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Landon Lecture Series on Public Issues

The Landon Lecture Series
Kansas State University
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Sir Harold Wilson

Sir Harold Wilson

Former British prime minister

Wilson was born into a Labour Party family. His father had been a Liberal before changing to Labour. He attended local grammar schools before winning a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford in 1934, graduating in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He became a lecturer in Economics at New College in 1937 and then went on to take up a post at University College.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Wilson tried to enter the armed forces but was classed as a specialist and directed to the Civil Service. He spent most of the war as an economist and statistician.

He fought the 1945 general election for the seat of Ormskirk and won. To his surprise he was immediately appointed to the government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. Two years later he became Secretary for Overseas Trade. In October 1947 he was appointed Prersident of the Board of Trade. In this post he took a lead in abolishing some of the wartime rationing which was still in force.

Wilson became known as a left winger and this was reinforced in 1951 when he joined Aneurin Bevin in resigning from the government in protest at the introduction of NHS medical charges, a decision forced on the government to help pay for the costs of the Korean War.

After the Labour Party lost the general election in 1951 he remained out of Labour's shadow cabinet but by 1954 he was back. He proved an effective shadow minister and his growing reputation led him to make an unsuccessful challenge for the Labour Party leadership in 1960. He tried for the deputy leadership in 1962 and was defeated in this contest.

Gaitskell died unexpectedly in January 1963 and Wilson fought George Brown for the vacant leadership position and won. In 1964 he won a narrow majority in the general election and took the Labour party back into power. His majority of five meant he held another election in 1966 which he won with a large majority.

At home his premiership was marked by a devaluation of the pound and a major defence review. In foreign affairs he was preoccupied with problems in Rhodesia and South Africa. Although he gave diplomatic support to the Americans over Vietnam he managed to refuse all their requests to become militarily involved.

With industrial relations problems at the forefront of his government's problems there was a sense of insecurity. It appeared in June 1970 that the government's popularity had improved, so Wilson called a snap election. Much to his surprise, and almost everyone else's, he lost. Despite this defeat he managed to survive as leader of the Labour Party and returned to power in 1974 when he defeated Edward Heath's Conservative party.

During his second term the Labour government re-negotiated the terms for Britain in the European Economic Community and put the results to a referendum in 1975. A majority voted in favour of remaining in the Common Market.

Earlier in his political career he had written a paper advocating a united Ireland. He did not carry this through to government but nevertheless Northern Ireland was a constant problem for him. In May 1974 a Ulster Workers' Strike resulted in the collapse of the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive.

Less that two years later, on 16 March 1976, he shocked the nation by announcing his resignation as Prime Minister and his intention to retire from politics altogether. Although he claimed at the time he had always intended to retire at sixty it may well be that he was aware of the early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

After a Labour party election James Callaghan was elected as party leader to replace him. As Wilson did not want to give up being a Member of Parliament he was not given a peerage until 1983 when he retired from politics.

As his mental condition became more apparent he withdrew from public life and was rarely seen after 1985. He died ten years later at the age of 79.

Sir Harold Wilson
Landon Lecture
Sept. 30, 1981

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