He won more elections than Margaret Thatcher. He made Labour the natural party of government throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He built more than one million council homes, outlawed racial discrimination, secured equal pay for women, and gave thousands the opportunity to obtain a degree through the Open University. Yet today, Harold Wilson is regarded as the archetypal unprincipled politician who dodged and weaved his way to power, then reneged on his pledges once in office.
Party unity is not an ignoble ambition. Wilson genuinely believed that working people should have decent pay and public services, and only a united Labour Party could win power to deliver these goals. Wilson was regarded as an unprincipled careerist by the left and right of his Party. Though throughout his career, Wilson often displayed genuine statesmanlike courage few other politicians have displayed before or since.
Wilson obtained a first class honours PPE degree at Oxford. His quick mind and efficiency made him indispensible on the home front in World War II, when he worked for Beveridge (the founder of the modern welfare state), before becoming a civil servant, planning wartime coal production. Elected in the Labour landslide of 1945, Wilson became President of the Board of Trade in 1947, becoming the youngest cabinet minister (aged 31) for over a century.
At the Board of Trade, Wilson ignited a “bonfire of controls”, abolishing rationing on many items. This was Wilson the pragmatist, putting the needs of people before ideology, displaying an awareness forged by his upbringing in the Depression which many of his cabinet colleagues lacked.
In 1951, the government introduced prescription charges to finance German rearmament, prompting the founder of the NHS, Nye Bevan, and Wilson to resign.
Wilson was elected leader in 1963. The UK was falling behind the newly emerging European powers, and was now reliant on the US for nuclear defence. But at the time, Wilson did not seek membership of EEC as a new world platform for the UK. Indeed, Wilson knew the impact of EEC membership on his beloved Commonwealth.
Wilson the tactician and conviction politician fused magnificently at the 1963 conference when he announced that the UK must lead the world in the white heat of the technological revolution. His vision united the whole Party.
Wilson won the 1964 election with a four seat majority. He created a Ministry of Technology and a Department of Economic Affairs to administer economic planning. He heroically resisted calls from the governor of the Bank of England to cut social spending and instead abolished prescription charges and raised pensions and social benefits.
Like many prime ministers who win landslides, trouble started for Wilson within weeks of his 1966 election victory. Scarred by the devaluation of 1949, Wilson genuinely sought to avoid it. The price was statutory control of wages and prices and overseas commitments east of Suez. While Wilson gave verbal support to the US war in Vietnam, he decisively refused to commit British troops.
Devaluation was forced on the government in 1967. Characteristically, Wilson presented this as an opportunity: a lower pound would boost exports, and end dependence upon American loans. Wilson’s attempt to join the EEC was rebuffed by De Gaulle. The first attempt to reform trade unions, through a cooling off period and pre-strike ballots, was torpedoed by his “lily-livered cabinet”.
By the 1970 election, the balance of payments was in surplus, and the economy was growing. However, continued deflation, emergency measures, and increased taxation had taken their toll on a weary electorate, and Wilson lost to Edward Heath’s Conservatives.
The EEC debate revealed Wilson the tactician at his best. Wilson opposed Heath's abysmal EEC terms, but not EEC membership in principle, and pledged the next Labour government would renegotiate and put the new terms to the people in a referendum. Antis and pros were united, and an SDP-type split was averted.
Heath created an expansionary boom just as oil prices quadrupled. Inflation was much higher than under Wilson while the new PM introduced a prices and incomes policy which failed to reward the miners for their increased bargaining power as coal became crucial to the country’s energy needs.
Miners voted overwhelmingly to strike, and Heath introduced a three-day week to conserve energy. In the 'who governs Britain' election of February, 1974, the stakes for Wilson could not have been higher: he would either become prime minister, or lose and return to the backbenches.
There was a hung Parliament.
Heath failed to form a coalition with the Liberals, and Wilson formed a minority administration. He settled with the miners, abolished the prices and incomes policy, and forged the 'social contract', whereby the government would ensure decent wages and social benefits in return for industrial peace from the trade unions. Wilson won his fourth election in October, 1974, with a majority of three.
When Wilson renegotiated the EEC terms, he reduced the UK budget contribution and blocked the single currency. Two thirds of the country voted to remain in the EEC in June, 1975.
Wilson resigned in 1976 when he had been diagnosed with the early signs of Alzheimers, which had affected other family members, and left when he was still on top.
Callaghan took over as PM and the social Ccntract seemed to be working, until the winter of discontent ended his government. It is argued that Wilson would have avoided the strikes by offering a more generous settlement, and won an election in October 1978.
In retirement, Wilson envied Margaret Thatcher as a conviction politician. Post devaluation, there was an opportunity to forge an economic miracle to reverse the decline of the UK. That he didn’t speaks volumes about the man.
While never lacking courage, Wilson abhorred the inevitable confrontation and unemployment which would have came. Had the reforms to trade unions, nationalised industries, and taxation been implemented under Wilson, the medicine would have been far milder than that administered by Lady Thatcher.
Nonetheless, Wilson was a conviction politician who improved the lives of millions.