British Labour politician, party leader from 1963, prime minister 1964–70 and 1974–76. His premiership was dominated by the issue of UK admission to membership of the European Community (now the European Union), the social contract (unofficial agreement with the trade unions), and economic difficulties.
Wilson, born in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, studied at Jesus College, Oxford, where he gained a first-class degree in philosophy, politics, and economics. During World War II he worked as a civil servant, and in 1945 stood for Parliament and won the marginal seat of Ormskirk. Assigned by Prime Minister Clement Attlee to a junior post in the ministry of works, he progressed to become president of the Board of Trade 1947–51 (when he resigned because of social-service cuts). In 1963 he succeeded Hugh Gaitskell as Labour leader and became prime minister the following year, increasing his majority in 1966. He formed a minority government in February 1974 and achieved a majority of three in October 1974. He resigned in 1976 and was succeeded by James Callaghan. He was knighted in 1976 and made a peer in 1983.
In terms of electoral success Wilson was an outstanding party leader, winning four of the five general elections he fought and causing Labour to be described as the ‘natural party of government’. In preventing division between the left and the right of his party, he was frequently obliged to trim his policies to secure the support of the opposing wings. His attempts to rejuvenate British industry and enterprise were not always successful; perhaps his greatest achievement was setting up the Open University.
Following the Labour victory in the 1964 general election, Wilson announced his intention to revitalize British industry and created the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) in order to thwart what he saw as the negative influence of the Treasury. The attempt predictably failed and the DEA was subsequently abandoned.
In 1966, despite opposition from within his own party as well as outside, he decided to reapply for British membership of the European Community (EC). With his deputy George Brown, he toured the European capitals, canvassing support. Their efforts were to no avail; the application was vetoed by the French president Charles de Gaulle.
Wilson turned his attention to industrial relations and awaited the report of the Donovan Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers' Associations, which he had set up in 1965. When it reported in 1968, an attempt to implement its recommendations, through the White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’, was blocked by opposition from trade unions and from within the cabinet.
The two years before Wilson's unexpected resignation were primarily occupied with the problems of reconciling EC membership (achieved by Edward Heath's government 1970–74) with calls within the Labour Party for withdrawal, and the revival of the economy without uncontrollable inflation. He solved the first through a referendum, which endorsed EC membership, and tackled the second by means of an incomes policy.
He retired in 1976, leaving his successor, James Callaghan, to finish what he had started. Despite rumours of undercover plots to remove him, Wilson steadfastly claimed that it had long been his intention to retire from public life after his 60th birthday. There was speculation that he had detected early signs of a diminution in his powers of memory, which persuaded him to leave before they deteriorated further.
Wilson, (James) Harold
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