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Useful Notes / Harold Wilson

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The man with the pipe.

"A week is a long time in politics."

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, PC, FRS, FSS (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976. He served as a member of the Labour Party and led it during five general elections, winning four of them. He represented the now-defunct constituencies of Ormskirk (from 1945 to 1950) and much longer for Huyton (from 1950 to 1983note ).

Born in Huddersfield as the son of a teacher and a chemist, Wilson won a scholarship to a local grammar school. However, due to a failure to get work, his father moved the family to Spital, on the Wirral, and he then became the first head boy of the school he attended for Sixth Form, and then he went to Oxford. After a brief time as a Liberal, he became a Labour member and was one of the very large class of Labour MPs who arrived in the 1945 landslide, after being a civil servant during World War II.

In 1947, he got the Cabinet-level job of President of the Board of Trade (now generally known as Business Secretary), but resigned from the Cabinet in 1951 in protest over Hugh Gaitskell's budget. In 1960, while serving as Shadow Chancellor, he challenged Gaitskell for the Labour leadership but failed. When Gaitskell suddenly died less than three years later, Wilson became leader. As leader, Wilson crafted an image as a "man of the people" to contrast with the aristocratic background and peerage of his Conservative counterpart, Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home,note  and emphasised his party's technocratic leanings over their nationalisation programme.

Under his leadership, Labour narrowly defeated Douglas-Home's Tories in 1964, winning a majority of four. This quickly proved unworkable, so he called another election in 1966 and this time won a landslide victory. In a surprise outcome, he lost the 1970 election to a Conservative Party now led by Edward Heath. It is often said that Wilson/Labour lost because England had been eliminated from The World Cup just three days before the vote, though the announcement of an unusually bad balance of payments — on the same day — and anti-immigration sentiment may have had more to do with it. The hung parliament of February 1974 led to Labour winning most seats but not most votes, Wilson becoming PM and then took the country to the polls again in October. This time, Labour got a majority of three. Once the majority disappeared, Labour had to rely on the Liberals to stay in power for the remainder of his term.

Wilson surprised everyone when he stood down in March 1976. He had Alzheimer's disease, which became apparent after he left.note  He had informed James Callaghan, his eventual successor, of his decision to resign some months beforehand, thus Callaghan was able to get a headstart on his rivals in the race for the Labour leadership. Another possible partial influence may have been his discovery, according to his former press secretary Bernard Donoughue in his autobiography Downing Street Diary: Volume 1; with Wilson In Number 10, that his best and oldest friend, Lord Wigg, Paymaster General during his first term in office 1964–1970, had been an MI5 "mole", passing details of Cabinet meetings to the secret service — who in turn passed them on to journalist Chapman Pincher at the Daily Express, a man and a paper who had personally despised Wilson since the "D-Notice" scandal of 1967. Apparently, Wigg had a secret "second family", and MI5 had used their discovery of this to blackmail him.

During Wilson's time in office, the longest for any Labour Prime Minister until Tony Blair, the following happened:

  • The pound was devalued in 1967, after three years of unsuccessfully attempting to prevent it. (Labour had previously had to devalue the pound in 1949, and Wilson was concerned that Labour would become "the party of devaluation".)
  • The Vietnam War (Wilson supported the war but did not provide British troops).
  • Decolonisation in general, and Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence in particular. (Wilson was praised for imposing sanctions and maintaining a tough stance on Ian Smith's, and by extension, Rhodesia's, unwillingness to transition to majority rule.)
  • England's World Cup triumph in 1966.
  • A failed EEC entry attempt in 1967 (vetoed by France, for the second time).
  • The abolition of the death penalty.
  • Legalising homosexuality and abortion.
  • The Representation of the People Act of 1969, which reduced the voting age from 21 to 18.
  • The Race Relations Act of 1968 and the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
  • The creation of the Department of Economic Affairs (until it was disbanded in 1969) and Ministry of Technology (merged into the Department of Trade and Industry in 1970).
  • The establishment of the Open University in 1969.
  • Increased spending on education, health and social services.
  • A reduction in income inequality, combined with low unemployment and inflation (at least in his first term).
  • A national referendum of membership of the EEC in 1975 (to resolve a split in Labour, where members were allowed to campaign on either side), which led to a vote to stay winning with 67.2%.note 
  • The Health and Safety Act in 1974.

His first premiership coincided with the peak of the British post-war boom: the days of Swinging London, The Beatles, the 1966 World Cup, and miniskirts.note  By The '80s, however, he had come to be considered one of Britain's worst prime ministers ever, his ministry seen as the beginning of the "sick man of Europe" era with devaluation, industrial stagnation, The Troubles, and polarisation over social reforms and immigration composing his most lasting legacy, lingering by the time he returned to 10 Downing (which, incidentally, no subsequent PM has done as of 2020) in 1974. For Americans reading this, his first government can be seen as roughly analogous to the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, who faced similar domestic turmoil (over the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement) during his administration that eventually caused him not to seek reelection. During his second term, public opinion really turned against Wilson, having to deal also with runaway inflation, industrial strife, and his inability to bring his cabinet in line, dashing any hopes for his reputation to recover for the foreseeable future. Even many Labour supporters see his time leading the party as a missed opportunity for greater reforms and his failures as having given rise to nearly two decades of Conservative dominance, and while he managed to hold Labour together while he was running it, in his absence the party spent The '80s tearing itself apart. Since the 1990s, however, his reputation has somewhat improved, as the liberal reforms enacted during his first government have been increasingly acknowledged. In prime ministerial ranking lists he generally makes it into the top half of the post-war holders of the office (although considering the general reputation of modern prime ministers, that may not be saying much). He was Elizabeth II's first Labour and working-class Prime Minister, and by many accounts the one she got on with best personally (excepting perhaps Churchill), with the two forming a classically Odd Friendship.note  As a symbol of this, Wilson the only PM the Queen dignified with the honour of attending dinner at Downing Street — other than Churchill, that is.

Wilson was a very good tactician and the first PM to understand the power of television. His precise views on Polaris varied on the audience (he ultimately went ahead with the order) and he was the first Prime Minister to be fully aware of the potential of media — for example, his famous pipe-smoking was a construct for Wilson's 'man of the people' public image: in private he smoked cigars. An attempt at a post-premiership talk show, though, failed; he just wasn't good. He stayed an MP until 1983, then went to the Lords, but dropped out of public life after 1987.

In his last two years as PM, and until his death, he repeatedly told people he was being shadowed and bugged by MI5; his claims were dismissed as paranoia until revealed to be true in 2009. It is also rumoured he was a Soviet agent, or at least a 'useful idiot' of the kind Stalin liked. To be fair, one person spreading those rumours was L. Ron Hubbard, after Wilson's government banned Scientologists from entering the UK in 1967 and Health Minister Kenneth Robinson won a libel suit against him.

Ironically, Wilson himself had no qualms about using MI5 against the British invasion band The Move. In the 1960s, Wilson was rumored to be having an affair with his secretary. The Move's publicity-minded manager, Tony Secunda, circulated a promotional postcard for the band's single "Flowers in the Rain," which depicted Wilson and his secretary in bed. Not only did Wilson involve the MI5, he also sued the band for libel. He won the case and had the band donate royalties from "Flowers in the Rain" to charity.

In fiction:

  • The Beatles' song "Taxman", from their Revolver album, mentions "Mr. Wilson" and "Mr. Heath" (Harold Wilson and then-opposition leader Edward Heath) as a dig at the Wilson government for their "Supertax," which raised the marginal rate of tax on the top income bracket (which only affected a few thousand of the highest-income people in Britain) to an unprecedented 95%. A year before the song's release, Wilson — savvy to the mood of the public regarding the band — had them awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).
  • Wilson and Heath were made fun of occasionally in Monty Python's Flying Circus, usually as one-off throwaway gags.
  • Wilson is depicted in the HBO film Longford.
  • He was the first Prime Minister to have a regular parody in Private Eye ("Mrs. Wilson's Diary", supposedly his day-to-day routine as told by his wife, Mary, frequently satirising Wilson's working-class pretensions) and was commonly nicknamed "Wislon", after a typographical error that made him sound like an alien menace.
  • Via trick photography, Wilson (in his second term) appears as one of the celebrities who embrace the craze for the Lancastrian martial art of 'Ecky-Thump' in The Goodies. He knocks out the policeman guarding Number Ten with a black pudding ... without ever removing his pipe.
    • In another episode, again via the magic of trick photography, Wilson appears as a streaker (a person who runs naked through a public place)!
  • He appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show in 1978, partially because when writer Eddie Braben was a child in The '40s, Wilson had paid him to hand out campaign leaflets.
  • A Glaswegian children's song from The '60s poked fun at both Wilson and Heath:
    Vote, vote vote for Harold Wilson.
    Who comes knockin at the door?
    If it's Edward, let him in
    with a pimple on his chin
    and we'll not need Harold anymore,
    Shut the door!
  • A main character in Agent Lavender, where he indeed was a Soviet spy. Several sections of the book follows his flight through rural East Anglia, trying to evade British security and reach his Russian handlers.
  • He is a major character in The Audience, where he gets the most focus of any featured PM, due to his Odd Friendship with then Queen Elizabeth II. The actor who played him (Richard McCabe) won an Olivier on the West End, and was one of five actors to move to Broadway, where he won a Tony. McCabe commented when the play opened in New York that Wilson wasn't particularly well-known in the US, and that many American viewers would likely be confused by Wilson's prominence over better-known PMs like Churchill or Thatcher or Blair.
  • He is portrayed by Jason Watkins in in Season 3 of The Crown (2016), which opens with Labour having won a majority and Wilson becoming PM as a result. The Season 3 premiere touches upon how Wilson's middle-class backgroundnote  stands in stark contrast to the Queen's previous upper-class (and Conservative) PMs (Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Alec Douglas-Home) and people's suspicions that Wilson was a potential Soviet mole. Later episodes show his developing Odd Friendship with the Queen, making full use of Watkins's ability to make the PM seem at once charmingly awkward and a shrewd politician suited weirdly perfectly to Olivia Colman's privately-sharp-but-publicly-dull Queen.
  • In The New Order Last Days Of Europe, an Alternate-History Nazi Victory mod for Hearts of Iron IV, Harold Wilson is a member of the British People's Party, the UK's ruling party that collaborates with the Nazis. When Operation Sea Lion happened, he was too low-ranking to be on the evacuation list to Canada, and even though Wilson dislikes Germany entirely, he is at his very core an opportunist, and is willing to play inside the pragmatist clique within the BPP to rise in the ranks and reform Britain from the inside out.
  • The Prime Minister from the original BBC run of The Men from the Ministry is clearly a caricature of Wilson, with his name dropped in quite a few episodes.