1983 election and went into retirement. He died in St Thomas's Hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament on 24th May 1995. He is buried in St Martins on the Scilly Isles, where he and his family had a holiday home away from the stresses of government.