Hero or villain, it was Wilson who usually made the news

Twenty years after his last election victory, it is easy to forget that, for more than a decade, Harold Wilson dominated British politics.

By the time of the still mysterious resignation he was no longer a rough- edged icon - the working-class boy made good who seemed to typify the spirit of the brashly mobile Sixties. Qualities which had once been exalted as virtues were excoriated as vices. His abiding wish to heal the wounds of civil war and hold the party together was represented as an obsession to hang on to power. In truth, he was never the cross between Houdini, Machiavelli and Isaac Newton that the journalists invented when he led Labour back to government. Nor was he the cynical failure that the newspapers described when, at the age of 60, he turned his back on power and office for ever. But, hero or villain, it was Harold Wilson who usually made the news.

The handicap, from which he never quite recovered, was the circumstances in which he became Labour leader. He had been "disloyal" to Hugh Gaitskell, his predecessor, by challenging for the leadership when it seemed that disagreements over unilateral nuclear disarmament might destroy the party for ever. He lost. But within three years Gaitskell was dead and Wilson led the Opposition. Worse still in the eyes of some of the Gaitskellites, he won the general election and sat behind the despatch box in Gaitskell's place. Wilson appointed some of his most irreconcilable critics to the Cabinet and they served with great distinction. But they never forgave him and he never trusted them.

We will never know if a Labour Party led by Gaitskell would have won a greater victory in 1964 than Wilson managed to achieve. But certainly during the campaign he looked and sounded like the man of the moment. At the dawn of the space age he promised to harness "the white heat" of technological revolution. And he told an increasingly self- confident nation that Alec Douglas-Home had "emerged as Tory champion because of the establishment's instinct for deference. At a time when even the MCC has abolished the distinction between professionals and amateurs, the Conservatives have chosen to be led by a gentleman not a player."

The government which he formed in 1964 was cursed by the liability of a barely workable majority and, in consequence, the need to live from day to day. Even with room to manoeuvre after 1966, he still slid away from too many hard decisions. Devaluation was postponed and the essential withdrawal from East of Suez was delayed for far too long. But on the great issues Wilson was on the right side. He fought the neutralists, gradually moved the party towards acceptance of the Common Market, and supported to the end Barbara Castle's trade-union reforms - proposals which now seem so reasonable that it is hard to believe that they once aroused such passions.

Labour's defeat in 1970 caused almost as much surprise as its re-election in 1974. That third narrow victory was Wilson's vindication. In 1976 he failed significantly to increase his majority. But he had scored four wins out of five. And even though he seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for government, he managed - with a combination of his old tactical skill and instinct for compromise - to avoid Labour's leading Britain out of Europe. His sudden abdication caused a sensation which he undoubtedly found immensely gratifying.

To the end of his political career, Harold Wilson remained deeply suspicious of his colleagues and constantly on guard against a palace revolution. He failed in his ambition to make Labour "the natural party of government", even though he was always prepared to play the ace that he kept up his sleeve if he thought it was the only way of winning the game. But he held together a warring coalition and led his country for eight turbulent years. And, until he retired, he chose to make the waves rather than flow along with the tide. He was a much better Prime Minister, and a much better man, than many of us thought at the time.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map