Barry Sheerman: Let us honour Harold Wilson. the giant cut down in his prime

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I HAVE a great affinity with Harold Wilson, because he was born in my constituency and was educated in Huddersfield.

I knew him well towards the end of his life, and I was privileged to have him campaign for me in the 1979 general election. Many colleagues have talked to me about the fact that Harold’s memory has not been very well documented. Some have said that his contribution to British politics, the British Parliament and British life has been undervalued, under-rated and forgotten.

This very much neglected man was a great Prime Minister. People might remember the celebrations of Denis Healey’s life only two or three weeks ago. Denis lived a vigorous life to a great old age and, in a sense, could look after and defend his record. He did that brilliantly right to the end of his life.

Harold was cruelly struck down by a wicked onset of illness in his late 50s, when he was in his prime. He had to retire at the age of 60, stunning the political world and most people, who could not quite understand what was going on. He was a very ill man, and the nature of his illness was kept quiet out of respect for his wife, Mary, and his sons Robin and Giles.

This is our opportunity, because March 11, 2016, will be the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth. A small committee of MPs want to ensure that all Parliamentarians are aware of that date and that we honour his memory in a significant way, not only through lectures or great events. You might remember my campaign three years ago for there to be a proper statue of Harold Wilson in the precincts of Westminster. It failed, because the Speaker’s Art Fund turned us down. Let us do it again, because it is quite wrong that in the Members’ Lobby there is just a small head and shoulders of Harold Wilson. It is about time we honoured him with a full statue.

When I first joined the House of Commons, I tried to look up Harold’s maiden speech, but he never made one; he was a Minister on the day he was elected. He was the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century when he became President of the Board of Trade – what a remarkable man. Then, of course, when Hugh Gaitskell died,, Harold Wilson became the leader of the Labour party. In that very year, 1963, he makes the “white heat of technology” speech to the Scarborough Labour party conference, that transforms how people think about the future of our country’s economy. He tells us how unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are going to go, and that the future of our country is in science and technology. He talks about understanding how the future is going to dramatically change and how we must prepare Britain to be a modern country. He says: “Why are only five per cent of people going to university? Why shouldn’t it be 10 per cent? Why is the country run by a few people who went to public school and posh universities? Why can’t everyone have the chance to go to university? Why don’t we have more scientists, people who know about stuff and good managers to run our country?” That reminds me of some of the arguments we are having today.

Harold was also a brilliant Parliamentarian. He had a brilliant ability for repartée, which was exhibited in his great speeches during elections. There was a famous occasion when he thought a Conservative supporter had thrown an egg at him during a speech at a big public meeting. He said: “In five years’ time, if the Tories win the election, people won’t be able to afford to buy an egg”, which although I thought it rather harsh, was very funny. He did not only have funny repartee. He said – these words leap off the page – that the Labour party “is a moral crusade or it is nothing”.

That was matched by him saying “the only limits of power are the bounds of belief”, which is absolutely wonderful.

We must remember that we want this centenary to be about more than just saying: “Yes, I have written to the Speaker and to the director-general of the BBC and others, and we are getting this concerted campaign to have a proper response.” We want to build something living. For example, the vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, Bob Cryan, is launching 50 Harold Wilson scholarships during the centenary year. I hope that that will be replicated in other parts of the country and in different ways. Later, I am meeting the vice-chancellor of the Open University, which, again, is something that Harold Wilson started. The list goes on and on.

This issue is not party political. It is about the ability to recognise a man who was struck down by a vicious, aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. These days we are much more open about that challenge to health. There is more understanding of how awful it can be. One of the most brilliant young men of his generation had his mature life in politics snatched away by a form of that cruel disease. We are much more aware of this condition than we were 20 or 30 years ago.

I urge all Parliamentarians to join us in celebrating his life on and around March 11, 2016.

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield who spoke in a Parliamentary debate calling for the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth to be commemorated. This is an edited version.