Harold Wilson: 5 facts about the Labour Party prime minister

Ahead of his portrayal by BAFTA-winning actor Jason Watkins in Season 3 of The Crown, we bring you five facts about Labour prime minister Harold Wilson – from his friendship with Queen Elizabeth II to his achievements in parliament…

British prime minister Harold Wilson, March 1967. (Photo by Michael Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Season three of popular royal drama The Crown will begin on Netflix on 17 November 2019, introducing a new and rebooted cast including Olivia Coleman as Queen Elizabeth II; Helena Bonham Carter as the monarch’s sister, Princess Margaret; and Jason Watkins as prime minister Harold Wilson.

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The new season of the popular biopic is expected to cover the years following the Profumo affair of 1961, the political scandal that featured in the second season of The Crown and concerned the sexual relationship between married government minister John Profumo and model Christine Keeler.

If speculation is to be believed, storylines for season three will include key historical moments such as the decolonisation of Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the 1969 moon landing. The show will also introduce BAFTA-winning actor Jason Watkins as British politician Harold Wilson, who served for two terms as prime minister – the first from 1964 to 1970 and the second from 1974 to 1976.

But how much do you know about the former leader of the Labour Party? Here, ahead of his fictional on-screen portrayal in The Crown, we bring you five facts about Harold Wilson…

1

Harold Wilson was the youngest member of the cabinet in the 20th century

Harold Wilson, full name James Harold Wilson, was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire on 11 March 1916. The son of an industrial chemist and schoolteacher, he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford before being drafted into the civil service following the outbreak of the Second World War. He was a keen academic in his early life, but ultimately pursued a career in politics and became MP for Ormskirk in 1945.

In 1947, prime minister Clement Attlee made Wilson – then aged 31 – president of the Board of Trade, securing his place as Britain’s youngest cabinet minister since William Pitt the Younger in 1782.

Wilson holds a number of other records: he was the first Labour prime minister to be elected for 13 years, following his win at the general election of 1964; he is the longest-serving Labour prime minister of the 20th century; and he won four out of the five general elections he contested – more than any other postwar British leader.

2

He was a “modest” man, according to those who knew him

In Wilson’s obituary for the Guardian, journalist Geoffrey Goodman recounted the time he interviewed Wilson shortly after his win at the 1964 election. Upon being asked how he felt, Wilson replied: “I still can’t believe it. Just think, here I am, the lad from behind those lace curtains in the Huddersfield house you saw – here I am about to go to see the Queen and become prime minister… I still can’t believe it.” 

3

His government was responsible for abolishing capital punishment and decriminalising homosexuality

Two of the most significant acts to be implemented during Wilson’s tenure as prime minister were the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 – which suspended the death penalty in England, Wales and Scotland – and the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalised certain homosexual acts.

4

The Queen maintained a good relationship with Wilson

It has been noted by many historians that Harold Wilson and Queen Elizabeth II got along remarkably well. Unlike many of his predecessors, Wilson did not come from a traditional ruling class background, and consequently he has been attributed to opening the Queen’s eyes to a world beyond her social class. Royal biographer Robert Lacey noted, in particular, that he “persuaded the Queen to drop a lot of stuffy protocol that had remained since Queen Victoria”.

Like other prime ministers before him, Wilson enjoyed weekly meetings with the Queen and held her in high regard. “He said they were the only times when he could have a serious conversation, which would not be leaked, with somebody who wasn’t after his job,” wrote Francis Beckett in BBC History Magazine’s ‘Queen Elizabeth: 90 Glorious Years’ bookazine. “She enjoyed them too – after Churchill, Wilson may have been her favourite PM.”

The Queen would often invite the Labour politician to enjoy picnics in Balmoral alongside the wider royal family, it has been reported.

Queen Elizabeth II with British prime minister Harold Wilson, cJune 1969. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II with British prime minister Harold Wilson, June 1969. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
5

He was a liberal politician – or at least seemed to be

Wilson’s political leanings were generally liberal throughout his career. “He brought his party, bruised and battered, but intact, into the modern era,” wrote Francis Beckett in BBC History Magazine. “His governments were active in improving education, creating the Open University, building schools, and moving towards a comprehensive system.”

Critics, however, have been sceptical of Wilson’s “achievements” in social reform and domestic policy. Journalist Paul Foot, for example, commented that he was “always an unprincipled opportunist and the left were naive for believing otherwise”.

Wilson died on 23 May 1995 at the age of 79 from colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. His own political views can be found in his books The Labour Government, 1964–1970 (1971); The Governance of Britain (1976); and Final Term: The Labour Government 1974–76 (1979).

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Rachel Dinning is the Digital Editorial Assistant at HistoryExtra.