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Harold Wilson: The winner by Nick Thomas-Symonds

25 November 2022

Anthony Phillips learns more about a Labour Prime Minister’s career

AS BRITAIN suffers her fifth Prime Minister in six years — all from the same party — it is more than ap­­propriate to re-evaluate the Prime Minister who won four of five General Elections, and the only Prime Minister in recent times to serve again after losing office.

Mention of Harold Wilson usually evokes ribald references to his love of HP sauce and Gannex raincoats, as well as scorn for his disastrous resignation honours, the Lavender List. He is still seen by his critics as a political opportunist. Thomas-Symonds sets out to correct this image, asserting that Wilson can be credited as the creator of “modern Britain”.

The author identifies two child­hood experiences that were to influence Wilson’s political life: his Congregationalist background, and the evil of unemployment. Politics for Wilson would remain “a moral crusade”. He describes Wilson’s rapid political rise: an MP at 29; in the Cabinet at 31.

Two early actions taken by Wilson ensured both his physical and political welfare: the purchase of a small bungalow on the Isles of Scilly, and the appointment of Marcia Williams as his “right-hand woman”. Despite the gossip and her disruptive nature, her importance cannot be overestimated.
On succeeding Gaitskell, Wilson set about portraying Labour as the party of the future, crucially in his “white heat” speech to the 1963 party conference. Socialism was to be restated “in terms of the scientific revolution”. The subsequent election meant the end of 13 years of Tory rule. Immediately, the Government set about making Britain a more humane society, enacting laws on race relations and abolishing capital punishment.

In foreign affairs, Wilson imposed sanctions on breakaway Rhodesia, but drew the line at using force. Similarly, he refused President Johnson’s request to commit British soldiers to Vietnam, yet without damaging the Alliance. He had, though, no alternative but to send troops into Northern Ireland, guar­anteeing that they would be with­drawn once order was restored. They remained for decades.

Although also a grammar-school boy, too, Heath totally lacked Wilson’s common touch, epitomised by the award of the MBE to the Beatles. The 1966 General Election resulted in a landslide victory for Labour.

Thomas-Symonds argues that that victory was squandered by Wilson’s failure swiftly to follow it up, most notably over devaluation, which, in the end, became inevitable, and was not helped by the Prime Min­ister’s “pound in your pocket” broad­cast.

Nevertheless, the author points to the many government reforms that civilised Britain in ways that we now take for granted. Among these were further regulations on racial discrim­­ination, abolition of corporal pun­ishment in prisons, legalising abortion and same-sex relations, reforming divorce laws, and the creation of the Open University.

Further, the Government could be proud of its record on housing, social services, health, and its help for the poorest, promoting equal pay for women and attempting to end the stigma attached to those on state benefits by recognising that the re­­cipients had rights.

During the latter years of Wilson’s first period as Prime Minister, his authority was tested by Cabinet col­­leagues and press barons alike. But, as Thomas-Symons points out, Wilson exhibited throughout these testing times extraordinary resili­ence and lightness of touch, even in the gravest situations. Although he survived, his attempt to reform the trade unions failed miserably.

Surprisingly defeated in the 1970 election, Wilson spent much of his time in opposition preventing Labour from becoming an anti-Common Market party. It was, though, the chaotic economic situation resulting in the three-day working week which, in the snap election of 1974, brought Wilson back to Downing Street. Rapidly, he settled the miners’ strike and restored a normal work­­ing week.
Despite the turmoil in Wilson’s private office, and the lack of a parliamentary majority, Thomas- Symons again spells out the signi­ficant reforms that the Government secured in legislation on safety at work, employment protection, and sex discrimination.

Wilson’s final years in office, after his fourth election victory, were dominated by the debate on membership of the EEC, leading up to the Referendum. Nowhere was Wilson’s political acumen more evident than in the face of a divided Labour Party masterminding the campaign that led to a resounding “Yes” — something for which, the author argues, Wilson has never been given the credit that he de­­serves. In similar vein, he planned his own resignation, leaving office at a time of his own choosing.

Thomas-Symonds then sets out those issues that all too quickly diminished Wilson’s reputation, especially “his apparent obsession with the activities of the secret services”. Finally, he describes Wilson’s active retirement, sadly cut short by dementia.

In this riveting and very readable biography, Thomas-Symonds con­firms that Wilson’s governments created a kinder, fairer, and forward-thinking Britain. Above all, as any­one on Scilly would agree, Wilson was a man of the people.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Harold Wilson: The winner
Nick Thomas-Symonds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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