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Harold Wilson

(1916—1995) prime minister


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Hugh Gaitskell (1906—1963) politician

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(1916–1995)

British politician and Labour prime minister (1964–70; 1974–76), noted for his tactical skills in maintaining positive government with a very small majority. He was knighted in 1976 and created a life peer in 1983.

Born in Huddersfield, the son of a works chemist, Wilson was educated at Jesus College, Oxford, where he read economics. During World War II he worked as a civil servant: he was economics assistant to the war cabinet secretariat (1940–41) and then to the mines department (1941–43), serving finally as director of economics and statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. In 1945 he was elected to parliament and was president of the Board of Trade from 1947 to 1951, when he resigned in protest against the proposed introduction of social service cuts. He was spokesman for economic affairs (1955–59) and then for foreign affairs (1961–63) in the Labour shadow government, succeeding Gaitskell as party leader in 1963 (having unsuccessfully challenged his leadership in 1960).

Wilson took Labour to victory, but with a very small majority, in the election of 1964. Almost immediately he was faced with the problem of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (1965). The government's response was to impose ever harsher economic sanctions. Wilson achieved a personal triumph in obtaining a greatly increased majority in the 1966 election, but the country's economic difficulties demanded unpopular measures, including devaluation of the pound in 1967. Wilson's statutory incomes policy was attacked both within the party and by the unions, and proposals for reforms in industrial relations had to be shelved. Wilson was also criticized from the left for supporting US policy in Vietnam and for imposing further restrictions on immigration. His popularity was to some extent restored in the last year of the government, and its defeat in 1970 came as a surprise. After returning to power in 1974, firstly as head of a minority government and then, after a further election victory, with a small majority, Wilson renegotiated Britain's terms of entry into the European Community, dealing skilfully with opposition within the party. The new terms were confirmed by a national referendum in 1975. In the following year, having become Labour's longest-serving prime minister, Wilson unexpectedly resigned. For the remainder of his life he took virtually no part in British politics.

Wilson was the author of The Labour Government 1964–70: A Personal Record (1971) and The Governance of Britain (1976), among other books; Harold Wilson Memoirs 1916–64 appeared in 1986.

Subjects: British history.


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