A Life in Focus: Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister who won four general elections but remained an enigma

The Independent revisits the life of a notable figure. This week: Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, from 25 May 1995

John Beavan
Saturday 27 April 2019 18:26 BST
Wilson in 1967: ‘our Harold’ to the rank and file
Wilson in 1967: ‘our Harold’ to the rank and file

Harold Wilson served as prime minister for almost eight years, then a peacetime record. For 13 years he led the Labour Party, winning four general elections and losing one. In 1976 he gave up office for all time, to the astonishment of the world.

What was wrong? Was he suffering from a grave secret illness? Was some great scandal about to break? Why should a man held in high esteem by his party and who had just celebrated his 60th birthday resign from the prime ministership at an age when Churchill, Eden and Home had yet to form a government? The speculation was so lively that almost everyone missed the simple truth. It was that Wilson had had enough and did not intend to fight another election. He had no new solutions for Britain’s old and recurrent problems and less energy than he had once had to sort out the party’s internal feuds.

All but a few people missed too the historical significance of his resignation, that it signalled the approaching decline of the kind of demand-managed economy cum welfare state which had begun in 1945, had been maintained by three Tory prime ministers and had been developed by Wilson. It was left to his successor James Callaghan to tell the party bluntly it was untrue that a government could simply spend its way out of depression and unemployment. The years of consensus between the parties and within them were coming to an end. The Labour Party was soon to be defeated by Margaret Thatcher’s radical Conservatism; and, without Wilson to hold it together, was to lose some of its right wing to Roy Jenkins’s breakaway movement, the Social Democratic Party, and to see the “broad left” flexing its muscles dangerously.

Though Wilson became the best-known man in Britain, he was an enigma to the public and even to his colleagues, “I’ve had him on the air a dozen times,” said a BBC producer on the day Wilson was appointed leader in 1963, “yet I still feel I don’t know him.” “You are right,” said Richard Crossman, Wilson’s friend. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

What did Wilson really think? He had a remarkable gift for equivocation and manoeuvre which he used to hold the party together and to achieve and retain the leadership. “A nimble mind,” Harold Macmillan once said. “Sometimes a revolutionary driving the tumbril, sometimes affecting the part of moderate statesmanship.” It was an exaggeration which contained a lot of truth. Nobody thought of Wilson as a left-winger until he resigned from Attlee’s government with Aneurin Bevan. “Then, he took our breath away,” Herbert Morrison said.

Wilson in 1970, a few months before he lost the premiership to Edward Heath

But the mystery of Wilson’s personality was simply that it was all there on display. There was nothing more to know. He was a brilliant academic but no intellectual. There were no philosophic depths to probe. He was one of the few university socialists of his generation to escape the tamed and benevolent Marxism of the Left Book Club. He kept away from the Oxford Labour Club which was run by Communists and joined the Liberals. But in Huddersfield he joined the Labour Party before he was 20, the party “that represented my highest moral and religious ideas”. He was a Christian, inspired by the “social gospel”, finding his code of conduct in the precepts of the scout law and Kipling’s “If”.

“Shall we,” he asked later, “build a new Britain of fair shares and equal opportunity, or return to boom-and-bust days with their inequality and restrictive national production?” That was, and remained, his socialism in a nutshell. In the controversy about the proposed removal of Clause IV of the party’s constitution which seemed to envisage the public ownership of almost everything, Wilson took a relaxed view. “Let it stand,” he said. “It is an ideal, not a detailed programme.” Yet it was wrong to say that he had no ideology or for him to claim he was wholly pragmatic. He shared the conventional outlook of the revisionist socialists of his generation: a mixed economy, a welfare state, supported on an expanding industrial base, part of it publicly owned, and full employment made possible by Keynesian expansion and trade-union moderation.

When Hugh Gaitskell heard baseless sexual gossip about Wilson, he said: “If only it were true! It would be one human attribute in the man.” Yet his judgement of his rival was wrong. Wilson was not cold. Nobody wrote longer or more sympathetic letters to the widows of his colleagues. Nobody was more deeply concerned about the physically handicapped – he filled No 10 with them every Christmas. It was he who insisted that Jack Ashley should not give up his seat when he lost his hearing and that Susan Masham in her wheelchair should accept a life peerage. Wilson argued that they could set an example and show other handicapped people what they could achieve.

But Wilson was reticent. He had been taught by his parents never to display his emotions or to weep on anyone’s shoulder. He was a member of the most loving but most undemonstrative of families.

To the end, there remained left-wingers who were suspicious of his politics and right-wingers who were sceptical of his compromises and of his motives. He was more loyal to his friends than some of them were to him. But in time he did become “our Harold” to the Labour rank and file – “one of us”, as Attlee never was, and Gaitskell could never have been. “No 10!” Wilson would cry as he entered a Labour Club. “Harold’s den!” the delighted would chorus.

Of course, many Tories in the south detested his provincial bounce. He was the archetype of the new meritocrats, a stocky man of undistinguished appearance who had been left with a stoop by typhoid, a common man from nowhere but with a mind of uncommon excellence and a prodigious capacity for work. He had, however, a weakness for boasting and a naive delight in the limelight about his head and the red carpet beneath his feet.

Though he spent six happy years at Oxford, Wilson heard no whisper of those last enchantments. In his style, his tastes, his speech, he remained an unchanged man of the north, his Puritan earnestness graced by the affability of the nonconformist chapel and spiced with a lethal wit. A Macmillan minion complained: “You are acting as if you were prime minister.” “Well thank God somebody is,” Wilson answered.

He married at 24, after six years courtship, Mary Baldwin, daughter of a congregational minister. She gave him two sons and a home in which he could forget about politics.

Wilson was a Yorkshire equivalent of Arnold Bennett’s “Card”. He preserved and cherished his roots. They were good ones. His mother was a schoolteacher and captain of a Girl Guides company. His father was a works chemist, skipper of a Rover (senior scout’s) crew at the Baptist chapel where the family worshipped. Father and son stood on the terraces together cheering Huddersfield Town and the father’s motor-bike took Harold on a sidecar ride to see the Wembley Exhibition and to pose for the prophetic picture in front of No 10. “A lot of lads who make their way up,” Herbert Wilson observed, “don’t want anything to do with their old folk. But Harold’s not like that.”

And Harold had certainly made his way up. King’s Scout (12 proficiency badges); scholarship to secondary school; Captain of the School; exhibition at Jesus College, Oxford; First Class degree in politics, philosophy and economics; winner of the Gladstone Memorial Prize and Webb Medley Scholarship; Fellow of University College and assistant to Beveridge; civil servant in the war cabinet secretariat; head of statistics and economics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power; and all this by the age of 29.

Wilson had political ambitions and became candidate for Ormskirk, which he won back for Labour in 1945. Before he had seen parliament in action, he found himself parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Works. Two years later Attlee took him into the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade, a complex department with a bureaucracy 14,000 strong.

In the House of Commons, he made a poor show. Head down in a departmental brief, he would rush through his speeches, dealing nervously with the barbed interruptions of Brendan Bracken and Oliver Lyttelton. Yet in the department he was most efficient. He was at the heart of the Labour government’s effort to put Britain on a sound post-war footing, no matter what it might cost in popularity.

It suited his Puritan nature. Wilson enthusiastically rationed raw materials and clothes (longer than was necessary) and manipulated controls to restrict consumption and stimulate exports. Rationing by decree became the new socialist orthodoxy; rationing by the purse was wicked capitalism. The only popular gesture he allowed himself was a refusal to discourage Dior’s New Look which used more cloth than the prevailing fashion. “We can’t dictate what length women shall wear their skirts,” he said.

But he made himself a laughing stock by speaking of the bootless children of his youth. What he really said was never established. Wilson’s version was that he said the boys had to have clogs instead of boots. Some believed that he had claimed to be a barefoot boy himself. For years press and politicians taunted him about barefoot children. “If he was barefoot,” Harold Macmillan said, “it was because he was too big for his boots.”

Wilson stood for the restrictive, controlling, bureaucratic side of the 1945 government. But what was in his mind in the months before his resignation in 1951? Labour had been returned the previous year with a small majority and could not last long. Attlee was unwell, Cripps was ill and had had to retire and Ernie Bevin was dying. The top leadership was fading away. Who would take their place? Cripps’ successor as chancellor of the exchequer was Hugh Gaitskell and Wilson would have been less than human if he had not been jealous of another economist coming into the cabinet over his head. When Gaitskell, at the behest of the Americans, decided to finance a heavy programme of rearmament, was it envy and ambition that motivated Wilson to oppose it? Or was it simply that as a good chief of the Board of Trade he had to warn the cabinet that the programme was impossible and that his own department could not procure all the raw materials needed?

Certainly he was not personally piqued as was Aneurin Bevan, the leader of the revolt, by Gaitskell’s insistence on diluting the National Health Service by levying charges for false teeth and spectacles. One must remember that, though Wilson was by this time a mature cabinet minister, he was still an inexperienced politician who had been sheltered from the politics of rivalry and ambition by his giant department. Did he think that soon, when Labour had fought and lost the election, Bevan would replace Attlee as Leader and he, Wilson, would be number two?

It was long years in opposition that allowed Wilson to make himself into a politician, a potential leader and a brilliant House of Commons orator and wit. Bevan gave him the clue – “Cut out the boring detail”. Wilson studied Bevan’s methods and, elected to Labour’s front bench, he made his attacks on Tory budgets a joyful annual event.

Noting the change in imagery when Macmillan succeeded Butler as Chancellor, he said that Butler’s had been equestrian and horticultural, “curbing the spirited horses” and “pruning the roses” while Macmillan had gone to the electrician to describe the “blowing of fuses and the pulling out of plugs”. Rarely, commented the unfriendly Daily Telegraph, “has the clown been played to such effect”.

When the Tories subsidised industry, Wilson described the Treasury as “a public assistance board for mendicant capitalists” and, when they decided to tax compensation paid to company directors, the Tory benches looked to him “like a collection of St Bernards that had lost their brandy”. Macmillan took a connoisseur’s delight in Wilson taunts. But when Macmillan became prime minister and claimed to draw on the heritage of both Gladstone and Disraeli, he did not enjoy Wilson’s jibe, “He has inherited the streak of charlatanry in Disraeli, but without his vision; and the streak of self- righteousness in Gladstone without his dedication to principle.”

For many years after Labour’s defeat in 1951 there was bitter strife in the party between fundamental socialists, with Bevan at their head, and the revisionists, led by Morrison and Gaitskell, who did not believe that the new social and political reality went with the traditional total commitment to socialism. Many people in the party, and Wilson was one of them, stood between the two camps or had a foot in both of them.

In later years, Wilson claimed that he was never a Bevanite, simply a co-belligerent with Bevan sharing a place in the wilderness. But there was more to it than that. Wilson appeared on Tribune brains trusts and was popularly regarded as one of Bevan’s lieutenants. That is why he was elected to the constituency section of the National Executive. His status depended not only on his intellect and on his reputation as a minister but on the support of the Left.

When Bevan resigned from the shadow cabinet because of disagreement with the policy on German rearmament, Wilson as runner-up in the last election automatically inherited his place. Bevan demanded that he resign at once, and when he refused warned him: “You’ll lose your seat on the executive.” “Not so,”Wilson said, “I’ll come top.” So he did. He had learnt to show conference as much sport in Tory-bashing as Bevan himself could, though he made the journey to the socialist promised land seem longer and more arduous.

Wilson lost nothing of his standing in the party, though he did in the country by hinting that Oliver Poole, the Tory deputy chairman, was somehow connected with a leak in the City about an impending change in the bank rate. A tribunal of Inquiry showed there was nothing in it and Wilson, humiliated yet defiant, narrowly avoided disaster in a 90-minute speech in the Commons. With his back to the wall he was at his best.

His capacity for equivocation – or compromise – reached new heights after the loss of the 1959 election, a loss for which he shared responsibility with Gaitskell by an unconvincing claim that Labour’s plans for a better Britain could be financed out of increased production without putting up taxation.

Gaitskell now wanted to amend Clause IV of the party’s constitution. Wilson was not a fundamentalist but he argued that the clause represented the central myth of the party, and so should be kept as it was. The conflict was defused, but then moved to defence. The executive had come to believe – like some non-socialists such as Selwyn Lloyd – that a country of Britain’s size could not be an independent nuclear power, that Britain must leave the provision of the western strategic deterrent to the United States.

The argument was really about Britain’s continuance in Nato with its nuclear strategy and it was against neutralism that Gaitskell promised to fight, fight, and fight again, when conference rejected a defence policy “based on the threat of nuclear force”. Wilson did not differ from Gaitskell on policy but believed that the parliamentary party, while elected on a policy of nuclear defence, could yet not frontally oppose the conference decision. Gaitskell, thought Wilson, ought to come up with a new policy reconciling the contradictory positions. The party leader was being confrontational again and so, as Wilson put it, in the interests of unity he decided to run against him for the leadership. He knew he would lose, but, he said, he could do no other. This was not merely a moral position. The left, led by Frank Cousins, told him that if he did not run, they would drop him for ever.

Wilson got fewer than half the votes and lost the sympathy of many of his non-left admirers. Gaitskell’s prestige was at its highest when he won conference back on defence and united the Labour movement solidly behind him in his sceptical approach of bearing. He had gravitas, and was valiant for truth, the hero in politics. Beside him, Wilson looked a devious anti-hero who had no real friends or followers, who was regarded with suspicion on the Left and dubiety on the right.

Yet when Gaitskell died in January 1963, Wilson headed the first leadership poll with 115 votes. Brown got 88, Callaghan 41. In the second round, with Callaghan eliminated, Wilson got 144, Brown 103. He never forgot that more than half the party had rejected him on the first round and that he would always have to watch his back.

Wilson was 47. From the start he was not merely an able but also a surprisingly agreeable leader. The media, always hungry for personalia, built him up and the public began to respond as they saw on their television screens this homely, pipe-smoking, classless man, who resembled a good family doctor. Everything went his way. He flew to the United States and met the glamorous John F Kennedy, who was in the same fashionable age-group. He went to Moscow, had several meetings with Khrushchev and discussed a test-ban treaty. The economy at home in which people had recently “never had it so good” was in trouble and Super-Mac’s image was tarnished first by the Vassall and then by the Profumo scandals. Wilson, perhaps warned by his bank rate fiasco, played the situation with impeccable caution. He left the dirty work to others.

In the Sixties the public was in an anti-establishment mood and the desire for a more permissive society was part of it. Satire came to television through That Was The Week That Was and Private Eye was founded. Macmillan was depicted as an elderly, languid, aristocrat left over from the Edwardian era and Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who succeeded him, had to confess that only with the aid of matches could he understand economics. Wilson was the beneficiary of the new mood.

Wilson made no attempt to change Gaitskell’s policy. Indeed he himself had been the principal author of the economic section of “Signposts for the Sixties” which visualised harnessing socialism to science and science to socialism. In his speech at the Scarborough conference in 1963 Wilson created a new political language much to the taste of younger, educated people. Here at last was the politician who understood the new age of automation and the computer, who would bring science and economic planning together in order to effect a structural change in British industry. There was an unforgettable sentence: “The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry.”

Later he made a patriotic appeal for a new Britain “whose motivation is not private profit but national effort and national purpose; a Britain, not backward looking, though proud of its past, and willing to discover the true traditions of our nation as a guide to our role in the future.”

Wilson went into the election with all the authority that Gaitskell would have had if he had lived.

Wilson’s first term as prime minister might have been judged more generously had he not aroused such high expectations. He was 48 when he entered No 10, the youngest prime minister since Rosebery and at the height of his powers. Only two years before he had been an also-ran and now he was leader of his party and leader of the nation too.

His zest for office overflowed. Labour had been in the wilderness for 13 years and now he had led them to the promised land. He had, however, a majority of only five and would soon have to fight another election. He resolved to carry out his programme until he was stopped, or was ready to face the electors. His Cabinet lacked governmental experience but was rich in intellect. Nine members like him were graduates of Oxford. Only eight of the 23 had not been to university and they included his two rivals for the leadership, Brown and Callaghan. The parliamentary party had changed. Half its members were graduates.

Both Brown and Callaghan were men of the centre right with strong bases in the Labour movement, useful minds and a high temperament. Each was ready to fight his corner and Wilson must have known that trouble was ahead as Brown’s Department of Economic Affairs had been set up to prevent Callaghan’s Treasury from stifling demand-led growth. Brown was to evolve a national plan for an annual economic growth of 4 per cent and negotiate a voluntary prices and incomes policy to make it feasible. And Wilson created a Ministry of Technology to stimulate science-based industries and the computer revolution he had foreshadowed at Scarborough. Then Wilson and his lieutenants were shown the Treasury books which revealed there was an immediate crisis, a record and rapidly increasing balance of payments deficit which carried an incipient threat to sterling.

Wilson re-enters Downing Street in March 1974

For the next four years Wilson was struggling desperately to balance the books and protect the parity of the pound. His aim was “to win through to surplus and independence, to steady growth based on full employment, to the high-wage economy”. And, Wilson said, these objectives could not be reached without great risk until a strong balance of payments could be assured.

Why did he not devalue the pound the moment he uncovered his bitter legacy? The question was still being asked 20 years after. The world expected a Labour government to devalue rather than to deflate. Wilson’s answer was that to devalue may have made economic sense but was full of political danger. He knew from his days in Attlee’s government how long it takes a devaluation to restore the balance and what unpopular things must be done to counter its inflationary effects. He feared too that instant devaluation would cause speculators to gamble dangerously on his doing it again when the going looked rough. And Wilson was anxious too to prove that Labour was not financially irresponsible. Treasury, Bank and City were against devaluation. And he did not want to risk upsetting the other world currency, the dollar, a few days before his populist friend President Lyndon Johnson had to face his electors.

The alternative to devaluation was to impose a 15 per cent surcharge and risk the wrath of Efta. He refused the advice of the Earl of Cromer, governor of the Bank of England, to deflate heavily and said it was outrageous that a Labour government should have to change policies for which it had won democratic consent at the behest of foreign speculators. He threatened he would fight and win an election on that theme. Lord Cromer pointed out that the pound would have gone long before polling day but agreed to set about raising a loan from the central banks anxious to avoid the monetary chaos which would follow a failing pound.

And Wilson got away with it. All economic policy was designed to achieve re-election and to keep the party sweet. These were his best years. He looked omnicompetent. By early 1966 the country had come to believe that Wilson had proved himself a moderate and decisive prime minister and returned him to power with a majority of 97 seats. The Tories were so impressed that they discarded Alec Douglas-Home and chose, as their new leader, Wilson’s Conservative clone, Edward Heath.

From 1966 to 1970 Wilson was to plunge from crisis to crisis. After the election, the balance of payments was still threatening, earnings were increasing by almost 10 per cent, and the seamen were on strike. In the July 1966 crisis, Wilson again turned down devaluation and heavily deflated. For the next two or three years he ran through the gamut of deflationary measures, wage and price freezes, special deposits, hire- purchase restrictions, foreign currency rationing, use of the regulator to increase sumptuary taxes, plus, of course, cuts in public expenditure. There were groans from old Labour Party stalwarts and from not so old Labour MPs. He had to legislate to try to break the wage/price spiral and in the end was driven to try to legislate against wildcat strikes.

On the way, Wilson first lost George Brown from the DEA. Brown saw that deflation, increased unemployment and the use of incomes policy as a crisis measure had wrecked his national plan. He stayed to put through a prices and incomes Bill which provided a 12-month price freeze and a six-month wage freeze, to be followed by six months of restraint. Wilson persuaded Brown to stay in government only by offering him the Foreign Office. Even then, Brown resigned before the end of the parliament because he did not like the way Wilson ran the government.

Wilson lost Callaghan in 1967 when devaluation could no longer be avoided. Wilson persuaded Callaghan to accept the Home Office and appointed Roy Jenkins as chancellor to carry out the deflation made necessary by devaluation in “two years of hard slog”. The party groaned under the postponement of the higher school leaving age and the return of prescription charges. A prices and incomes policy creating a 3.5 per cent ceiling was met with Labour abstentions in the Commons and rejected by the TUC and the Labour Party. Wilson said: “The government must govern.”

The economy was still being damaged by wildcat strikes and under his tutelage Barbara Castle produced the white paper In Place of Strife, which proposed allowing the minister to impose a 28-day stoppage, to insist on a ballot before an official strike, and to set up an official board that would impose penalties on defaulters. The unions reacted with horror; the Parliamentary Labour Party was appalled; one by one the cabinet dissociated themselves and Wilson and Castle stood alone for the policy. The chief whip and the chairman of the parliamentary party warned Wilson that he could not get the bill through and he dropped it in return for a “solemn and binding pledge from the TUC to do what they could”. Wilson might well have been ousted after this in favour of Callaghan, who had opposed the policy as a member of the party executive. A number of members, however, hoped that Jenkins would be the next leader and Jenkins had originally welcomed the new policy. The antagonism of the rival supporters preserved Wilson. But he was never the glad confident Wilson again.

The economic battle and the crises overseas obscured even from the party the traditional good works Wilson had carried through. There was some transfer of wealth to the poor; pensions and family allowances were increased, and a scheme for redundancy payments introduced. More resources were found for education and health. Dock labour was decasualised and 400,000 houses were built each year. Money was found for the arts and for sport. And women were to benefit from the Equal Pay Act.

Wilson used to claim that his best achievement was the creation of the Open University. If it had been less controversial in the party he could have boasted of his historic role of restarting the process which was to make Britain a member of the European Economic Community, and of keeping Britain in the community when it might have come out after Labour’s return to power in 1974.

Wilson’s political skills were at their height in dealing with the European question. There was a strong feeling in the party against the whole idea. The left believed that the community wanted to keep west Europe divided from east Europe for the foreseeable future. And even some Fabians and revisionists saw the community as a rich man’s club led by free-enterprise conservatives who would prevent Britain from following the path to socialist planning.

Wilson’s prestige after the election of 1966 enabled him to say in the Queen’s speech that he would try to negotiate entry. The first two years of government taught him that he needed wider markets – particularly for aircraft and computers and greater financial resources. He began by taking George Brown on a round of European visits; he addressed the Assembly of the Council of Europe; he had remarkable talks in depth with de Gaulle. In a meeting at Chequers he got the cabinet to agree to renew Britain’s application.

But De Gaulle finally said no, troubled by Wilson’s Atlanticism and the role of sterling.

While government and party were agonising about the economic drama, they were further disturbed and divided by overseas crises. Playing a world role appealed to Wilson’s histrionic side and some thought to his vanity. Indeed, they believed that external events distracted his attention from the economic problems. Yet these events were big enough and dangerous enough to demand a prime minister’s intervention. From the beginning of his regime to the end Wilson had to face the problems of Rhodesia and Vietnam. Then in 1968 Britain became involved in the Nigerian civil war and a year later events in Northern Ireland took a tragic turn.

The cornerstone of Wilson’s foreign policy was to sustain a close, if not a ‘special, relationship with President Johnson, the old populist who headed the world’s most powerful economy and was sympathetic to many of Labour’s social aims. Johnson wanted Wilson to give at least token military support in Vietnam. But there was a strong desire in the Labour movement for Wilson to denounce the war. Wilson played it down the middle, giving Johnson diplomatic support, though unable to accept the bombing of Hanoi. He and Alexei Kosygin were co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference which had been put together years before to preserve the independence of Vietnam. Thus he had a duty to conciliate.

The reaction of the party to the Nigerian civil war was even more emotional. The republic of Biafra had broken away from the Federation of Nigeria in a complex regional and tribal struggle involving Nigeria’s oil. Wilson supported the government of the federation which Britain had created and whose integrity was accepted by the Commonwealth, and he continued Britain’s custom of supplying that government with arms, arguing that, if we did not do so, the Soviet Union’s influence in the area would supplant Britain’s. Wilson only narrowly got his policies through cabinet and would not have done so without the stout support of the foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, who was ready to resign. Biafran students lit a bonfire in Downing Street, called for Wilson and tried to burst in through the door of No 10.

Wilson’s predecessor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, had told Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s prime minister, that he could not win independence unless it was the wish of a vast majority of the population, which consisted of 4 million blacks and about a quarter of a million whites. When Smith refused to come to London, Wilson warned him that a unilateral declaration of independence would be a rebellion against the Crown. The two did meet – in London, in Salisbury, and in the warships Fearless and Tiger off Gibraltar. Wilson sent out high- official and imaginative unofficial missions. Smith would raise their hopes but never gratify them – even though Wilson’s final offer came dangerously close to giving Smith all he could hope to get from any government.

The Northern Ireland troubles began ironically with an easing of tension as Terence O’Neill, the most liberal prime minister the Province had ever had, engaged in friendly talks with Premier Lemass of the Republic. Wilson encouraged O’Neill in a programme of reforms concerning the allocation of public service jobs and houses which the civil rights movement was demanding for the underprivileged Roman Catholics. It looked at one time as though there was going to be a miracle in Ulster but O’Neill had difficulty with his colleagues and when his fight came to an end the demonstrations and riots reached such a pitch of violence that the police were exhausted and Wilson and Callaghan, now home secretary, had to bring in the army to keep the peace. They hoped that firmness and fairness would still the quarrel and that the army would be able to return after a month or two. Though they had been welcomed as protectors by the Catholics, opinion changed. Some of Wilson’s supporters joined the Catholics in their call for “Troops Out”.

In 1968 the chances of Labour’s surviving the next election looked slim indeed. In the opinion polls the party sank as low as 21 per cent of the vote and remained in the twenties until September 1969. The by-election results were disastrous. The cabinet was quarrelsome and as the gap between ideology and necessity widened some contemplated resignation but thought better of it. But Wilson never lost hope – in public at least. Successes were always just around the corner and some found his optimism hard to bear. Political correspondents who had found him the most approachable and frank of prime ministers were disenchanted by his failing predictions. His appearances on television, once so competent, now seemed glib and specious. Wilson suspected, with some justification, that plots were being hatched against him.

In May 1968, Cecil King, chairman of the Mirror Group and Wilson’s only support in the popular press, turned on him and wrote: “Britain is threatened with the greatest financial crisis in history. It is not to be removed by lies about our reserves but only by a fresh start under a fresh leader.” His attack did Wilson no harm and a fortnight later the Mirror directors unanimously agreed that King must go at once.

At long last the deflation and devaluation began to work and in autumn 1969 the party passed the 30-per-cent mark in the opinion polls. By May 1970 Labour was ahead of the Conservatives and Wilson decided to go to the country. His popularity was always higher than that of the party, particularly in the provinces, and he fought the election largely as a personal fight as if he were a presidential candidate. The moment the first results appeared Wilson knew he was doomed and ordered the removal vans for No 10. Next morning he began to plot the memoirs which would earn the funds the party did not provide to run the leader’s office.

Wilson found himself prime minister again in March 1974 in circumstances as difficult as those which had faced him 10 years before. True, the pound had been floated and he no longer had the sterling area round his neck. But now he headed a minority government that might be brought down within days and he had inherited an economic crisis aggravated by a four-fold increase in the price of oil. There was a state of emergency. The miners’ threat to energy supplies had caused Heath to put the nation on a three- day week. More than 2 million were out of work; inflation was at its highest; there was a vast deficit on the balance of payments.

It was a less buoyant Wilson who now went back to No 10. After the shock of his unexpected defeat in 1970 he had buried his head for 12 months in his 400,000-word account of 1964-70. He regained party confidence only after a masterly attempt to deal with the Northern Irish problem which included secret meetings with the “untouchable” IRA. His leadership ceased to be questionable and he came to No 10 with 14 members of his previous cabinet available for office. His 1974 style was so different that people wondered whether he was ill. But he explained to Labour MPs that with the inexperienced cabinet of 1964 he had had to occupy every position on the field – goalkeeper, defence, attack. But now he could be a deep-lying centre-half concentrating on defence and initiating attacks. What he did not say was that he would resign the captaincy and leave the field before half-time.

Wilson decided that audacity was the only practical policy. First he got the TUC and the CBI to agree that they would co-operate with the government to bring the coal dispute to an end. The cabinet then sanctioned the terms for settlement he had advocated in the election and he was able to announce within 50 hours of going to Buckingham Palace to discuss the forming of a government that the solution had been found. The next day he brought the state of emergency to an end. The Queen’s Speech, made eight days after Labour had taken office, covered Labour’s commitments for a full parliament. Heath threatened to defeat the Government but withdrew after Wilson had warned him that he would do so at his electoral peril.

The past hung heavily on Wilson. Many in the party felt that the previous Labour government had been too pragmatic and had neglected its ties with the unions. Wilson had been more like a Tory prime minister than a socialist one. Labour came to office in 1974 committed against the statutory control of incomes but hoping the unions would be moderate. To get their goodwill and encourage them to accept some responsibility for the level of wage increases, an understanding had been reached in opposition that there would be a “social contract”. Not only would a Labour government repeal Heath’s Industrial Relations Act and end legal wages restraint, it would also take action against price increases and seriously attack social inequalities.

Having been defeated 20 times on important amendments Wilson decided to go to the country in October and he won the election, though with an overall majority of only three. Yet he was in less danger than he seemed, since the Opposition parties could rarely co-operate against him. More worrying for him was the Parliamentary Labour Party, riven by differences on domestic policies and the Common Market. The quadrupling of the price of oil had helped to create a new and little understood phenomenon, an inflationary recession that could not be cured simply by increasing public expenditure as the party activists were demanding. On the contrary there would have to be cuts. And it was essential to check domestic inflation. One man’s pay rise was another man’s job loss, as Wilson put it.

Wilson was warned by all the authorities that the pound might go and it was essential to have a legally imposed incomes policy. The TUC guidelines on pay were not being observed by all unions. In the first 12 months of the new government the wage index rose by 33 and the RPI by 21. Wilson used all his goodwill to warn the unions that unless a voluntary policy near the guidelines was followed there would be more unemployment and lower living standards.

The solution was surprisingly found by Jack Jones, the left-wing leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who got a divided general council to accept a practical proposal of a flat-rate increase of more than £6 which was compatible with an inflation target of 10 per cent. Would the miners accept it? Wilson went to their conference and made a patriotic appeal. “What the government has the right to ask, the duty to ask,” he said, “is a year not for self but a year for Britain.” Would the unions really stick by the £6? Wilson closed the credibility gap by saying that if anybody stepped out of line, the government would take reserve powers to apply legal restraints – not on workers but on employers. Wizardry, said the Times and the Guardian.

Wilson had come to office with the party opposed to the terms of Britain’s entry to the common market and a commitment to renegotiate them. The people could decide by ballot whether they then wished Britain to remain a member. “In all my 13 years as leader,” Wilson afterwards said, “I had no more difficult task than keeping the party together on this issue.” Twice he had to threaten resignation to keep the national executive in line.

The renegotiation achieved more than was then obvious. Not only was Britain awarded a surprisingly generous share of the new regional fund but an agreement was reached to operate a corrective mechanism if Britain’s budgetary contributions got too far out of line with its relative GNP. It provided a basis from which, later, Mrs Thatcher could make her uninhibited demands. Wilson was ready to claim success and recommend acceptance but some ministers were irreconcilable. He therefore proposed the extraordinary solution that dissident ministers could campaign in the country, though not at Westminster, for a No vote.

In March, Wilson got the cabinet to recommend a Yes vote but next month a special meeting of the party conference rejected the terms by two to one. In the campaign Foot, Benn and Barbara Castle fought hard for rejection but in the Referendum it was the Yes side that got twice as many votes as the Nos; the left was humiliated.

In March 1976 Wilson shocked almost everybody by his announcement that he was about to retire. He was 60 and had had enough. All the old problems of the nation and the party were still there and he had no new and feasible solution for them. He would rather people asked why did he go, rather than why did he stay.

The view commonly taken of Wilson as prime minister may seem to historians to be too harsh. After all, complete economic success eluded every other post-war government. His classic error was thought to be his refusal to devalue the pound until he could hold out no longer. But, as Samuel Brittan wrote on Wilson’s retirement in 1976, “Early devaluation would not have avoided the conflict between traditional full employment objectives, the strike threat system, and maintaining a usable currency.”

Both in 1964 and 1974 Wilson came to office at a time of economic crisis and, as he was without a working majority, had to improvise until he could fight another election and increase his strength. Part of the disappointment in his subsequent performance was that he aroused too high hopes of a golden future once Labour had replaced the Conservatives. But his freedom to deal with the endemic problems of the balance of payments was restricted by the socialist myth which made conventional remedies appear to be attempts to make capitalism work; by the recurring strife between the left and right wings of the party and by the party’s dependence on a trade-union movement which wanted to influence policy but could not play a sustained role in managing the economy.

The month after he resigned, the Queen appointed Wilson to the Order of the Garter. His own resignation honours list was deplored by his friends and ridiculed by his foes. Wilson maintained that the list was his and his alone and that Baroness Falkender (as his political secretary Mrs Williams had become in 1974) denied the allegations that it was her list. Marcia Williams served Wilson for many years. There was never a shred of evidence for the gossip about their relationship. Some members of Wilson’s kitchen cabinet found her difficult and she them, but too much was made of it.

Wilson remained an MP, presiding over a committee that reviewed the city’s financial institutions, writing his memoirs and making an occasional lecture tour. He survived after two operations for cancer. In 1979 he became Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.

He played little part in the work of the House of Lords but voted dutifully. After the age of 70 his memory began to fail and though his wit could sparkle on some days, on others he was deeply withdrawn and he sadly failed to acknowledge old friends.

Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, British prime minister, born 11 March 1916, died 24 May 1995

Lord Beavan died in 1994

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