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Harold Wilson

As Labour Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976, Harold Wilson enacted social reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty. It has been said by some that Wilsons greatest achievement as Prime Minister was keeping British troops out of Vietnam.

Harold Wilson, the son of a pharmacist ["chemist"] and teacher, was born in Yorkshire during the First World War. In 1924, aged 8, he visited 10 Downing Street, which would eventually become his home. He studied Modern History for a year before transferring to Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, graduating with a first class BA.

The Labour politician entered Parliament in 1945 as MP for Ormskirk and later becoming MP for Huyton. In 1947, then Prime Minister Clement Attlee made Wilson President of the Board of Trade. Aged 31, he had become the youngest member of the Cabinet in the 20th century. Under Hugh Gaitskells leadership of the Labour party, Wilson served as Shadow Chancellor from 1955 to 1961, then as Shadow Foreign Secretary from 1961 to 1963. After Gaitskell died suddenly, Wilson fought and won a leadership contest against George Brown and James Callaghan. As Labour leader, he won 4 of the 5 General Elections he contested, although this includes a minority government.

Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan fell ill and resigned in October 1963; his successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was widely regarded as a caretaker. Wilson's first election victory on 15 October 1964 saw him win with a small majority of 4, which increased significantly to 98 after a second General Election on 31 March 1966. As Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970, his main plan was to modernise. He believed that he would be aided by the white heat of the technological revolution. His government supported backbench MPs in liberalising laws on censorship, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, and he abolished capital punishment. Crucial steps were taken towards stopping discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, and Wilsons government also created the Open University.

In comparison, his outlook on foreign affairs was less modernising. He wanted to maintain Britains world role by keeping the Commonwealth united and nurturing the Anglo-American alliance. For example, his approach to the Vietnam War saw him skilfully balance modernist ambitions with Anglo-American interests when, despite repeated American requests, he kept British troops out while still maintaining good relations. Wilson biographer Philip Ziegler characterises his role as honest broker.

However, he fundamentally reshaped Britains world role after inheriting an overstretched military and a 400 million balance of payments deficit, which caused successive sterling crises. To resolve these 2 interlinked problems, Wilson launched a Defence Review (1964 to 1965) and created the Department for Economic Affairs, which sought to implement an ambitious National Plan.

When sterling crises continued, Wilson was forced to devalue the pound in November 1967. Two months later, his government reluctantly announced Britains gradual withdrawal from the strategically important East of Suez. Despite his initial hesitation, Wilson recognised the value of membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), but his 1967 application was unsuccessful. Believing his popularity had increased, Wilson called a general election on 18 June 1970, but suffered defeat by the Conservative Party under Edward Heath.

Wilson held onto the Labour leadership. The next General Election on 28 February 1974 resulted in a hung parliament, when Prime Minister Edward Heath's Conservative Government lost its parliamentary majority. Heath entered into coalition talks with the Liberal Party in an attempt to stay in government. But when it became clear that Heath would not be successful, the Queen asked Labour leader Harold Wilson to form a minority government.

Wilson was only able to maintain enough support for his minority government until October 1974, when he was forced to hold another general election. Wilson called another election on 10 October 1974 and ultimately won a small parliamentary majority of three.

His next 2 years as Prime Minister saw him concentrate heavily on domestic policy, achieving social reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, price controls, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty. As a result, income tax on top earners increased to 83%. Job creation remained an issue by 1975, unemployment had reached 1 million.

He limited the damage caused by differing opinions within his party during renegotiation of the terms of Britains EEC membership. He also sought to resolve The Troubles between the nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland but was ultimately unsuccessful. On 16 March 1976, 5 days after his 60th birthday, he stunned the nation when he announced his intention to resign, a decision that he claimed he had made 2 years previously. Wilson caused a political sensation when he announced he was to resign, just over two years into his fourth stint as Prime Minister. He had been Labour leader for 13 years and Prime Minister for nearly eight years.

James Callaghan, leader of the Labour Party, succeeded him to the role of Prime Minister. The unexpected nature of Wilsons departure gave rise to various conspiracy theories, and a suspicion in some quarters that Wilsons resignation was forced, for some secret reason.

Harold Wilson's resignation honours list of 1976 was almost universally condemned by politicians, civil servants, and the press because it contained a number of high honours to individuals who were seen as scandalously lacking in merit. Unknown officials leaked details to the press and used multiple internal mechanisms, including the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee, to try to block the list, but Wilson pushed it through.

The various parties involved used ideas about scandal, honour, and merit to discredit Wilson, his secretary Marcia Falkender and the honours nominees. The scandal was shaped by three double standards: one of the main grounds for the disqualification of certain appointees was that they had not donated to Labour; in spite of their traditional prioritization of secrecy around honours, the civil service failed to uphold this tradition when it suited them not to; and critics of the list attacked Falkender's influence over the list even as they defended their own traditional place in determining who was selected for honours. The scandal also showed how the British establishment and British society was struggling to deal with broader questions about the value of exactly the kinds of service that Wilson honoured in the list, namely, capitalist entrepreneurship, popular culture, and contributions from traditional outsiders. While the list was universally condemned in 1976, these forms of service were to become more valued in honours lists from the 1990s.




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Page last modified: 25-11-2019 10:15:10 ZULU