James Harold Wilson

views updated May 11 2018

James Harold Wilson

The English statesman Harold Wilson (1916-1995), who served as prime minister and leader of the Labour party, was one of the most skillful political tacticians in 20th-century British history.

James Harold Wilson was born on March 11, 1916, in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. He distinguished himself early, capturing a scholarship to Oxford University, where he earned a first-class honors degree in politics, philosophy, and economics. In 1937, at a mere 21 years of age, Wilson became a lecturer in economics at New College, Oxford, and a fellow of University College the following year. When World War II broke out he was drafted into the civil service, where he first became director of the manpower, statistics, and intelligence branch of the Ministry of Labour, then switched to the directorship of statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Here he compiled his extensive research on the coal industry into a statistical digest, which was published in 1945 under the title New Deal for Coal.

Parliamentary Career

The same year the Labour party ousted the aristocratic Sir Winston Churchill from office in a landslide victory. Wilson made his debut in parliament at the age of 29 as the representative of Ormskirk. He spent his first two years as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Works (1945-1947), following this appointment with two as president of the Board of Trade (1947-1951).

A Man for the Middle Class

By the beginning of the 1950s Wilson was becoming a familiar figure on the parliamentary scene. Proud of his middle-class roots, he had long since simplified his identity by dropping his first name, "James," in favor of a simpler "Harold Wilson." Now other signs of his determinedly middle-class image became instantly recognizable. Among them included the Yorkshire accent he did not bother to smooth, the raincoat he invariably wore over a rumpled suit, and his preference for beer rather than champagne.

In 1951 Wilson's unpretentious image received a further boost when the government announced that the National Health Service would bill its patients for the first time since its introduction in 1946. This change of policy caused two resignations from the government. The first came from Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, who had designed the plan with the express intention that it offer free service. The second was from Wilson, whose gesture was seen then as support for the middle class. Voters later remembered this gesture when the time came to elect a new leader for the Labour party.

The occasion arose in 1963 with the death of Party leader Hugh Gaitskell. Wilson faced off against competitor George Brown for the top slot. Despite Brown's popularity with the labour unions, Wilson defeated him to take Gaitskell's place as leader of the opposition until his election victory in October 1964.

A Prime Minister Without Pretension

From his first months in office Prime Minister Wilson handled his responsibilities with flair. He worked well with the cloistered Queen Elizabeth II, introducing her to the middle-class viewpoint for the first time. Furthermore, he managed his party with dexterity, replacing conflict in the ranks with the first unity Labour had known since the early 1950s. Pragmatic and willing to listen to all viewpoints, Wilson ended a vicious round of miners' strikes, froze rents, announced government subsidies on certain food staples, and imposed price controls, all to convey to the electorate that each governmental decision was motivated by an idea of the national interest rather than by an idea of socialism. Later, he was not only credited with the establishment of the Open University which allowed working people to study for degrees by correspondence, but was also praised by supporters for refusing to join America in sending troops to Vietnam.

Nevertheless, by the end of the decade Wilson's popularity was fading because of growing tensions in Northern Ireland, a breakaway white minority government in colonial Rhodesia, and abrasiveness between the domestic government and the powerful British trade unions. Rising unemployment spurred Wilson to gamble by calling for general elections in 1970, but the Labour party was resoundingly defeated by Edward Heath.

His defeat proved temporary, for in February 1974 a miners' strike in response to a wage freeze brought Wilson and the Labour party back into power. He seemed to be on solid political ground, but in 1976 he suddenly chose to resign and largely disappeared from public view despite his elevation to a baron's status in 1983.

His decision led to a rash of speculation in the media. One rumor had him fighting cancer, while a second stated that the British counter-intelligence agency was trying to destabilize his government. The truth was concealed until after Wilson's death in 1995. According to the influential British medical journal The Lancet, Harold Wilson was one of 500,000 British patients suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.

Further Reading

Books by Harold Wilson include Purpose in Politics: Selected Speeches, Houghton Mifflin, 1964; A Personal Record: The Labour Government 1964-1970, Little, Brown, 1971; The Governance of Britain, Harper & Row, 1976; The Chariot of Israel: Britain, America and the State of Israel, Norton, 1981. The popular biography by Leslie Smith, Harold Wilson: The Authentic Portrait (1964), is a sympathetic "inside" view by an admirer. There are two predominantly hostile books about him, one from the political right by Dudley Smith, Harold Wilson: A Critical Biography (1964), the other from the left by Paul Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson (1968), the latter a brilliant example of political journalism at its polemical but accurate best.

Additional Sources

New York Times Biographical Service (May, 1995); The Lancet (June 10, 1995). □

Wilson, Harold, 1st Baron Wilson

views updated Jun 08 2018

Wilson, Harold, 1st Baron Wilson (1916–95). Prime minister. The son of an industrial chemist, Wilson won an exhibition in history to Jesus College, Oxford. In the event he read politics, philosophy, and economics, gaining a first. In 1940 he joined the war cabinet secretariat as an economist, developing a particular expertise in the area of fuel and power. Elected MP for Ormskirk in 1945, Wilson became parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Works and in 1947 entered the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade, aged only 31. He resigned from the government in 1951 along with Aneurin Bevan, but was careful to distance himself from Bevan by insisting that his specific quarrel was over excessive expenditure on rearmament. His action established his credentials—not entirely deserved—as a left-winger when Labour began to factionalize in the 1950s.

In opposition Wilson progressed steadily up the hierarchy of the National Executive Committee and shadow cabinet and was made shadow chancellor in 1956 soon after Gaitskell became party leader. He was out of sympathy with Gaitskell's efforts to ‘modernize’ the party following Labour's third successive electoral defeat in 1959 and unsuccessfully challenged him for the leadership in 1960. His action did not prevent him being made shadow foreign secretary. Wilson's opportunity came with Gaitskell's unexpected death in January 1963: in the contest for the succession he defeated George Brown and James Callaghan.

Wilson inherited a party which had recovered its electoral credibility and proceeded to add his own distinctive contribution. His position on the centre-left enabled him to unite the Labour movement in a way Gaitskell would have found difficult. His comparative youth and his call for a technological revolution struck a chord with the optimism of the 1960s. He seemed to stand for the future just as certainly as the Conservatives' Edwardian patricians, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, represented the past. In the circumstances, Labour's victory in the election of 1964 was less surprising than the narrowness of the overall majority of four seats.

Yet hopes that Wilson's election might mark a new beginning for Britain were largely disappointed. His first cabinet was elderly and uninspiring. Wilson himself remained wedded to many traditional attitudes, especially Britain's role as a world power and the importance of sterling as an international currency. The creation of a new Department of Economic Affairs, designed to shake off the overweening control of the Treasury, proved a failure. The electorate, however, was ready to give Labour the benefit of the doubt. A parliamentary majority in single figures was scarcely a basis for innovative government and in 1966 Labour achieved a comfortable majority at the polls.

Increasingly, however, Wilson seemed to lose any sense of direction. Politics by gesture appeared to replace long-term strategical planning. Wilson's undoubted cleverness became an end in itself. The quality of pragmatism on which he prided himself seemed to degenerate into mere opportunism. Wilson maintained party unity, but at the expense of blurring over internal differences. There was no transformation of the national economy, though Roy Jenkins, as chancellor, established a reputation for prudent administration. Britain's application to join the Common Market in 1967 came up against General de Gaulle's veto. The qualities of the government seemed to be encapsulated in Labour's attempt to reform the trade union movement. Wilson and his employment secretary, Barbara Castle, invested much of their credibility in the proposed ‘In Place of Strife’ legislation but were obliged to accept humiliating defeat.

Opinion polls none the less suggested another Labour victory in 1970 and Wilson's defeat at the hands of Edward Heath came as a considerable shock. In opposition Labour's centre of gravity moved significantly leftwards, a trend which Wilson accommodated without apparent difficulty. He returned to power in 1974 still exuding self-confidence but lacking the apparent dynamism of a decade earlier. In the eyes of many, the new government allowed too much influence to the trade union leaders under the so-called Social Contract. The most threatening issue, however, as far as the internal dynamics of the party were concerned, was membership of the EEC. Wilson had opposed Heath's action in taking Britain into the community on the somewhat spurious grounds that the terms of entry were unacceptable. In 1975, Wilson allowed the issue of continuing membership to go to a referendum with members of the cabinet openly opposing one another.

There seems little reason to doubt Wilson's assertion that he had decided to stand down early from the premiership at the time he returned to office in 1974. He had perhaps lost his enthusiasm for the game of politics. He was concerned, with some justification, at the attempts of sections of the security services to destabilize his government. Yet his resignation in 1976 was met with disbelief—a commentary, no doubt, on the reluctance of other prime ministers to hand over the reins of power. He stayed on in the Commons until 1983 without playing much of a role, perhaps because of the onset of a debilitating illness. But his reputation rapidly declined, partly because of some curious nominations in his resignation honours list—the judgement of character had never been one of his strengths. Recent attempts at rehabilitation note his excellent record in electoral terms, his capacity to keep the Labour movement relatively united, the continuing economic problems of the last two decades and the important social legislation passed by his first administration.

David Dutton


Pimlott, B. , Harold Wilson (1992);
Zeigler, P. , Wilson (1993).