Harold Wilson: A week is a long time in politics

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Harold Wilson (1916-95) served twice as Labour Prime Minister during one of the greatest periods of social and industrial change in the twentieth century.

During his first period in office, 1964-70, Wilson aimed to modernise Britain by harnessing the ‘white heat’ of technology. His government abolished capital punishment and liberalised laws on censorship, divorce, abortion and homosexuality. Crucial steps were also taken towards ending discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, and the Open University was created.

Wilson’s second term as Prime Minister, 1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty. However, with his government battling the UK’s deep set economic problems, Wilson’s last years in power were marked by economic and industrial crises.

Harold Wilson Harold Wilson
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Lord Wilson of Rievaulx  Harold Wilson Lord Wilson of Rievaulx Harold Wilson
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Harold Wilson first entered Parliament as MP for Ormskirk in the landslide Labour victory of 1945. He was immediately appointed to the government by Prime Minister Clement Attlee as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works. In 1947, as President of the Board of Trade, Wilson became the youngest member of the Cabinet in the 20th century.

With Labour out of office in 1951, Wilson was appointed as Shadow Chancellor. He served in the role with distinction for a decade before being made Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1961.

This photograph shows Wilson in 1963, when he became Leader of the Labour Party after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell. Labour won the following year’s General Election with a slim majority of just four seats and Wilson became Prime Minister for the first time. In the lead up to the election he is supposed to have coined the famous phrase, ‘A week is a long time in politics.’

The Labour majority was increased to ninety-eight after Wilson called an election in 1966. This made it easier for him to pass the reforming legislation that came to define his first period in office.