Harold Wilson

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Harold Wilson in 1967

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx K.G. (Born March 11, 1916 in Huddersfield , Yorkshire ; † May 24, 1995 in London ) was a British Labor Party politician and Prime Minister of Great Britain between October 1964 and June 1970 and from March 1974 to March 1976 .


Harold Wilson was born in 1916, the same year as his opponent Edward Heath . He studied economics at Oxford , where he discovered his interest in politics . After serving as a civil servant during World War II , he was elected to the British House of Commons as a member of the Ormskirk constituency in 1945 . After a constituency reform in 1950, he represented the Huyton constituency near Liverpool .

Minister and member of the shadow cabinet

Immediately after his election, he was appointed to the cabinet , making him the youngest minister of all time. He resigned in 1951 in protest at the introduction of fees in the otherwise free UK health system , the National Health Service, created in 1948 .

The resignation was not charged to him; he was appointed to the shadow cabinet shortly thereafter as potential finance minister , but Churchill won the general election in October 1951 and a 13-year era of conservative government began. In 1956, Wilson coined the term gnomes from Zurich , referring to certain Swiss bankers who speculated to depress the rate of the British pound . Britain then had a large balance of payments deficit.

In 1960 he tried unsuccessfully to take over the party leadership. When Hugh Gaitskell , the leader of the Labor Party , died unexpectedly on January 18, 1963, Wilson was elected as his successor, although parts of the party viewed him as an opportunist and trickster and therefore rejected him. Senior Labor politician Anthony Crosland describes the internal decision between Wilson and George Brown as a choice "between a crook and a drunkard" (Brown was said to have a drinking problem).

First term as Prime Minister

The Labor Party won the general election on October 16, 1964 by a majority of only 5 seats, and Wilson became Prime Minister. After a short but successful term in office, Labor won the general election on March 31, 1966 by a comfortable majority of 99 seats (Wilson had brought about early elections; a common practice in the UK political system ). Wilson was soon known for smoking a pipe in public and always spending his holidays in the Isles of Scilly . His opponents accused him of cunning. For years he braced himself against the devaluation of the pound (at that time there was the Bretton Woods system , a system with exchange rate ranges ). When he was finally forced to take this measure, he presented it as a success in the media.

During Wilson's first term in office, the government founded a number of new universities, named plate-glass universities after the then modern architectural style . B. the University of Kent , University of Warwick and University of Bath . Wilson himself jokingly called them “the Baedeker universities” because they were mostly built in (or near) historical cities in comparatively affluent areas. At the University of Bradford , which was promoted from a technical college to university in 1966, Wilson served as chancellor from 1966 to 1985 . In addition, the Wilson government founded the Open University in 1969 , an open- access university. In secondary education, Wilson promoted the Comprehensive School . The proportion of children attending this type of school rose from 10 to 30 percent between 1966 and 1970. However, according to his own statement, Wilson did not want to abolish the upper grammar schools , but instead advertised the comprehensive schools as "grammar schools for everyone".

Another important issue in Wilson's first term was housing. From 1965 to 1970 1.3 million new homes were built, the proportion of public housing (council housing) increased from 42 to 50 percent. In 1968, the Wilson government introduced the Option Mortgage Scheme , a mortgage subsidy to help low-income earners buy a home. In addition, the Wilson government created whole new cities on the "green field", the new towns . The largest of these, Milton Keynes , now has a population of over 200,000.

The foreign policy has been through crises in many former British colonies dominated, especially in Rhodesia and South Africa . Wilson resisted pressure to send troops to Vietnam in support of the US . When Britain struggled with economic problems, voter approval fell.

Second term as Prime Minister

When the polls seemed to be more favorable again, Wilson called new elections. To the surprise of almost all political observers, Labor lost the June 19, 1970 elections and Wilson was forced to surrender his post to Edward Heath . Despite this defeat, Wilson asserted himself as party leader and returned to No. Downing Street on March 6, 1974 (after the next general election ) . 10 back. Heath had failed to solve the problems Wilson had struggled with. Wilson held new elections in September 1974; on October 16, 1974, these resulted in a majority of the lower house seats for Labor. A few months later, Wilson kept an election promise and had a referendum held on June 5, 1975 on the country's membership in the European Economic Community. Proponents, including Wilson himself, won with 67% of the vote.

Wilson's grave on St Mary’s

On March 16, 1976, Wilson surprisingly announced his resignation as Prime Minister and declared that he wanted to withdraw from politics entirely. He said he had always planned to retire at 60 and that he was physically and mentally exhausted, and that he also had early-stage Alzheimer's disease . His memory and his ability to concentrate showed more and more weaknesses.

Secretary of State James Callaghan was elected to succeed him and took over the post of Prime Minister from Wilson on April 5, 1976. Wilson remained a Member of Parliament until 1983 and was promoted to Life Peer after his resignation as Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, of Kirklees in the County of West Yorkshire . Wilson was increasingly affected by the disease and was rarely seen in public after 1985. He finally died of colon cancer on May 24, 1995 in London .

Private life

In 1940 he married the office worker Mary Baldwin (Gladys Mary Wilson, Baroness Wilson of Rievaulx; January 12, 1916 to June 6, 2018). She published two volumes of poetry in the 1970s and was on the jury for the Man Booker Prize in 1975 . Politically, she wasn't always on her husband's side; she voted in the 1975 referendum against Britain joining the EU and supported the campaign against nuclear armament in the country. The marriage resulted in the sons Giles, who became a teacher, and the mathematician Robin Wilson , born in 1943 .


The reign of Harold Wilson has gone down in British history as an era of reform. Wilson's attempts to put the budget in order and enforce new labor laws sometimes brought him into strong opposition to the trade unions, who feared for their influence. In terms of foreign policy, the independence of former colonies ( Barbados , Mauritius , Swaziland ), the abandonment of bases east of Suez (exception: Hong Kong ), the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and various efforts to admit Great Britain to the European Economic Community are all part of his term of office.

Web links

Commons : Harold Wilson  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Everyone is so happy. In: Der Spiegel . April 25, 1956.
  2. Andrew Marr: A History of Modern Britain . Macmillan, London 2007, ISBN 978-1-4050-0538-8 , p. 236 Original: a choice between a crook and a drunk .
  3. ^ Michael Shattock: Making Policy in British Higher Education 1945-2011. Open University Press, Maidenhead (Berks) 2012, p. 46.
  4. Jane Martin: Education Policy. In: Andrew S. Crines, Kevin Hickson: Harold Wilson. The Unprincipled Prime Minister? Biteback Publishing, London 2016, pp. 131–148.