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The Right Honourable
The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx
File:Harold Wilson Number 10 official.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

In office
4 March 1974 – 5 April 1976
Monarch Elizabeth II
Preceded by Edward Heath
Succeeded by James Callaghan

In office
16 October 1964 – 19 June 1970
Monarch Elizabeth II
Preceded by Alec Douglas-Home
Succeeded by Edward Heath
Leader of the Opposition

In office
19 June 1970 – 4 March 1974
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Edward Heath
Preceded by Edward Heath
Succeeded by Edward Heath

In office
14 February 1963 – 16 October 1964
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
Alec Douglas-Home
Preceded by George Brown
Succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home
Leader of the Labour Party

In office
14 February 1963 – 5 April 1976
Deputy George Brown
Roy Jenkins
Edward Short
Preceded by George Brown
Succeeded by James Callaghan
Shadow Foreign Secretary

In office
2 November 1961 – 14 February 1963
Leader Hugh Gaitskell
George Brown
Preceded by Denis Healey
Succeeded by Patrick Gordon Walker
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

In office
14 December 1955 – 2 November 1961
Leader Hugh Gaitskell
Preceded by Hugh Gaitskell
Succeeded by James Callaghan
President of the Board of Trade

In office
29 September 1947 – 23 April 1951
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Stafford Cripps
Succeeded by Hartley Shawcross
Secretary for Overseas Trade

In office
10 July 1947 – 29 September 1947
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Hilary Marquand
Succeeded by Arthur Bottomley
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Ministry of Works

In office
5 July 1945 – 10 July 1947
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Reginald Manningham-Buller
Succeeded by Evan Durbin
Member of Parliament
for Huyton

In office
23 February 1950 – 9 June 1983
Preceded by Constituency Created
Succeeded by Constituency Abolished
Member of Parliament
for Ormskirk

In office
5 July 1945 – 23 February 1950
Preceded by Stephen King-Hall
Succeeded by Ronald Cross
Personal details
Born James Harold Wilson
(1916-03-11)11 March 1916
Huddersfield, West Riding of Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Died 24 May 1995(1995-05-24) (aged 79)
London, United Kingdom
Resting place St Mary's Old Church, St Mary's
Citizenship British
Nationality English
Political party Labour
Spouse(s) Mary Baldwin
Children Robin Wilson
Giles Wilson
Alma mater Jesus College, Oxford
Profession Academic
Religion Congregationalist

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, FSS, PC (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British Labour Party politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976. He won four general elections, and is the most recent British Prime Minister to have served non-consecutive terms.

First entering Parliament in 1945, Wilson was immediately appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works and rose quickly through the ministerial ranks, becoming the Secretary for Overseas Trade in 1947 and being appointed to the just months later as the President of the Board of Trade. Later, in the Labour Shadow Cabinet, he served first as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1955 to 1961 and then as the Shadow Foreign Secretary from 1961 to 1963, when he was elected Leader of the Labour Party after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell. Wilson narrowly won the 1964 election, going on to win a much 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 also of significant problems with Britain's external balance of payments. In 1969 Wilson sent British troops to Northern Ireland. After losing the 1970 general election to Edward Heath, he spent four years as Leader of the Opposition before the February 1974 general 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 there was a second general election in the autumn, which resulted in a narrow Labour victory. A period of economic crisis was now beginning to hit most Western countries, and in 1976 Wilson suddenly announced his resignation as Prime Minister.

Wilson's own approach to Socialism was moderate, with emphasis on increasing opportunity within society, for example through change and expansion within the education system, allied to the technocratic aim of taking better advantage of rapid scientific progress, rather than on the more controversial socialist goal of promoting wider public ownership of industry. He took little action to pursue the Labour Party constitution's stated dedication to such nationalisation, though he did not formally disown it. Himself a member of the Labour Party's "soft left", Wilson joked about leading a Cabinet that was 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]

Wilson's first period in office, in particular, was notable for substantial legal changes in a number of social areas; though they were generally not at the top of his personal agenda. These included the liberalisation of laws on censorship, divorce, homosexuality, immigration, and abortion; as well as the abolition of capital punishment, which was due in part to the initiatives of backbench MPs who had the support of Roy Jenkins during his time as Home Secretary. 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 as the role of public ownership, British membership of the European Community, and the Vietnam War, in which he consistently resisted US pressure to involve Britain and send British troops, while continuing to maintain a costly military presence East of Suez.[3] Nonetheless, his stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance remained largely unfulfilled.

Early life

Wilson was born at 4 Warneford Road, Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England on 11 March 1916, an almost exact contemporary of his rival, Edward Heath (9 July 1916 – 17 July 2005). He came from a political family: his father James Herbert Wilson (December 1882 – 1971) was a works chemist who had been active in the Liberal Party and then joined the Labour Party. His mother Ethel (née Seddon; 1882–1957) was a schoolteacher before her marriage. When Wilson was eight, he visited London and a later-to-be-famous photograph was taken of him standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street.

He was a supporter of his hometown football club, Huddersfield Town.[4]


Wilson won a scholarship to attend Royds Hall Grammar School, his local grammar school (now a comprehensive school) in Huddersfield in Yorkshire. His education was disrupted in October 1930 when he contracted typhoid fever after drinking contaminated milk on a Scouts' outing. It took him three months to recover. In December 1930, his father, working as an industrial chemist, was made redundant and it took him nearly two years to find work. He moved to Spital on the Wirral, Cheshire in order to do so. Wilson was educated in the Sixth Form at the Wirral Grammar School for Boys, where he became Head Boy.

Wilson did well at school and, although he missed getting a scholarship, he obtained an exhibition; which, 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 later influenced by G. D. H. Cole to join the Labour Party. After his first year, he changed his field of study to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He graduated with "an outstanding first class Bachelor of Arts degree, with alphas on every paper" in the final examinations.[5] A popular urban myth at Oxford University states that Wilson's grade in his final examination was the highest ever recorded up to that date.

Although Wilson had two abortive attempts at an All Souls Fellowship, he continued in academia, becoming one of the youngest Oxford University 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.[6]

Second World War

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Wilson volunteered for 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 the College, working on the issues of unemployment and the trade cycle. He later became a statistician and economist for the coal industry. He was Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power 1943–44, and received an OBE for his services.[7]

He was to remain passionately interested in statistics. 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.

Member of Parliament

As the war drew to an end, he searched for a seat to fight at the impending general election. He was selected for the constituency of Ormskirk, then held by Stephen King-Hall. Wilson agreed to be adopted as the candidate immediately rather than delay until the election was called, and was therefore compelled to resign from his position in the Civil Service. He served as Praelector in Economics at University College between his resignation and his election to the House of Commons. He also used this time to write A New Deal for Coal, which used his wartime experience to argue for nationalisation of the coal mines on the grounds of the improved efficiency he predicted would ensue.

In the 1945 general election, Wilson won his seat in the Labour landslide. To his surprise, he was immediately appointed to the government by Prime Minister Clement Attlee as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. Two years later, he became Secretary for Overseas Trade, in which capacity he made several official trips to the Soviet Union to negotiate supply contracts. Conspiracy-minded commentators later would seek to raise suspicions about these trips.[citation needed]


On 29 September 1947 Wilson was appointed President of the Board of Trade, at 31 becoming the youngest member of a British Cabinet in the 20th century. He took a lead in abolishing some wartime rationing, which he referred to as a "bonfire of controls". His role in internal debates during the summer of 1949 over whether or not to devalue sterling, in which he was perceived to have played both sides of the issue, tarnished his reputation in both political and official circles.[8] In the general election of 1950, his Ormskirk constituency was significantly altered and he was narrowly elected for the new seat of Huyton near Liverpool.

Wilson was becoming known in the Labour Party as a left-winger and joined Aneurin Bevan and John Freeman in resigning from the government in April 1951 in protest at the introduction of National Health Service (NHS) medical charges to meet the financial demands imposed by the Korean War. After the Labour Party lost the 1951 election, he became the Chairman of Keep Left, Bevan's political group, but soon after he began to distance himself from Bevan.

Shadow Cabinet

Wilson was appointed to the Shadow Cabinet by Labour Party Leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1955 as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he proved to be very effective. One of his procedural moves caused a substantial delay to the progress of the Government's Finance Bill in 1955, and his speeches as Shadow Chancellor from 1956 were widely praised for their clarity and wit.[9] He coined the term "Gnomes of Zurich" to describe Swiss bankers whom he accused of pushing the pound down by speculation. As well as his role as Shadow Chancellor, he conducted an inquiry into the Labour Party's organisation following its defeat in the 1955 general election, which compared Labour's organisation to an antiquated "penny farthing" bicycle, and made various recommendations for improvements. Unusually, Wilson combined the job of Chairman of the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee with that of Shadow Chancellor from 1959, holding that position until 1963.

Wilson steered a course in intra-party matters in the 1950s and early 1960s that left him neither fully accepted nor trusted by the left and the right in the Labour Party. Despite his earlier association with the left-wing Aneurin Bevan, in 1955 he backed Gaitskell, considered the right-of-centre candidate in internal Labour Party terms, against Bevan for the party leadership.[10] He then launched an opportunistic but unsuccessful challenge to Gaitskell's leadership in November 1960 in the wake of the Labour Party's 1959 defeat, Gaitskell's controversial attempt to ditch Labour's commitment to nationalisation by scrapping Clause Four, and Gaitskell's defeat at the 1960 Party Conference over a motion supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament. Wilson would later be moved to the position of Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1961, before he challenged for the deputy leadership in 1962 but was defeated by George Brown.

Hugh Gaitskell died in January 1963, just as the Labour Party had begun to unite and appeared to have a very good chance of winning the next election, with the Macmillan Government running into trouble. Wilson was adopted as the left-wing candidate for the leadership, defeating Brown and James Callaghan to become the Leader of the Labour Party and the Leader of the Opposition.

At the Labour Party's 1963 Annual Conference, Wilson made both his best-remembered speech, on the implications of scientific and technological change. He argued that "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry". This speech did much to set Wilson's reputation as a technocrat not tied to the prevailing class system.[11]

Labour's 1964 election campaign was aided by the Profumo Affair, a ministerial sex scandal that had mortally wounded Harold Macmillan and was to taint his successor Sir Alec Douglas-Home, even though Home had not been involved in the scandal. Wilson made capital without getting involved in the less salubrious aspects. (Asked for a statement on the scandal, he reportedly said "No comment ... in glorious Technicolor!"). Home was an aristocrat who had given up his title as Lord Home to sit in the House of Commons and become Prime Minister upon Macmillan's resignation. To Wilson's comment that he was the 14th Earl of Home, Home retorted, "I suppose Mr. Wilson is the fourteenth Mr. Wilson".

First term as Prime Minister

Harold Wilson in 1964.

Labour won the 1964 general election with a narrow majority of four seats, and Wilson became Prime Minister. During 1965, this was reduced to a single seat as a result of by-election defeats, but in March 1966 Wilson called another general election and this time won it by a 96-seat majority.[12]

Domestic affairs

Economic policies

In economic terms, Wilson's first three years in office were dominated by an ultimately doomed effort to stave off the devaluation of the pound. He inherited an unusually large external deficit on the balance of trade. This partly reflected the preceding government's expansive fiscal policy in the run-up to the 1964 election, and the incoming Wilson team tightened the fiscal stance in response. Many British economists advocated devaluation, but Wilson resisted, reportedly in part out of concern that Labour, which had previously devalued sterling in 1949, would become tagged as "the party of devaluation".[13] In the latter half of 1967, however, an attempt was made to prevent the recession in activity from going too far in the form of a stimulus to consumer durable spending through an easing of credit, which in turn prevented a winter rise in unemployment.[14]

After a costly battle, market pressures forced the government into devaluation in 1967. Wilson was much criticised for a broadcast in which he assured listeners that the "pound in your pocket" had not lost its value. It was widely forgotten that his next sentence had been "prices will rise". Economic performance did show some improvement after the devaluation, as economists had predicted. The devaluation, with accompanying austerity measures, successfully restored the balance of payments to surplus by 1969. This unexpectedly turned into a small deficit again in 1970. The bad figures were announced just before polling in the 1970 general election, and are often cited as one of the reasons for Labour's defeat.[13]

A main theme of Wilson's economic approach was to place enhanced emphasis on "indicative economic planning". He created a new Department of Economic Affairs to generate ambitious targets that were in themselves supposed to help stimulate investment and growth (the government also created a Ministry of Technology (shortened to Mintech) to support the modernisation of industry). The DEA itself was in part intended to serve as an expansionary counter-weight to what Labour saw as the conservative influence of the Treasury, though the appointment of Wilson's deputy, George Brown, as the Minister in charge of the DEA was something of a two-edged sword, in view of Brown's reputation for erratic conduct; in any case the government's decision over its first three years to defend sterling's parity with traditional deflationary measures ran counter to hopes for an expansionist push for growth. Though now out of fashion, the faith in indicative planning as a pathway to growth,[15] embodied in the DEA and Mintech, was at the time by no means confined to the Labour Party – Wilson built on foundations that had been laid by his Conservative predecessors, in the shape, for example, of the National Economic Development Council (known as "Neddy") and its regional counterparts (the "little Neddies").[13] Government intervention in industry was greatly enhanced, with the National Economic Development Office greatly strengthened, with the number of "little Neddies" was increased, from eight in 1964 to twenty-one in 1970. The government's policy of selective economic intervention was later characterised by the establishment of a new super-ministry of technology, under Tony Benn.[16]

Harold and Mary Wilson with Richard and Pat Nixon at the White House in 1970.

The continued relevance of industrial nationalisation (a centrepiece of the post-War Labour government's programme) had been a key point of contention in Labour's internal struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s. Wilson's predecessor as leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had tried in 1960 to tackle the controversy head-on, with a proposal to expunge Clause Four (the public ownership clause) from the party's constitution, but had been forced to climb down. Wilson took a characteristically more subtle approach. He threw the party's left wing a symbolic bone with the renationalisation of the steel industry, but otherwise left Clause Four formally in the constitution but in practice on the shelf.[13]

Wilson made periodic attempts to mitigate inflation through wage-price controls, better known in Britain as "prices and incomes policy"[13] (as with indicative planning, such controls—though now generally out of favour – were widely adopted at that time by governments of different ideological complexions, including the Nixon administration in the United States). Partly as a result of this reliance, the government tended to find itself repeatedly injected into major industrial disputes, with late-night "beer and sandwiches at Number Ten" an almost routine culmination to such episodes. Among the most damaging of the numerous strikes during Wilson's periods in office was a six-week stoppage by the National Union of Seamen, beginning shortly after Wilson's re-election in 1966, and conducted, he claimed, by "politically motivated men".

With public frustration over strikes mounting, Wilson's government in 1969 proposed a series of changes to the legal basis for industrial relations (labour law), which were outlined in a White Paper "In Place of Strife" put forward by the Employment Secretary Barbara Castle. Following a confrontation with the Trades Union Congress, which strongly opposed the proposals, and internal dissent from Home Secretary James Callaghan, the government substantially backed-down from its intentions. Some elements of these changes were subsequently to be enacted (in modified form) during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher.[13]

Wilson's government made a variety of changes to the tax system. Largely under the influence of the Hungarian-born economists Nicholas Kaldor and Thomas Balogh, an idiosyncratic "Selective Employment Tax" (SET) was introduced that was designed to tax employment in the service sectors while subsidising employment in manufacturing (the rationale proposed by its economist authors derived largely from claims about potential economies of scale and technological progress, but Wilson in his memoirs stressed the tax's revenue-raising potential). The SET did not long survive the return of a Conservative government. Of longer term significance, Capital Gains Tax (CGT) was introduced across the UK on 6 April 1965.[17] Across his two periods in office, Wilson presided over significant increases in the overall tax burden in the UK. In 1974, three weeks after forming a new government, Wilson's new chancellor Denis Healey partially reversed the 1971 reduction in the top rate of tax from 90% to 75%, increasing it to 83% in his first budget, which came into law in April 1974. This applied to incomes over £20,000 (£186,150 as of 2022),[18], and combined with a 15% surcharge on 'un-earned' income (investments and dividends) could add to a 98% marginal rate of personal income tax. In 1974, as many as 750,000 people were liable to pay the top-rate of income tax.[19] Labour's identification with high tax rates was to prove one of the issues that helped the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and John Major dominate British politics during the 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s.

Wilson had entered power at a time when unemployment stood at around 400,000. It still stood 371,000 by early 1966 after a steady fall during 1965, but by March 1967 it stood at 631,000. It fell again towards the end of the decade, standing at 582,000 by the time of the general election in June 1970.[20]

Social issues

A number of liberalising social reforms were passed through parliament during Wilson's first period in government. These included the abolition of capital punishment, decriminalisation of sex between men in private, liberalisation of abortion law and the abolition of theatre censorship. The Divorce Reform Act was passed by parliament in 1969 (and came into effect in 1971). Such reforms were mostly via private member's bills on 'free votes' in line with established convention, but the large Labour majority after 1966 was undoubtedly more open to such changes than previous parliaments had been.

Wilson personally, coming culturally from a provincial non-conformist background, showed no particular enthusiasm for much of this agenda (which some linked to the "permissive society"),[21] but the reforming climate was especially encouraged by Roy Jenkins during his period at the Home Office. The franchise was also extended with the reduction of the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen in 1969.[22]

Wilson's 1966–70 term witnessed growing public concern over the level of immigration to the United Kingdom. The issue was dramatised at the political level by the famous "Rivers of Blood speech" by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, warning against the dangers of immigration, which led to Powell's dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet. Wilson's government adopted a two-track approach. While condemning racial discrimination (and adopting legislation to make it a legal offence), Wilson's Home Secretary James Callaghan introduced significant new restrictions on the right of immigration to the United Kingdom.


Education held special significance for a socialist of Wilson's generation, in view of its role in both opening up opportunities for children from working-class backgrounds and enabling Britain to seize the potential benefits of scientific advances. Under the first Wilson government, for the first time in British history, more money was allocated to education than to defence.[23] Wilson continued the rapid creation of new universities, in line with the recommendations of the Robbins Report, a bipartisan policy already in train when Labour took power. The economic difficulties of the period deprived the tertiary system of the resources it needed. Nevertheless, university expansion remained a core policy. One notable effect was the first entry of women into university education in significant numbers. More broadly, higher education overall was significantly expanded, with a distinct bias towards the non-university sector.[24] Some 29 polytechnics were established, whilst student participation rates were increased from 5% to 10%.[25]

Wilson also deserves credit for grasping the concept of an Open University, to give adults who had missed out on tertiary education a second chance through part-time study and distance learning. His political commitment included assigning implementation responsibility to Baroness Lee, the widow of Aneurin Bevan, the charismatic leader of Labour's left wing whom Wilson had joined in resigning from the Attlee cabinet. The Open University worked through summer schools, postal tuition and television programmes.[26] By 1981, 45,000 students had received degrees through the Open University.[26] Money was also channelled into local-authority run colleges of education.[16]

Wilson's record on secondary education is, by contrast, highly controversial. A fuller description is in the article Education in England. Two factors played a role. Following the Education Act 1944 there was disaffection with the tripartite system of academically-oriented Grammar schools for a small proportion of "gifted" children, and Technical and Secondary Modern schools for the majority of children. Pressure grew for the abolition of the selective principle underlying the "eleven plus", and replacement with Comprehensive schools which would serve the full range of children (see the article Debates on the grammar school). Comprehensive education became Labour Party policy. From 1966 to 1970, the proportion of children in comprehensive schools increased from about 10% to over 30%.[27] There was also a move in primary schools towards "child-centred" or individual learning, in keeping with the recommendations of the 1967 Plowden Report on improving the education system.[28] Polytechnics were established in 1965 through the amalgamation of existing institutions such as colleges of technology, art, and commerce. A new external examination, designed for children of middling intellectual ability and leading to a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), was also introduced that same year.[29] Advanced level courses in further education were also expanded by the government much faster than under the previous Conservative government.[14]

Labour pressed local authorities to convert grammar schools into comprehensives. Conversion continued on a large scale during the subsequent Conservative Heath administration, although the Secretary of State, Margaret Thatcher, ended the compulsion of local governments to convert.

A major controversy that arose during Wilson's first government was the decision that the government could not fulfil its long-held promise to raise the school leaving age to 16, because of the investment required in infrastructure, such as extra classrooms and teachers. Baroness Lee considered resigning in protest, but narrowly decided against this in the interests of party unity. It was left to Thatcher to carry out the change, during the Heath government.

Attempts were also made to improve the provision of nursery education. In 1960, as a means of saving money, the Conservative government issued a circular which forbade the expansion of nursery education. This restriction was slightly relaxed just before the July 1964 election, when authorities were allowed to provide places "where this would enable married women to return to teaching." In 1965, the Labour government provided a further relaxation which allowed authorities to expand "so long as they provided some extra places for teachers to whom priority was to be given." Nevertheless, the number of children under five in maintained nursery, primary, and special schools increased only slightly, from 222,000 in 1965 to 239,000 in 1969.[14]

Overall, public expenditure on education rose as a proportion of GNP from 4.8% in 1964 to 5.9% in 1968, and the number of teachers in training increased by more than a third between 1964 and 1967.[30] The percentage of students staying on at school after the age of sixteen increased similarly, and the student population increased by over 10% each year. Pupil-teacher ratios were also steadily reduced. As a result of the first Wilson government's educational policies, opportunities for working-class children were improved, while overall access to education in 1970 was broader than in 1964.[24] As summarised by Brian Lapping,

"The years 1964–70 were largely taken up with creating extra places in universities, polytechnics, technical colleges, colleges of education: preparing for the day when a new Act would make it the right of a student, on leaving school, to have a place in an institution of further education."[16]

In 1966, Wilson was created the first Chancellor of the newly created University of Bradford, a position he held until 1985.


Housing was a major policy area under the first Wilson government. During Wilson's time in office from 1964 to 1970, more new houses were built than in the last six years of the previous Conservative government. The proportion of council housing rose from 42% to 50% of the total,[31] while the number of council homes built increased steadily, from 119,000 in 1964 to 133,000 in 1965 and to 142,000 in 1966. Allowing for demolitions, 1.3 million new homes were built between 1965 and 1970,[26] To encourage home ownership, the government introduced the Option Mortgage Scheme (1968), which made low-income housebuyers eligible for subsidies (equivalent to tax relief on mortgage interest payments).[32] This scheme had the effect of reducing housing costs for buyers on low incomes.[33] In addition, house owners were exempted from capital gains tax. Together with the Option Mortgage Scheme, this measure stimulated the private housing market.[34]

The government also accepted most of the recommendations of the 1961 Parker Morris Report for significantly improved standards of space and amenities new local authority dwellings.[14] The first Wilson government made Parker Morris recommendations mandatory for public sector housing in new towns in 1967 and for local authorities in 1969.[35] By 1967, almost 85% of council dwellings were being built to the standards laid out by the 1961 Parker Morris Report, and from January 1969 Parker Morris space and heating standards became mandatory.[36] in public housing design.[37]

Significant emphasis was also placed on town planning, with new conservation areas introduced and a new generation of new towns built, notably Milton Keynes. The New Towns Acts of 1965 and 1968 together gave the government the authority (through its ministries) to designate any area of land as a site for a New Town.[29] The government also combined its push for the construction of more new housing with encouragement and subsidisation of the renovation of old houses (as an alternative to their destruction and replacement).[38] The Housing Improvement Act of 1969, for example, made it easier to turn old houses into new homes by encouraging rehabilitation and modernisation through increased grants to property owners.[29] The Act sought to place the economics of housing improvement in a much better relationship to those of redevelopment. Under the Act, local authorities were provided with powers to designate "improvement areas" and to pursue a policy of area-wide improvement. An area could be declared an improvement area if 50% or more of the dwellings within its bounds lacked at least one of the following standard amenities, which included hot and cold running water, an inside toilet, a sink, a wash basin, and a fixed bath or shower. Local authorities in the area could encourage householders in the area to improve their dwellings with the aid of grants. The legislation also introduced major financial changes, including an increase in the normal total standard grant from £155 to £200, an increase from £400 to £1000 in the maximum improvement grant that might be given at the discretion of the local authority, and a new Exchequer grant to local authorities of 50% of the expense for environmental improvement on costs of up to £100 per dwelling in newly designated improvement areas.[39] The legislation introduced special grants for installing amenities in houses in multi-occupation and government grants towards environmental improvement up to an expenditure of £100 per dwelling, while approved works of repair and replacement became eligible for grant aid for the first time ever.[40] Altogether, between 1965 and 1970, over 2 million homes had been constructed (almost half of which were council properties), more than in any other five-year period since 1918.[13]

The Protection from Eviction Act (1964) outlawed the eviction of tenants without a court order,[41] and according to Colin Crouch and Martin Wolf, did much "to stem the rising tide of homelessness," especially in London.[14] The Rent Act (1965) extended security of tenure, introduced registration of rents, and protection from eviction for private tenants.[41] This legislation was attributed to fall in number of homeless families taken into welfare accommodation each year in the LCC area, from 2,000 in 1962–64 to 1,300 in 1965 and 1,500 in 1966.[14] The Leasehold Reform Act (1967) was passed in order to enable holders of long leases to purchase the freehold of their homes.[31] This legislation provided about one million leaseholders with the right to purchase the freehold of their homes. Controls were introduced over increases in the rents of council accommodation, a new Rent Act (introduced in 1965) froze the rent for most unfurnished accommodation in the private sector while providing tenants with greater security of tenure and protection against harassment, and a system was introduced whereby independent arbitrators had the power to fix fair rents.[42] In addition, the first Wilson government also encouraged the introduction of discretionary local authority rent rebates to assist with housing costs.[43]

Generous new subsides were introduced by the government to encourage authorities to construct many more houses and to build them to Parker Morris standards. In 1967, the government issued a circular which urged authorities to adopt and publicise rent rebate schemes. As a result of this circular, the number of authorities adopting such schemes rose from 40% before the circular to 53% by March 1968. About 70% of tenants were covered, though not necessarily in receipt of rebates:

"... 495 authorities operated rent rebate schemes, and the £9.5 million total rebate went to over a quarter of a million tenants, representing nearly 12 per cent of the total housing stock. The average rebate, 13s 9d, amounted to one third of the average rent."[14]

Legislation was introduced which regulated tenancies for properties with a rateable value of up to £200 per year (£400 in London), which meant that tenants were not only to be protected from intimidation, but that evictions would now require court orders. It also restructured the housing subsidy system such that the borrowing charges of local authorities of individual local authorities would be pegged to 4% interest.[29] The 1966 Rating Act introduced the rating of empty properties and provided for the payment of rates in instalments. The Local Government Act introduced that same year introduced a "domestic" element in the new Rate Support Grant, by providing relief to domestic ratepayers on a rising scale, so that as local expenditure rose, government grant was geared to outpace it. As noted by one historian,

"The amount of grant in the domestic element would be calculated as sufficient to subsidise domestic ratepayers to the extent of a fivepenny rate in the first year, tenpence in the second, and so on."[44]

The 1965 Housing (Slum Clearance Compensation) Act continued a provision for home owners of unfit dwellings purchased between 1939 and 1955 to be compensated at market values. The Building Control Act of 1966 introduced building licensing to give priority to housing construction. Under the Supplementary Benefit Act of 1966, an owner occupier on benefits was entitled to an allowance for repairs, insurance, rates, and "reasonable" interest charges on a mortgage.[40] A Land Commission was also established to purchase land for building and therefore prevent profiteering in land values, although it only had limited success.[31] The aim of the Land Commission was to purchase land for public goods such as housing or shopping redevelopment (compulsorily, if the need arose), and investigated the planning needs of a particular area in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing and some planning authorities to see if any land in any particular area would be needed for such developmental schemes. Although the Land Commission purchased substantial quantities of land, it did not become the dominant influence in the land market that the government had hoped for.[16]

The Housing Subsidies Act (1967) fixed interest rates at 4% for councils borrowing to build homes.[16] It also provided financial assistance to local authorities for conversions and improvements, while also reforming the standard of fitness for human habitation.[41] The 1967 Act increased subsides on new houses to such an extent that it became the largest individual source of subsidy after a previous housing subsidy act of 1946. For a period, as part of the prices and incomes standstill introduced by the government, local authorities were not permitted to raise rents. Thereafter, a limit was set on the extent of increases that were permitted.[14]

A Town and Country Planning Act introduced in 1968 provided more local autonomy in town planning.[16] This piece of legislation aimed for greater flexibility and speed in the planning of land use,[45] and made public participation a statutory requirement in the preparation of development plans.[46] The Act also introduced a new system of process planning under which the spatial distribution of social and economic trends superseded physical standards as the principal concern of planners. According to Maureen Rhoden, this effectively meant that the development control system operated by local authorities 'policed' new housing demand. This allowed for new development on infill sites or on the edge of larger towns and villages, "but preventing development in the open countryside and in designated areas such as green belts and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty."[47] In addition, opportunities for public participation in the planning process were also increased by the Act, partly in response to opposition to some features of urban housing and planning policies.[33] By September 1970, general improvement areas covering 23,254 dwellings had been declared, with work having been completed on 683 dwellings. In addition, the Labour government went further than previous administrations in aiming to safeguard the housing programme from wider economic problems.[14]

Social Services and Welfare

According to A.B. Atkinson, social security received much more attention from the first Wilson government than it did during the previous thirteen years of Conservative government.[14] Following its victory in the 1964 general election, Wilson's government began to increase social benefits. Prescription charges for medicines were abolished immediately, while pensions were raised to a record 21% of average male industrial wages. In 1966, the system of national assistance (a social assistance scheme for the poor) was overhauled and renamed Supplementary Benefit. The means test was replaced with a statement of income, and benefit rates for pensioners (the great majority of claimants) were increased, granting them a real gain in income. Before the 1966 election, the widow's pension was tripled and redundancy payments for laid-off workers were introduced. Due to austerity measures following an economic crisis, prescription charges were re-introduced in 1968 as an alternative to cutting the hospital building programme, although those sections of the population who were most in need (including supplementary benefit claimants, the long-term sick, children, and pensioners) were exempted from charges.[38] The widow's earning rule was also abolished.[26]

Altogether, the increases made in pensions and other benefits during Wilson's first year in office were the largest ever real term increases carried out up until that point.[43] Social security benefits were markedly increased during Wilson's first two years in office, as characterised by a budget passed in the final quarter of 1964 which raised the standard benefit rates for old age, sickness and invalidity by 18.5%.[48] In 1965, the government increased the national assistance rate to a higher level relative to earnings, and via annual adjustments, broadly maintained the rate at between 19% and 20% of gross industrial earnings until the start of 1970.[14]

Increased funds were allocated to social services during the first Wilson government's time in office. Between 1963 and 1968, spending on housing increased by 9.6%, social security by 6.6%, health by 6%, and education by 6.9%,[27] while from 1964 to 1967 social spending increased by 45%.[49] During the six years of the first Wilson government, spending on social services rose much faster than real personal incomes, and from 1964 to 1969, spending on social services rose from 14.6% to 17.6% of GNP, an increase of nearly 20%.[14] Altogether, from 1964 to 1970, spending on the social services rose from 16% to 23% of national wealth between 1964 and 1970.[2] As noted by the historian Richard Whiting, spending on social services under Wilson rose faster than the growth in GNP, by 65% (excluding housing) as against 37% for GNP, "a substantially better record than that achieved by the preceding Conservative governments."[50]

In terms of social security, the welfare state was significantly expanded through substantial increases in national insurance benefits (which rose in real terms by 20% from 1964 to 1970)[51] and the creation of new social welfare benefits. A variety of measures was introduced under Wilson which improved the living standards of many people with low incomes.

Short-term unemployment benefits were increased,[52] while the National Assistance Board was merged with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance to become the new Ministry of Social Security,[31] which replaced national assistance with supplementary benefit, improved benefit scale rates, and provided a statutory right to benefit for the out-of-work needy.[53] Although people were kept above a new unofficial poverty line, however, many thousands lived only just above it.[54]

The government also succeeded in persuading people to draw assistance to which they were entitled to but hadn't claimed before.[55] The number of elderly Britons receiving home helps rose by over 15% from 1964 to 1969, while nearly three times as many meals on wheels were served in 1968 as in 1964.[56] In 1968, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Social Security were amalgamated into the Department of Health and Social Security, the purpose of which was to coordinate benefits in cash with benefits in kind since "the services needed to deal with social insecurity are not cash benefits only, but health and welfare as well."[29] An Act was passed which replaced National Assistance with Supplementary Benefits. The new Act laid down that people who satisfied its conditions were entitled to these noncontributory benefits. Unlike the National Assistance scheme, which operated like state charity for the worst-off, the new Supplementary Benefits scheme was a right of every citizen who found himself or herself in severe difficulties. Those persons over the retirement age with no means who were considered to be unable to live on the basic pension (which provided less than what the government deemed as necessary for subsistence) became entitled to a "long term" allowance of an extra few shillings a week. Some simplification of the procedure for claiming benefits was also introduced.[16]

The new Supplementary Benefit scheme included a fixed basic weekly rate that those with an income below this level would now have a right to claim, while extra payments were made available on a discretionary basis for additional needs.[57] In 1966, the period for which flat rate unemployment benefit was payable was extended to twelve months, while the earnings limit for pensioners was extended. A long term addition of 9 shillings (which was subsequently increased to 10 shillings) a week was provided for the allowances of all pensioners and for the long term sick, while the real value of most existing benefits was increased,[42] (such as family allowances, which were substantially raised in 1967 and 1968[58]) with benefits rising at roughly the same rate as salaries over the course of the first Wilson government, while family allowances were significantly increased.[55] By 1969, family allowances were worth 72% more in real terms to a low income family with three children than in 1964.[56] The single pension was raised by 12s 6d in March 1965, by 10s in 1967 and by a further 10s in 1969. From April 1964 to April 1970, family allowances for four children increased as a percentage of male manual workers aged 21 and above from 8% to 11.3%.[14]

The first Wilson government kept the old age pension rising roughly as fast as average earnings during its time in office, while campaigns were launched by the government to encourage people to take up means-tested benefits to which they were entitled to.[16] For instance, a publicity campaign launched by the government increased the fraction of children eligible to get free school meals.[14]

Under the 1966 Social Security Act, newly unemployed individuals were no longer denied assistance during their first month of unemployment, while men who had had their unemployment benefit disallowed for six weeks (on the grounds that they had been at fault for losing their job) were no longer subjected to a harsh rule applied by the National Assistance confining their payments to below "benefit rate." Instead, a policy was adopted of paying these individuals their full entitlement less 15 shillings. The Act also introduced a long term addition of 9 shillings for all pensioners receiving supplementary benefit and for others (with the exception of those required register for employment) receiving supplementary benefits for two years. In 1967, the earnings limits for retirement pensioners were raised, while other changes were made in the administration of the earnings rule.[14]

Redundancy payments were introduced in 1965 to lessen the impact of unemployment, earnings-related benefits for maternity,[59] unemployment, sickness, industrial injuries and widowhood were introduced in 1966, followed by the replacement of flat-rate family allowances with an earnings-related scheme in 1968.[60] In 1968, the universal family allowance was raised for the first time in a decade. This measure was considered to be redistributive to some degree,

"from richer to poorer and from mainly male taxpayers to mothers who received family allowances, a tentative move towards what Roy Jenkins called 'civilised selectivity'".[38]

The National Insurance Act of 1966, which introduced supplementary earnings-related benefits for short-term sickness and unemployment, had far-reaching distributional consequences by "guaranteeing that insurance benefits rose at the same rate as wages in the late 1960s." Trade unions were supportive of the advances made in social protection by the Wilson government, which had a considerable impact on the living standards of the lowest quintile of the population. A statement by the TUC argued that the unions' acquiescence to the government's incomes policy was justified given that "the government had deliberately refrained from attacking the social services."[48]

The introduction of earnings-related unemployment and sickness benefits significantly reduced inequalities between those in work and those who were unemployed. In 1964, the net income received by the average wage earner, when on unemployment or sickness benefit, was only 45% of what he received at work, whereas by 1968 the figure had increased to 75%.[55] The earnings-related supplement for unemployment benefits was made available to those who had earned at least £450 in the previous financial year. The supplement was paid after a twelve-day waiting period, and the rate was one-third the amount by which the average weekly earnings (up to £30) exceeded £9. The earnings-related supplement was based on the assertion that a person's commitments for mortgages, rents, and hire purchase agreements were related to their normal earnings and could not be adjusted quickly when experiencing a loss of normal income. As a result of this supplement, the total benefit of a married man with two children went up by 52%, and that of a single man by 117.% The duration was limited to 26 weeks, while the total benefit was restricted to 85% of average weekly earnings in the preceding financial year.[14]

As a result of the introduction of earnings related supplements to sickness and unemployment benefits and widows' allowances, the total benefit for a man earning £30 a week now represented 50% of his earnings rather than 27% with just the flat rate (for a married couple).

Personal social services were integrated, expenditure increased and their responsibilities broadened following the enactment of the Children and Young Persons' Act (1969) and the Local Authority Social Services Act (1970).[61] The Children and Young Persons Act of 1969 reformed the juvenile court system and extended local authority duties to provide community homes for juvenile offenders.[41] The legislation provided that "remand homes," "approved schools," and local authority and voluntary children's homes became part of a comprehensive system of community homes for all children in care.[29] This provided that children who got into trouble with the police should more certainly and quickly than ever before receive special educational assistance, social work help or any other form of assistance (financial or otherwise) that the community could provide.[16] In addition, subsidies for farmers were increased,[62][63] while under the Health Services and Public Health Act of 1968, largely as a result of their insistence, local authorities were granted powers to "promote the welfare" of elderly people in order to allow them greater flexibility in the provision of services.[14]


The proportion of GNP spent on the NHS rose from 4.2% in 1964 to about 5% in 1969. This additional expenditure provided for an energetic revival of a policy of building health centres for GPs, extra pay for doctors who served in areas particularly short of them, a significant growth in hospital staffing, and a significant increase in a hospital building programme. Far more money was spent each year on the NHS than under the 1951–64 Conservative governments, while much more effort was put into modernising and reorganising the health service.[16] Stronger central and regional organisations were established for bulk purchase of hospital supplies, while some efforts were made to reduce inequalities in standards of care. In addition, the government increased the intake to medical schools.[14]

The Doctor's Charter of 1966 introduced allowances for rent and ancillary staff, significantly increased the pay scales, and changed the structure of payments to reflect "both qualifications of doctors and the form of their practices, i.e. group practice." These changes not only led to higher morale, but also resulted in the increased use of ancillary staff and nursing attachments, a growth in the number of health centres and group practices, and a boost in the modernisation of practices in terms of equipment, appointment systems, and buildings.[29] The charter introduced a new system of payment for GPs, with refunds for surgery, rents, ands rates, to ensure that the costs of improving his surgery did not diminish the doctor's income, together with allowances for the greater part of ancillary staff costs. In addition, a Royal Commission on medical education was set up, partly to draw up ideas for training GPS (since these doctors, the largest group of all doctors in the country, had previously not received any special training, "merely being those who, at the end of their pre-doctoral courses, did not go on for further training in any speciality).[16]

In 1967, local authorities were empowered to provide family planning advice to any who requested it and to provide supplies free of charge.[38] In addition, medical training was expanded following the Todd Report on medical education in 1968.[29][64] In addition, National Health expenditure rose from 4.2% of GNP in 1964 to 5% in 1969 and spending on hospital construction doubled.[31] The Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 empowered local authorities to maintain workshops for the elderly either directly or via the agency of a voluntary body. A Health Advisory Service was later established to investigate and confront the problems of long-term psychiatric and mentally subnormal hospitals in the wave of numerous scandals.[29] The Family Planning Act (1967) empowered local authorities to set up a family planning service with free advice and means-tested provision of contraceptive devices while the Clean Air Act (1968) extended powers to combat air pollution.[41] More money was also allocated to hospitals treating the mentally ill.[16]


The Industrial Training Act of 1964 set up an Industrial Training Board to encourage training for people in work.[41] The Docks and Harbours Act (1966) and the Dock Labour Scheme (1967) reorganised the system of employment in the docks in order to put an end to casual employment.[31] The changes made to the Dock Labour Scheme in 1967 ensured a complete end to casual labour on the docks, effectively giving workers the security of jobs for life.[65] Trade unions also benefited from the passage of the Trade Dispute Act in 1965. This restored the legal immunity of trade union officials, thus ensuring that they could no longer be sued for threatening to strike.[28] According to one MP, nurses also benefited from the largest pay rise they had received in a generation.[66] In May 1966, Wilson announced 30% pay rises for doctors and dentists - a move which did not prove popular with unions, as the national pay policy at the time was for rises of between 3% and 3.5%.[67]

Much needed improvements were made in junior hospital doctors' salaries. From 1959 to 1970, while the earnings of manual workers increased by 75%, the salaries of registrars more than doubled while those of house officers more than trebled. Most of these improvements, such as for nurses, came in the pay settlements of 1970. On a limited scale, reports by the National Board for Prices and Incomes encouraged incentive payments schemes to be development in local government and elsewhere. In February 1969, the government accepted an "above the ceiling" increase for farmworkers, a low-paid group. Some groups of professional workers, such as nurses, teachers, and doctors, gained substantial awards.[14]

Improvements were also made in conditions for nursing staff following the publication of a report by the NBPI in 1968 on the pay of nurses. This led to the introduction of a far more substantial pay lead for nurses in geriatric and psychiatric hospitals, together with (for the first time) premium rates for weekend and night work. Some progress was also made increasing the pay of NHS manual workers through incentive schemes. Despite these improvements, however, the NHS retained a reputation of being a low-wage employer by the end of the first Wilson government's time in office.[14]

The National Insurance Act of 1966 introduced more generous provisions for the assessment of certain types of serious disablement caused by industrial injury.[68] That same year, a Pneumoconiosis, Byssinosis and Miscellaneous Diseases Benefit Scheme was introduced.[69] In 1969, the Employers' Liability (Compulsory Insurance) Act was passed, requiring employers to insure their liability to their employees for personal injury, disease or death sustained in their place of work.[70] The Asbestos Regulations of 1969 sought to protect people in the workplace from exposure to asbestos,[71] while the Employer's Liability (Defective Equipment) Act introduced that same year made employers liable for injuries caused to employees by defective equipment.[72]

Wilson's government also ensured that low-income earners improved their position relative to that of average-income earners during its time in office. One of the principles of the government's prices and incomes policy was that low-paid workers would be given special consideration, and between 1965 and 1969 the earnings of the lowest paid workers increased slightly faster than the average (the increase in inflation in 1969–70 caused by devaluation, however, led to a deterioration in the position of low-paid workers). The Prices and Incomes Board was successful in directing some "above the norm" pay rises to low-paid groups such as local government employees and agricultural workers. However, the large increases in pay given to manual workers in local government in September 1969 (such as street sweepers and dustmen) subsequently set off a spiral of wage demands in industry, which meant that the improvement in the relative position of the local government manual worker was not sustained.[16]

In 1966, extensions and improvements were made in the allowances payable out of the Industrial Injuries Fund to people who had been injured before 5 July 1948 and who were entitled to weekly payments of worker's compensation.[73] In 1968, various steps were taken to reduce the severity with which the "wage-stop" operated,[55] a regressive mechanism which restricted the amount of assistance payable to an unemployed person.[74] For miners, the Coal Industry Act of 1965 introduced aid towards severance payments for miners about to be made redundant or for the vocational retraining of staff,[75] while the Coal Industry Act of 1967 provided subsidisation of redundancy and early retirement.[76]


The 1968 Transport Act established the principle of government grants for transport authorities if uneconomic passenger services were justified on social grounds. A National Freight Corporation was also established to provide integrated rail freight and road services. Public expenditure on roads steadily increased and stricter safety precautions were introduced, such as the breathalyser test for drunken driving,[23] under the 1967 Road Traffic Act.[16] The Transport Act gave a much needed financial boost to British Rail, treating them like they were a company which had become bankrupt but could now, under new management, carry on debt-free. The act also established a national freight corporation and introduced government subsidy for passenger transport on the same basis as existing subsidies for roads to enable local authorities to improve public transport in their areas.[16] The road building programme was also expanded, with capital expenditure increased to 8% of GDP, "the highest level achieved by any post-war government".[25]

Regional development

Encouragement of regional development was given increased attention under the first Wilson government, with the aim of narrowing economic dispratiies between the various regions. A policy was introduced in 1965 whereby any new government organisation should be established outside London and in 1967 the government decided to give preference to development areas. A few government departments were also moved out of London, with the Royal Mint moved to South Wales, the Giro and Inland Revenue to Bootle, and the Motor Tax Office to Swansea.[55] A new Special Development Status was also introduced in 1967 to provide even higher levels of assistance.[26] In 1966, five development areas (covering half the population in the UK) were established, while subsidies were provided for employers recruiting new employees in the Development Areas.[13]

The Industrial Development Act of 1966 changed the name of Development Districts (parts of the country with higher levels of unemployment than the national average and which governments sought to encourage greater investment in) to Development Areas and increased the percentage of the workforce covered by development schemes from 15% to 20%, which mainly affected rural areas in Scotland and Wales. Tax allowances were replaced by grants in order to extend coverage to include firms which were not making a profit, and in 1967 a Regional Employment Premium was introduced. Whereas the existing schemes tended to favour capital-intensive projects, this aimed for the first time at increasing employment in depressed areas. Set at £1.50 a man per week and guaranteed for seven years, the Regional Employment Premium subsidised all manufacturing industry (though not services) in Development Areas.[26]

Regional unemployment differentials were narrowed, and spending on regional infrastructure was significantly increased. Between 1965–66 and 1969–70, yearly expenditure on new construction (including power stations, roads, schools, hospitals and housing) rose by 41% in the United Kingdom as a whole. Subsidies were also provided for various industries (such as shipbuilding in Clydeside), which helped to prevent a number of job losses. It is estimated that, between 1964 and 1970, 45,000 government jobs were created outside London, 21,000 of which were located in the Development Areas.[55] The Local Employment Act, passed in March 1970, embodied the government's proposals for assistance to 54 "intermediate" employment exchange areas not classified as full "development" areas.[39]

Funds allocated to regional assistance more than doubled, from £40 million in 1964/65 to £82 million in 1969/70, and from 1964 to 1970, the number of factories completed was 50% higher than from 1960 to 1964, which helped to reduce unemployment in development areas. In 1970, the unemployment rate in development areas was 1.67 times the national average, compared to 2.21 times in 1964. Although national rates of unemployment were higher in 1970 than in the early 1960s, unemployment rates in the development areas were lower and had not increased for three years.[26] Altogether, the impact of the first Wilson government's regional development policies was such that, according to one historian, the period 1963 to 1970 represented "the most prolonged, most intensive, and most successful attack ever launched on regional problems in Britain."[13]

Urban renewal

A number of subsidies were allocated to local authorities faced with acute areas of severe poverty (or other social problems).[16] The 1969 Housing Act provided local authorities with the duty of working out what to do about 'unsatisfactory areas'. Local authorities could declare 'general improvement areas' in which they would be able to buy up land and houses, and spend environmental improvement grants. On the same basis, taking geographical areas of need, a package was developed by the government which resembled a miniature poverty programme.[60] In July 1967, the government decided to pour money into what the Plowden Committee defined as Educational Priority Areas, poverty-stricken areas where children were environmentally deprived. A number of poor inner-city areas were subsequently granted EPA status (despite concerns that Local Education Authorities would be unable to finance Educational Priority Areas).[28] From 1968 to 1970, 150 new schools were built under the educational priority programme.[14]

Section 11 of the 1966 Local Government Act enabled local authorities to claim grants to recruit additional staff to meet special needs of Commonwealth immigrants.[41] According to Brian Lapping, this was the first step ever taken towards directing help to areas with special needs, "the reversal of the former position under which ministers had passed the burden of social help measures in housing, education and health to local authorities without passing them any money."[16]

In 1967, Wilson's government decided to spend £16 million, mainly in "Educational Priority Areas", over the next two years. Over a two-year period, £16 million was allocated by the government for construction of schools in EPAs, while teachers in 572 primary schools "of exceptional difficulty" were selected for additional increments.[77] After negotiations with teachers' unions, £400,000 of this money was set aide to pay teachers an additional £75 per annum for working in "schools of exceptional difficulty", of which 570 schools were designated. The government also sponsored an action research project, an experiment in five of the EPAs to try to devise the most effective ways of involving communities, according to Brian Lapping,

"in the work of their schools, compensating the children for the deprivation of their background, seeing whether, in one area pre-school play groups, in another intensive language tuition, in another emphasis on home-school relations, would be most effective."[16]

The first Wilson government made assistance to deprived urban communities a specific policy of national government in 1969 with the passage of the Local Government Grants (Social Need) Act, which empowered the Home Secretary to dispense grants to assist local authorities in providing extra help to areas "of special social need." The Urban Aid Programme was subsequently launched to provide community and family advice centres, centres for the elderly, money for schools and other services,[60] thereby alleviating urban deprivation. In introducing the Urban Aid Programme, the then Home Secretary James Callaghan stated that the goal of the legislation was to

"provide for the care of our citizens who live in the poorest overcrowded parts of our cities and towns. It is intended to arrest ... and reverse the downward spiral which afflicts so many of these areas. There is a deadly quagmire of need and poverty."[29]

Under the Urban Aid Programme, funds were provided for centres for unattached youngsters, family advice centres, community centres, centres for the elderly, and in one case for an experimental scheme for rehabilitating methylated spirit drinkers.[16] Central government paid 75% of the costs of these schemes, which were nominated by local authorities in areas of 'acute social need'.[60] As a result of this legislation, many ideas were put into practice such as language classes for immigrants, daycentres for the elderly or disabled, day nurseries, adventure playgrounds, and holidays for deprived or handicapped children. The schemes therefore proved successful in making extra social provision while encouraging community development.[29]

Twelve Community Development Projects (CDPs) were set up in areas with high levels of deprivation to encourage self-help and participation by local residents in order to improve their communication and access to local government,[78] together with improving the provision of local services. In the years that followed, these action-research projects increasingly challenged existing ideas about the causes of inner-city deprivation, arguing that the roots of poverty in such areas could be traced to changes in the political economy of inner-city areas, such as the withdrawal of private capital (as characterised by the decline of manufacturing industries).

The Community Development Projects involved co-operation between specially created local teams of social workers, who were supported by part-timers (such as policemen and youth employment officers). The task given to these groups (who were watched over by their own action research teams) was to ascertain how much real demand t here was for support from the social services in their areas of choice, based on the theory that workers in social services usually failed to communicate what they had to offer or to make themselves available, thereby resulting in many deprived people failing to acquire the services that they so desperately needed.[16]

As noted by Brian Lapping, the Community Development Projects were also designed to test the view that within poor communities local residents could articulate local grievances, get conditions in their areas improved, and provide some kind of political leadership, in a way that the existing political structure had failed to do, "largely because these areas of intense poverty were rarely big enough to be electorally important." In assessing the first Wilson government's efforts to uplift the poorest members of British society via the establishment of the Community Development Projects and the designation of the Educational Priority Areas, Brian Lapping noted that

"The determination expressed in the diverse policies to give this unfortunate group the help it needed was among the most humane and important initiatives of the 1964–70 government."[16]

International development

A new Ministry of Overseas Development was established, with its greatest success at the time being the introduction of interest-free loans for the poorest countries.[26] The Minister of Overseas Development, Barbara Castle, set a standard in interest relief on loans to developing nations which resulted in changes to the loan policies of many donor countries, "a significant shift in the conduct of rich white nations to poor brown ones." Loans were introduced to developing countries on terms that were more favourable to them than those given by governments of all other developed countries at that time. In addition, Castle was instrumental in setting up an Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex to devise ways of tackling global socio-economic inequalities. Overseas aid, however, bore a major brunt of the austerity measures introduced by the first Wilson government in its last few years in office, with British aid as a percentage of GNP falling from 0.53% in 1964 to 0.39% in 1969.[16]


Various changes were also made to the tax system which benefited workers on low and middle incomes. Married couples with low incomes benefited from the increases in the single personal allowance and marriage allowance. In 1965, the regressive allowance for national insurance contributions was abolished and the single personal allowance, marriage allowance and wife's earned income relief were increased. These allowances were further increased in the tax years 1969–70 and 1970–71. Increases in the age exemption and dependant relative's income limits benefited the low-income elderly.[14]

Increases were made in some of the minor allowances in the 1969 Finance Act, notably the additional personal allowance, the age exemption and age relief and the dependent relative limit. Apart from the age relief, further adjustments in these concessions were implemented in 1970.[14]

1968 saw the introduction of aggregation of the investment income of unmarried minors with the income of their parents. According to Michael Meacher, this change put an end to a previous inequity whereby two families, in otherwise identical circumstances, paid differing amounts of tax "simply because in one case the child possessed property transferred to it by a grandparent, while in the other case the grandparent's identical property was inherited by the parent."[14]

In the 1969 budget, income tax was abolished for about 1 million of the lowest paid and reduced for a further 600,000 people,[63] while in the government's last budget (introduced in 1970), two million small taxpayers were exempted from paying any income tax altogether.[79]

Liberal reforms

The Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act (1970) made provision for the welfare of children whose parents were about to divorce or be judicially separated, with courts (for instance) granted wide powers to order financial provision for children in the form of maintenance payments made by either parent.[29] This legislation allowed courts to order provision for either spouse and recognised the contribution to the joint home made during marriage.[41] That same year, spouses were given an equal share of household assets following divorce via the Matrimonial Property Act. The Race Relations Act was also extended in 1968 and in 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed.[38] Another important reform, the 1967 Welsh Language Act, granted 'equal validity' to the declining Welsh language and encouraged its revival. Government expenditure was also increased on both sport and the arts.[31] The Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act of 1969, passed in response to the Aberfan tragedy, made provision for preventing disused tips from endangering members of the public.[80]

The Commons Registration Act 1965 provided for the registration of all common land and village greens, whilst under the Countryside Act 1968, local authorities could provide facilities "for enjoyment of such lands to which the public has access".[29] The Family Provision Act of 1966 amended a series of pre-existing estate laws mainly related to persons who died interstate. The legislation increased the amount that could be paid of surviving spouses if a will hadn't been left, and also expanded upon the jurisdiction of county courts, which were given the jurisdiction of high courts under certain circumstances when handling matters of estate. The rights of adopted children were also improved with certain wording changed in the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act of 1938 to bestow opon them the same rights as natural-born children. In 1968, the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 was updated to include more categories of childminders.[81] A year later, the Family Law Reform Act was passed, which allowed people born outside marriage to inherit on the intestacy of either parent.[82] In 1967, homosexuality was decriminalised by the passage of the Sexual Offences Act.[16] The first Wilson government also introduced a thirty-year rule for access to public records, replacing a previous fifty-year rule.[83]

The Race Relations Act of 1965 outlawed direct discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, and ethnic or national origin in some public places. The legislation also set up a Race Relations Board.[41] A centrally financed network of local officers was provided to smooth inter-racial relations by conciliation, education, and informal pressure, while a National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants was established (under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury) to encourage and help finance staff "for local voluntary, good-neighbour type bodies." A further Race Relations Act was passed in 1968, which made discrimination in letting or advertising housing illegal, together with discrimination in hiring and promotion. The legislation also provided a strengthened Race Relations Board with powers to "conciliate" in cases of discrimination, which meant persuading discriminators to stop such acts and, if they refused to stop, legal action could be taken against them as an ultimate sanction. The legislation also replaced the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants with the Community Relations Commission, a statutory body. This body was provided with an annual grant (beginning at £300,000) for social work, propaganda, and education as a means of bringing about good race relations.[16] The Criminal Justice Act of 1967 introduced suspended prison sentences and allowed a ten to two majority vote for jury decisions. An Ombudsman (Parliamentary Commissioner) was appointed in 1967 to consider complaints against government departments and to impose remedies, while censorship of plays by the Lord Chamberlain was abolished (1969). In addition, the law on Sunday Observance was relaxed.[41]

The Nuclear Installations Act of 1965 placed a "strict" statutory duty on the operators of nuclear facilities to ensure that any exposure to radiation resulting from operations did not cause injury or damage. Under the legislation, claimants did not have to prove fault to receive compensation under the Act, only causation.[84] From 1966, a circular from several Whitehall ministries was sent to local authorities across the country urging them to provide permanent caravan sites for gypsies. This was followed by the Caravan Sites Act, introduced by the Liberal MP Eric Lubbock in 1968, which obliged local authorities to carry out the recommendations of the 1966 circular. Under the Act, gypsies became entitled to settle in many areas as well as to enjoy regular visiting rights for their caravans in others.[16] The Civic Amenities Act of 1967 was aimed at improving and safeguarding buildings of architectural or historical interest, together with the planting and preservation of trees.[85] The Administration of Justice Act 1970 introduced (amongst other measures) a new Family Division of the High Court.[39]

A number of private members' bills related to consumer affairs, put forward by Co-operative MPs, became law under the first Wilson government, and much of the consumer legislation taken for granted by contemporary British shoppers can be attributed to the legislation passed during this period. In 1968, the Trade Descriptions Act (the "shoppers' charter") was enacted by parliament, and a farm and garden chemicals bill also became law that same year. Other co-operative bills enacted during this period included a new Clean Air Act, a bill removing restrictions on off-licences, and a bill to promote agriculture co-operatives passed in 1967, which established "A scheme administered by a new Central Council for Agriculture and Horticulture Co-operation with a budget to organise and promote co-operation with agriculture and horticulture".[86] The 1970 Chronically Sick & Disabled Persons Act, regarded as a groundbreaking measure, was the first kind of legislation in the world to recognise and give rights to disabled people, and set down specific provisions to improve access and support for people with disabilities.[87] The government effectively supported the passage of these bills by granting them the necessary parliamentary time. [13]

Record of first term on income distribution

Despite the economic difficulties faced by the first Wilson government, it succeeded in maintaining low levels of unemployment and inflation during its time in office. Unemployment was kept below 2.7%, and inflation for much of the 1960s remained below 4%. Living standards generally improved, while public spending on housing, social security, transport, research, education and health went up by an average of more than 6% between 1964 and 1970.[88] The average household grew steadily richer, with the number of cars in the United Kingdom rising from one to every 6.4 persons to one for every five persons in 1968, representing a net increase of three million cars on the road. The rise in the standard of living was also characterised by increased ownership of various consumer durables from 1964 to 1969, as demonstrated by television sets (from 88% to 90%), refrigerators (from 39% to 59%), and washing machines (from 54% to 64%).[16]

By 1970, income in Britain was more equally distributed than in 1964, mainly because of increases in cash benefits, including family allowances.[89]

According to one historian,

"In its commitment to social services and public welfare, the Wilson government put together a record unmatched by any subsequent administration, and the mid-sixties are justifiably seen as the 'golden age' of the welfare state".[88]

As noted by Ben Pimlott, the gap between those on lowest incomes and the rest of the population "had been significantly reduced" under Wilson's first government.[90] The first Wilson government thus saw the distribution of income became more equal,[24] while reductions in poverty took place.[91] These achievements were mainly brought about by several increases in social welfare benefits,[92] such as supplementary benefit, pensions and family allowances, the latter of which were doubled between 1964 and 1970 (although most of the increase in family allowances did not come about until 1968). A new system of rate rebates was introduced, which benefited one million households by the end of the 1960s.[26] Increases in national insurance benefits in 1965, 1967, 1968 and 1969 ensured that those dependant on state benefits saw their disposable incomes rise faster than manual wage earners, while income differentials between lower income and higher income workers were marginally narrowed. Greater progressivity was introduced in the tax system, with greater emphasis on direct (income-based) as opposed to indirect (typically expenditure-based) taxation as a means of raising revenue, with the amount raised by the former increasing twice as much as that of the latter.[50] Also, in spite of an increase in unemployment, the poor improved their share of the national income while that of the rich was slightly reduced.[2] Despite various cutbacks after 1966, expenditure on services such as education and health was still much higher as a proportion of national wealth than in 1964. In addition, by raising taxes to pay their reforms, the government paid careful attention to the principle of redistribution, with disposable incomes rising for the lowest paid while falling amongst the wealthiest during its time in office.[93]

Between 1964 and 1968, benefits in kind were significantly progressive, in that over the period those in the lower half of the income scale benefited more than those in the upper half. On average those receiving state benefits benefited more in terms of increases in real disposable income than the average manual worker or salaried employee between 1964 and 1969.[55] From 1964 to 1969, low-wage earners did substantially better than other sections of the population. In 1969, a married couple with two children were 11.5% per cent richer in real terms, while for a couple with three children, the corresponding increase was 14.5%, and for a family with four children, 16.5%.[51] From 1965 to 1968, the income of single pensioner households as a percentage of other one adult households rose from 48.9% to 52.5%. For two pensioner households, the equivalent increase was from 46.8% to 48.2%.[14] In addition, mainly as a result of big increases in cash benefits, unemployed persons and large families gained more in terms of real disposable income than the rest of the population during Wilson's time in office.[24]

Between 1964 and 1968, cash benefits rose as a percentage of income for all households but more so for poorer than for wealthier households. As noted by the economist Michael Stewart,

"it seems indisputable that the high priority the Labour Government gave to expenditure on education and the health service had a favourable effect on income distribution."[55]

For a family with two children in the income range £676 to £816 per annum, cash benefits rose from 4% of income in 1964 to 22% in 1968, compared with a change from 1% to 2% for a similar family in the income range £2,122 to £2,566 over the same period. For benefits in kind the changes over the same period for similar families were from 21% to 29% for lower income families and from 9% to 10% for higher income families. When taking into account all benefits, taxes and Government expenditures on social services, the first Wilson government succeeded in bringing about a reduction in income inequality. As noted by the historian Kenneth O. Morgan,

"In the long term, therefore, fortified by increases in supplementary and other benefits under the Crossman regime in 1968–70, the welfare state had made some impact, almost by inadvertence, on social inequality and the maldistribution of real income".[94]

Public expenditure as a percentage of GDP rose significantly under the 1964–1970 Labour government, from 34% in 1964–65 to nearly 38% of GDP by 1969–70, whilst expenditure on social services rose from 16% of national income in 1964 to 23% by 1970.[26] These measures had a major impact on the living standards of low-income Britons, with disposable incomes rising faster for low-income groups than for high-income groups during the course of the 1960s. When measuring disposable income after taxation but including benefits, the total disposable income of those on the highest incomes fell by 33%, whilst the total disposable income of those on the lowest incomes rose by 104%.[26] As noted by one historian,

"the net effect of Labour's financial policies was indeed to make the rich poorer and the poor richer".[95]

External affairs


Wilson with West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard.

Among the more challenging political dilemmas Wilson faced during his two terms in government and his two spells in Opposition before 1964 and between 1970 and 1974 was the issue of British membership of the European Community, the forerunner of the present European Union. An entry attempt had been issued in July 1961 by the Macmillan government, and negotiated by Edward Heath as Lord Privy Seal, but was vetoed in 1963 by French President Charles de Gaulle. The Labour Party in Opposition had been divided on the issue, with former party leader Hugh Gaitskell having come out in 1962 in opposition to Britain joining the Community.[96]

After initially hesitating over the issue, Wilson's Government in May 1967 lodged the UK's second application to join the European Community. Like the first, though, it was vetoed by de Gaulle in November that year.[13]

Following his victory in the 1970 election (and helped by de Gaulle's fall from power in 1969), the new prime minister Edward Heath negotiated Britain's admission to the EC, alongside Denmark and Ireland in 1973. The Labour Party in opposition continued to be deeply divided on the issue, and risked a major split. Leading opponents of membership included Richard Crossman, who was for two years (1970–72) the editor of New Statesman, at that time the leading left-of-centre weekly journal, which published many polemics in support of the anti-EC case. Prominent among Labour supporters of membership was Roy Jenkins.

Wilson in opposition showed political ingenuity in devising a position that both sides of the party could agree on, opposing the terms negotiated by Heath but not membership in principle. Labour's 1974 manifesto included a pledge to renegotiate terms for Britain's membership and then hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EC on the new terms. This was a constitutional procedure without precedent in British history.

Following Wilson's return to power, the renegotiations with Britain's fellow EC members were carried out by Wilson himself in tandem with Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, and they toured the capital cities of Europe meeting their European counterparts (some commentators have suggested that their co-operation in this exercise may have been the source of a close relationship between the two men which is claimed to have assisted a smooth change-over when Wilson retired from office). The discussions focused primarily on Britain's net budgetary contribution to the EC. As a small agricultural producer heavily dependent on imports, Britain suffered doubly from the dominance of:

(i) agricultural spending in the EC budget,
(ii) agricultural import taxes as a source of EC revenues.

During the renegotiations, other EEC members conceded, as a partial offset, the establishment of a significant European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), from which it was clearly agreed that Britain would be a major net beneficiary.[97]

In the subsequent referendum campaign, rather than the normal British tradition of "collective responsibility", under which the government takes a policy position which all cabinet members are required to support publicly, members of the Government were free to present their views on either side of the question. The electorate voted on 5 June 1975 to continue membership, by a substantial majority.[98]


Prior United States military involvement in Vietnam intensified following the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964. US President Lyndon Johnson brought pressure to bear for at least a token involvement of British military units in the Vietnam War. Wilson consistently avoided any commitment of British forces, giving as reasons British military commitments to the Malayan Emergency and British co-chairmanship of the 1954 Geneva Conference which agreed the cessation of hostilities and called for internationally supervised elections in Vietnam.[99] His government offered some rhetorical support for the US position (most prominently in the defence offered by the Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart in a much-publicised "teach-in" or debate on Vietnam). On at least one occasion the British government made an unsuccessful effort to mediate in the conflict, with Wilson discussing peace proposals with Alexei Kosygin, the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers. On 28 June 1966 Wilson 'dissociated' his Government from American bombing of the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. In his memoirs, Wilson writes of "selling LBJ a bum steer", a reference to Johnson's Texas origins, which conjured up images of cattle and cowboys in British minds.[100] Wilson's approach of maintaining close relations with the US while pursuing an independent line on Vietnam has attracted new interest in the light of the different approach taken by the Blair government vis-a-vis Britain's participation in the Iraq War (2003).

Harold and Mary Wilson greeting the Prime Minister of Australia Harold Holt and wife Zara in 1967.

Since the Second World War, Britain's presence in the Far East had gradually been run down. Former British colonies, whose defence had provided much of the rationale for a British military presence in the region, moved towards independence under British governments of both parties. Successive UK Governments also became conscious of the cost to the exchequer and the economy of maintaining major forces abroad (in parallel, several schemes to develop strategic weaponry were abandoned on the grounds of cost, for example, the Blue Streak missile and the TSR2 aircraft).

Part of the price paid by Wilson after talks with President Johnson in June 1967 for US assistance with the UK economy was his agreement to maintain a military presence East of Suez.[101] In July 1967 Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that Britain would abandon her mainland bases East of Suez by 1977, although airmobile forces would be retained which could if necessary be deployed in the region. Shortly afterward, in January 1968, Wilson announced that the proposed timetable for this withdrawal was to be accelerated, and that British forces were to be withdrawn from Singapore, Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf by the end of 1971.[102] However, Wilson's successor Edward Heath sought to reverse this policy, and British forces remained in Singapore and Malaysia until the mid-1970s. Whilst widely criticised at the time, over the longer term the decision can be seen as a logical culmination of the withdrawal from Britain's colonial-era political and military commitments in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere that had been underway under British governments of both parties since the Second World War – and of the parallel switch of Britain's emphasis to its European identity.

Wilson was known for his strong pro-Israel views. He was a particular friend of Israeli Premier Golda Meir, though her tenure largely coincided with Wilson's 1970–1974 hiatus. Another associate was West German Chancellor Willy Brandt; all three were members of the Socialist International.[103]


In 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his important Wind of Change speech to the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. This heralded independence for many British colonies in Africa. The British "retreat from Empire" had made headway by 1964 and was to continue during Wilson's administration. The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland came to present serious problems.

The Federation was set up in 1953, and was an amalgamation of the British Colonies of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia. The Federation was dissolved in 1963 and the states of Zambia and Malawi were granted independence. Southern Rhodesia, which had been the economic powerhouse of the Federation, was not granted independence, principally because of the régime in power. The country bordered South Africa to the south and its governance was influenced by the apartheid régime, then headed by Hendrik Verwoerd. Wilson refused to grant independence to the white minority government headed by Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith which not willing to extend unqualified voting rights to the native African population. His government's view was that the native population was ingenuous, and doing that would lay them open to undue influence and intimidation. The franchise was open to those who had achieved a certain (fairly low) standard of education, and to property owners, and to people of "importance", i.e. chiefs and indunas - in other words, you needed to qualify for a vote - which many natives did.

Smith's defiant response was a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, timed to coincide with Armistice Day at 11.00 am on 11 November 1965, an attempt to garner support in the UK by reminding people of the contribution of the colony to the war effort (Smith himself had been a Spitfire pilot).[13] Smith was personally vilified in the British media.[104] Wilson's immediate recourse was to the United Nations, and in 1965, the Security Council imposed sanctions, which were to last until official independence in 1979. This involved British warships blockading the port of Beira to try to cause economic collapse in Rhodesia. Wilson was applauded by most nations for taking a firm stand on the issue (and none extended diplomatic recognition to the Smith régime). A number of nations did not join in with sanctions, undermining their efficiency. Certain sections of public opinion started to question their efficacy, and to demand the toppling of the régime by force. Wilson declined to intervene in Rhodesia with military force, believing the British population would not support such action against their "kith and kin". The two leaders met for discussions aboard British warships, Tiger in 1966 and Fearless in 1968. Smith subsequently attacked Wilson in his memoirs, accusing him of delaying tactics during negotiations and alleging duplicity; Wilson responded in kind, questioning Smith's good faith and suggesting that Smith had moved the goal-posts whenever a settlement appeared in sight.[100] The matter was still unresolved at the time of Wilson's resignation in 1976.

Elsewhere in Africa, trouble developed in Nigeria, brought about by the ethnic hatreds and Biafra's efforts to become independent. Wilson supported the established new governments in former colonies and refused to countenance breakaway movements. He supported the government of General Yakubu Gowon during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967–1970.[105]

Defeat and return to opposition

By 1969, the Labour Party was suffering serious electoral reverses, and by the turn of 1970 had lost a total of 16 seats in by-elections since the previous general election.[106]

Although the first Wilson government had enacted a wide range of social reforms and arguably did much to reduce social inequalities during its time in office, the economic difficulties that it faced led to austerity measures being imposed on numerous occasions, forcing the government to abandon some of its key policy goals. Amongst the controversial austerity measures introduced included higher dental charges, the abolition of free school milk in all secondary schools in 1968, increased weekly national insurance contributions, the postponement of the planned rise in the school leaving age to 16, and cuts in road and housing programmes,[63] which meant that the government's house-building target of 500,000 per year was never met.[26] The government also failed to meet its 1964 manifesto commitment to tie increases in national insurance benefits to increases in average earnings,[107] although this reform would later be implemented during Wilson's second premiership in 1975.[108] There was also much controversy over the government's decision to reintroduce prescription charges in 1968 (after having abolished them in 1964),[13] although the blow of this measure was arguably by softened by the fact that many people were exempted from charges.[38] In 1968, arguably in response to sensationalist stories about supposed "scroungers" and "welfare cheats," the government made the decision to introduce a controversial new rule terminating benefits for single men under the age of 45. Under this rule, young, single, unskilled men who lived in areas of low unemployment would have their supplementary benefits stopped after four weeks.[14]

In the field of housing, the First Wilson Government has received criticism by historians for encouraging the building of high-rise council flats, continuing the high-rise boom launched by the preceding Conservative administration in 1956 when it introduced a progressive storey-height subsidy that gave large increments for four-, five-, and six-storey flats and a fixed increment for every additional storey above that.[109][110] In 1966, tall flats accounted 25.6% of all approved starts, compared with only 3% in 1954.[111] From 1964 to 1966, the percentage of homes built in England and Wales by local authorities and New Towns in the form of flats in buildings of 5 storeys or more rose from 22.4% to 25.7%, falling to 9.9% in 1970.[112]

According to the historian Andrew Thorpe, much of the high-rise and high-density housing that was erected proved to be poorly constructed and unpopular with tenants, and social and extended family networks were disrupted by rehousing, leading to increased strain on social services and therefore public expenditure as older, informal support networks were ruptured. As argued by Thorpe, Labour's accomplishments "were equivocal, and in retrospect many would see its policies as leading to significant social problems."[13]

According to another historian, Eric Shaw, in the rush to build, and to overcome shortages in funds, the First Wilson Government "succumbed to the fashion for high-rise blocks of flats." For Shaw, the housing drive demonstrated "flaws in Labour's centralist brand of social democracy," the assumption that the interests of ordinary people could be safeguarded by public officials without needing to consult them, "a well-intentioned but short-sighted belief that pledges could be honored by spreading resources more thinly; and a 'social engineering' approach to reform in which the calculation of the effects of institutional reform neglected their impact upon the overall quality of people's lives." This approach resulted in people being wrenched from their local communities and transferred to isolating and forbidding environments which often lacked basic social and commercial amenities and which hindered the revival of community networks. High-rise council flats, according to Shaw, intensified class inequalities by becoming a low-grad reserve for the poorer sections of the working class, which reflecting the "extent to which Keynesian social democracy had departed from the traditions of ethical socialism, with its aspirations to construct institutions which would foster greater fellowship, a communal spirit and more altruistic forms of behaviour." As further noted by Shaw, the "new soulless working-class estates" became the breeding grounds of a host of social evils, "as socialists from an older generation like William Morris could have predicted."[2]

A plan to boost economic growth to 4% a year was never met, while development aid was cut severely as a result of austerity measures. A proposed "minimum income guarantee" for widows and pensioners was never implemented, together with Richard Crossman's compulsory national superannuation scheme. This scheme, a system of universal secondary pensions, was aimed at providing British pensioners with an income closer to what they enjoyed during the best years of their working life, when their earnings were at their highest. According to Brian Lapping, this would have been Wilson's largest reform of social security, had it been carried out.[26] In addition, the government's austerity measures led to an unpopular squeeze on consumption in 1968 and 1969.[24]

By 1970, the economy was showing signs of improvement, and by May that year, Labour had overtaken the Conservatives in the opinion polls.[113] Wilson responded to this apparent recovery in his government's popularity by calling a general election, but, to the surprise of most observers, was defeated at the polls by the Conservatives under Heath.

Wilson survived as leader of the Labour party in opposition. Economic conditions during the 1970s were becoming more difficult for Britain and many other western economies as a result of the ending of the Bretton Woods Agreement and the 1973 oil shock, and the Heath government in its turn was buffeted by economic adversity and industrial unrest (notably including confrontation with the coalminers which led to the Three-day week) towards the end of 1973, and on 7 February 1974 (with the crisis still ongoing) Heath called a snap election for 28 February.[114]

Second term as Prime Minister

Labour won more seats (though fewer votes) than the Conservative Party in February 1974. As Heath was unable to persuade the Liberals to form a coalition, Wilson returned to 10 Downing Street on 4 March 1974 as Prime Minister of a minority Labour Government. He gained a three-seat majority in another election later that year, on 10 October 1974. One of the key issues addressed during his second period in office was the referendum on British membership of the EEC (see Europe, above).

Domestic affairs

The Second Wilson Government made a major commitment to the expansion of the British welfare state, with increased spending on education, health, and housing rents.[25] To pay for it, it imposed controls and raised taxes on the rich. It partially reversed the 1971 reduction in the top rate of tax from 90% to 75%, increasing it to 83% in the first budget from new chancellor Denis Healey, which came into law in April 1974. Also implemented was an investment income surcharge which raised the top rate on investment income to 98%, the highest level since the Second World War. In March 1974, an additional £2 billion were announced for benefits, food subsidies, and housing subsidies, including a record 25% increase in the pension. Council house rents were also frozen. That same year, national insurance benefits were increased by 13%, which brought pensions as a proportion of average earnings "up to a value equivalent to the previous high, which was reached in 1965 as a result of Labour legislation." In order to maintain the real value of these benefits in the long term, the government introduced legislation which linked future increases in pensions to higher incomes or wages.[48] In 1974–75, social spending was increased in real terms by 9%. In 1974, pensions were increased in real terms by 14%, while in early 1975 increases were made in family allowances. There were also significant increases in rate and rent subsidies, together with £500 million worth of food subsidies.[24]

An independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (regarded as very much the brainchild of the trade union leader Jack Jones) was set, which according to Robert Taylor continues to provide "an impartial and impressive function in resolving disputes and encouraging good industrial relations practice." A Manpower Services Commission was set up to encourage a more active labour market policy to improve job placements and deal with unemployment. The Pay Board was abolished, while the Price Commission was provided with greater powers to control and delay price increases. In addition, the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act of 1975 gave power over rents back to local authorities.[83]

To help those with disabilities, the government introduced an invalid care allowance, a mobility allowance, a non-contributory invalidity pension for those unable to contribute through national insurance, and other measures. To combat child poverty, legislation to create a universal Child Benefit was introduced in 1975 (a reform later implemented by the Callaghan Government). To raise the living standards of those dependant on national insurance benefits, the government index-linked short-term benefits to the rate of inflation, while pensions and long-term benefits were tied to increases in prices or earnings, whichever was higher. To raise the living standards of those dependant on national insurance benefits, the government index-linked short-term benefits to the rate of inflation, while pensions and long-term benefits were tied to increases in prices or earnings, whichever was higher.[115]

In 1975, a state earnings related pension scheme (SERPS) was introduced. A new pension, which was inflation-proofed and linked to earnings, was added to the basic pension which was to increase in line with earnings for the first time ever. This reform assisted women by the linking of pensions to the 'twenty best years' of earnings, and those who worked at home caring for children or others were counted as contributors. This scheme was later eroded by the subsequent Thatcher Government, and insufficient pension rights had been built up by that time to establish resistance to its erosion. The Sex Discrimination Act (1975) gave women the right in principle to equal access to jobs and equal treatment at work with men, while the Employment Protection Act introduced statutory maternity leave.[38] That same year, the wage stop was finally abolished.[74] In addition, differentials between skilled and unskilled workers were narrowed as a result of egalitarian pay policies involving flat-rate increases.

The Social Security Pensions Act of 1975 introduced equal treatment in pension schemes and eliminated the contributions test which limited state pensions for women. The Housing Finance Act (1974) increased aid to local authorities for slum clearance, introduced a system of "fair rents" in public and private sector unfurnished accommodation, and introduced rent rebates for council tenants. The Housing Act (1974) improved a renovation grants scheme, provided increased levels of aid to housing associations, and extended the role of the Housing Corporation. The Rent Act of 1974 extended security of tenure to tenants of furnished properties and allowed access to rent tribunals. The Community Land Act (1975) allowed for the taking into public control of development land, while the Child Benefits Act introduced an extra payment for lone parents.[41] A Resources Allocation Working Party (RAWP) was also set up to produce a formula for a more equitable distribution of health care expenditure.[116] Anthony Crosland, while serving as a minister during Wilson's second government, made a decision to reform the level of rate support grant, introducing a standard level of relief across the country to benefit poorer urban areas.[83]

Circular 4/74 (1974) renewed pressure for moves towards comprehensive education (progress of which had stalled under the Heath Government), while the industrial relations legislation passed under Edward Heath was repealed. The Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 set up a Health and Safety Commission and Executive and set up a legal framework for health and safety at work. The Employment Protection Act of 1975 set up the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Services (ACAS) to arbitrate in industrial disputes, enlarged the rights of employees and trade unions, extended the redundancy payments scheme, and provided redress against unfair dismissal. The legislation also provided for paid maternity leave and outlawed dismissal for pregnancy. The Social Security Act of 1975 introduced a maternity allowance fund, while the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 set up an Equal Opportunities Commission and outlawed gender discrimination (both indirect and direct).[41]

The Woodworking Machines Regulations 1974, replacing the 1922 Regulations, came into operation on in November 1974. These regulations raised the standard of guarding of the most dangerous machines.[117] Improvements were made in mine-workers' pensions, while the Coal Mines (Respirable Dust) Regulations of 1975, which came into operation in October that year, were aimed at reducing the incidence of coal miners' pneumoconiosis. They prescribed permitted amounts of respirable dust at workplaces in coal mines as well as arrangements for the suppression and continuous sampling of dust, and they include a scheme for the medical supervision of workers at risk. The Protection of Eyes Regulations 1974 and 1975, replacing the 1938 Regulations, extended protection to those employed on construction sites as well as in factories.[118]

Despite its achievements in social policy, however, Wilson's government came under scrutiny in 1975 for the rise in the unemployment rate, with the total number of Britons out of work passing 1,000,000 by April of that year.[119]

Northern Ireland

Wilson's earlier government had witnessed the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. In response to a request from the Government of Northern Ireland, Wilson agreed to deploy the British Army in August 1969 in an effort to maintain the peace.

Out of office in the autumn of 1971, Wilson formulated a 16-point, 15 year programme that was designed to pave the way for the unification of Ireland. The proposal was not adopted by the then Heath government.[120]

In May 1974, when back in office as leader of a minority government, Wilson condemned the Unionist-controlled Ulster Workers Council Strike as a "sectarian strike", which was "being done for sectarian purposes having no relation to this century but only to the seventeenth century". However he refused to pressure a reluctant British Army to face down the loyalist paramilitaries who were intimidating utility workers. In a televised speech later, he referred to the loyalist strikers and their supporters as "spongers" who expected Britain to pay for their lifestyles. The strike was eventually successful in breaking the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive.

On 11 September 2008, BBC Radio Four's Document programme claimed to have unearthed a secret plan – codenamed Doomsday – which proposed to cut all of the United Kingdom's constitutional ties with Northern Ireland and transform the province into an independent dominion. Document went on to claim that the Doomsday plan was devised mainly by Wilson and was kept a closely guarded secret. The plan then allegedly lost momentum, due in part, it was claimed, to warnings made by both the then Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, and the then Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Garret FitzGerald who admitted the 12,000-strong Irish army would be unable to deal with the ensuing civil war.[121]

In 1975 Wilson secretly offered Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi £14 million (£500 million in 2009 values) to stop arming the IRA, but Gaddafi demanded a far greater sum of money.[122][123] This offer did not become publicly known until 2009.


On 16 March 1976, Wilson surprised the nation by announcing his resignation as Prime Minister (taking effect on 5 April 1976). He claimed that he had always planned on resigning at the age of 60, and that he was physically and mentally exhausted. As early as the late 1960s, he had been telling intimates, like his doctor Sir Joseph Stone (later Lord Stone of Hendon), that he did not intend to serve more than eight or nine years as Prime Minister. Roy Jenkins has suggested that Wilson may have been motivated partly by the distaste for politics felt by his loyal and long-suffering wife, Mary.[8] His doctor had detected problems which would later be diagnosed as colon cancer, and Wilson had begun drinking brandy during the day to cope with stress.[3] In addition, by 1976 he might already have been aware of the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which was to cause both his formerly excellent memory and his powers of concentration to fail dramatically.[124]

Garter Banner of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, Jesus College Chapel, Oxford

Queen Elizabeth II came to dine at 10 Downing Street to mark his resignation, an honour she has bestowed on only one other Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.

Wilson's Prime Minister's Resignation Honours included many businessmen and celebrities, along with his political supporters. His choice of appointments caused lasting damage to his reputation, worsened by the suggestion that the first draft of the list had been written by his political secretary Marcia Williams on lavender notepaper (it became known as the "Lavender List"). Roy Jenkins noted that Wilson's retirement "was disfigured by his, at best, eccentric resignation honours list, which gave peerages or knighthoods to some adventurous business gentlemen, several of whom were close neither to him nor to the Labour Party."[125] Some of those whom Wilson honoured included Lord Kagan, the inventor of Gannex, who was eventually imprisoned for fraud, and Sir Eric Miller, who later committed suicide while under police investigation for corruption.

Six candidates stood in the first ballot to replace him, in order of votes they were: Michael Foot, James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland. In the third ballot on 5 April, Callaghan defeated Foot in a parliamentary vote of 176 to 137, thus becoming Wilson's successor as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, and he continued to serve as Prime Minister until May 1979, when Labour lost the general election to the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first female prime minister.

As Wilson wished to remain an MP after leaving office, he was not immediately given the peerage customarily offered to retired Prime Ministers, but instead was created a Knight of the Garter. On leaving the House of Commons after the 1983 general election he was created Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, after Rievaulx Abbey, in the north of his native Yorkshire.

Retirement and death

Wilson in 1986

Shortly after resigning as Prime Minister, Wilson was signed by David Frost to host a series of interview/chat show programmes. The pilot episode proved to be a flop as Wilson appeared uncomfortable with the informality of the format. Wilson also hosted two editions of the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. He famously floundered in the role, and in 2000, Channel 4 chose one of his appearances as one of the 100 Moments of TV Hell. Wilson also coined the name of charity War on Want.[126]

A lifelong Gilbert and Sullivan fan, in 1975, Wilson joined the Board of Trustees of the D'Oyly Carte Trust at the invitation of Sir Hugh Wontner, who was then the Lord Mayor of London.[127] At Christmas 1978, Wilson appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. Eric Morecambe's habit of appearing not to recognise the guest stars was repaid by Wilson, who referred to him throughout as 'Morry-camby' (the mis-pronunciation of Morecambe's name made by Ed Sullivan when the pair appeared on his famous American television show). Wilson appeared on the show again in 1980.

Wilson was not especially active in the House of Lords, although he did initiate a debate on unemployment in May 1984.[128] His last speech was in a debate on marine pilotage in 1986, when he commented as an elder brother of Trinity House.[129] In the same year, he played himself as Prime Minister in an Anglia Television drama, "Inside Story".[130]

He continued regularly attending the House of Lords until just over a year before his death; the last sitting he attended was on 27 April 1994.[131] Wilson died from colon cancer and Alzheimer's disease in May 1995, aged 79. His memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey on 13 July 1995. It was attended by Prince Charles, former Prime Ministers Edward Heath, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister John Major and future Prime Minister Tony Blair. Wilson was buried at St. Mary's Old Church, St. Mary's on the Isles of Scilly on 6 June. His epitaph is Tempus Imperator Rerum (Time the Commander of All Things).

Political style

Wilson regarded himself as a "man of the people" and did much to promote this image, contrasting himself with the stereotypical aristocratic conservatives who had preceded him. Features of this portrayal included his working man's Gannex raincoat, his pipe (the British Pipesmokers' Council voted him Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1965 and Pipeman of the Decade in 1976, though in private he smoked cigars), his love of simple cooking and fondness for popular British relish HP Sauce, and his support for his home town's football team, Huddersfield Town.[132] He spoke with a studied working class Yorkshire accent, although this was not part of his background, as his father had spoken "upper class" English. Eschewing continental holidays, he returned every summer with his family to the Isles of Scilly. His first general election victory relied heavily on associating these down-to-earth attributes with a sense that the UK urgently needed to modernise, after "thirteen years of Tory mis-rule ...". These characteristics were exaggerated in Private Eye's satirical column "Mrs Wilson's Diary".

Wilson exhibited his populist touch in June 1965 when he had The Beatles honoured with the award of MBE (such awards are officially bestowed by The Queen but are nominated by the Prime Minister of the day). The award was popular with young people and contributed to a sense that the Prime Minister was "in touch" with the younger generation. There were some protests by conservatives and elderly members of the military who were earlier recipients of the award, but such protesters were in the minority. Critics claimed that Wilson acted to solicit votes for the next general election (which took place less than a year later), but defenders noted that, since the minimum voting age at that time was 21, this was hardly likely to impact many of the Beatles' fans who at that time were predominantly teenagers. It cemented Wilson's image as a modernistic leader and linked him to the burgeoning pride in the 'New Britain' typified by the Beatles. The Beatles mentioned Wilson rather negatively, naming both him and his opponent Edward Heath in George Harrison's song "Taxman", the opener to 1966's Revolver—recorded and released after the MBEs.

In 1967, Wilson had a different interaction with a musical ensemble. He sued the pop group The Move for libel after the band's manager Tony Secunda published a promotional postcard for the single "Flowers In The Rain", featuring a caricature depicting Wilson in bed with his female assistant, Marcia Williams. Gossip had hinted at an improper relationship, though these rumours were never substantiated. Wilson won the case, and all royalties from the song (composed by Move leader Roy Wood) were assigned in perpetuity to a charity of Wilson's choosing.

Wilson coined the term 'Selsdon Man' to refer to the anti-interventionist policies of the Conservative leader Edward Heath, developed at a policy retreat held at the Selsdon Park Hotel in early 1970. This phrase, intended to evoke the 'primitive throwback' qualities of anthropological discoveries such as Piltdown Man and Swanscombe Man, was part of a British political tradition of referring to political trends by suffixing 'man'. Another famous quote is "A week is a long time in politics": this signifies that political fortunes can change extremely rapidly. Other memorable phrases attributed to Wilson include "the white heat of the [technological] revolution." In his broadcast after the 1967 devaluation of the pound, Wilson said: "This does not mean that the pound here in Britain – in your pocket or purse – is worth any less ...", and the phrase "the pound in your pocket" subsequently took on a life of its own.


Despite his successes and one-time popularity, Harold Wilson's reputation took a long time to recover from the low ebb reached immediately following his second premiership. Some accuse him of undue deviousness, some claim he did not do enough to modernise the Labour Party's policy positions on issues such as the respective roles of the state and the market or the reform of industrial relations. This line of argument partly blames Wilson for the civil unrest of the late 1970s (during Britain's Winter of Discontent), and for the electoral success of the Conservative party and its ensuing 18-year rule. His supporters argue that Wilson's skilful management (on issues such as nationalisation, Europe and Vietnam) allowed an otherwise fractious party to stay politically united and govern. This co-existence did not long survive his leadership, and the factionalism that followed contributed greatly to the Labour Party's electoral weakness during the 1980s. The reinvention of the Labour Party would take the better part of two decades, at the hands of Neil Kinnock, John Smith and – electorally, most conclusively – Tony Blair.

In 1964, when Wilson took office, the mainstream of informed opinion (in all the main political parties, in academia and the media, etc.) strongly favoured the type of technocratic, "indicative planning" approach that Wilson endeavoured to implement. Radical market-orientated reforms, of the kind eventually adopted by Margaret Thatcher, were in the mid-1960s backed only by a 'fringe' of enthusiasts (such as the leadership of the later-influential Institute of Economic Affairs), and had almost no representation at senior levels even of the Conservative Party. Fifteen years later, disillusionment with Britain's weak economic performance and troubled industrial relations, combined with active spadework by figures such as Sir Keith Joseph, had helped to make a radical market programme politically feasible for Thatcher (which was in turn to influence the subsequent Labour leadership, especially under Blair).

An opinion poll in September 2011 found that Wilson came in third place when respondents were asked to name the best post-war Labour Party leader. He was beaten only by John Smith and Tony Blair.[133]

Possible plots and conspiracy theories

MI5 plots

In 1963, Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn is said to have secretly claimed that Wilson was a KGB agent.[134] The majority of intelligence officers did not believe that Golitsyn was credible in this and various other claims, but a significant number did (most prominently James Jesus Angleton, Deputy Director of Operations for Counter-Intelligence at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) and factional strife broke out between the two groups. Former MI5 officer Peter Wright claimed in his memoirs, Spycatcher, that 30 MI5 agents then collaborated in an attempt to undermine Wilson.[135]

In March 1987, James Miller, a former agent, claimed that the Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974 had been promoted by MI5 in order to help destabilise Wilson's government.[136] In July 1987, Labour MP Ken Livingstone used his maiden speech to raise the 1975 allegations of a former Army Press officer in Northern Ireland, Colin Wallace, who also alleged a plot to destabilise Wilson. Chris Mullin, MP, speaking on 23 November 1988, argued that sources other than Peter Wright supported claims of a long-standing attempt by MI5 to undermine Wilson's government.[137]

In 2009, The Defence of the Realm, the authorised history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, held that while MI5 kept a file on Wilson from 1945, when he became an MP – because communist civil servants claimed that he had similar political sympathies – there was no bugging of his home or office, and no conspiracy against him.[138] In 2010 newspaper reports made detailed allegations that the bugging of 10 Downing Street had been omitted from the history for "wider public interest reasons". In 1963 on Macmillan's orders following the Profumo Affair, MI5 bugged the cabinet room, the waiting room, and the prime minister's study until the devices were removed in 1977 on Callaghan's orders. From the records it is unclear if Wilson or Heath knew of the bugging, and no recorded conversations were retained by MI5 so possibly the bugs were never activated.[139] Professor Andrew had previously recorded in the preface of the history that "One significant excision as a result of these requirements (in the chapter on The Wilson Plot) is, I believe, hard to justify" giving credence to these new allegations.[140]

Other conspiracy theories

Richard Hough, in his 1980 biography of Mountbatten, indicates that Mountbatten was approached during the 1960s in connection with a scheme to install an "emergency government" in place of Wilson's administration. The approach was made by Cecil Harmsworth King, the chairman of the International Publishing Corporation (IPC), which published the Daily Mirror newspaper. Hough bases his account on conversations with the Mirror's long-time editor Hugh Cudlipp, supplemented by the recollections of the scientist Solly Zuckerman and of Mountbatten's valet, William Evans. Cudlipp arranged for Mountbatten to meet King on 8 May 1968. King had long yearned to play a more central political role, and had personal grudges against Wilson (including Wilson's refusal to propose King for the hereditary earldom that King coveted). He had already failed in an earlier attempt to replace Wilson with James Callaghan. With Britain's continuing economic difficulties and industrial strife in the 1960s, King convinced himself that Wilson's government was heading towards collapse. He thought that Mountbatten, as a member of the Royal Family and a former Chief of the Defence Staff, would command public support as leader of a non-democratic "emergency" government. Mountbatten insisted that his friend, Zuckerman, be present (Zuckerman says that he was urged to attend by Mountbatten's son-in-law, Lord Brabourne, who worried King would lead Mountbatten astray). King asked Mountbatten if he would be willing to head an emergency government. Zuckerman said the idea was treason and Mountbatten in turn rebuffed King. He does not appear to have reported the approach to Downing Street.

The question of how serious a threat to democracy may have existed during these years continues to be contentious—a key point at issue being who of any consequence would have been ready to move beyond grumbling about the government (or spreading rumours) to actively taking unconstitutional action. Cecil King himself was an inveterate schemer but an inept actor on the political stage. Perhaps significantly, when King penned a strongly worded editorial against Wilson for the Daily Mirror two days after his abortive meeting with Mountbatten, the unanimous reaction of IPC's directors was to fire him with immediate effect from his position as Chairman. King's resignation was considered a serious enough matter for the BBC to have senior journalist William Hardcastle announce it in a news flash. More fundamentally, Denis Healey, who served for six years as Wilson's Secretary of State for Defence, has argued that actively serving senior British military officers would not have been prepared to overthrow a constitutionally-elected government.

By the time of his resignation, Wilson's own perceptions of any threat may very well have been exacerbated by the onset of Alzheimer's disease; his inherent tendency to chariness was undoubtedly stoked by some in his inner circle, including Marcia Williams. He reportedly shared with a surprised George H. W. Bush, at the time the Director of the CIA, his fear that some of the portraits in 10 Downing Street (specifically including Gladstone's portrait in the Cabinet Room) concealed listening devices being used to bug his discussions.[141] Files released on 1 June 2005 show that Wilson was concerned that, while on the Isles of Scilly, he was being monitored by Russian ships disguised as trawlers. MI5 found no evidence of this, but told him not to use a walkie-talkie.

Wilson's Government took strong action against the controversial, self-styled "Church" of Scientology in 1967, banning foreign Scientologists from entering the country, a prohibition which remained in force until 1980. In response, L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder, accused Wilson of being in cahoots with Soviet Russia and an international conspiracy of psychiatrists and financiers. Wilson's Minister of Health, Kenneth Robinson, subsequently won a libel suit against the Scientologists and Hubbard.[142]


  • 12 June 1968 Wilson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society under Statute 12 of the Society's regulations, which covers people who have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science or are such that their election would be of signal benefit to the Society.[143]
  • Wilson was an Honorary Fellow of Columbia Pacific University.[144] The former British Prime Minister also delivered a speech at a CPU graduation ceremony.

Statues and other tributes

Statue in St George's Square, Huddersfield.

A portrait of Harold Wilson, painted by the famous Scottish portrait artist Cowan Dobson, hangs today at University College, Oxford.[145] Two statues of Harold Wilson stand in prominent places. The first, unveiled by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 1999, stands outside Huddersfield railway station in St George's Square, Huddersfield. Costing £70,000, the statue, designed by sculptor Ian Walters, is based on photographs taken in 1964 and depicts Wilson in walking pose at the start of his first term as Prime Minister. His widow, Mary requested that the eight-foot tall monument did not show Wilson holding his famous pipe as she feared it would make the representation a caricature.[146]

In September 2006, Tony Blair unveiled a second bronze statue of Wilson in the latter's former constituency of Huyton, near Liverpool. The statue was created by Liverpool sculptor, Tom Murphy, and Blair paid tribute to Wilson's legacy at the unveiling, including the Open University. He added: "He also brought in a whole new culture, a whole new country. He made the country very, very different".[147]

Also in 2006, a street on a new housing development in Tividale, West Midlands, was named Wilson Drive in honour of Wilson. Along with neighbouring new development Callaghan drive (named after James Callaghan), it formed part of a large housing estate developed since the 1960s where all streets were named after former prime ministers or senior parliamentary figures.

Titles from birth to death

  • Harold Wilson (11 March 1916 – 1 January 1945)
  • Harold Wilson, OBE (1 January 1945 – 26 July 1945)
  • Harold Wilson, OBE, MP (26 July 1945 – 29 September 1947)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Wilson, OBE, MP (29 September 1947 – 6 December 1969)
  • The Right Honourable Harold Wilson, OBE, FRS, MP (6 December 1969 – 23 April 1976)
  • The Right Honourable Sir Harold Wilson, KG, OBE, FRS, MP (23 April 1976 – 9 June 1983)
  • The Right Honourable Sir Harold Wilson, KG, OBE, FRS (9 June – 16 September 1983)
  • The Right Honourable The Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (16 September 1983 – 24 May 1995)[148]

In popular culture


  • In the Fawlty Towers episode "The Germans", Basil blames his fire extinguisher exploding in his face on "... bloody Wilson"
  • The Lavender List (2006), played by Kenneth Cranham – a BBC Four fictionalised account by Francis Wheen of the Wilson Government of 1974–76, with Gina McKee as Marcia Williams and Celia Imrie as Wilson's wife. The play concentrated on Wilson and Williams' relationship and her conflict with the Downing Street Press Secretary Joe Haines.
  • The Plot Against Harold Wilson (2006), played by James Bolam – aired on BBC Two on Thursday 16 March. The drama detailed previously unseen evidence that rogue elements of MI5 and the British military plotted to take down the Labour Government, believing Wilson to be a Soviet spy.
  • Longford (2006), played by Robert Pugh – Channel 4 drama on the life of Lord Longford. In one scene, Wilson was seen dismissing Longford from his cabinet in 1968, in part because of the adverse publicity the latter was receiving for his public campaign to support the Moors Murderer Myra Hindley.
  • The Queen a 2009 British drama-documentary showing Queen Elizabeth II, Harold Wilson was portrayed by Philip Jackson.


  • The Boat That Rocked (2009), played by Stephen Moore (character not actually addressed or credited by name, only as 'Prime Minister')
  • Made in Dagenham (2010), played by John Sessions


  • The Beatles reference both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in their song Taxman (1966)
  • A viking in the Asterix story Asterix and the Great Crossing (1975) is named Haraldwilssen, and shares his physical features
  • The Audience (stage play, 2013, played in the premiere production by Richard McCabe)


Arms of H
Harold Wilson Arms.svg
The arms of Harold Wilson consist of:[149]
On a wreath Argent and Gules, Upon a Rock a Lighthouse in front thereof a Spade blade downwards and a Quill point downwards in saltire all proper.
Argent an ancient ship proper on a chief Gules a stag's head caboshed Or between two water bougets Argent.



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  147. "Blair's tribute to Harold Wilson". Evening Standard. London. 15 April 2010. Retrieved 1 October 2010. 
  148. "London Gazette". 21 September 1983. pp. 12361. 
  149. Chesshyre, Hubert (1995). "The Friends of St. George's & Descendants of the Knights of the Garter Annual Review 1994/95". p. 252. 
  150. "James Harold Wilson". Retrieved 26 September 2011. 

Further reading

  • Farr, Martin. "Wilson, (James) Harold, 1st Baron Wilson 1916–1995." in Reader's Guide to British History London: Routledge, 2003. online at Credo Reference.
  • Jenkins, Roy. "Wilson, (James) Harold, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx (1916–1995)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, January 2009 accessed 15 October 2012
  • Pimlott, Ben (1992). Harold Wilson. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-215189-8. 
  • Ziegler, Philip (1993). Wilson: The authorised life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-81276-9. 
  • Routledge, Paul (2006). Wilson. Series: The 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century. Haus Publishing. ISBN 1-904950-68-X. 
  • Wilson, Harold. (1979). The Labour Government 1964–1970: A Personal Record (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson/Michael)


There is an extensive bibliography on Harold Wilson. He is the author of a number of books. He is the subject of many biographies (both light and serious) and academic analyses of his career and various aspects of the policies pursued by the governments he led. He features in many "humorous" books. He was the Prime Minister in the so-called "Swinging London" era of the 1960s, and therefore features in many of the books about this period of history.

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