The greatest post-war British prime minister: Harold Wilson

Harold Wilson created modern Britain. Between 1964 and 1970 Britain was changed into a caring, tolerant society, a civilised society. Every aspect of British life was touched, for the good, by Harold Wilson. Ranging from prison reform, to dealing with the most vulnerable in society, his government altered attitudes. In many ways he institutionalised toleration. His government was not in hock to ‘focus’ groups or the malign power of the mass media. Harold Wilson is the greatest post-war prime minister because he made Britain a better country.

The check list of post-war prime ministers is brutally brief, focusing on one aspect of their premierships. The focus is on the Achilles heel of their premierships. They probably did good things for Britain, but those good things were swamped by their failings. Attlee and Churchill show this very clearly. Attlee is regarded as ‘great’ because of his principal social reform: creating the NHS. That isn’t enough in comparison to the squandering of Marshall Aid money. Churchill is rightly lauded for his wartime premierships. By 1952 he was a geriatric alcoholic knowing little of modern Britain. He too squandered his reputation.

Clement Attlee:- squandered Marshall Aid on ideological industrial nationalisation policy
Winston Churchill (2):- squandered his war-time reputation by returning in 1952
Anthony Eden:- squandered Britain’s imperial legacy in the Suez debacle (1956)
Harold MacMillan:- institutionalised nepotism
Alex Douglas-Home:- Victorian aristocrat
Harold Wilson:- institutionalised tolerance
Ted Heath:- institutionalised inflation
Harold Wilson (2):- squandered his reputation by clearly being in power for the sake of it
Jim Callaghan:- dithered in 1978
Margaret Thatcher:- created civil unrest and a repressive police force
John Major:- fatally divided the Tory party for a generation
Tony Blair:- squandered his reputation supporting American military interventions*
Gordon Brown:- dithered in 2007
David Cameron:- became a hostage to George Osborne’s right-wing policies

Harold Wilson is the only prime minister who made Britain better for the overwhelming majority of British citizens. He laid the foundations of a civilised society. The list of his achievements in government is enormous. Abortion laws were made humane, ending the horror of ‘back-street’ amateur abortions. This wasn’t an actual government measure it was a private members bill (David Steel, Liberal) but was given every support by Wilson. The Wilson government ended the use of corporal punishment in prisons and thereby paved the way to ending corporal punishment in schools (1986). More contentious still was the abolition of capital punishment. This was a brave statement of principle by the government and showed that every life was valuable**. Wilson’s government decriminalised the homosexuality laws thereby acknowledging the simple, plain fact of sexual identity. Beneficially this also ended blackmail and police entrapment, which left many homosexuals feeling continuously on ‘edge’. The civilising mission of Wilson continued with the abandonment of theatre censorship. This was hugely important and helped in British domination of the arts worldwide that has continued to this day. The early manifestation of racial tensions were battled against with statements in favour of diversity. Police reform modernised the police force.

Harold Wilson also created the world’s first democratic university using mass media. The Open University was just that – ‘open’. Legitimate degree courses were taught through distance learning using TV and radio, supported by text books and summer schools. The Open University was a radical antidote to British elitism. This university taught at degree level but the pace of the students’ progress took account of their needs. Obviously most students were working, and the Open University was institutionally sensitive to the student. Crucially, academic standards were not sacrificed. Open University degrees were not Mickey Mouse degrees as they attained the benchmarks standards expected of all university degrees.

Wilson’s freeing of social constraints spilled over and created a dynamic society, unleashing artistic genius and making the UK the world’s powerhouse in the arts. Britain became a civilised society, a modern society, in its treatment of the vulnerable in the Wilson era. Harold Wilson wasn’t a warrior, lusting for glory and hoping for a statue. He was much better than that. Harold Wilson is Britain’s greatest post-war prime minister.

*Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, resisting Johnson’s pressure for even a token force, and is therefore the antidote of Blair’s gung-ho military mind set.
**Compare the ghastly Michael Howard’s attitudes towards prison.

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5 Responses to The greatest post-war British prime minister: Harold Wilson

  1. Freeman says:

    Atlee brought in a whole series of life changing reforms ranging from council housing, social security, workers rights, as well as creating the NHS. Wilson enhanced these foundational policies but was nowhere near as radical. I lived through the Wilson eras and know this, although it’s there in the history books for all to discover. People also got tired of “darling Harold” for not seeing a good socialist manifesto through to full implementation. You’re welcome.

    • odeboyz says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      I too lived through the Wilson era but I wrote the blog as a summary. Attlee was great and his role in the rebuilding of Britain after 1945 was wonderful. He also had to handle Britain’s bankruptcy and the collapse of the Indian empire. All in all then a magnificent achievement. And, of course, comparisons can be odious but I took it upon myself to try to evaluate Wilson’s achievements. Attlee did the building blocks but Wilson framed the lived environment and on balance I took that to be a greater achievement.

      I respect your view but I disagree.

  2. Pingback: Hornchurch and Upminster Labour | Harold Wilson: Britain’s greatest post-war Prime Minister

  3. odeboyz says:

    This is a most valuable comment as it corrected an error which should never have happened. Thank you.

  4. Peter Baxendale says:

    A brilliant and cogent analysis-agree overall with your dedections,Chris Can I put on a second anorak and advise that Sidney Silverman as an everlasting legacy removed the obscenity of Capital Punishment from our judicial system.David Steel was the instigator of the Abortion Act.
    Excuse errors


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