Harold Wilson

The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx

Harold Wilson 1 Allan Warren.jpg
Harold Wilson in 1986 by Allan Warren
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
4 March 1974 – 5 April 1976
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byEdward Heath
Succeeded byJames Callaghan
In office
16 October 1964 – 19 June 1970
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byAlec Douglas-Home
Succeeded byEdward Heath
Leader of the Opposition
In office
19 June 1970 – 4 March 1974
Prime MinisterEdward Heath
Preceded byEdward Heath
Succeeded byEdward Heath
In office
14 February 1963 – 16 October 1964
Prime Minister
Preceded byGeorge Brown
Succeeded byAlec Douglas-Home
Leader of the Labour Party
In office
14 February 1963 – 5 April 1976
Preceded byHugh Gaitskell
Succeeded byJames Callaghan
Ministerial offices
President of the Board of Trade
In office
29 September 1947 – 23 April 1951
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
Preceded byStafford Cripps
Succeeded byHartley Shawcross
Secretary for Overseas Trade
In office
10 July 1947 – 29 September 1947
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
PresidentSir Stafford Cripps
Preceded byHilary Marquand
Succeeded byArthur Bottomley
Parliamentary Secretary
to the Ministry of Works
In office
5 July 1945 – 10 July 1947
Prime MinisterClement Attlee
Preceded byReginald Manningham-Buller
Succeeded byEvan Durbin
Shadow Foreign Secretary
In office
2 November 1961 – 14 February 1963
  • Hugh Gaitskell
  • George Brown
Preceded byDenis Healey
Succeeded byPatrick Gordon Walker
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
14 December 1955 – 2 November 1961
LeaderHugh Gaitskell
Preceded byHugh Gaitskell
Succeeded byJames Callaghan
Parliamentary offices
Member of Parliament
for Huyton
In office
23 February 1950 – 13 May 1983
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Member of Parliament
for Ormskirk
In office
5 July 1945 – 3 February 1950
Preceded byStephen King-Hall
Succeeded byRonald Cross
Member of the House of Lords
Life peerage
16 September 1983 – 24 May 1995
Personal details
James Harold Wilson

(1916-03-11)11 March 1916
Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England
Died24 May 1995(1995-05-24) (aged 79)
London, England
Cause of deathColon cancer
Resting placeSt. Mary's Old Church
Political partyLabour
Mary Baldwin (m. 1940)
Children2, including Robin
Alma materJesus College, Oxford

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, PC, FRS, FSS (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British Labour politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976.

Entering Parliament in 1945, Wilson was appointed a parliamentary secretary in the Attlee ministry and rose quickly through the ministerial ranks; he became Secretary for Overseas Trade in 1947 and was elevated to Cabinet shortly thereafter as President of the Board of Trade. In opposition to the next Conservative government, he served as Shadow Chancellor (1955–1961) and Shadow Foreign Secretary (1961–1963). Hugh Gaitskell, then Labour leader, died suddenly in 1963 and Wilson was elected leader. Narrowly winning the 1964 general election, Wilson won an increased majority in a snap 1966 election.

Wilson's first period as Prime Minister coincided with a period of low unemployment and relative economic prosperity, though hindered by significant problems with Britain's external balance of payments. In 1969 he sent British troops to Northern Ireland. After losing the 1970 election to Edward Heath, he spent four years as Leader of the Opposition before the February 1974 election resulted in a hung parliament. After Heath's talks with the Liberals broke down, Wilson returned to power as leader of a minority government until another general election in October, resulting in a narrow Labour victory. A period of economic crisis had begun to hit most Western countries, and in 1976 Wilson suddenly announced his resignation as Prime Minister.

Wilson's approach to socialism was moderate compared to others in his party at the time, emphasising programmes aimed at increasing opportunity in society, rather than on the controversial socialist goal of promoting wider public ownership of industry; he took little action to pursue the Labour constitution's stated dedication to nationalisation, though he did not formally disown it. Himself a member of the party's "soft left", Wilson joked about leading a cabinet made up mostly of social democrats, comparing himself to a Bolshevik revolutionary presiding over a Tsarist cabinet, but there was arguably little to divide him ideologically from the cabinet majority.[1][2]

Overall, Wilson is seen to have managed a number of difficult political issues with considerable tactical skill, including such potentially divisive issues for his party such as the role of public ownership, membership of the European Community, and the Vietnam War; he refused to allow British troops to take part, while continuing to maintain a costly military presence east of Suez.[3] His stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance was left largely unfulfilled. He lost his energy and drive in his second premiership, and accomplished little as the leadership split over Europe and trade union issues began tearing Labour apart.[4]

Early life

Wilson was born at 4 Warneford Road, Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England, on 11 March 1916. He came from a political family: his father James Herbert Wilson (1882–1971) was a works chemist who had been active in the Liberal Party, going as far as to be Winston Churchill's deputy election agent in his 1908 by election before then joining the Labour Party. His mother Ethel (née Seddon; 1882–1957) was a schoolteacher before her marriage; in 1901 her brother Harold Seddon settled in Western Australia and became a local political leader. When Wilson was eight, he visited London and a much-reproduced photograph was taken of him standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street. At the age of ten he went with his family to Australia, where he became fascinated with the pomp and glamour of politics. On the way home he told his mother, "I am going to be Prime Minister."[5]


Wilson won a scholarship to attend Royds Hall Grammar School, his local grammar school (now a comprehensive school) in Huddersfield in Yorkshire. His father, working as an industrial chemist, was made redundant in December 1930, and it took him nearly two years to find work; he moved to Spital in Cheshire, on the Wirral, in order to do so. Wilson was educated in the Sixth Form at the Wirral Grammar School for Boys, where he became Head Boy.

Garter banner of Harold Wilson in the chapel at Jesus College, Oxford, where he studied Modern History

Wilson did well at school and, although he missed getting a scholarship, he obtained an exhibition; this, when topped up by a county grant, enabled him to study Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, from 1934. At Oxford, Wilson was moderately active in politics as a member of the Liberal Party but was strongly influenced by G. D. H. Cole. His politics tutor, R. B. McCallum, considered Wilson as the best student he ever had.[6] He graduated in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) with "an outstanding first class Bachelor of Arts degree, with alphas on every paper" in the final examinations, and a series of major academic awards.[7] Biographer Roy Jenkins wrote:

Academically his results put him among prime ministers in the category of Peel, Gladstone, Asquith, and no one else. But...he lacked originality. What he was superb at was the quick assimilation of knowledge, combined with an ability to keep it ordered in his mind and to present it lucidly in a form welcome to his examiners.[8]

He continued in academia, becoming one of the youngest Oxford dons of the century at the age of 21. He was a lecturer in Economic History at New College from 1937, and a research fellow at University College.


On New Year's Day 1940, in the chapel of Mansfield College, Oxford, he married Mary Baldwin, who remained his wife until his death. Mary Wilson became a published poet. They had two sons, Robin and Giles (named after Giles Alington); Robin became a professor of Mathematics, and Giles became a teacher. In their twenties, his sons were under a kidnap threat from the IRA because of their father's prominence.[9]

War service

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Wilson volunteered for military service but was classed as a specialist and moved into the civil service instead. For much of this time, he was a research assistant to William Beveridge, the Master of University College, working on the issues of unemployment and the trade cycle. Wilson later became a statistician and economist for the coal industry. He was Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power in 1943–44, and received an OBE for his services.[10]

He was to remain passionately interested in statistics, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1943.[11] As President of the Board of Trade, he was the driving force behind the Statistics of Trade Act 1947, which is still the authority governing most economic statistics in Great Britain. He was instrumental as Prime Minister in appointing Claus Moser as head of the Central Statistical Office, and was president of the Royal Statistical Society in 1972–73.

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Harold Wilson
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Aymar aru: Harold Wilson
azərbaycanca: Harold Vilson
беларуская: Гаральд Вільсан
български: Харолд Уилсън
brezhoneg: Harold Wilson
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latviešu: Harolds Vilsons
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مازِرونی: هارولد ویلسون
Bahasa Melayu: Harold Wilson
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oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Harold Wilson
پنجابی: ہیرلڈ ولسن
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Simple English: Harold Wilson
slovenčina: Harold Wilson
српски / srpski: Харолд Вилсон
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Harold Wilson
svenska: Harold Wilson
Tagalog: Harold Wilson
татарча/tatarça: Гарольд Вильсон
Türkçe: Harold Wilson
українська: Гарольд Вільсон
Tiếng Việt: Harold Wilson
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粵語: 韋爾遜