Harold Wilson

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, PC, FRS, FSS (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British politician who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, from October 1964 to June 1970, and again from March 1974 to April 1976. Wilson was the Leader of the Labour Party from 1963 to 1976, and was a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1945 to 1983. Wilson is the only Labour leader to have formed Labour administrations following four general elections, one of them as a minority government.


The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx

Wilson in 1962
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
4 March 1974  5 April 1976
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byEdward Heath
Succeeded byJames Callaghan
In office
16 October 1964  19 June 1970
MonarchElizabeth II
First Secretary
Preceded byAlec Douglas-Home
Succeeded byEdward Heath
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
14 February 1963  5 April 1976
Deputy
Preceded byHugh Gaitskell
Succeeded byJames Callaghan
Leader of the Opposition
In office
19 June 1970  4 March 1974
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byEdward Heath
Succeeded byEdward Heath
In office
14 February 1963  16 October 1964
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime Minister
Preceded byGeorge Brown
Succeeded byAlec Douglas-Home
Ministerial offices
President of the Board of Trade
In office
29 September 1947  23 April 1951
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
Preceded byStafford Cripps
Succeeded byHartley Shawcross
Secretary for Overseas Trade
In office
10 July 1947  29 September 1947
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
PresidentStafford Cripps
Preceded byHilary Marquand
Succeeded byArthur Bottomley
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works
In office
26 July 1945  10 July 1947
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
Minister
Preceded byReginald Manningham-Buller
Succeeded byEvan Durbin
Shadow Foreign Secretary
In office
2 November 1961  14 February 1963
Leader
Preceded byDenis Healey
Succeeded byPatrick Gordon Walker
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
14 December 1955  2 November 1961
LeaderHugh Gaitskell
Preceded byHugh Gaitskell
Succeeded byJames Callaghan
Parliamentary offices
Member of the House of Lords
Lord Temporal
In office
16 September 1983  24 May 1995
Life peerage
Member of Parliament
for Huyton
In office
23 February 1950  13 May 1983
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Member of Parliament
for Ormskirk
In office
5 July 1945  23 February 1950
Preceded byStephen King-Hall
Succeeded byRonald Cross
Personal details
Born
James Harold Wilson

(1916-03-11)11 March 1916
Huddersfield, England
Died24 May 1995(1995-05-24) (aged 79)
London, England
Resting placeSt Mary's Old Church
Political partyLabour
Spouse(s)
(m. 1940)
Children2, including Robin
Alma materJesus College, Oxford
Occupation
  • Politician
  • Author
  • Lecturer
ProfessionCivil Servant
Signature

Born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, to a politically active middle class family, Wilson won a scholarship to attend Royds Hall Grammar School and went on to study modern history at Jesus College, Oxford. He was later an economic history lecturer at New College, Oxford and a research fellow at University College, Oxford. Elected to Parliament in 1945 for the seat of Ormskirk, Wilson was immediately appointed to the Attlee Government as a Parliamentary Secretary; he became Secretary for Overseas Trade in 1947, and was elevated to the Cabinet shortly thereafter as President of the Board of Trade. In 1950, he moved to represent the nearby seat of Huyton. Following Labour's defeat at the 1955 election, Wilson joined the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Chancellor, and was moved to the role of Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1961. When Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963, Wilson won the subsequent leadership election to replace him, becoming Leader of the Opposition.

Wilson led Labour to a narrow victory at the 1964 election, and was appointed prime minister. His first period as prime minister saw a period of low unemployment and relative economic prosperity, although this would later become hindered by significant problems with Britain's external balance of payments. The Wilson Government oversaw significant societal changes in the United Kingdom, abolishing both capital punishment and theatre censorship, decriminalising homosexuality in England and Wales, relaxing the divorce laws and liberalising abortion law. In the midst of this, Wilson called a snap election in 1966, which Labour won by a landslide. In 1969, Wilson sent British troops to Northern Ireland.

Despite leading in opinion polls, Labour unexpectedly lost the 1970 election to Edward Heath's Conservatives. Wilson chose to remain in the Labour leadership, and spent four years back in the role of Leader of the Opposition, before leading Labour through the February 1974 election, which resulted in a hung parliament. Although the Conservatives had won more votes than Labour, after Heath's talks with the Liberals failed Wilson was able to broker an agreement with the Liberal Party to be appointed prime minister for a second time, now as leader of a minority government; Wilson called a snap election in October 1974, which gave Labour a small victory. During his second term as prime minister, Wilson oversaw the referendum which confirmed the UK's membership of the European Economic Community. In March 1976, Wilson suddenly announced his resignation as prime minister; he was replaced by James Callaghan. He remained in the House of Commons until retiring in 1983, when he was elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.

Historians evaluate Wilson in terms of leading the Labour Party through difficult political issues with considerable skill. His reputation was low when he left office and was still poor in 2016.[1] Key issues he faced included the role of public ownership, membership of the European Economic Community, and the refusal to commit British troops to the Vietnam War.[2] Wilson's approach to socialism was regarded by some as too moderate, by others too left-wing; a member of Labour'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 majority of his cabinet.[3] His stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance, applying technology more democratically, and reducing inequality went to some extent unfulfilled.[4]