James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (11 March 1916 – 24 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.
- 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.
- Speech in the House of Commons (12 November 1956); often quoted as "gnomes of Zürich".
- 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that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.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".
- 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 Smethwick Conservatives can have the satisfaction of having topped the poll, and of having sent here as their Member one who, until a further General Election restores him to oblivion, will serve his term here as a Parliamentary leper
- Speech in the House of Commons (3 November 1964). The 1964 general election had seen the defeat of Wilson's Shadow Foreign Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker by Conservative Peter Griffiths after an allegedly racist campaign. Griffiths was indeed defeated at the next election but returned to Parliament in 1979 and served until 1997.
- 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".
- 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.
- Speech in the House of Commons (1 November 1965). Rhodesia declared independence 10 days later.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hughie, get your tanks off my lawn.
- 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 Philip Whitehead, The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies (London: Michael Joseph, 1985), p. 40.
- 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 a documentary called "Yesterday's Men" 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)
- Yet people who benefit from all this now viciously defy Westminster, purporting to act as though they were an elected government; people who spend 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.
- I get a little nauseated, perhaps, when I hear the phrase "freedom of the Press" used as freely as it is, knowing that a large part of our proprietorial Press is not free at all
- 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 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.
- 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" (Weidenfeld and Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London 1986, p. 10)
- Harold was, above all else, a great political survivor, a fine politician if, perhaps, never truly a statesman.
- Edward Heath, "The Course of My Life" (Hodder and Stoughton, 1998), p. 557