This article is the second in a series of pieces on the life and legacy of Harold Wilson published in celebration of the centenary of his birth, 11 March 1916.
Click here for the first article in the feature: Reappraising Harold Wilson
Click here for the third article in the feature: Europe and the Wilson legacy
Click here for the fourth article in the feature: The two Wilsons
Click here for the fifth article in the feature: Wilson’s white heat
After many years in which Harold Wilson’s reputation has been diminished by a mixture of neglect and ignorance, the centenary of his birth this week gives us the opportunity to evaluate the man and his contribution. As a statesman, politician and brilliant leader of the Labour Party, he will come through with flying colours. He was born on 11 March, 1916, in the middle of the first world war in Huddersfield. He had a glittering career but was always proud to call himself a Yorkshireman. When he went to the House of Lords he took as his title Lord Wilson of Rievaulx because he was so proud of his roots in the Yorkshire.
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 in Huddersfield 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 walkabout round the market 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 – he was a lifelong and passionate supporter. He explained he had shown the Russian leader – 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 to a packed school hall in the evening and was then whisked off to Birkby Hall by his old friend Lord Kagan where he normally stayed overnight on Huddersfield visits.
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, leading local businessmen John and Joe Marsden asked me to see if there was any possibility that the then Lord Wilson would open their new hotel in Huddersfield. 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 who were regular guests at the hotel whilst they were filming in Holmfirth.
After Harold has been driven off at the end of what must have been an exhausting day for him, it was discovered that the red ribbon carefully prepared for Harold to cut was still in pristine condition. In the excitement of the occasion 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 experts and contemporaries who knew Harold and some that did not will be evaluating Harold’s career and his contribution as a national and international politician and statesman. I have spoken to many of the people who knew him and various biographers have written of Harold’s significant influence on our country, our constitution and our culture. 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 exists and public participation in the arts, entertainment and design were encouraged.
His government presided over the opening up of our society, helped it to enjoy itself, its music, theatre and culture. 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 he had a good sense of the growing importance and power of communist China. However, as Gerald Kaufman, now the father of the house but then Harold’s press secretary told me, when US President Lyndon Johnson – with whom Harold was on good terms – 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 ‘white heat of technology’ delivered at Labour party conference in 1964. 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, all of whom had the possibility of pushing their potential to its limits. 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 and legacy have had it easy over the years. The rapid deterioration of Harold’s health in his later years meant that he was not in a position to defend his legacy. I hope the commemorations this week will go some way to righting this wrong.