Harold Wilson

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This Party needs to protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion, extreme so-called left and in a few cases extreme so-called moderates, having in common only their arrogant dogmatism.

James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (11 March 191624 May 1995) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1976. He had an impressive educational background, becoming an Oxford don at 21 and working as a war time civil servant; he was made a government minister immediately after he was elected to Parliament. As Leader of the Labour Party he moved the party towards a technocratic approach and appeared more in tune with the 'swinging sixties'; however his government was beset by economic difficulties and he was unexpectedly defeated in 1970. His return to office with a tiny majority in the mid-1970s saw a referendum which endorsed British membership of the European Communities. He resigned suddenly in 1976, and in his retirement suffered from Alzheimers' disease.



Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

  • The nation yesterday was awaiting a clear, statesmanlike call from the Chancellor of the efforts and, if necessary, the sacrifices that are needed to lift the country out of the perpetual series of crises and near crises that have dogged us ever since the war. That was what we were led to believe would happen. What did we get? We had a shambling, fumbling, largely irrelevant and, at one point, degrading speech. The Chancellor told us that the Budget was prepared under the piercing eye of Mr. Gladstone. There was one passage that was quite obviously written under a portrait of Horatio Bottomley.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (18 April 1956)
  • Traders and financiers all over the world had been listening to the Chancellor. For months he had said that if he could not stop the wage claims, the country was "facing disaster". Those were his own words. Rightly or wrongly these people believed him. For them, 5th September—the day that the Trades Union Congress unanimously rejected the policy of wage restraint—marked the end of an era. And all these financiers, all the little gnomes in Zurich and the other financial centres about whom we keep on hearing, started to make their dispositions in regard to sterling.
  • We cannot accept that this is a little local matter within the control of South Africa's internal affairs. Oppression, apartheid, and racialism—those are crimes against humanity as a whole.
    • Speech to a May Day rally in Hyde Park (1 May 1960), quoted in The Times (2 May 1960), p. 6
  • A second devaluation would be regarded all over the world as an acknowledgement of defeat, a recognition that we were not on a springboard, but a slide. I myself have always deprecated—perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly—in crisis after crisis, appeals to the Dunkirk spirit as an answer to our problem, because what is required in our economic situation is not a brief period of inspired improvisation, work and sacrifice, such as we had under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), but a very long, hard, prolonged period of reorganisation and rededication. It is the long haul, not the inspired spurt, that we need.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (26 July 1961)
  • I have stated these Commonwealth problems in terms of hard economic facts, but I should be the last to disagree with those hon. Members on both sides of the House who put the problem in yesterday's debate in terms more of sentiment, kinship and bonds of a less materialistic character than those that I have been describing. … I submit to the House that we cannot consistently with the honour of this country take any action now that would betray friends such as those. … if there has to be a choice [between the Commonwealth and Europe] we are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines in Dusseldorf.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (3 August 1961) on Britain's application to join the European Economic Community

Shadow Foreign Secretary

  • We all know perfectly well why the Government are standing by their policy of the independent deterrent. The reason is simply prestige, keeping up with our nuclear neighbours. Frankly, we cannot do it. The Americans spend on research alone £2,500 million a year, which is half as much again as our total defence budget, and it is rising rapidly. We can only be a nuclear Power if we can afford the means to produce twenty or more alternative weapons as an assurance against the many which are certain to fail. Out of our resources, we were able to afford only one intercontinental ballistic missile, and that was Blue Streak. The failure of Blue Streak was the moment of truth for this country so far as the independent deterrent was concerned. To cling to the policy after that was...like the action of a rather pathetic sort of man who cannot afford a television and who cannot bring himself to admit the fact, so he puts up the aerial instead.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (6 March 1962)
  • This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (1 October 1962), quoted in The Times (2 October 1962), p. 16

Leader of the Opposition (1963–64)

  • The period of 15 years from the last time we were in Scarborough, in 1960, to the middle of the 1970s, will embrace a period of technical change, particularly in industrial methods, greater than the whole of the industrial revolution of the last 250 years.
  • In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.
    • Speech at Labour Party conference (1 October 1963), quoted in Labour Party Annual Conference Report, 1963, pp. 139-140. Usually quoted as "the white heat of the technological revolution".
  • This odious doctrine of apartheid at 11-plus. ... We reject it because as a nation we cannot afford artificially to segregate three-quarters of our children, and virtually cut them off from the normal chance of higher education.
    • Speech to the Association of Principals of Technical Institutions in London (19 February 1964), quoted in The Times (20 February 1964), p. 5
  • They [the Conservatives] cannot think beyond outmoded techniques of monetary regulation, followed by panic stop-go-stop measures, when bold planning for industrial expansion is called for. They cannot raise their eyes beyond a system of society where making money by whatever means is lauded as the highest service, while earning money by contributing to production and exports, or teaching or nursing is a mug's game. An Opportunity State for all our people? The Conservatives glory in one where the rewards go to land racketeers and property spivs, while the man who ventures his skill in scientific or technological advance, or in the chancy risks of export markets, is left out in the cold.
    • Speech to the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool (7 September 1964), quoted in The Times (8 September 1964), p. 14
  • You need men with fire in their bellies and humanity in their hearts. The choice we offer, starting today, is between standing still, of clinging to the tired philosophy of a day that is gone, or moving forward in partnership and unity to a just society, to a dynamic, expanding, confident and above all purposive new Britain. ... The spirit of 1945 is in the air again.
    • Speech to a Labour rally in Wembley Pool (12 September 1964), quoted in The Times (14 September 1964), p. 6
  • Let us not be afraid to express the passionate concern everyone of us feels about present housing conditions. ... This is a problem which brooks no escape, no evasion. It is no use talking about a free market: the provision of decent housing for all is a clear and inescapable obligation of government.
    • Speech to a Labour rally in Wembley Pool (12 September 1964), quoted in The Times (14 September 1964), p. 6

Prime Minister (1964–66)

  • The government have only a small majority in the House of Commons. I want to make it quite clear that this will not affect our ability to govern. Having been charged with the duties of Government we intend to carry out those duties.
    • Television broadcast (October 1964), after winning the general election, quoted in David Butler, Coalitions in British Politics (Macmillan, London, 1978), p. 99.
  • The answer is to increase industrial efficiency, to build up our exports, and to substitute home production for imports wherever this can be achieved competitively and economically, to broaden the base of our economy with capital investment, through the training of skilled manpower and the encouragement to accept change, to enable us to expand without running into strains and stresses such as have revealed themselves in past periods of expansion.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (12 December 1964), quoted in The Times (14 December 1964), p. 14
  • The measures we have taken, the further measures we shall be taking in the coming weeks, will create the conditions in which these problems are going to be solved. I believe that our people will respond to this challenge because our history shows that they misjudge us who underrate our ability as a nation to move, and to move decisively when the need arises. They misjudged our temper after Dunkirk, but we so mobilized our latent and untapped strength that apparent defeat was turned into a great victory. I believe that the spirit of Dunkirk will once again carry us through to success.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (12 December 1964), quoted in The Times (14 December 1964), p. 14
  • This country cannot afford now—if it ever could afford—unofficial strikes, wasteful stoppages, long, weary arguments about industrial demarcation, any more than we can afford out-of-date industrial methods, industrial promotion based on influence and connexion rather than technical ability, or management attitudes which give a higher priority to tax avoidance or the earning of quick, uncovenanted capital profits than to modernization and innovation in industrial production methods, or aggressiveness in exports.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (12 December 1964), quoted in The Times (14 December 1964), p. 14
  • Britain's frontiers are on the Himalayas
    • Speech at the opening of the Nehru Memorial Exhibition, Royal Festival Hall, London (10 June 1965), quoted in "The Guardian" (11 June 1965), p. 1
  • [The 1964 General Election] was a decision that not only our industrial system but every aspect of our national life that has been corrupted by the doctrine of a self-perpetuating establishment should give way to an open society where knowing your job would mean more than knowing the right people. It was a decision that national purpose should override sectional interest, that earning money took precedence over making money. It was a decision for change: not change for its own sake, but change, radical and dynamic, for economic and social purpose. It was a decision, in short, that Britain should have a government and that the government should govern.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • We have not been pushed around either abroad or at home and we are not going to be. This is government of the people; it is government for all the people, and the accent is on government.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • [Labour will deal with racketeering in the price of land.] I call that a socialist theme. Yes, and I should have thought a Liberal theme. That great modernizing party on this theme at least at Scarborough last week carried through an exercise in recidivism which places its present leadership some years behind the Liberals some 60 years ago. In 1909 and 1910 they filled the land with song—'God gave the land to the people'. Now in 1965 we have the first fruits of Liberal revisionism. While they would not intend to throw doubt on the Almighty's intention in this respect, their researches suggest he did not intend this declaration to be taken too literally.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • We are more interested in the monthly trade returns than in Debrett, more preoccupied with what is said by the industrial correspondents and economic editors than what is said by William Hickey; more concerned with modernizing the machinery of government and the action that will need to follow the report of the Estimates Committee on the Civil Service than in altering the layout of Burke's Landed Gentry.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (28 September 1965), quoted in The Times (29 September 1965), p. 5.
  • I know I speak for everyone in these islands, all parties, all our people, when I say to Mr. Smith tonight: "Prime Minister, think again".
    • Broadcast (12 October 1965), quoted in The Times (13 October 1965), p. 8, calling on the Government of Rhodesia not to declare independence.
  • In my talks with the African Nationalist leaders...I regarded it as my duty to remove from their minds any idea or any hope they might have had that Rhodesia's constitutional problems were going to be solved by an assertion of military power on our part, whether for the purposes of suspending or amending the 1961 Constitution, of imposing majority rule tomorrow or any other time—or for that matter of dealing with the situation that would follow an illegal assertion of independence. To quote the words I used to them: If there are those who are thinking in terms of a thunderbolt hurtling from the sky and destroying their enemies, a thunderbolt in the shape of the Royal Air Force, let me say that thunderbolt will not be coming, and to continue in this delusion wastes valuable time, and misdirects valuable energies.
  • It is difficult for us to appreciate the pressures which are being put on men I know to be realistic and reasonable, not only in their executive capacity but in the highly organised strike committees in the individual ports, by this tightly knit group of politically motivated men who, as the last General Election showed, utterly failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are now determined to exercise backstage pressures, forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.
  • We have taken steps which have not been taken by any other democratic government in the world. We are taking steps with regard to prices and wages which no other government, even in wartime, has taken.
    • Speech in the White House (29 July 1966), quoted in The Times (30 July 1966), p. 1
  • For we are the party of change. We seek not to conserve but to transform society: industrial change to realize the vast potential abundance which has so long been denied; social change to redress the distorted balance between private self-seeking and social compassion; structural change which recognizes the challenge to our society brought about by uneven regional development and by the great challenge which is presented by the urban explosion in terms of the problems of transportation and social environment; change in the relationships within our society in an age which rejects the feudal and class relationships which others seek, in conserving, to perpetuate.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (4 October 1966), quoted in The Times (5 October 1966), p. 16
  • The greatest enemy that lies in our path in creating the kind of Britain we want to create is conservatism in all its forms. We cannot afford Tory conservatism, with its smug preoccupation, complacently looking on while the rest of the world passes us by.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (4 October 1966), quoted in The Times (5 October 1966), p. 16
  • [Ramsay MacDonald was] a man of great stature, capable of inspiring massive affection and massive attack—a man who created and led a great party and who has become a legend in that party equally for the manner of his leaving it as for the years he gave its creation. ... They drew their inspiration from Merrie England and dry statistics, they sang their widely differing battle songs, and Ramsay MacDonald had to fashion from the strains of Edward Carpenter's 'England Arise', from the 'Internationale', from 'Jerusalem', from the 'Red Flag', from 'These Things Shall Be', a new harmony. In 1906 in MacDonald's fortieth year, he saw the victory—the dawn of the new era.
    • Speech at a luncheon in the House of Commons to commemorate the centenary of Ramsay MacDonald's birth (12 October 1966), quoted in The Times (13 October 1966), p. 12.
  • We commemorate a man, a leader, who in the years of creation and achievement towered above his contemporaries in figure and manner, in voice and power, who worked and fought, and who suffered—as they all suffered who dared to preach socialism in an unreceptive and hostile age. He was a man who had vision, and dared all in those years to make that vision a reality; a man who inspired affection in his associates as in his own domestic circle, and who, daring all, created a lasting and durable political instrument which today 60 years after its first political success, provides the Government of this country and in so providing owes more than many are prepared to admit to the young Ramsay MacDonald.
    • Speech at a luncheon in the House of Commons to commemorate the centenary of Ramsay MacDonald's birth (12 October 1966), quoted in The Times (13 October 1966), p. 12.
  • He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.
    • Speech to the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France (23 January 1967), quoted in The New York Times (24 January 1967), p. 12.
  • From now on, the pound abroad is worth 14 per cent or so less in terms of other currencies. That doesn't mean, of course, that the Pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued.
    • Broadcast (19 November 1967), following the devaluation of the Pound Sterling. Usually remembered as "the Pound in your pocket".
  • I am not prepared to stand aside and see this country engulfed by the racial conflict which calculating orators or ignorant prejudice can create. Nor in the great world confrontation on race and colour, where this country must declare where it stands, am I prepared to be a neutral, whether that confrontation is in Birmingham or Bulawayo. In these issues there can be no neutrals and no escape from decision. For in the world of today, while political isolationism invites danger and economic isolationism invites bankruptcy, moral isolationism invites contempt.
    • Speech to a Labour rally in Birmingham Town Hall (5 May 1968), quoted in The Times (6 May 1968), p. 1
  • We are the party of human rights—the only party of human rights that will be speaking from this platform this month. (Loud applause.) The struggle against racialism is a worldwide fight. It is the dignity of man for which we are fighting. If what we assert is true for Birmingham, it is true for Bulawayo. If ever there were a condemnation of the values of the party which forms the Opposition it is the fact that the virus of Powellism has taken so firm a hold at every level.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool (1 October 1968), quoted in The Times (2 October 1968), p. 4
  • May I say, for the benefit of those who have been carried away by the gossip of the last few days, that I know what's going on. [pause] I'm going on, and the Labour government's going on.
    • Speech at a May Day rally in London (4 May 1969), quoted in The Times (5 May 1969), p. 1. There had been a series of reports that Wilson's leadership might be challenged.
  • The last two years show that what Enoch [Powell] says today Edward [Heath] will be proclaiming as Tory policy anything from three to six months later...Selsdon Man is not just a lurch to the right, it is an atavistic desire to reverse the course of twenty-five years of social revolution. What they are planning is a wanton, calculated and deliberate return to greater inequality...The message to the British people would be simple and brutal. It would say, "You're out on your own".
    • Speech in Nottingham (6 February 1970), quoted in The Times (7 February 1970), p. 1 and Phillip Whitehead, The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies (1985), p. 40
  • [Tory domestic policies were directed to four aims:] To force up food prices; to force up prices of other essentials; to cut down the welfare services to means-tested levels; to force up rents in a free-for-all in housing. ... In borough after borough, city after city, we have learnt what Tory housing policy means. In many areas—not in all—cuts in the housing programme for basic needs; in all areas, higher rents.
    • Speech to a Labour rally in Birmingham (6 March 1970), quoted in The Times (7 March 1970), p. 3
  • Chris Mullin: What do you regard as your biggest error?
    Harold Wilson: That I underestimated the power of speculation to knock government policy aside.
    • Torchlight (7 May 1970), quoted in Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (1992), p. 555

Leader of the Opposition (1970–74)

  • David Dimbleby: You couldn't - you couldn't set our minds at rest on the vexed question of what the Sunday Times did actually pay you for the book?
    Harold Wilson: No, I don't think it's a matter of interest to the BBC or to anybody else.
    Dimbleby: But why ..
    Wilson: If you're interested in these things, you'd better find out how people buy yachts. Do you ask that question? Did you ask him how he was able to pay for a yacht?
    Dimbleby: I haven't interviewed ...
    Wilson: Have you asked him that question?
    Dimbleby: I haven't interviewed him.
    Wilson: Well, has the BBC ever asked that question?
    Dimbleby: I don't know ...
    Wilson: Well, what's it got to do with you, then?
    Dimbleby: I imagine they have ..
    Wilson: Why you ask these question, I mean why, if people can afford to buy £25,000 yachts, do the BBC not regard that as a matter for public interest? Why do you insult me with these questions here?
    Dimbleby: It's only that it's been a matter of ..
    Wilson: All I'm saying, all I'm saying ..
    Dimbleby: … public speculation, and I was giving you an opportunity if you wanted to, to say something about it.
    Wilson: It was not a matter of speculation, it was just repeating press gossip. You will not put this question to Mr. Heath. When you have got an answer to him, come and put the question to me. And this last question and answer are not to be recorded. Is this question being recorded?
    Dimbleby: Well it is, because we're running film.
    Wilson: Well, will you cut it out or not? All right, we stop now. No, I'm sorry, I'm really not having this. I'm really not having this. The press may take this view, that they wouldn't put this question to Heath but they put it to me; if the BBC put this question to me, without putting it to Heath, the interview is off, and the whole programme is off. I think it's a ridiculous question to put. Yes, and I mean it cut off, I don't want to read in the Times Diary or miscellany that I asked for it to be cut out. [pause]
    Dimbleby: All right, are we still running? Can I ask you this, then, which I mean, I .. let me put this question, I mean if you find this question offensive then ..
    Wilson: Coming to ask if your curiosity can be satisfied, I think it's disgraceful. Never had such a question in an interview in my life before.
    Dimbleby: I .. [gasps]
    Joe Haines (Wilson's Press Secretary): Well, let's stop now, and we can talk about it, shall we?
    Dimbleby: No, let's .. well, I mean, we'll keep going, I think, don't you?
    Wilson: No, I think we'll have a new piece of film in and start all over again. But if this film is used, or this is leaked, then there's going to be a hell of a row. And this must be ..
    Dimbleby: Well, I certainly wouldn't leak it ..
    Wilson: You may not leak it but these things do leak. I've never been to Lime Grove without it leaking.
    • Exchange with BBC interviewer David Dimbleby recorded for the Yesterday's Men documentary broadcast on 16 June 1971. The BBC did agree not to show this portion of the interview, but Wilson's fears of a leak were justified as a transcript was published on page 1 of The Times on June 18, 1971. A fuller transcript appeared in Private Eye during 1972.
  • I believe that the situation has now gone so far that it is impossible to conceive of an effective long-term solution in which the agenda at least does not include consideration of, and which is not in some way directed to finding a means of achieving, the aspirations envisaged half a century ago, of progress towards a united Ireland...A substantial term of years will be required before any concept of unification could become a reality, but the dream must be there. If men of moderation have nothing to hope for, men of violence will have something to shoot for.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (25 November 1971)
  • I've been wading in shit for three months to allow others to indulge their conscience [on the EEC].
    • Remark to the Shadow Cabinet (1972), quoted in Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1990), p. 360

Prime Minister (1974–76)

  • Yet people who benefit from this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government, spending their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?
    • Broadcast (25 May 1974), referring to the Ulster Workers Council strike, quoted in The Times (27 May 1974), p. 2
  • The people must have confidence in their publicly-owned industries. Private industry must have the necessary confidence to maintain and increase investment to do their duty by the people. And confidence demands that a clear frontier must be defined between what is public and what is private industry.
    • Speech to the Socialist International Conference (30 June 1974), quoted in The Times (1 July 1974), p. 1
  • I have never been emotionally a Europe man. I have been and remain fundamentally a Commonwealth man. I therefore cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of Commonwealth countries now want Britain to stay in.
    • Speech to the Labour Party conference on Britain's membership of the EEC (26 April 1975), quoted in The Times (28 April 1975), p. 4
  • I intend to play it low-key throughout. The decision is purely a marginal one. I have always said so. I have never been a fanatic for Europe. I believe the judgment is a finely balanced one.
    • Remarks to Barbara Castle (26 April 1975), quoted in Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries, 1974–76 (1980), p. 379
  • The lead Britain can give and is already giving rests on the fact that we are a world-minded people. Britain will give a lead in political attitudes and political developments in Europe. We cannot do that by taking our bat home and sinking into an off-shore island mentality.
  • This Party needs to protect itself against the activities of small groups of inflexible political persuasion, extreme so-called left and in a few cases extreme so-called moderates, having in common only their arrogant dogmatism. These groups, equally the multichromatic coalitionist fringe or groups specifically formed to fight other marauding groups, these groups are not what this Party is about. Infestation of this kind thrives only, and can thrive only, in minuscule local parties.
    • Speech to Labour Party conference (30 September 1975), quoted in Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1975, pp. 186-187
  • I want to talk to you as an old friend who has always been loyal to me. You are the only person I know who never leaks. I am getting tired of this job. I've spent thirteen years trying to keep this party together and it's been a pretty thankless task. Do you know I've only been to the theatre about twenty times in all those years? Because I have had to keep on top of everything that is happening.
    • Remarks to Barbara Castle (4 March 1976), quoted in Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries, 1974–76 (1980), p. 671
  • There are three groups on the Left. There is what is now called the "soft" Left, to which you and I and Michael always belonged. There is a middle group and then there are the really vicious group.
    • Remarks to Barbara Castle (4 March 1976), quoted in Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries, 1974–76 (1980), p. 672

Post-Prime Ministerial

  • Overseas anti-democratic forces have conspired for years to undermine the political position of individuals and parties who have opposed apartheid.
    • Speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery (12 May 1976), quoted in The Times (17 May 1976), p. 2
  • I have always said about Tony [Benn] that he immatures with age.
    • Interview with The Times (7 April 1981), p. 12
  • It stems from the loss of the election and the growth of the 'cowboys'. The Labour Party has got out of the way of losing elections. We are now the natural party of government...These cowboys are absolute Trots. The number of Communists in the party is very small but the Trots are much more sinister. They are negative and have no policy. There is a fairly high number of—not intellectuals but let's say intelligentsia element there, stemming not least from the growth of sociology as a discipline in the universities.
    • Interview with The Times (7 April 1981), p. 12
  • Roy Jenkins? ...tended to knock off at 7 o'clock...a socialite rather than a Socialist...The SDP. It's not a party, it's a clique or a click, as they say up 'ere. As for Dr Owen and Mr Rodgers, I never thought of them as Cabinet calibre...perfectly good junior ministers. Jim [Callaghan] took a different view. I had retired by then—voluntarily—which is a very unusual thing in politics.
  • [H]e was extremely pleased with the things President Reagan had done. One feels in Europe there is somebody in charge.
    • Speech to correspondents in New York (21 September 1981), quoted in The Times (22 September 1981), p. 6
  • President Reagan is likely to be more successful in dealing with the Soviet Union than any recent American leader. ... he had been impressed with Mr Reagan's instincts and style.
    • Speech at Indiana University (4 October 1982), quoted in The Times (5 October 1982), p. 4
  • Begin, Shamir and Sharon were the evil three. Sharon is the most evil man I've run across in Israeli politics. [I regarded myself when Prime Minister as] the best friend Israel had in the Western world.
    • Speech at Indiana University (4 October 1982) after the Beirut massacre, quoted in The Times (5 October 1982), p. 4


  • A week is a long time in politics.
    • Possibly misattributed; according to Nigel Rees in Brewster's Quotations (1994), asked shortly after his retirement in 1977 about the quote, he could not pinpoint the first occasion on which he uttered the words.

Quotes about Wilson

  • 'I thought', said Nye, 'that you were a Yorkshireman but your Dad has been telling me all about Manchester. Where were you born, boy?' With a Yorkshireman's natural pride, I said, thinking of Sheffield's steel, 'Yorkshiremen are not born; they are forged.' 'Forged were you?' said Nye in that musical Welsh lilt of his, 'I always thought there was something counterfeit about you!'
    • Harold Wilson, Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister (1986), p. 10
  • A. J. P. Taylor told me in 1970, in one of those impromptu addresses to individuals that made the Beaverbrook Library so entertaining a place, that Wilson was transparently Lloyd George redivivus and Roy Jenkins an aspirant Asquith.
    • Michael Bentley, Lord Salisbury's World: Conservative Environments in Late-Victorian Britain (2001), p. 317, n. 52
  • He's much more dangerous than Gaitskell because he isn't honest and he isn't a man of principle but a sheer, absolute careerist, out for himself alone.
    • Aneurin Bevan's remarks to Richard Crossman, as recorded in Crossman's diary (18 December 1958), quoted in The Backbench Diaries of Richard Crossman, ed. Janet Morgan (1981), pp. 726–727 and John Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (1987), p. 350
  • Harold Wilson, in a sense, was to politics what the Beatles were to popular culture. He simply dominated the nation's political landscape, and he personified the new era, not stuffy or hidebound but classless, forward-looking, modern. Even his enemies and detractors, and there were a few, could not deny his brilliance, his brain and the intelligence born of natural wit, not social background... He had, in the end, a very simple belief in the virtues of social justice and equality and, by and large, throughout his time in politics, he applied them. He once said: "The Labour party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing." That should be his real epitaph and long may it remain so.
  • His purpose in politics was to remove the disfiguring evils of poverty and to create a caring society, with equal opportunity, open to advancement and in tune with the changing needs of his time. He was proud to have been responsible for the birth of the Open University. He was by nature a conciliator, and the least assertive of men, but he fought with the doggedness and determination of a true Northerner when he had to. Those qualities, and his high intelligence, kindliness and approachability, helped to spread his influence over a much wider area than his own party. It was a natural expression of that to be a passionate opponent of apartheid and of racial discrimination. He was the most successful leader that Labour has ever had, winning four elections out of five although on each occasion he came to office at a time of great economic difficulty. Above all, he was a devoted servant of his cause and his country.
  • One of Harold's endearing traits was his desire to bring women to the fore. He was an instinctive feminist: the first Prime Minister to have two women in his Cabinet. Like Ted [Castle] he never regarded women as rivals, but rejoiced in their success and was always trying to promote them to new opportunities. Such men are rare.
  • If the criterion of leadership is sparkling intelligence, resilience, victory in elections and flexibility, together with a willingness to fight one's own Party when one has little choice, then Wilson certainly has a claim to have been the best leader Labour ever had. But in Wilson the flexibility was too heavily prized and the willingness to fight too seldom in evidence. He totally failed in the role to which he himself made his principal claim, as a regenerator of the British economy. It was fortunate for the Labour party and the country that Wilson retired when he did. His time as Prime Minister had been a time of economic crisis. On the face of it he had been as well equipped as anyone could be to handle the frightening economic problems with which he had been confronted. Yet he had never given any evidence that he had thought deeply about the country's predicament. He had exhausted his credit with foreign governments and with central banks which might, in the near future, be requested to help suck the UK out of the bog into which it had fallen. He now lacked the strength, and the reputation, to handle yet one more economic crisis. Whatever he had achieved, he would not see a socialist Britain in his lifetime. But he would have been surprised if he had, not necessarily pleasantly. At least, in retirement, he had no reason to fear conspiracies by his Cabinet colleagues.
    • Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999), pp. 450-451
  • Wilson was always mildly anti-European, in the sense that he seemed not to like continental Europeans, their style of life or their politics. He was basically a north of England, non-conformist puritan, with all the virtues and the inhibitions of that background. The continental Europeans, especially from France and southern Europe, were alien to him... Despite this background, Harold Wilson decided from October 1974 that a 'yes' position was the most practical choice. As a statesman – which was part, but only part of his complex personality and always was – he knew that Britain must be centrally placed in Europe's future. As a party leader, he saw it as the best way to hold Labour together – because the antis would not leave the Party over Europe, but the pros would. As a shrewd politician, he saw the pro position as the most likely winning one... Mr Heath had taken the British Establishment into Europe. Harold Wilson took in the British people.
    • Bernard Donoughue, 'Harold Wilson and the Renegotiation of the EEC Terms of Membership, 1974–5: A Witness Account', in Brian Brivati and Harriet Jones (eds.), From Reconstruction to Integration: Britain and Europe since 1945 (1993), pp. 204-205
  • When, 50 years ago, on 14 February 1963, Harold Wilson was elected leader of the Labour party, even many of his supporters – wrongly I now believe – thought him a politician without principle... He was what used to be called "a good Labour man" – instinctively the enemy of privilege and certain that improvement in the lives of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed depended on the success of the Labour party. That is why he worked so hard, and sometimes deviously, to keep it united. I should have understood that 50 years ago.
  • No prime minister ever interfered so much in the work of his colleagues as Wilson did in his first six years... Unfortunately, since he had neither political principle nor much government experience to guide him, he did not give Cabinet the degree of leadership which even a less ambitious prime minister should provide. He had no sense of direction, and rarely looked more than a few months ahead. His short-term opportunism, allied with a capacity for self-delusion which made Walter Mitty appear unimaginative, often plunged the government into chaos. Worse still, when things went wrong he imagined everyone was conspiring against him. He believed in demons, and saw most of his colleagues in this role at one time or another.
  • [W]hat really endeared the people of this country to him was that they knew from his background, his upbringing and his own life, in which there was hardship, that he was a compassionate man who understood their needs and who was doing his best, often in difficult circumstances...to meet those needs and to ensure that people had a better life. That was his philosophy and his purpose in coming into the House, in being in opposition and in being a Minister... This country owes a great deal to him.
  • Harold was, above all else, a great political survivor, a fine politician if, perhaps, never truly a statesman.
  • We have Mr. Wright's allegation that a surveillance operation was mounted against Lord Wilson of Rievaulx when he was Prime Minister in the mid-1970s...Many criticisms can be made of Lord Wilson's stewardship—I have made some in the past and I have no doubt that I may make some more in future—but the view that he, with his too persistent record of maintaining Britain's imperial commitments across the world, with his over-loyal lieutenancy to Lyndon Johnson, with his fervent royalism, and with his light ideological luggage, was a likely candidate to be a Russian or Communist agent is one that can be entertained only by someone with a mind diseased by partisanship or unhinged by living for too long in an Alice-Through-the-Looking-glass world in which falsehood becomes truth, fact becomes fiction and fantasy becomes reality. The result of the allegation has been substantially to fortify the view that I expressed in a letter to The Times 18 months ago, which is that MI5 should now be pulled totally out of its political surveillance role.
  • I shall remember him above all for his courtesy and his kindness. He hated being disagreeable. He liked to be nice to people, which is not always the case with those who had his thrust to power. He also had very good nerve in a crisis. And as he experienced quite a number of crises, that was a big asset. In some ways he was easier to work with when things were going wrong. He was cool and unrecriminatory... He served his country well.
  • He got a clear-cut first, and there is some evidence that he achieved the highest marks in PPE of any undergraduate of the decade... Academically his results put him among prime ministers in the category of Peel, Gladstone, Asquith, and no one else.
  • The most politically skillful of them was Harold Wilson. It was my good fortune that we were friends before he became prime minister. I was able to persuade him to remain east of Suez for a few years longer... The problems he faced in Britain were deep-seated—lowered levels of education and skills, lower productivity because unions were not cooperating with management. The Labour Party in the 1960s and 1970s was dominated by the trade unions and could not tackle these basic issues, hence Wilson was seen as going for quick fixes. To keep the party behind him, he had to zigzag, making him appear wily and devious.
    • Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: Singapore and the Asian Economic Boom (2000; 2011), pp. 377-378
  • I do not believe that it is too generous to describe Harold Wilson as one of the most brilliant men of his generation... 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... 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.
  • [F]ew modern British governments have disappointed their supporters more thoroughly than his. After thirteen years in opposition, Labour returned to office in 1964 on the ticket of technical competence, purposive planning, faster growth and higher social spending. Socialism, as Wilson put it, would be harnessed to science, and science to socialism. When he and his colleagues limped back into opposition six years later, it was hard to tell which half of the promise had been more comprehensively belied. His Government had wrecked its own National Plan less than a year after announcing it, achieved a lower annual growth rate than that of the Conservatives and consumed vast quantities of energy and time in a bitter struggle with the trade unions, in which it was humiliatingly defeated. What Wilson had christened the 'social wage' did indeed absorb a larger share of the gross domestic product, but that was only because the whole economy had grown more slowly than expected. His second incarnation as Prime Minister was even less happy than his first. In 1974 Labour promised 'an irreversible shift of power and wealth to working people and their families', to be achieved through a social contract with the unions, entailing higher social spending and an end to wage controls. Two years later, Wilson resigned, having presided over record levels of inflation and unemployment, having launched an incomes policy patently designed to reduce real wages and having started the long series of expenditure cuts which were to destroy all hope of putting Labour's election pledges into effect.
    • David Marquand, The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair (1991; rev. ed. 1999), pp. 155-156
  • Wilson was in himself a new and deadly threat to the Government. He was a formidable parliamentary debater with a rapier wit... [H]e could get under Harold Macmillan's skin in a way Hugh Gaitskell never could. While Gaitskell was more of a statesman than Wilson, Wilson was an infinitely more accomplished politician... I can say little in favour of either of Harold Wilson's terms as Prime Minister. Doubtless he had principles, but they were so obscured by artful dodging that it was difficult for friends and opponents alike to decide what they might be. Yet I regretted his departure for several reasons. I had always liked him personally, I had appreciated his sense of humour, and I was aware of his many kindnesses. He was a master of Commons repartee, and I usually scored nothing better than a draw against him in the House.
  • Harold's record as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party has been underestimated. As Prime Minister, during a period of unremitting economic difficulty, he maintained full employment but was unable to restrain inflation. Unwilling to break trades union power by allowing mass unemployment, as Mrs Thatcher was later to do, he tried the alternative policy of income and prices restraint ... It failed, but it was a failure rooted in a committent to social justice... In another way, Harold's achievement as Prime Minister has been underestimated. He was without prejudice. He did not judge people on their colour, race, gender or class. Members of his government were drawn from many backgrounds.
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