The English statesman Harold Wilson (1916-1995), who served as prime minister and leader of the Labour party, was one of the most skillful political tacticians in 20th-century British history.
James Harold Wilson was born on March 11, 1916, in Huddersfield, Yorkshire. He distinguished himself early, capturing a scholarship to Oxford University, where he earned a first-class honors degree in politics, philosophy, and economics. In 1937, at a mere 21 years of age, Wilson became a lecturer in economics at New College, Oxford, and a fellow of University College the following year. When World War II broke out he was drafted into the civil service, where he first became director of the manpower, statistics, and intelligence branch of the Ministry of Labour, then switched to the directorship of statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Here he compiled his extensive research on the coal industry into a statistical digest, which was published in 1945 under the title New Deal for Coal.
The same year the Labour party ousted the aristocratic Sir Winston Churchill from office in a landslide victory. Wilson made his debut in parliament at the age of 29 as the representative of Ormskirk. He spent his first two years as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Works (1945-1947), following this appointment with two as president of the Board of Trade (1947-1951).
A Man for the Middle Class
By the beginning of the 1950s Wilson was becoming a familiar figure on the parliamentary scene. Proud of his middle-class roots, he had long since simplified his identity by dropping his first name, "James," in favor of a simpler "Harold Wilson." Now other signs of his determinedly middle-class image became instantly recognizable. Among them included the Yorkshire accent he did not bother to smooth, the raincoat he invariably wore over a rumpled suit, and his preference for beer rather than champagne.
In 1951 Wilson's unpretentious image received a further boost when the government announced that the National Health Service would bill its patients for the first time since its introduction in 1946. This change of policy caused two resignations from the government. The first came from Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan, who had designed the plan with the express intention that it offer free service. The second was from Wilson, whose gesture was seen then as support for the middle class. Voters later remembered this gesture when the time came to elect a new leader for the Labour party.
The occasion arose in 1963 with the death of Party leader Hugh Gaitskell. Wilson faced off against competitor George Brown for the top slot. Despite Brown's popularity with the labour unions, Wilson defeated him to take Gaitskell's place as leader of the opposition until his election victory in October 1964.
A Prime Minister Without Pretension
From his first months in office Prime Minister Wilson handled his responsibilities with flair. He worked well with the cloistered Queen Elizabeth II, introducing her to the middle-class viewpoint for the first time. Furthermore, he managed his party with dexterity, replacing conflict in the ranks with the first unity Labour had known since the early 1950s. Pragmatic and willing to listen to all viewpoints, Wilson ended a vicious round of miners' strikes, froze rents, announced government subsidies on certain food staples, and imposed price controls, all to convey to the electorate that each governmental decision was motivated by an idea of the national interest rather than by an idea of socialism. Later, he was not only credited with the establishment of the Open University which allowed working people to study for degrees by correspondence, but was also praised by supporters for refusing to join America in sending troops to Vietnam.
Nevertheless, by the end of the decade Wilson's popularity was fading because of growing tensions in Northern Ireland, a breakaway white minority government in colonial Rhodesia, and abrasiveness between the domestic government and the powerful British trade unions. Rising unemployment spurred Wilson to gamble by calling for general elections in 1970, but the Labour party was resoundingly defeated by Edward Heath.
His defeat proved temporary, for in February 1974 a miners' strike in response to a wage freeze brought Wilson and the Labour party back into power. He seemed to be on solid political ground, but in 1976 he suddenly chose to resign and largely disappeared from public view despite his elevation to a baron's status in 1983.
His decision led to a rash of speculation in the media. One rumor had him fighting cancer, while a second stated that the British counter-intelligence agency was trying to destabilize his government. The truth was concealed until after Wilson's death in 1995. According to the influential British medical journal The Lancet, Harold Wilson was one of 500,000 British patients suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.
Further Reading on James Harold Wilson
Books by Harold Wilson include Purpose in Politics: Selected Speeches, Houghton Mifflin, 1964; A Personal Record: The Labour Government 1964-1970, Little, Brown, 1971; The Governance of Britain, Harper & Row, 1976; The Chariot of Israel: Britain, America and the State of Israel, Norton, 1981. The popular biography by Leslie Smith, Harold Wilson: The Authentic Portrait (1964), is a sympathetic "inside" view by an admirer. There are two predominantly hostile books about him, one from the political right by Dudley Smith, Harold Wilson: A Critical Biography (1964), the other from the left by Paul Foot, The Politics of Harold Wilson (1968), the latter a brilliant example of political journalism at its polemical but accurate best.
Additional Biography Sources
New York Times Biographical Service (May, 1995); The Lancet (June 10, 1995).