Harold Wilson became an Oxford don at the age of 21, was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary by Clement Attlee as soon as he entered Parliament, served as the youngest member of a British Cabinet in the 20th century, and is best remembered for his years as British Prime Minister 1963-1970 and 1974-76.
Not surprisingly, many documentary, newsreel, and TV broadcast clips found on YouTube record his journey through political life.
Politics In The Wilson Blood
Harold Wilson was born on 11th March 1916. He was born in the family home at Warneford Road, Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England.
James Herbert Wilson (1882–1971), Harold’s father, was an industrial chemist with a great interest in politics. He not only supported the Liberal Party, but was an active member and was the deputy election agent for Winston Churchill in 1908.
Ethel (née Seddon) Wilson (1882–1957), Harold’s mother, was a school teacher. When she married, she gave up her profession, in accordance with the normalities of the day.
Harold Sneddon, Harold’s uncle, moved to Western Australia in 1901. He became a leader in local politics.
In 1924, when Harold was 8 years old, a trip to London included a visit to the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister. A photograph records this event.
Two years later, the Wilsons took a family trip to Australia. He was fascinated by his uncle’s life in politics. “I am going to be Prime Minister” he reportedly told his mother on the way home.
Where did Harold Wilson go to school?
Harold initially attended the Royds Hall Grammar School in Huddersfield, having won a scholarship. In December 1930 his father suddenly became unemployed during a global economic downturn. It took two years and relocation of the family to Spital in Cheshire to secure work, meaning Harold moved to Sixth Form at the Wirral Grammar School for Boys.
He clearly thrived in his new school, becoming Head Boy and winning a place at Jesus College, Oxford to read Modern History. He took up his university place in 1934 with the assistance of a county grant, and graduated with a first class degree and series of academic awards.
The Young Oxford Don (1937-1939)
In 1937, Harold Wilson was just 21 years old when he became a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College, making him one of the youngest Oxford dons of the century.
On New Year’s Day 1940, in the chapel of Mansfield College, Oxford, Harold Wilson married Mary Baldwin. They went on to have two sons, Robin and Giles, and the family features in many of the films and newsreels made during Harold’s political life.
War In The Civil Service (1939-1945)
Although Wilson volunteered for military service early in the Second World War, he was appointed to the civil service. He worked as a research assistant, statistician and economist on trade and coal matters, before becoming Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power in 1943–44 for which he received an OBE.
He became a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1943.
Wilson Becomes MP For Ormskirk (1945)
In 1945, the MP for Ormskirk moved allegiance from National Labour to Independent. Labour selected Wilson as candidate for the seat in the upcoming General Election. The law required he left the civil service, so he performed academic duties before winning the seat during the landslide victory which swept Labour and Clement Attlee to power.
Immediately, Clement Attlee appointed him Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works, despite his lack of Parliamentary experience. But he rose to the challenge, and two years later Wilson became Secretary for Overseas Trade. Duties included official trips to the Soviet Union to negotiate supply contracts.
Wilson Becomes Youngest Cabinet Minister (1947)
On 29 September 1947, 31 year old Harold Wilson was appointed President of the Board of Trade. He was the youngest member of a British Cabinet in the 20th century. With World War II having ended two years previously, he was keen to abolish some of the wartime rationing schemes.
Wilson was also the driving force behind the Statistics of Trade Act 1947.
Videos of Wilson 1947-1949
⏯ Watch: Wilson At Home In Richmond (1947)
Wilson Becomes MP For Huyton (1950)
Although Wilson was only narrowly elected to the Huyton seat in 1950, he served the constituency near Liverpool until 1983.
In 1951, the government looked for ways to fund the Korean War, and introduced the first patient charges – for spectacles and dental care – in the recently created National Health Service (NHS). Aneurin Bevan, John Freeman and Harold Wilson, all part of a left leaning group within the Labour Party, resigned from the government in protest.
Opposition & Shadow Cabinet (1952-63)
The following year, Winston Churchill and the Conservatives were back in power. Eventually Wilson found himself in the Shadow Cabinet, first to replace Bevan and then in 1955 as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under Hugh Gaitskell.
Between 1959 and 1963, he was Chairman of the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee.
In July 1960s, Nye Bevan died, and Wilson positioned himself as a replacement leader for the left leaning side of the Labour party. He unsuccessfully challenged Gaitskell’s leadership in November 1960; moved to Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1961; then lost his challenge for the deputy leadership to George Brown in 1962.
Videos of Wilson 1963
Leader of the Opposition (1963-64)
In January 1963, Gaitskell died, and Wilson won his bid for the leadership against George Brown and James Callaghan.
“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”.Harold Wilson, Labour Party Annual Conference 1963
Prime Minister (1964)
The ministerial sex scandal of the Profuma affair severely damaged the Conservatives in the 1964 General Election, but even so Labour only won by a majority of four seats!
Harold Wilson, at the age of 48, was now the youngest British Prime Minister for 70 years.
Videos of Wilson 1964 & 1965
Increased Majority As Prime Minister (1966)
Edward Heath became leader of the Conservative Party in 1965, the same year as Labour’s majority reduced to just one single seat. So when Wilson called a General Election in March 1966, it was a gamble. However, the Labour majority increased significantly to 96 seats.
Videos of Wilson 1966
⏯ Watch: Wilson Visits The White House (1966)
⏯ Watch: TUC Conference In Blackpool (1966)
⏯ Watch: Wilson In Moscow (1966)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Meets Soviet Leaders (1966)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson Visits Aberfan (1966)
⏯ Watch: Wilson In South Africa (1966)
⏯ Watch: Common Market Meeting In Rome (1967)
⏯ Watch: Common Market Talks In France (1967)
⏯ Watch: EEC Talks In The Netherlands (1967)
⏯ Watch: Common Market Talks In Bonn (1967)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Vietnam Negotiations with USSR (1967)
⏯ Watch: The State Opening Of Parliament (1960s)
⏯ Watch: Prime Minister Harold Wilson In Moscow (1968)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson In Moscow Talks (1968)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Attends Marriage Of His Son Robin (1968)
⏯ Watch: President Nixon Visits England (1969)
⏯ Watch: Niger President Diori In London (1969)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Meets Erlander In Stockholm (1969)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Conference Speech (1969)
⏯ Watch: Wilson And Heath Walk Up Steps (1969)
⏯ Watch: Israeli Leader Meir At 10 Downing Street (1969)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson Arrives In Canada (1970)
Return To Opposition (1970-1974)
Signs of improvement in the economy and poll predictions suggesting a strong 12% lead for Labour made the outcome of the 1970 General Election surprising, when Ted Heath and the Conservatives won power. Furthermore, the election saw Labour’s vote share fall to its lowest since 1935, and several prominent Labour figures lost their seats, including the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, George Brown.
Wilson was president of the Royal Statistical Society in 1972–73.
In 1973, Harold Wilson fell into the sea as he tried to board a motorboat from a dinghy during a holiday on the Isles of Scilly. Unable to get into the boat and affected by the cold water, he was apparently in great peril. Luckily, passers-by came to his rescue.
Wilson Videos 1970 – 1973
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson Starts Election Campaign (1970)
⏯ Watch: Election Campaign Interview With Dimbleby (1970)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Election Campaigning In Merseyside (1970)
⏯ Watch: Royal Farewell Dinner At 10 Downing Street (1970)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson: Number 10 Downing Street (1970)
⏯ Watch: Protest At Bradford University (1971)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Speech On Rhodesia Stance (1972)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Labour Party Conference Speech (1972)
⏯ Watch: Manny Shinwell: Pipeman Of The Year (1972)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Speaks About Belfast Bombs (1972)
⏯ Watch: Wilson On Ulster And Gun Licences (1972)
⏯ Watch: Wilson On The Northern Ireland Situation (1972)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Talks About Beating The Crisis (1973)
Turmoil For Ted Heath (1970-1974)
Like many other western countries, Britain struggled with the economic conditions of the 1970s.
The 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement – whereby countries promised that their central banks would maintain fixed exchange rates between their currencies and the dollar, replacing the gold standard with the U.S. dollar as the global currency – came to an end, following President Nixon’s announcement of his New Economic Policy (“Nixon shock”) on August 15, 1971.
Then the oil crisis began in October 1973. Members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo, targeted at nations perceived as supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In Britain, this led to a shortage of power for vehicles, homes and workplaces, and inflation quickly became a problem.
Combined with a confrontation with the coal miners, Britain had to ration electricity, and imposed the Three-Day Week at midnight on 31 December 1973. Hospitals, supermarkets and newspaper printing presses and other essential services were exempt, but everyone else was plunged into darkness after their allotted hours. Even television companies ceased broadcasting at 10.30 pm. The Three-Day Week restrictions ended on 7 March 1974, the same month the oil crisis ceased.
Snap Election 1974
In the meantime, on 28 February 1974, Ted Heath called a snap election.
With modern British homes and workplaces denied access to electricity for more than half the week for more than two months, the Conservatives somewhat surprisingly won more votes than any other party.
But because of the distribution of those votes, they won fewer seats than Labour and became a hung Parliament. Ted Heath was unable to persuade the Liberals to form a coalition.
Wilson 1974 Election Videos
⏯ Watch: Wilson Speech On Looming Election (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson & Heath Electioneering In Wales (1974)
⏯ Watch: Heath & Wilson Election Campaigning (1974)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson: Banking Profits Interview (1974)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson Interview: Common Market (1974)
⏯ Watch: Opposition Leader Wilson On Price Rises (1974)
⏯ Watch: Heath And Wilson Vote In General Election (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Back – Averting Hung Parliament (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Cabinet Leaves Meeting (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Visits Northern Ireland (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Election Campaign Speech (1974)
Prime Minister Again (1974-1976)
It was into this tumultuous period that Harold Wilson returned to number 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister of a minority Labour Government on 4 March 1974.
Another General Election on 10 October 1974 saw him remain at the helm with a three seat majority.
Wilson Videos Post Election 1974
⏯ Watch: Portuguese Leader Soares Meets Wilson (1974)
⏯ Watch: Dr Henry Kissinger At No 10 Downing Street (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson And Callaghan In Paris For Talks (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Addresses TUC (1974)
⏯ Watch: PM Harold Wilson Visits Leith, Edinburgh (1974)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson Arrives At 10 Downing Street (1974)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson’s Address To The Nation (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Meets D’Estaing In Paris (1974)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Speaks About UK Joining The EEC (1974)
EC/EEC Referendum (1975)
In its February 1974 manifesto, Labour pledged to renegotiate the terms of British accession to the European Community (EC), and to hold a Referendum on whether Britain should stay in on the new terms.
The United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum was also known variously as the Referendum on the European Community (Common Market), the Common Market referendum, and the EEC membership referendum.
The referendum, held on 5th June 1975, resulted in a near two-to-one majority in favour of Britain remaining in the EC/EEC.
Wilson Videos 1975
⏯ Watch: Wilson With Gerald Ford At The White House (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Meets Brezhnev in Moscow (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Speaks On Soviet TV During Trip (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Speech About May General Election (1975)
⏯ Watch: Doomed Britain: Wilson Press Conference (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Interview On State Of The UK (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Interview About EEC (1975)
⏯ Watch: EEC Referendum (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson’s Speech About Inflation (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson On Measures To Combat Inflation (1975)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Speaks On Anti-Inflation Plans On TV (1975)
⏯ Watch: EEC Summit: North Sea Oil (1975)
Why did Harold Wilson resign in 1976?
On 16 March 1976, Harold Wilson announced his resignation as Prime Minister. He left 10 Downing Street on 5 April 1976).
Why did Wilson resign in 1976? He claimed physical and mental exhaustion, and a longstanding plan to retire at 60. To cope with the stress, he’d started drinking brandy during the day. Wilson also suffered symptoms which were later diagnosed as colon cancer, and possibly recognised the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Wilson’s Resignation In 1976 Videos
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson Resigns (1976)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Hosts Monarch For Farewell Dinner (1976)
⏯ Watch: Wilson Moves Out Of 10 Downing Street (1976)
⏯ Watch: Iconic Images of Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Who was the prime minister after Wilson?
Harold Wilson resigned as Prime Minister and Leader of the Labour Party in 1976 and was replaced by James Callaghan, who defeated five other candidates. Callaghan became the only Prime Minister to have held all three leading Cabinet positions—Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary—prior to becoming Prime Minister.
Friday Night, Saturday Morning (1976)
In addition to hosting a pilot episode of an interview/chat show programmes, Wilson hosted two editions of the BBC chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Unfortunately, he didn’t show aptitude as a presenter.
However, he made two comedic appearances on the Morecambe and Wise Show, at Christmas 1978 and again in 1980. Also, in 1968 he played himself as Prime Minister in an Anglia Television drama, Inside Story.
Backbenches In Parliament (1976 – 1983)
Wilson could have received the peerage customarily offered to retired Prime Ministers, and moved immediately to the House of Lords. But he wished to continue his work as an MP, so he received a Knight of the Garter and continued to represent his constituency in the House of Commons until 1983.
⏯ Watch: Zambian President: Wilson On Rhodesia (1978)
Harold Wilson In The House Of Lords (1983)
The constituency of Huyton was dissolved under 1983 boundary changes, so Wilson lost his seat in the House of Commons. Therefore he accepted a life peerage and transferred to the House of Lords as Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, a title chosen as a nod to his native Yorkshire.
Wilson’s final speech in the House of Lords in 1986 was to comments as an elder brother of Trinity House during a debate on marine pilotage, (manoeuvring ships through dangerous or congested waters).
Harold Wilson attended the House of Lords for the final time on 27, April 1994. It was just over a year before his death.
Where And When did Harold Wilson die?
Harold Wilson died peacefully in his sleep around midnight on 24 May 1995, in London. He was 79 years old and suffering from both colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. His memorial service, attended by royalty and notable politicians including several Prime Ministers, took place at Westminster Abbey on 13 July 1995.
Where is Harold Wilson buried?
On 6 June 1995, Harold Wilson was buried at St Mary’s Old Church on St Mary’s Island, part of the Isles of Scilly. Harold and his wife Mary had spent many holidays in the area, first staying in B&B accommodation and then in their small bungalow.
His epitaph is Tempus Imperator Rerum, which means Time the Commander of Things.
Footage Analysing Wilson & His Political Career
⏯ Watch: Lady Falkender Interview: On Harold Wilson (1984)
⏯ Watch: Excerpts Of Harold Wilson’s Political Life
⏯ Watch: Channel 4 Secret History On Wilson (1996)
⏯ Watch: BBC TV: Plot Against Wilson (2006)
⏯ Watch: BBC’s Harold Wilson Night Part 1 (2013)
⏯ Watch: BBC Wilson Night, Part 2 (2013)
⏯ Watch: BBC Wilson Night, Part 3 (2013)
⏯ Watch: Alan Johnson On The Legacy Of Wilson (2016)
⏯ Watch: Harold Wilson’s Centenary In Huddersfield (2016)
⏯ Watch: Did Queen Elizabeth II Like Harold Wilson?