Harold Wilson was born in Huddersfield in 1916. He was educated at Oxford University where he was influenced by his history tutor, G. D. H. Cole. He worked as a research assistant under William Beveridge at the London School of Economics before becoming a lecturer in economics at Oxford. During the Second World War he was director of economics and statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
Wilson, a member of the Labour Party, was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Ormskirk and was elected to the House of Commons in the 1945 General Election. Wilson was only 29 but the new prime minister, Clement Attlee appointed him as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Two years later, Wilson entered the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. He therefore became the youngest minister since William Pitt.
The National Insurance Act created the structure of the Welfare State and after the passing of the National Health Service Act in 1948, people in Britain were provided with free diagnosis and treatment of illness, at home or in hospital, as well as dental and ophthalmic services. However, Wilson, Aneurin Bevan and John Freeman resigned from the government on 21st April when Hugh Gaitskell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that he intended to introduce measures that would force people to pay half the cost of dentures and spectacles and a one shilling prescription charge.
When Clement Attlee resigned in 1955, Hugh Gaitskell became the new leader of the Labour Party. After the death of Aneurin Bevan in 1960, Wilson became the main figure on the left of the party. The following year he challenged Gaitskill for the leadership but was defeated by 166 votes to 81.
During the 1964 General Election campaign Wilson promised to modernize Britain. Making full use of his academic background and poking fun at the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home, Wilson was able to obtain a five-seat majority in the House of Commons. After the 1966 General Election this majority was increased to 97.
Some members of MI5 believed that Wilson was a Soviet agent. Anatoli Golitsyn also told them that Hugh Gaitskell had been poisoned by the KGB. Peter Wright, a senior figure in MI5, explained in his biography Spycatcher: "The story started with the premature death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. Gaitskell was Wilson's predecessor as Leader of the Labour Party. I knew him personally and admired him greatly."
Wilson was fairly successful in his promise to modernize Britain. His government brought an end to capital punishment, reformed the divorce laws and legalized abortion and homosexuality. He had more difficulty with the economy and in November, 1967, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, was forced to devalue the pound.
In 1968 Cecil King, the publisher of the Daily Mirror, became involved with Peter Wright of MI5 in a plot to bring down the government of Wilson. Wright claimed in his memoirs, Spycatcher (1987) that "Cecil King, who was a longtime agent of ours, made it clear that he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction."
Hugh Cudlipp arranged for King to meet Lord Mountbatten, the recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, who had been privately highly critical of the defence cuts made by the government. Solly Zuckerman, the government's scientific adviser, was also invited to attend the meeting on 8th May. According to Cecil King's account in his memoirs, Without Fear or Favour (1971), when he told Mountbatten of his plans, he replied that "there is anxiety about the government at the palace, and that the queen has had an unprecedented number of letters protesting about Wilson".
According to Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, the authors of Smear! Wilson and the Secret State (1992): "King then delivered a version of his preoccupations at the time - approaching economic collapse and ineffective government, with a Prime Minister no longer able to control events. Public order was about to break down leading to social chaos. there was a likelihood of bloodshed in the streets." At this point Zuckerman got up and said: "This is rank treachery. All this talk of machine guns at street corners is appalling." He also told Mountbatten to have nothing to do with the conspiracy to overthrow Wilson.
Two days later, King published an article in the Daily Mirror under his own name entitled "Enough is enough". It read: "Mr Wilson and his government have lost all credit and we are now threatened with the greatest financial crisis in history. It is not to be resolved by lies about our reserves but only by a fresh start under a fresh leader." Three weeks later the directors of International Publishing Corporation unanimously dismissed King.
By the end of the 1960s, with unemployment and inflation increasing, Wilson's popularity declined and the Conservative Party, led by Edward Heath, won the 1970 General Election. Heath successfully led Britain into the European Economic Community (ECC). However, many in his party was unhappy with this policy and it created deep divisions that lasted for over thirty years.
Edward Heath also came into conflict with the trade unions over his attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy. His attempts to legislate against unofficial strikes led to industrial disputes. In 1973 a miners' work-to-rule led to regular power cuts and the imposition of a three day week. Heath called a general election in 1974 on the issue of "who rules". He failed to get a majority and Wilson and the Labour Party were returned to power.
When Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974 Peter Wright once again became involved in a plot against the Labour government. It was suggested that MI5 files on Wilson should be leaked to the press. Wright was eventually persuaded by Victor Rothschild not to take part in the conspiracy. Rothschild warned him that he was likely to get a caught and if that happened he would lose his job and pension.
In 1975 Wilson decided to hold a referendum on membership of the European Economic Community. Wilson allowed his Cabinet to support both the Yes and No campaigns and this led to a bitter split in the party.
Wilson's government again had trouble with the economy. Faced with the prospect of having to get a loan from the International Monetary Fund, Wilson came under increasing attack from all sections of the Labour Party. Wilson was also suffering from the early signs of Alzheimer's Disease and in 1976 decided to resign from office and was replaced by James Callaghan.
Wilson was knighted in 1976 and was created Baron of Rievaulx in 1983. Harold Wilson died in 1995.