“There’s nowt wrong with Harold Wilson” is the only thing I remember my late Dad saying about politics. I recall that many other family members didn’t share this sentiment, but it was a view he stuck to doggedly.
Today is the centenary of Wilson’s birth, and while like any politician his legacy is mixed, I have generally followed my Dad’s view that he was one of Labour’s best leaders.
Wilson was one of the 1945 intake of post-war Labour MPs, representing Ormskirk and later Huyton, which is not far from where we lived in Liverpool. He was a Yorkshireman, from Huddersfield, something my Dad obviously decided not to hold against him! After Gaitskell passed away suddenly, Wilson beat the right-wing candidates George Brown and James Callaghan for the leadership.
His legacy as Labour leader is that he won 4 of the 5 General Elections he contested, although this includes a minority government. In October 1964 with a small majority of 4, which increased significantly to 98 after a second General Election in March 1966. As Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970, his main plan was to modernise Britain, aided by the “white heat of the technological revolution”. My dad was an electronics engineer and I suspect this was an important part of Wilson’s appeal.
It is often forgotten that his government made huge social reforms. He supported backbench MPs in liberalising laws on censorship, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, and he abolished capital punishment. Crucial steps were taken towards stopping discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, and he also created the Open University. Between 1965 and 1970, 1.3 million new homes were built.
A generation of young men and their families should be grateful to Wilson for keeping the UK out of the Vietnam War. Despite repeated American requests, he kept British troops out, while still maintaining good relations.
He was generally regarded as being on the left of the party, although that is a contested view. He was certainly a pragmatic working class socialist who refused to join the Oxford Labour Club saying, “What I felt I could not stomach was all those Marxist public school products rambling on about the exploited workers and the need for a socialist revolution”.
Wilson resigned with Bevan (who was a close political friend) and Freeman from the Atlee government over increasing defence spending at the expense of the NHS and in particular charging. They joined the Keep Left Club and made it a strong force in the party. Some argue this was just a devious calculation, but I share Philip Ziegler’s view that, “He may not have been impulsive or idealistic but his resignation was an act of political courage, a gamble which fits ill with the image of cautious and devious time-server which has won such wide acceptance”.
Interestingly, a current more right-wing Labour MP, Tristram Hunt, has written a very positive view of Wilson’s legacy, arguing that we should learn from his leadership, he says:
“Like Wilson in his ‘White Heat’ speech of ’63, we need to set out a new model of socialism that embraces the modern world, and that sees the function of the state as supporting and empowering citizens in an age of insecurity. And, in doing so, we need to explain afresh why the struggle against inequality is core to our political purpose.”
Topically, he also held a referendum on membership of what was then the European Economic Community in 1975 and allowed his cabinet to support both the yes and no campaigns. This led to a bitter split in the party, something the current Prime Minister should be painfully aware of!
Sadly, dementia forced him into retirement in 1976. I’ll ignore the daft conspiracy theories. We should be wary of ‘what ifs’ in history, but I doubt if he would have made Callaghan’s mistakes in 1978/79. Then Thatcherism and all the misery that went with it might have been avoided. Pragmatic politics would have won through.
I see Labour MP Barry Sheerman is calling for him to be recognised as one of the 20th century's greatest prime ministers with a statue in the House of Commons. The least we can do for a truly reforming Prime Minister.