Biography of Harold Wilson
James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British Labour politician and Leader of the Labour Party. He was twice Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1960s and 1970s, winning four general elections, including a minority government after the February 1974 general election resulted in a hung parliament. He is the most recent British Prime Minister to have served non-consecutive terms.
Entering Parliament in 1945, Harold Wilson was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the Secretary for Overseas Trade two years later and finally being appointed to the Cabinet as the President of the Board of Trade in 1947. In the Labour Shadow Cabinet he served first as the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1955 to 1961, and then as the Shadow Foreign Secretary until being elected party leader in 1963.
Wilson first served as Prime Minister in the 1960s, during a period of low unemployment and relative economic prosperity (though also of significant problems with the UK's external balance of payments). His second term in office began in 1974, when a period of economic crisis was beginning to hit most Western countries (see 1973 oil crisis, Stagflation, Eurosclerosis). On both occasions, economic concerns were to prove a significant constraint on his governments' ambitions. Wilson's own approach to socialism placed emphasis on efforts to increase 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 left's traditional goal of promoting wider public ownership of industry. While he did not challenge the Party constitution's stated dedication to nationalisation head-on, he took little action to pursue it. 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.
Though generally not at the top of Wilson's personal areas of priority, his first period in office was notable for substantial legal changes in a number of social areas, including the liberalisation of laws on censorship, divorce, homosexuality, immigration, and abortion, as well as the abolition of capital punishment, 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 officially resisted US pressure to involve Britain and send British troops. Nonetheless, his stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance remained largely unfulfilled.