How Yorkshire’s Harold Wilson reinvented politics

His father had been an industrial pharmacist in Huddersfield so he knew a bit about chemical reaction, and when Harold Wilson came to power in 1964 it was with a mission to modernise Britain by harnessing what he called the white heat of technology.

British Labour politician Harold Wilson, newly appointed President of the Board of Trade, with Sir Stafford Cripps, former President of the Board of Trade, newly appointed Minister for Economic Affairs, at the opening of the staff canteen at the Board of Trade.  Original Publication: People Disc - HL0252   (Photo by Edward G Malindine/Getty Images)
British Labour politician Harold Wilson, newly appointed President of the Board of Trade, with Sir Stafford Cripps, former President of the Board of Trade, newly appointed Minister for Economic Affairs, at the opening of the staff canteen at the Board of Trade. Original Publication: People Disc - HL0252 (Photo by Edward G Malindine/Getty Images)

But though he courted The Beatles at Downing Street and his Government liberalised the laws on censorship, divorce, abortion and homosexuality, he was at heart a traditionalist, grounded in his Yorkshire roots.

An outstanding student who won a scholarship to his local grammar school and went to Oxford on a county grant, he was considered by his contemporary and biographer, Roy Jenkins, to be the intellectual equal of Peel, Gladstone and Asquith.

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But Wilson was also a populist, and after 13 years of Conservative rule, he seized what he saw as a national desire to shake Britain out of its deferential past and embrace the swinging Sixties.

22nd October 1947: British Labour politician and future Prime Minister Harold Wilson playing with his three-year-old son Robin. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Arguably the first politician to court a TV “image” of himself, he wore a signature Gannex mac, manufactured in the West Riding, and did little to discourage the impersonations of him by Mike Yarwood and others. It was new ground – only Peter Cook had tried it before, when Harold Macmillan was still in office.

But Wilson’s modernisation programme was damaged by Britain’s lack of economic clout and the inevitability of having to devalue the pound – for which he paid the price at the 1970 election.

He was back four years later, though, and while his second term saw reforms in education, health and housing, it was also characterised by economic and industrial unrest.

His sudden resignation in 1976 marked the start of a long decline in his health. He was elevated to the Lords in 1983 but died 12 years later, at 79, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

25th February 1963: Harold Wilson, then newly appointed leader of the opposition, sits with his pipe in hand at the House of Commons in the room where the shadow cabinet meets. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

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19th March 1964: Labour leader Harold Wilson, centre, speaks to John Lennon (1940 - 1980), of the pop group The Beatles, as he presents the award for 'Show Business Personality of the Year' to the group at the Variety Club for Great Britain Show Business Awards luncheon held at the Dorchester Hotel, London. (Photo by Kent Gavin/Keystone/Getty Images)

James Mitchinson

Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street, London, October 23rd 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson and his family, relaxing on a rowing boat in the Scilly Isles, August 14th 1963. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Leader of the Opposition Harold Wilson in bed in a sleeper, studying a government report in a moment of rest during a bust week in parliament, London, May 6th 1963. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Labour Party politicians joining hands and singing Auld Land Syne; (L-R) Alice Bacon, Harold Wilson, Mr Greenwood, A L Williams and D Davies, at the conference in Scarborough, October 5th 1963. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Labour Party leader Harold Wilson, smoking his pipe as he arrives at Admiralty House, to receive his copy of the Denning Report, London, September 17th 1963. (Photo by Moore/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Labour Party leader Harold Wilson smoking his pipe, at a press conference, 1963. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
President of the Board of Trade Harold Wilson playing with his young son Robin, 1947. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
Portrait of President of the Board of Trade Harold Wilson, with his wife Mary and young son Robin at their home, 1947. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British Labour Party politician Harold Wilson (1916-1995) pictured lighting a pipe with his wife Mary Wilson after being selected as the new party leader following the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell, London 15th February 1963. (Photo by Bryan Wharton/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)