Harold Wilson

16/10/196419/06/1970View on timeline

Harold Wilson

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British Labour politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976.

Entering Parliament in 1945, Wilson was appointed a parliamentary secretary in the Attlee ministry and rose quickly through the ministerial ranks; he became Secretary for Overseas Trade in 1947 and was elevated to Cabinet shortly thereafter as President of the Board of Trade. In opposition to the next Conservative government, he served as Shadow Chancellor (1955–1961) and Shadow Foreign Secretary (1961–1963). After Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly in 1963, Wilson won the subsequent leadership election. After narrowly winning the 1964 general election, Wilson saw an increased majority in a snap election in 1966.

Wilson's first period as prime minister coincided with a period of low unemployment and relative economic prosperity, though hindered by significant problems with Britain's external balance of payments. In 1969 he sent British troops to Northern Ireland. After losing the 1970 election to Edward Heath, he spent four years as Leader of the Opposition before the February 1974 election resulted in a hung parliament. After Heath's talks with the Liberals broke down, Wilson returned to power as leader of a minority government until another general election in October, resulting in a narrow Labour victory. A period of economic crisis had begun to hit most Western countries, and in 1976 Wilson suddenly announced his resignation as prime minister. Wilson's approach to socialism was moderate compared with others in his party at the time, emphasising programmes aimed at increasing opportunity in society through relatively indirect means rather than the more direct socialist goal of promoting wider public ownership of industry and workers' control of production. He took little action to pursue the Labour Party constitution's stated dedication to public ownership as a stepping stone towards this goal, though he did not formally disavow it. Himself a member of the party's soft left, Wilson joked about leading a cabinet made up mostly of social democrats, comparing himself to a Bolshevik revolutionary presiding over a Tsarist cabinet, but there was little to divide him ideologically from the social democratic cabinet majority.

Overall, historians evaluate Wilson as having led his party through difficult political issues with considerable skill. Important issues of the time included the role of public ownership, membership of the European Economic Community, and involvement in the Vietnam War, in which he refused to allow the use of British combat troops, although he maintained an expensive military presence east of Suez. His stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance, applying technology more democratically, and reducing inequality was largely unfulfilled. He seemed to some observers to lose his energy and drive in his second premiership and found it difficult to mediate disputes concerning European integration and trade union rights.

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Published in 10/09/2020

Updated in 19/02/2021

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