Harold Wilson

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The Right Hon. Harold Wilson
Prime Minister 16 October 1964 - 19 June 1970;
4 March 1974 - 5 April 1976
Political Party Labour Party
Born 11 March 1916
Huddersfield, Yorkshire
Died 24 May 1995
London

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (11 March 1916 - 24 May 1995) was a successful Labour prime minister of the United Kingdom, serving two non-consecutive terms from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1976.

Career

Born in Huddersfield in 1916, the same year as his great rival, Edward Heath, Wilson was Oxford-educated and is regarded by many as probably one of the more intellectual politicians of the century, having been a lecturer in economics before entering parliament. He became MP for Ormskirk in 1945, and later represented Huyton, (Liverpool). Wilson won notoriety when, as President of the Board of Trade, he was one of a group of MPs who resigned from the government in 1951 in protest at the introduction of NHS medical charges in order to meet the financial demands imposed on the budget by the Korean War. He was soon restored to a leading position in the shadow Cabinet and, following the death of the party leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1963, he became leader of the opposition.

Shortly afterwards, the Conservative government was brought down in the wake of the Profumo affair. In 1964, Wilson became prime minister and was soon a familiar figure, known for his pipe-smoking, his Gannex raincoat, and his habit of taking holidays in the Scilly Isles. As prime minister, he gained a perhaps undeserved reputation for deviousness, especially over the matter of devaluation of the currency in November 1967. Overseas, he was troubled by crises in several of Britain's former colonies, especially Rhodesia and South Africa. Wilson is credited with resisting pressure during this period to lend military support to America in the Vietnam War.

In addition to the damage done to its reputation by devaluation, Wilson's government suffered from the perception that its response to industrial relations problems was inadequate and by 1969 the Labour Party was suffering serious mid-term electoral reverses. In June 1970, Wilson responded to an apparent recovery in his government's popularity by calling a general election, but to the surprise of almost all observers, was swept from power on a tide of anti-Labour feeling. Despite the shock defeat, Wilson survived as leader of the party and returned to Downing Street in 1974, after his successor Heath, had failed to deal adequately with similar problems to those he had faced.

Wilson was responsible for coining the term 'Selsdon Man', when describing Edward Heath. This is the genesis of the habit of British political commentators of describing political developments by suffixing the word 'man' (eg Essex Man), which is comparable with the (originally American) practice of identifying scandals by suffixing the word 'gate'. Other memorable phrases attributed to Wilson include the phrase 'the white heat of technology' describing the technology boom in Britain in the 1960s and less favourably, the comment he made to attempt to reassure the British public after the 1967 devaluation of the pound: 'This does not mean that the pound here in Britain ... in your pocket or purse ... has been devalued less...,' usually now quoted as 'the pound in your pocket'.

On 16 March 1976, Wilson shocked the nation by announcing his resignation as prime minister and his intention to retire from politics altogether. He claimed that this was a step he had always planned to take when he reached the age of sixty and that he was physically and mentally exhausted. In reality he was aware that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Six candidates stood in the first ballot to replace him Tony Benn, James Callaghan, Anthony Crosland, Michael Foot, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins. Jenkins was initially tipped as the favourite but only came third on the initial ballot. In the final ballot on the evening of 5 April, Callaghan defeated Foot by 176-137 parliamentary votes, and became Wilson's successor as prime minister and leader of the Labour Party.

Legacy

Wilson regarded the foundation of the Open University as his own greatest achievement. Ironically, Callaghan besides being several years older than Wilson, was the first prime minister for many years not to have the benefit of a higher education. Not long after Wilson's retirement, his mental deterioration from Alzheimer's disease began to be apparent. He was created Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, and died in 1995. Peter Wright, the controversial author of Spycatcher, an exposé of MI5, one of the British secret services and himself a former member of MI5, alleged within the pages of the book that 30 MI5 agents had collaborated in an attempt to undermine Wilson.