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Prime Minister, 1964-1970 and 1974-1976
James Harold Wilson was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, on March 11, 1916. He was educated at Wirral Grammar School in Bebington and Royds Hall Secondary School in Huddersfield. He graduated from Oxford University in 1937 and taught economics there for two years. As fellow of Oxford's University College, Wilson collaborated with Sir William Beveridge on the latter's 1942 report on social insurance and other welfare issues.
During World War II Wilson served as Director of Economics and Statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. In 1945 he was elected to Parliament as the Labour MP for Ormskirk (he later represented Huyton on Merseyside). Later that same year he became Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Works. He was named Secretary of Overseas Trade in 1947, and became president of the Board of Trade later that same year. In 1951, Wilson resigned from the Board of Trade in protest of Prime Minister Hugh Gaitskell's budget plan, which introduced health service charges to finance British participation in the Korean War. Throughout the 1950s he served as the Labour Party's spokesman on finance and foreign affairs. He became a member of the Labour Party's parliamentary committee in 1954, and became party leader upon Gaitskell's sudden death in 1963.
Wilson became Prime Minister when he led the Labour Party to a four-seat victory over the Conservative Party in the 1964 general election, replacing Sir Alec Douglas-Home. His party won a far more comfortable majority in 1966.
The primary domestic issue faced by Prime Minister Wilson was a general economic decline, which he was unable to stop. He was also unable to convince Britain to join the European Community, which eroded the nation's international standing. But he did have some successes, including establishment of the Open University, liberalized laws affecting homeosexuals and obscene publications, and the ending of capital punishment.
In addition to affairs within Britain, Wilson had to deal with a white minority breakaway regime in the African colony of Rhodesia. His effort to topple the regime by way of economic sanctions instead of military intervention failed, and the colony declared its independence in 1965.
On the international front, Wilson was a proponent of arms control and a more general detente with Moscow, positions which were generally favored by British citizens. But his support of the United States efforts in Vietnam ran counter to general feelings, despite his refusal to provide British troops for that effort.
As Britain's economic troubles continued, the Labour Party lost its majority in Parliament in 1970, and Wilson was replaced as Prime Minister by Conservative leader Edward Heath.
The Labour Party regained its majority in 1974, and Wilson became Prime Minister again. His chief accomplishment during his second tenure in office was the holding of a national referendum which confirmed Britain's membership in the European Economic Community. Although Britain's economic troubles continued, many in the nation were surprised when Wilson suddenly announced in 1976 that he was stepping down and retiring from public office.
Wilson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976. He was made a life peer in 1983 and entered the House of Lords, but rarely appeared in public after 1985. He died in London on May 24, 1995, after a ten-year struggle with cancer.
Harold Wilson was married to Gladys Mary Baldwin, with whom he had two children.
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This page was last updated on May 25, 2017.