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Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson Born: 11 March 1916 in Cowlersley, Huddersfield, Yorkshire

First entered Parliament: 5 July 1945

Age he became PM: 48 years, 219 days; 57 years, 358 days

Maiden Speech: 9 October 1945 speaking for the Government in a debate on the amenities and facilities provided for MPs

Total time as PM: Seven years, 279 days

Died: 24 May 1995 in London

Facts and figures

Education: Royds Hall Secondary School Huddersfield, Wirral Grammar School Bebington and Jesus College Oxford

Family: Harold Wilson was the only son and younger of two children. He was married to Gladys Mary Baldwin with two children.

Interests: Athletics, golf

Biography

Intellectual politician

Harold Wilson, who won four General Elections as Labour leader, is often regarded as one of the more intellectual politicians of the twentieth century.

The son of an industrial chemist, he was educated at Wirral Grammar School and Jesus College, Oxford. During the Second World War he worked in the civil service, but left to begin his political career.

Wilson was elected as the Labour MP for Ormskirk in 1945, and later represented Huyton on Merseyside. At 29, he was one of the youngest members of the Commons.

Within just two years of entering Parliament he was appointed President of the Board of Trade, but in 1951 he followed Nye Bevan in resigning in protest at Hugh Gaitskell’s shadow budget. The budget set out plans for military spending at the expense of social programmes.

Wilson attempted to topple Gaitskell from the Labour party leadership in 1960, but was unsuccessful.

However, he won a second contest following Gaitskell’s unexpected death in 1963, styling himself as a centrist within the party.

As Leader of the Opposition, Wilson made much of his own meritocratic credentials by portraying the PM, Alec Douglas-Home, as a “scion of the effete establishment”. He led Labour to victory in 1964, with a majority of four seats.

Planning and growth

His programme promised planning, economic growth and a scientific revolution in the service of social improvement. Labour went on to win a large, more easily governable, majority in 1966.

Wilson’s second term was more problematic. The pound was devalued in 1967, and the economic plan was abandoned. Reform of the House of Lords and of industrial relations fell by the wayside, and an attempt to enter the EC failed.

Meanwhile in international affairs Wilson found himself dealing with the prickly issue of Rhodesia’s (now called Zimbabwe) declaration of independence.

Wilson's government was behind the creation of the Open University Many of the Wilson government’s initiatives, however, have proved to be far-reaching achievements: the foundation of the Open University; the liberalising of laws affecting homosexuals and obscene publications; and the ending of capital punishment.

However, disillusionment was caused by harsh economic measures designed to rescue sterling, the decline of Britain’s old international role, and, on the left wing of his own party, by Wilson’s support for the American war in Vietnam.

Labour lost the 1970 General Election, but won unexpectedly in 1974, with Wilson presiding over a minority government. Going to the polls again in October gave Labour a workable majority.

International recession

Wilson’s government now had to face an international recession. The divisive issue of Europe also had to be broached, but a serious internal split was avoided by holding Britain’s first referendum in 1975. Wilson surprised everyone when he resigned in March 1976, saying that he had lost interest in issues which had remained little-changed.

Not long after Wilson’s retirement, his mental deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease began to be apparent. He rarely appeared in public after 1985 and died in 1995.

His death prompted much reassessment and re-evaluation of the qualities, character and legacy of this indisputably wily, pragmatic tactician.

Quote unquote

“Whichever party is in office, the Treasury is in power”

Did you know?

In 1969 he was struck in the eye by a stink bomb thrown by a schoolboy. Wilson’s response was ‘with an arm like that he ought to be in the English cricket X1″.

Wife

Norfolk-born Mary Baldwin was employed as a short-hand typist at Lever Brothers before her marriage. She shared her husband’s non-conformist, radical liberal background but was ill-at-ease in the political limelight. In 1964 she said: “I don’t think too much about 10 Downing Street, I’m not ambitious.”

But moving to Number 10 was a huge upheaval for her - she had previously kept her family life separate from the hurly-burly of politics. She was supportive on the campaign trail - “my function was to be there,” she said, “on the platform, in the background’ - and in tears when she finally left Number 10.

Described as a proud, self-effacing and very private woman who carved out a role for herself as prime ministerial spouse, she still takes an active interest in current affairs. She has two sons.

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