Harold Wilson

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Harold Wilson, UK Labour leader, at a meeting March 2, 1964 with U.S. Secretary of defense Robert McNamara.

Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (March 11, 1916 – May 24, 1995) was one of the most prominent British politicians of the twentieth century. He won three general elections although always with a small majority. In the 1964 election, he had a majority of only 4 seats. In 1966 he increased his majority to 98 seats. February 1974 he formed a minority government with the support of the Ulster Unionist Party. In the same year, a second general election in October saw him achieve a majority of just five.

Wilson is generally recognized as a man of profound intellect but whose time in office corresponded for much of the period with an international recession. Unable to control inflation, he oversaw a controversial devaluation of the pound which did not produce the desired economic improvement. He tried to control spending by imposing what was known as a "credit squeeze" which actually hit the Labour Party's support base, the working class, harder than others. His bid for membership of what was then the European Common Market failed, although his Conservative successor, Edward Heath took Britain into membership which Wilson, when back in office, put to the country in a successful referendum.

Birth and early life

Wilson was born in Huddersfield, England in 1916, an almost exact contemporary of his rival, Edward Heath. He came from a political family, his father Herbert (1882–1971), a works chemist having been active in the Liberal Party and then having 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 1931 when he contracted typhoid fever after drinking contaminated milk on a Scouting|Scouts' outing and took months to recover. The next year his father, working as an industrial chemist, was made redundant and moved to Spital, Merseyside|Spital on the Wirral Peninsula|Wirral to find work. 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, and he graduated with an outstanding first class degree. He continued in academia, becoming one of the youngest Oxford University dons of the century.

Wilson was a lecturer in Economics at New College in 1937 and a lecturer in Economic History at University College from 1938 (and was a fellow of the latter college 1938–1945). For much of this time, he was a research assistant to William Beveridge on unemployment and the trade cycle.

In 1940, he married (Gladys) Mary Baldwin, who remained his wife until his death. Mary Wilson became a published poet. They had two sons, Robin Wilson (mathematician)|Robin and Giles; Robin became a Professor of Mathematics, and Giles became a teacher. In November 2006 it was reported that Giles had given up his teaching job and become a train driver for South West Trains.

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. Most of his War was spent as a statistician and economist for the coal industry. He was Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power 1943–1944.

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, UK|Central Statistical Office, and was President of the Royal Statistical Society in 1972–1973).

In 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 used the time in between to write A New Deal for Coal which used his wartime experience to argue for nationalisation of the coal mines on the basis of improved efficiency.

In the 1945 general election, which returned Clement Attlee at Britain's second Labout Prime Minister, defeating Winston Churchill Wilson won his seat in line with the Labour landslide. To his surprise, he was immediately appointed to the government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. Two years later, he became Secretary for Overseas Trade, in which capacity he made several official trips to the Soviet Union to negotiate supply contracts. Conspiracy-minded critics would later seek to raise suspicions about these trips.

On October 14, 1947, Wilson was appointed President of the Board of Trade and, at 31, became the youngest member of the Cabinet in the twentieth century. He took a lead in abolishing some of the wartime rationing, which he referred to as a "bonfire of controls." In the general election of 1950, his constituency was altered and he was narrowly elected for the new seat of Huyton.

Wilson was becoming known as a "left-winger" and joined Aneurin Bevan in resigning from the government in April 1951 in protest at the introduction of 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.


Wilson soon proved a very effective Shadow Minister. One of his procedural moves caused the loss of the Government's Finance Bill in 1955, and his speeches as Shadow Chancellor from 1956 were widely praised for their clarity and wit. He coined the term "gnomes of Zurich" to describe Swiss bankers whom he accused of pushing the pound down by speculation. In the meantime, he conducted an inquiry into the Labour Party's organization following its defeat in the 1955 general election, which compared the Party organization 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.

Wilson steered a course in intra-party matters in the 1950s and early 1960s that left him fully accepted and trusted by neither the left nor the right. Despite his earlier association with the left-of-center Aneurin Bevan, in 1955 he backed the right-of-center Hugh Gaitskell]against Bevan for the party leadership [1] He then launched an opportunistic but unsuccessful challenge to Hugh Gaitskell in 1960, in the wake of the Labour Party's 1959 defeat, Gaitskell's controversial attempt to ditch Labour's commitment to nationalization 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 Baron 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 to look to have a good chance of being elected to government. Wilson became the left candidate for the leadership. He defeated George Brown, who was hampered by a reputation as an erratic figure, in a straight contest in the second round of balloting, after James Callaghan, who had entered the race as an alternative to Brown on the right of the party, 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 fourteenth 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.

Prime Minister

The Labour Party won the United Kingdom general election, 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.

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 criticized 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. In an effort to stem consumer spending, Wilson imposed a credit squeeze. This actually hurt the middle classes and small businesses more than it did the wealthy, who when necessary could manage without borrowing any money.

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. 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 arriving at the White House January 27, 1970.

The continued relevance of industrial nationalization (a centerpiece of the post-War Labour government's program) 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 re-nationalization 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." Partly as a result, 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. With public frustration over strikes mounting, Wilson's government in 1969 proposed a series of reforms to the legal basis for industrial relations (labour law) in the UK, which were outlined in a White Paper entitled "In Place of Strife." Following a confrontation with the Trades Union Congress, however, which strongly opposed the proposals, the government substantially backed-down from its proposals. Some elements of these reforms were subsequently to be revived (in modified form) as a centerpiece of the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.

External affairs

Overseas, while Britain's retreat from Empire had by 1964 already progressed a long way (and was to continue during his terms in office), Wilson was troubled by a major crisis over the future of the British crown colony of Rhodesia. Wilson refused to concede official independence to the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, who led a white minority government which resisted extending the vote to the majority black population. Smith in response proclaimed Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence on November 11, 1965. Wilson was applauded by most nations for taking a firm stand on the issue (and none extended diplomatic recognition to the Smith regime). He declined, however, to intervene in Rhodesia with military force, believing the UK population would not support such action against their "kith and kin." 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.

Despite considerable pressure from U.S. President Lyndon Johnson for at least a token involvement of British military units in the Vietnam War, Wilson consistently avoided such a commitment of British forces. His government offered some rhetorical support for the U.S. position (most prominently in the defense offered by then-Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart in a much-publicized "teach in" or debate on Vietnam), and on at least one occasion made an unsuccessful effort to intermediate in the conflict. On June 28, 1966 Wilson 'dissociated' his Government from Johnson's bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. From a contemporary viewpoint, some commentators have attached new significance to Wilson's independent line on Vietnam in light of Britain's participation in the Iraq War (2003) with the U.S. Government. On the other hand, he did attract criticism for even his rhetorical support yet had he not offered at least token approval, he would have been accused of being pro-communist.

In 1967, Wilson's Government lodged the UK's second application to join the European Economic Community. Like the first, made under Harold Macmillan, it was vetoed by the French President Charles de Gaulle.

That same year, Wilson announced that Britain would withdraw its military forces from major bases 'East of Suez', effectively bringing Britain's empire to an end and marking a major shift in Britain's global defense strategy in the twentieth century.

Social issues

Wilson's period in office witnessed a range of social reforms, including abolition of capital punishment, decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, liberalization of abortion law, divorce reform, and abolition of theatre censorship. Such reforms were mostly adopted on non-party votes, 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 1966-1970 term witnessed growing public concern over the high level of immigration to the United Kingdom. The issue was dramatized at the political level by a "Rivers of Blood" speech|strongly-worded speech by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet as a result. Wilson's government adopted a two-track approach. While condemning racial discrimination (and adopting legislation to make it a legal offense), Wilson's Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced significant new restrictions on the right of immigration to the United Kingdom.

Electoral defeat and return to office

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.

Wilson survived as leader of the Labour party in opposition. He returned to 10 Downing Street in 1974, after defeating the Conservative government under Edward Heath in United Kingdom general election of February 1974, as leader of a minority Labour Government. He gained a majority in United Kingdom general election on October 1974.

Among the most challenging political dilemmas Wilson faced in opposition and on his return to power was the issue of British membership of the European Community (EC), which had been negotiated by the Heath administration following de Gaulle's fall from power in France. The Labour party was deeply divided on the issue, and risked a major split. Wilson showed political ingenuity in devising a position that both sides of the party could agree on. Labour's manifesto in 1974 thus included a pledge to renegotiate terms for Britain's membership and then hold a referendum (a constitutional procedure without precedent in British history) on whether to stay in the EC on the new terms. A referendum was duly held on June 5, 1975[2]. Rather than the normal British tradition of the government taking a position which all its members were required to support publicly, members of the Government were free to present their views on either side of the question. In the event, continued membership passed.

Northern Ireland

In the late 1960s, Wilson's government witnessed the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. In response to a request from the government of the province, 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 program 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, he condemned the Unionist-controlled Ulster Workers' Strike as a "sectarian strike" which was "being done for sectarian purposes having no relation to this century but only to the seventeenth century." However he refused to pressure a reluctant British Army to face down the loyalist paramilitaries who were intimidating utility workers. In a later television speech he referred to the "loyalist" strikers and their supporters as "spongers" who expected Britain to pay for their lifestyles. The 2-week strike was eventually successful in breaking the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive.

Wilson and education

Wilson was a bright boy who had made the most of his opportunities. This gave him a belief that education was key to giving working-class children the chance of a better future.

In practical terms, 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. Alas, the economic difficulties of the period deprived the tertiary system of the resources it needed. However, 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 Jennie Lee, the widow of Labour's iconic left-wing tribune Aneurin Bevan.

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. Comprehensive education became Labour Party policy.

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 for Education and Skills, 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-centered methods, abhorred by many established teachers. In parallel, the profession became increasingly politicized. 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 in 1979.

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


On March 16, 1976, Wilson surprised the nation by announcing his resignation as Prime Minister. He claimed that he had always planned on resigning at the age of 60, 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. However, by 1976 he was probably also aware of the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, as both his formerly excellent memory and powers of concentration began to fail dramatically.

The 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 resignation honours list included many businessmen and celebrities, along with his political supporters. It caused lasting damage to his reputation when it was revealed that the first draft of the list had been written by Marcia Williams on lavender notepaper (it became known as The Lavender List). Some of those whom Wilson honored included Baron Joseph Kagan, eventually imprisoned for fraud, and Sir Eric Miller (businessman)|Eric Miller, who later committed suicide while under police investigation for corruption.

Tony Benn, James Callaghan, Anthony Crosland, Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins stood in the first ballot to replace him. Jenkins was initially tipped as the favorite but came third on the initial ballot. In the final ballot on April 5, 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. Jenkins later left the Labour Party as a co-founder of the Social Democrats. Foot was generally considered too far to the left to be an electable leader. Benn, possible even further to the left, had resigned his hereditary peerage in order to continue to sit in the elected House of Commons.

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.


Not long after Wilson's retirement, his mental deterioration from Alzheimer's disease began to be apparent, and he rarely appeared in public after 1987. He died of colon cancer in May 1995, at the age of 79. He is buried on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly|St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. His epitaph is Tempus Imperator Rerum (Time Commands All Things). His memorial service was held July 13 in Westminster Abbey.

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 (though in private he smoked cigars), his love of simple cooking and overuse of the popular British condiment, 'HP Sauce', his support for his home town's football team, Huddersfield Town A.F.C. 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 modernize, after "thirteen years of Tory mis-rule…."

Wilson exhibited his populist touch in 1965 when he had The Beatles honoured with the award of Order of the British Empire (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.

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 Falkender (later Baroness Falkender). Wild gossip had hinted at an improper relationship, though these rumors 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 Homo erectus (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."

Wilson was the first British Prime Minister to serve his terms under the full glare of the television cameras. His style was quite photogenic and no few political satirists who gained famed at the time seemed to imitate something of his humor and not-overly-flamboyant yet captivating style of communication.


Despite his successes and onetime popularity, Harold Wilson's reputation has not yet recovered from its low ebb following his second premiership. Some claim he did not do enough to modernize the Labour Party, or that an alleged preoccupation with political in-fighting came at the expense of governing the country. This line of argument partly blames Wilson for the civil unrest of the late 1970s (during Britain's Winter of Discontent), and for the success of the Conservative party and its ensuing 18-year rule. His supporters argue that it was only Wilson's own skillful management 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 low ebb during the 1980s. For many voters, Thatcherism emerged politically as the only alternative to the excesses of trade-union power. Meanwhile, the reinvention of the Labour Party would take the better part of two decades, at the hands of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair. Blair's new labour, though, was much closer to the party of Wilson than to that of his successors.

In 1964, when he took office, the mainstream of informed opinion (in all the main political parties, in academia and the media, etc.) strongly favored the type of technocratic, "indicative planning" approach that Wilson endeavored to implement. Radical market 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 the unsatisfactory state of industrial relations, combined with active spadework by figures such as Sir Keith Joseph, had helped to make a radical market programme politically feasible for Margaret Thatcher (and in turn to influence the subsequent Labour leadership, especially under Tony Blair). To suppose that Wilson could have adopted such a line in 1964 is, however, anachronistic: like almost any political leader, Wilson was fated to work (sometimes skillfully and successfully, sometimes not) with the ideas that were in the air at the time.

MI5 plots?

In 1963, Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn is said to have secretly claimed that Wilson was a KGB agent. This is reminiscent of allegation against Ramsay MacDonald's first-ever Labour administration.[3] 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 destabilize 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 destabilize Wilson. Chris Mullin, MP, speaking on 23rd of 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[4]

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 Louis Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle and mentor, as interim Prime Minister. 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.

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 Printing 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 treachery 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 controversial - 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. King himself was an inveterate schemer but an inept actor on the political stage. Perhaps significantly, when Cecil 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. 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 have been exacerbated by the onset of Alzheimer's; his inherent tendency to suspiciousness was undoubtedly stoked by some in his inner circle, notably including Marcia Williams.

Files released on June 1, 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.[5] Wilson's Minister of Health, Kenneth Robinson, subsequently won a libel suit against the Church and Hubbard.


For many, Wilson, a meritocrat with a contemporary outlet, dry wit and none of the class trappings that encumbered many of his political rivals, for all his faults, personified this era. People looked forward towards a day when the world would be freer, better and more just. Wilson is said to have admired John F. Kennedy and to have tried to imitate his style. Premature senility forced him from office, but he left his mark on a decade of British history. He is perhaps best remembered for his management of his own party, within which he was able to balance the left, the center and the right of center. In the years following his successor's failure to gain re-election in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, the Labour Party shifted so far to the left that it ceased to be regarded as a party that could govern without fatally dividing the nation. When Labour finally did return to government, under Tony Blair in 1997, after 18 long years in opposition, it was once again closer to the party over which Wilson has presided.

Major Works

  • New deal for coal. London: Contact, 1945.
  • The war on world poverty: An appeal to the conscience of mankind. London: Victor Gollancz, 1953; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1969.
  • Post-war economic policies in Britain. London: Fabian Tract 309. Fabian Society, 1957
  • Remedies for inflation: a series of 'Manchester Guardian articles. London: Labour Party, 1957
  • (The new Britain: Labour's plan outlined by Harold Wilson. Selected speeches Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964.
  • Purpose in Politics: selected speeches by Rt. Hon. Harold Wilson. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
  • "The Relevance of British Socialism." [An article reprinted from the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year 1964.] London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.
  • Purpose in Power: selected speeches. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
  • The Labour Government 1964-1970: A personal record..Weidenfeld and Nicolson' and Michael Joseph, 1971 ISBN 0718109473.
  • The Governance of Britain. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. ISBN 0060146761
  • A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers. Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph, 1977. ISBN 0718116259.
  • Final Term: The Labour Government 1974-1976. Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph, 1979. ISBN 071811860X.
  • The chariot of Israel: Britain, America and the State of Israel. Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph, ISBN 1981718120027.
  • Memoirs: the making of a Prime Minister 1916-1964. Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph, 1986. ISBN 0718127757.
  • Proposals for the setting up of a British Film Authority: Report of the Interim Action Committee on the Film Industry. Chairman: Harold Wilson. Cmnd 7071. HMSO. 1978
  • The Road to Recovery: Fabian Society lectures given in the autumn of 1947 by Douglas Jay, Geoffrey Bing, H.J. Laski, Ian Mikardo, Harold Wilson and Richard Crossman. A. Wingate. London: The Fabian Society, 1948.


  1. On this, and much else about Wilson, see the obituary from The Guardian, written by a journalist who evidently knew him well: Geoffrey Goodman, "Harold Wilson: Leading Labour beyond a pipe dream," The Guardian, 25 May 1995. [1]. Retrieved 12 June 2007
  2. 1975: UK embraces Europe in referendum.BBC On This Day. Retrieved October 21, 2008.
  3. Vasili Mitrokhin, and Christopher Andrew. The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. (Gardners Books, 2000, ISBN 0140284877)
  4. "Column 221," Publications and Records, House of Commons Hansard Debate for 22 November 1988 House of Commons Handard Debates for 23 Nov 1988. Retrieved 12 June 2007
  5. Chris Owen, Scientology's secret war against psychiatrysolitarytrees.net.Retrieved October 21, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ali, Tariq. The thoughts of Chairman Harold. London: Gnome Press, 1967.
  • Borthwick, R.L. Churchill to Major: The British Prime Ministership since 1945. London: Hurst & Company, 1995. ISBN 1850651477.
  • Colman, Jonathan. A 'special relationship'?: Harold Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson and Anglo-American relations 'at the summit', 1964-68. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2004. ISBN 0719070104.
  • Daddow, Oliver. Harold Wilson and European integration: Britain's second application to join the EEC. London; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003. ISBN 0714652229.
  • Daddow, Oliver. Rhetoric and reality: The historiography of British European policy, 1945-73. University of Nottingham, 2000. (thesis)
  • Falkender, Marcia. Downing Street in perspective. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983. ISBN 0297781073.
  • Foot, Paul. The Politics of Harold Wilson. Penguin Special 265. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968.
  • Haines, Joe. The politics of power. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977. ISBN 0224014056.
  • Haines, Joe. Glimmers of twilight: Murder, intrigue and passion in the court of Harold Wilson. London: Politico’s, 2003. ISBN 1842750712.
  • Kay, Ernest. The Wit of Harold Wilson. London: Leslie Frewin, 1967.
  • Parr, Helen. Britain's policy toward the European community: Harold Wilson and Britain's world role, 1964-1967. London: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0714656143.
  • Parr, Helen. Harold Wilson, Whitehall and British policy towards the European Community, 1964-1967. London: University of London, 2002.
  • Parr, Helen. The Wilson governments 1964-1970 reconsidered. London: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415356342.
  • Penn, Richard. The Harold Wilson Bunkside Book. London: Leslie Frewin.
  • Penn, Richard. The new Harold Wilson Bunkside Book. London: Oldbourne Press, 1965.
  • Penn, Richard. The bedside cabinet book. London: Macdonald & Co, 1967.
  • Pimlott, Ben. Harold Wilson. London: HarperCollins, 1992. ISBN 0002151898.
  • Plant, Raymond. The struggle for Labour's soul: Understanding Labour's political thought since 1945. London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 0415312833.
  • Quit, Amos. The Harold Wilson way out book. London: Leslie Frewin, 1969. ISBN 0091000009.
  • Rosen, Greg. Dictionary of Labour biography. London: Politico’s, 2001. ISBN 1902301188.
  • Rosen, Greg. Old Labour to New: The dreams that inspired, the battles that divided. London: Politico’s, 2005. ISBN 1842750453.
  • Routledge, Paul. 'Wilson Series: The 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century. London: Haus, 2006. ISBN 190495068X.
  • Williams, Marcia. Inside Number 10. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972. ISBN 0297995111.
  • Ziegler, Philip. Wilson: The authorised life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993. ISBN 0297812769.


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