Britain's Forgotten Prime Minister: Harold Wilson

By Heptonstall, Geoffrey | Contemporary Review, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Britain's Forgotten Prime Minister: Harold Wilson


Heptonstall, Geoffrey, Contemporary Review


THE youngest Cabinet minister since Pitt, he was among the youngest prime ministers Britain has known, and one of the longest serving. Harold Wilson was perhaps the most dominant Labour politician of the latter half of the twentieth century. His record of election victories is unsurpassed, and equalled only by Gladstone's. He inherited fading imperial power. He encouraged a national identity based on cultural and social influence in the world. Yet Harold Wilson is the forgotten man, his name rarely mentioned in political comment, and rarely evoked in the Labour movement he led. When attention is focused on the shortcomings of more recent governments there is rarely an admiring glance to the Wilson years of the 1960s and 70s. The Attlee government of 1945-51 (of which Wilson was part) is embedded in Labour folklore, but then the narrative fades to an embarrassed recollection of the 'winter of discontent', as if Harold Wilson's only legacy was the defeat of 1979. There is clearly more than that to consider.

Difficult and turbulent as the Wilson years were, there was a serious attempt to reshape the nature of society, to broaden the scope of people's lives, and to enable citizens to feel at ease. Leisure increased, the arts flourished, science came in from the cold to take its place in cultural life. Education came to be seen as a right rather than a privilege. The promise was never Utopia, but the values were undeniably optimistic. In our more cynical times there may be a lesson to learn by looking again at what Harold Wilson sought, and in some measure succeeded to achieve. The discontent came late. There was a long time when Labour really did seem poised to become the natural governing party (Wilson's declared political aim). There was a long time when Social Democracy was thought to be the future, a future that the Labour Party has revised. A backward glance at actual history may be timely when core values are being rediscovered and redefined.

Wilson retired in 1976, but the Labour government continued in the pattern he had created. Arguably the discontent was exaggerated by a hostile popular press focusing on the failings of a government coming to its natural end, as surely as the left had seized on the ineptitude of a tired Tory government in 1964. But the sense of Wilson's failure persists, especially on the left. Few now speak up for an avowedly Socialist government that promised workers new forms of industrial and social relations, only for that promise to collapse in a wave of strikes that ushered in a government prepared to challenge a longstanding consensus of social policy. Events in the world, wholly unforeseen in 1979, ensured that this challenge would succeed and that the idea of Socialism (of any kind) would withdraw to the margin. The feeling, surely, is that a more audacious and purposive Wilson, eschewing the compromise and convenience of Westminster politics, might have stemmed the tide of the new Conservatism and thereby tempered the change of social discourse not only in Britain but across the world.

This is speculative and contentious. Had Mrs Thatcher failed in 1979, it is possible that Ronald Reagan might not have been so emboldened a free market crusader. Equally, Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-fated ventures in the reform of the Soviet Union could have succeeded in a world less inclined to the ethic of the free market. But these 'what ifs' cannot be sourced back obviously and undeniably to Harold Wilson.

A more credible speculation is how the world might have been had Wilson succeeded in his efforts between 1965 and 1967 to secure peace in Viet-Nam. This is a story that is not too well known. Singularly among world leaders, Wilson enjoyed good relations with both Leonid Brezhnev and Lyndon Johnson. It is to Wilson's credit that he took the opportunity to negotiate a possible compromise in that horrendous conflict so central to the intellectual and moral debate of the mid-century. …

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