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Book Review – Harold Wilson: The Winner, by Nick Thomas-Symonds

Harold Wilson: The Winner, Book Review

Harold Wilson may only have been Prime Minister for a cumulative seven and a half years¾between 1964 and 1974¾but he still managed to win four separate general elections during that time period. The flurry of elections in the 1960s and 70s came against the backdrop of an economic crisis and a series of sweeping social reforms, with Wilson at the centre of it all.

In a new book, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade Nick Thomas-Symonds covers Wilson’s stints as Prime Minister in greater depth than ever before. Titled, Harold Wilson: The Winner, the book looks at how Wilson navigated the ups and downs of British politics, secured four election victories and deployed his mandate with remarkable efficiency.

In an exclusive interview, former MP Eric Ollerenshaw sat down with Thomas-Symmonds to discuss the book and some of its key talking points.

Wilson the winner

As its title suggests, the main theme of the book surrounds Wilson’s ability to win general elections. Since Clement Attlee left office, we have seen only two Labour leaders win elections post-WWII. This is a remarkable statistic and is reflective of both the remarkable political winning machine that they are up against and the failures of the Labour party itself.

If the Labour party is to win the next election in 2024/25, Sir Kier Starmer could learn a thing or two by looking at how Wilson went about his business, given the latter’s record.

On this, Thomas-Symonds expressed his views.

“The impressive thing about Harold Wilson is what he did with the power he was given, not just his ability to secure it. He provided the electorate with legitimate solutions to their everyday struggles.”

Nick Thomas-Symonds,Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade

An age of social reform

When you look back at Harold Wilson’s time as Prime Minister, it is impossible to ignore the monumental impact that he had on social reform in this country. It was through his leadership that the following legislation was brought into law

  • The abolition of the death penalty
  • The abolition of corporal punishment
  • The removal of theatre censorship
  • The legalisation of homosexuality
  • The liberalisation of abortion and divorce laws
  • The Equal Pay Act

Thomas-Symonds writes that while plenty of people credit Roy Jenkins¾who served as Chancellor and Home Secretary under Wilson¾for many of these reforms, it was Wilson who ensured that they actually reached the statute book.

Thomas-Symonds told Ollerenshaw, “There was a vast wave of important social reforms under Wilson’s watch. Wilson appointed Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary fully aware of his liberal viewpoints. If he didn’t want these liberal views in his cabinet, then he could have appointed someone else.”

“Both George Brown and Jim Callaghan didn’t think that the government should be spending time on this type of legislation, so it would have been very easy for Wilson to pull the plug on them. However, he didn’t do that because he felt they were necessary.”

“Wilson and Jenkins balanced each other out perfectly. While Wilson was quite socially conservative, Jenkins was very liberal, which kept voters across much of the left happy.”

book cover 1
Harold Wilson: The Winner published by Orion Publishing Co

Vietnam

One of the biggest world events to happen during any of Harold Wilson’s tenures was the Vietnam War. In 1965, USA President Lyndon Johnson decided to send American troops to Vietnam to try and prevent a communist takeover in the region.

Considering the positive relationship between the USA and Britain, many people expected Wilson to follow suit. However, he stood his ground against Johnson and refused to send even one battalion to the region, all the while managing to keep the relationship between the two countries intact.

“I do think his achievement of keeping Britain and British soldiers out of Vietnam is overlooked. There was a lot of pressure on Wilson because of the dilemma he faced¾the relationship with the USA was of great importance and value, but he didn’t want to commit British troops in any way.”

Nick Thomas-Symonds,Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade

Thomas-Symonds also went on to say “There were points of real stress in the relationship between him and Johnson and there were many heated conversations across the transatlantic line. Johnson wanted just one British regiment, to show the world that it was a joint British and American operation.”

“It was a great achievement to retain a strong relationship with Johnson and the USA while keeping Britain out of Vietnam at the same time.”

The broadcast that started his downfall

The famous ‘pound in your pocket’ broadcast in 1967 was the beginning of the end for Wilson in relation to his first stint as Prime Minister. With the pound struggling in value, Wilson held a broadcast, in which he attempted to reassure the British people that their money was safe.

However, the wording of his speech actually had the opposite effect. In telling the British people that the ‘pound in their pocket’ would be unaffected by the devaluation of the pound, Wilson opened himself up to accusations of being a liar.

Thomas-Symonds said, “In one technical sense, he was right, because if you had £100 in the post office the day before the speech, you still had £100 in the Post Office on the day of the speech. The problem was that the purchasing power of the pound had diminished.”

“From that day onwards, the nicknames ‘tricksy Harold’ and ‘misleading Harold’ began to gather more and more steam, and his trustworthiness was increasingly called into question. This was certainly a reason for him losing the election in 1970.”

Final thought

The book provides a fascinating dive into the career and character of Wilson. As well as looking at his policy platforms and legislative legacy, the book also investigates how Wilson was able to manage a cabinet packed with political powerhouses, his working relationship with the infamous Marcia Williams, his dealings with trade unions and the 1975 United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum.

In short, this book is one of the more in-depth and engaging political biographies written about a figure who, given the Labour party’s current polling, should be of more interest than ever.

Harold Wilson is undoubtedly one of the most iconic British Prime Ministers of all time. From the social reform that occurred under his watch to the sheer number of elections that he managed to win, Labour officials and leaders could do a lot worse than spend their commute reading and learning from this book.

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