Harold Wilson
Make your own free website on Tripod.com

The son of an industrial chemist, the young Wilson was famously pictured aged six in front of No.10 Downing Street. He attended the Wirral Grammar School, and soon showed academic brilliance. It was from here that he won a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, single-mindedly working to great effect in the field of economics.

He won the Webb Medley prize and the Gladstone history prize; some of the tutors regarded him as their best student that they had ever taught. Unsurprisingly, he won an outstanding first-class degree in PPE.

He moved to a junior research fellowship at University College, assisting William Beveridge in his study of unemployment and the trade cycle. He did not join the Labour Party until just before the Second World War, during which he worked in high-ranking posts in the Ministry of Labour, Mines Department and the Ministry of Fuel and Power. He was to write a short book on the nationalisation of the mines in 1944; before embarking upon some work in the Fabian Research Bureau.

In 1945 he won the marginal seat of Ormskirk for Labour, soon making a name for himself as a competent and diligent technocrat. Stafford Cripps soon promoted him to Secretary for Overseas Trade in 1947 - this was a very short spell, as in October that year he bacame President of the Board of Trade at a very young thirty-one years old.

Developing a pragmatic approach, he was glad to develop public sympathy by advocating a 'bonfire' of ration books and official licences. Wilson also played a major part in the successful export drive of the late 1940s, encouraging a variety of industries with strict competition policy. This extended to the film industry, offered subsidies to prevent the indigenous film makers being swamped by the Americans.

His Commons appearances were increasingly slick, stressing the success in gaining a healthy balance of payments and the strength of manufacturing. It was not until the spring of 1951 that Wilson emerged fully into the limelight. As a critic of Gaitskell, he backed Bevan's protests over NHS cuts.

He resigned with Bevan from the Cabinet. The reasons for his resignation were economic, as well as indicating moral commitment to the Health Service. Stockpiling of materials and resources for defence was inflationary, adversely affecting the economy.

His composure as a Shadow Minister can be contrasted with the frenetic atmosphere of the 1966-1970 government, where he was less convincing. Essentially, Wilson was very difficult to pigeonhole and categorise, with verdicts greatly differing. His lack of pomposity and straight-talking style, combined with a sometimes shameless populism, helped make him very successful in electoral terms. Wilson's pragmatism was beyond doubt.

His manipulative powers sometimes helped to unite the Party but were used in excess on occasions, often rebounding, damaging him and Labour's reputation for integrity. As a statistician, he had previously escaped into numbers, and there is reason to believe that his problems were primarily in dealing with people. He also liked a tipple.

However, by the vast majority of accounts, Harold Wilson was a kind and pleasant individual, and there was some truth in his unpretentious, folksy image. His involvement in the establishment of the 'War on Want' socialist charity deserves a mention. For despite his contradictions, Wilson was a genuine supporter of the trade unions, co-op societies and local affiliates that comprise the labour movement.

1952-1963 Wilson was then associated with the 'Keep Left' group and was to argue for more nationalisation in these years. However, he soon became politically disassociated with Foot, Castle and Mikardo, preferring a front bench perspective. When Nye Bevan resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in 1954, Wilson replaced him, to the consternation of many Bevanites. In 1955, Harold Wilson both campaigned and voted for Hugh Gaitskell rather than Bevan.

He earned the loathing of 'penny farthing' Party secretary Morgan Phillips with the Wilson Report of 1955. He was thought useful by Gaitskell, however, who made him Shadow Chancellor in 1956. From a fairly strong position within the movement, he fought Gaitskell for the leadership in 1960, but was beaten by a majority of more than three to one. He emerged afterwards as Shadow Foreign Secretary, certainly not humiliated and with his radicalism re- enhanced.

His position in the 1963 leadership race, in the circumstances after Gaitskell's death, was therefore strong. Having tapped into Labour's leftwing arteries, he defeated both Brown and Callaghan, sparking a feeling of elation across the country that a new era was dawning. Wilson's knowledge of the Left, unusual for a Labour leader, was thought to be a vital asset. In his speeches, there was an immediate emphasis upon the idea that 'socialism was about science.'

New machinery was to release people from drudge and repetition. The next phase of Socialism was to begin by using this technology as a liberating force.
For the index or close window to return to index