Barry Sheerman: Britain’s debt to Harold Wilson, the PM who saw a better future

Harold Wilson on Blackpool Promenade with his wife, Mary and son Giles before attending the TUC conference in 1964.
Harold Wilson on Blackpool Promenade with his wife, Mary and son Giles before attending the TUC conference in 1964.
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AFTER many years in which Harold Wilson’s reputation has been diminished by a mixture of neglect and ignorance, today’s centenary of his birth gives us the opportunity to evaluate the man and his contribution.

As a statesman, politician and brilliant leader of the Labour Party, I believe he will come through with flying colours. He was born on March 11, 1916, in the middle of the First World War in Huddersfield.

He was always proud to call himself a Yorkshireman. When he went to the House of Lords, he took the title Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.

I first met Harold Wilson when he visited Huddersfield to support me in the 1979 General Election campaign. After a few hours I came to appreciate his generosity of spirit, kindness, wit and ability to enthuse an audience.

Harold arrived to the sound of the Paddock Youth Brass Band playing On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at as I met him at Huddersfield’s beautiful station. His first remark as we were driven past the further education college was “they’ve got my appendix in there”. Of course, the college was on the site of the old Huddersfield hospital.

In a market walkabout, Harold was able to identify and remember people who he grew up and went to school with in the village of Cowlersley, or fellow students from Royds Hall Grammar School where he excelled and gained his School Certificate.

True, his memory was not what it used to be and on several occasions he produced a postcard of the famous title-winning Huddersfield Town football team of 1924-25 of which he was a lifelong supporter. He explained he had shown Leonid Brezhnev this photograph on a visit to the Soviet Union. Brezhnez thought Harold had wanted his autograph and signed the back of the postcard.

Using notes, Harold made a very professional speech in the evening.

Whenever Harold came to Yorkshire, his wife Mary would know that even with his health deteriorating, Huddersfield would be a nurturing environment for its well-loved and cherished son.

In 1983, local businessmen John and Joe Marsden asked me to see if there was any possibility that Lord Wilson would open their new hotel.

Mary and Harold agreed with alacrity and the opening was a blissful occasion where huge crowds turned out to meet Harold and, in turn, he was very excited at meeting several of the stars of Last of the Summer Wine.

At the end of an exhausting day, it was discovered that the red ribbon carefully prepared for Harold to cut was still in pristine condition. In the excitement, we had neglected this key duty and so my wife Pam happily performed the task out of sight of the local media.

On this his centenary year, many are evaluating Harold’s career and his contribution as a national and international politician and statesman.

He helped Britain to grow up to be a mature, tolerant and civilised society, where women and gay people had equal rights, where censorship and the death penalty no longer existed and public participation in the arts, entertainment and design were encouraged.

His Government presided over the opening up of our society. His Government massively increased access to education by opening 30 polytechnics, many of which have become very successful universities and are the economic lifeblood of many towns and cities, including Huddersfield.

He founded the Open University to give adults who missed out on higher education a chance to obtain an education and get on in life.

As an international statesman, Harold Wilson was a good ally and a sensible and cautious leader: he valued our membership of Nato and secured the long term membership of the emerging European Union by holding the 1975 referendum on membership.

Harold valued the “special relationship” with America, but had a sound rapport with the Soviet Union whose leadership he knew well, and a good sense of the growing importance and power of Communist China. However, as Gerald Kaufman, Harold’s then press secretary told me, when US President Lyndon Johnson begged him to send over a token force to support the US in Vietnam, Harold ended the conversation with “not even a Scottish piper’s band LB”.

For many people, the greatest speech of Harold’s career was his ‘White Heat of Technology’ address to the 1964 Labour conference. In this he explained the limitless possibilities for the future of Britain if we threw off the shackles of the class system and embraced a society of high skills or highly educated people.

This was a vision of a new brave society of innovation, enterprise and achievement for all, which embraced new technology and ways of working, and remains highly relevant to this day.

Those who challenge Harold’s achievements have had it easy over the years. The rapid deterioration of his health meant that although still alive, he was not in a position to defend his legacy. I hope the commemorations will go some way to righting this wrong.

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield.