Last week, Wednesday 5 June 2013, marked exactly 38 years to the date since the UK-wide referendum on membership of what was then the European Economic Community, known as the Common Market. David Cameron’s European policy of renegotiate and decide is not new. The then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, went back to Brussels to seek concessions before winning a referendum by a two-to-one margin. Because the comparison is such an obvious one, discussion about the legacy of Harold Wilson has started once again. Writing in the Daily Mail in January 2013, after Cameron’s EU referendum announcement, the historian Dominic Sandbrook concluded: ‘In the second decade of the 21st century, with Britain facing dreadful economic challenges at home and extraordinary turmoil abroad, the last thing we need is a second Harold Wilson.’
The reputation of Wilson has clearly not improved with time among some commentators. Often accused of inconsistency – not least on the European issue, when he applied to join in 1967 and then voted against the terms Edward Heath negotiated in 1972 – Wilson is seen by some as favouring short-term tactics over principle. The Thatcherite interpretation of postwar British history, with the British saved from the ‘industrial disease’ of the 1970s by Margaret Thatcher’s policies, has Wilson as one of the chief culprits of British demise.
This is mistaken, though the economic difficulties of his time are certainly key to perceptions of Wilson. When he was interviewed by BBC political editor David Holmes just after his sudden resignation on 16 March 1976, Wilson, pipe in hand, told him: ‘I wish I could have been prime minister in happier times and easier times.’ Speaking about his second period in government from 1974-76, Wilson said he wanted to be remembered as somebody who sought to unite party and country. He cited his own greatest achievement as the Open University.
There is objective justification for this final assessment. Yet Wilson’s achievements go beyond this. Politically, Wilson’s feat of winning four British general elections has never been surpassed. He also managed to lead Labour back to power after only one term of Tory government under Heath from 1970-74. Thatcher wrote in The Path to Power: ‘He was a master of Commons repartee, and I usually scored nothing better than a draw against him in the House.’ When he resigned, Wilson had just passed Asquith’s then record as the longest-serving 20th century prime minister.
Wilson’s government of 1964-70 was one of the great liberalising governments of the 20th century. The government both reacted to, and engendered, social change. Capital punishment was finally abolished, and corporal punishment in prisons outlawed from 1967. In other spheres, homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalised, divorce laws were reformed, and abortion legalised. While private member’s bills became the norm for introducing these measures, they only found their way onto the statute book because the government of the day was willing to allocate sufficient parliamentary time. Not all of these measures are uncontroversial today. But Wilson – or, indeed, the prospect of a second Wilson – should not be dismissed lightly.
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