The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Tribute to Harold Wilson – 24 May 1995

Below is Mr Major’s Commons statement following the death of the former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. The statement was made on the 24th May 1995.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

This morning we heard the sad news of the death of Lord Wilson. As the House well knows, Lord Wilson had been ill for a very long time and had endured that illness with courage and with great good humour. I know that the whole House would wish to join me in sending our sincerest condolences to Mary Wilson, who nursed and cared for him with such devotion for so long, and also to his sons, Robin and Giles.

I did not know Harold Wilson personally when he was at the height of his powers, but I knew him from afar as a formidable political opponent. I believe that history will remember him for the sharpness and shrewdness of his mind; for his two periods of service as Prime Minister in difficult circumstances; and for his energy and enthusiasm, as well as for his many achievements. And also, perhaps here of all places, he will be remembered for his wit and his humour–often shown to such devastating effect on the Floor of the House. But that is the public man. His friends who knew him well speak also of the private man–of his great personal kindnesses and generosity. He expected loyalty from those around him and he offered it in full measure in return.

Harold Wilson was a Yorkshireman whose roots mattered to him. His background motivated his politics. His family’s experience during the depression, when his father was unemployed, shaped his politics, his thinking and his future policies. In becoming Prime Minister, he broke through many of the traditional class barriers of the day. I do not believe that it is too generous to describe Harold Wilson as one of the most brilliant men of his generation. He gained an outstanding first-class degree at Oxford. He was an exceptionally young and able don at New college and then a fellow at University college. He worked for William Beveridge on his great study of unemployment. His ability as a statistician was legendary and those who knew him well will recall his remarkable memory, which was displayed with such pleasure so often and to such good effect.

At the outbreak of war, Harold Wilson’s capacity for incisive thought and rigorous analysis took him to the economic section of the Cabinet Office and then to the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Over the years, by his remarkable work in those positions, he caught the attention of leading Labour party figures such as Clem Attlee. Then, in 1945, at the relatively young age of 28, he was elected for the first time to the House as the Member for Ormskirk. He was quickly given a ministerial post and a mere two years later he became President of the Board of Trade, the youngest Cabinet Minister in the House since 1806.

As a Minister, Harold Wilson quickly established a strong reputation. He was responsible for the removal of the rationing controls on clothes and textiles that had remained from the war and also for the relaxation of dozens of other regulations. He was active, far beyond his time, in opening up important trade links with Russia.

In 1950, following boundary changes, Harold Wilson was elected to the seat of Huyton, which he was to represent with great distinction for another 33 years. In 1951 he resigned from the Front Bench over the imposition of health charges before Labour’s election defeat, which, for him, led to 13 long years in opposition. It was in that time that he developed from the brilliant academic to become the sparkling political figure of later years.

The tragic, untimely death of Hugh Gaitskell brought Harold Wilson to the leadership of his party earlier than he might have expected. His election was widely welcomed. He was recognised as a man of both intellectual and political skills. In choosing his first shadow Cabinet, he displayed his willingness to select people of ability, whether or not they agreed with his point of view. That ability to conciliate–often a scorned attribute, but a necessary one–was displayed continually throughout his leadership of the Labour party. He narrowly won election as Prime Minister in 1964 and secured a large majority in 1966. In government he placed a strong emphasis on technology and innovation, to be carried through with a new emphasis on state planning. His social policies embodied the liberal spirit of the time.

During six years of government, Harold Wilson faced many difficult problems –the ever-present currency crisis; Northern Ireland; the Rhodesia crisis; controversy over whether British troops should become involved in the war in Vietnam; the uncertainty over whether Britain would or would not join the then European Community; and industrial unrest, particularly in the docks. Those problems faced him continually as Prime Minister. I believe that history will judge that Harold Wilson kept a clear and a cool head in the face of those difficulties. For my generation at least, as observers through television and from a distance, his ever-present pipe became a symbol of tranquillity in times of some turmoil.

Harold Wilson had much to his credit in those days. He was responsible for the rapid expansion of higher education, including the development of the polytechnics. He was personally involved in, and rightly proud of, setting up the Open university. He was aware of the dangers of excessive concentration of trade union power and he was brave enough to tackle it, alas without the complete support of many of his colleagues at the time. Of course, he was the only British Prime Minister to preside over England’s winning the World cup. He was a remarkable man. He was not ready to give up as Labour leader following defeat in 1970. He was right, and he proved it with two further election victories in 1974. With them, he became the only Prime Minister this century to have emerged victorious from four general elections.

When Harold Wilson stood down as Prime Minister in 1976, many were surprised, even shocked. Why had he done it? What did he mean by it? The fuss was considerable, and how much he must have enjoyed it at the time. Even those who had tried for so long to unseat him could not accept that he had stood down of his own accord; but he had. He had served longer than any Prime Minister before him this century and it was perfectly natural that he would wish to enjoy his retirement. What was Harold Wilson really like? I have formed my judgment. He was a complex man, certainly, a clever man, a sensitive man, a man who could be bruised and hurt and who never wore the armadillo skin of the fictional politician. He was a man of many achievements and, perhaps above all, a very human man who served his country well and honourably and who has earned, by that, a secure place in its history. In the ledger of life, his credit balance is very high. It is a privilege for me, as one, nominally, of his political opponents, to pay him this tribute and I do so unreservedly.