To determine the extent of Wilson’s achievements compared to his failures I must weigh up his achievements and failures as PM on a personal and professional level. I will define each of his failures and achievements in terms of Wilson’s responsibilities as PM, such as, manifesto commitments, modernising the country and in comparison to other administrations or in relation to specific issues. I will also take into account influential factors of the period and weigh up their affect, if any on Wilson’s performance as PM. Harold Wilson governed the country from 1964 until 1970 and then again from 1974 until his resignation in 1976.
Many liberal policies were introduced during his time in power, including the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual practices and the 1967 Abortion Act which legalised abortion. However, his government is also remembered for the deteriorating relations with Trade Unions and the huge economic problems, such as rising inflation and low relative growth.
Wilson’s biggest political achievement was to win four elections after Labour had been in the wilderness for thirteen years “he had achieved something no previous PM had done this century… ed four administrations”1 Additionally, an early political achievement was to increase his majority in 1966; from 4 seats in 1964 to 96 seats. However, Wilson lost the election in 1970; historian’s offer different interpretations as to why he lost. Some suggest it was Wilson’s fault, “failed to rise to greatness because he failed in the critical period after 1966″2 and “failed to build upon the foundations he had laid”3. Both sources suggest that the majority win in 1966 was the clinching factor, a political opportunity granted by the electorate.
If Wilson had taken advantage of this opportunity, I believe he would have secured a consecutive election victory from 1964 to his resignation in 1976. On the other hand, the following source implies the 1970 defeat was the product of the public’s expectations being too high, “never able to repeat the success of its 1945 victory”4 due to the huge social and political achievements of Atlee’s administration. Even Wilson’s major achievement of four election victories is unfavourably compared to Tony Blair’s current government, “the victories in 1964 and 1966 do not bear comparison”5.
Furthermore, the following source suggests his election victories in the 1974 were not due to his political abilities, “1974 Labour gained power due to Liberal party drawing support from the Conservatives in the election”6. In addition, the election majority in February 1974 was very small, “vote fell below 40% for first time since 1950s”7. Edward Heath’s source suggests why there are conflicting views concerning Wilson’s electoral achievements, “great political survivor… ever truly a statesman”8, interpreting this source reveals that Wilson was never respected for his skill in important government affairs. This may be linked back to the high expectations the public had for Wilson due to the previous 1945 Labour Government.
A second major political achievement was to keep the Labour party together compared to the huge splits caused by Gaitskell and Bevan in the 1950s and the Left and Right wing in the 1990s; “he reconciled revisionists of the Right with traditionalists of the Left… ucceeded where Gaitskell failed”9. However, there is evidence that the extent of achieving reconciliation was incomplete, “left a legacy of discontent on the Left”10. On the other hand, the following two sources employ the belief that Wilson did achieve unity within the Party, “held Labour together for nearly 15 years”11 and “maintained unity within a disparate coalition of ideas and ambitions”12. However, renegotiations for the EEC in 1975 did cause a split, “accepted 396 votes to 170…
Labour split 137 to 145 with 33 abstentions”13, and this is evidence that seven Cabinet members opposed Wilson’s proposals and he failed to keep the Party unified. However, other evidence suggests that the EEC did not produce a split, yet implies that the opposition merely caused disagreements between some Cabinet members and the PM “avoided splits over EEC… it brought about heated debates”14. Additionally, the figures in the previous source show that the proposals were agreed with a small amount of opposition.
I believe the disagreements did not cause a major long-term split, whilst holding the Party together he presided over a decline in membership, “150,000 members left the Party during his time in office”15. A controversial issue surrounding Wilson is whether he kept his manifesto pledges. Evidence that he failed to, “manifesto was cautious in 1974″16 suggests he was aware he had not achieved what he had promised between 1964 and 1970 and was careful in 1974 in pledging promises of modernisation in his re-election. However, evidence shows the extent to which Wilson did achieve them was good; he “fulfilled most of his promises”17.
Wilson is perhaps more likely to be remembered for not achieving his pledges, because he did not touch upon the most popular promise, White Heat of Technology, which had aroused the voters and had been the clinching factor in the 1964 election win and the increasing majority in 1966, “Labour was returned to office on a platform of modernisation and reforms. “18 Another political failure was his unsuccessful application into the EEC in 1967. Some historians argue that it was because of President De Gaulle (President of France).
France felt threatened by Britain’s entry because it would remove them from the leading position and therefore De Gaulle vetoed the application. This judgement can be supported by Heath’s successful entry in 1971 after De Gaulle had left office, “De Gaulle’s retirement in 1969 removed the obstacles to Britain’s entry”. However, it can be argued that Wilson was to blame for the failure, because he did not give a personal contribution. Unlike Edward Heath who successfully entered, “after extensive and enthusiastic, personal contribution when he visited France”19.
On the other hand, he would not have been able to accumulate as much unity within the Party had he not held a Referendum over the EEC in 1975. It was a great political tactic in sustaining unity within the Party by letting the public decide. However, it highlights a weakness in his personality by producing an image of Wilson lacking leadership and responsibility. On the other hand, he had good intentions to help the economy through the EEC, “bring benefits of economic growth and improvements in social welfare”.
This also contradicts the idea that he did not try to achieve his social reform pledges, as entry would have allowed him to build the houses promised and raise the school leaving age. Wilson’s most awe-inspiring achievements were his liberalising Acts, because they positively affected the lives of real people. The reforms granted more freedom and social equality to all, such as, theatre censorship and the death penalty were abolished in 1965 and in 1967 the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality was established.
In 1968, the Representation of People Act granted more political freedom and women’s equality was enhanced through the Equal Pay Act in 1970. The Race Relations Acts in 1965 and Race Relations Board established in 1968 made many forms of racist and sexist behaviour illegal. Wilson increased his liberal achievements before resigning in 1976. The Health and Safety at Work Act was passed in 1974 and the Race Relations Board was strengthened in 1974 demonstrating he had achieved continual equality and a better standard of living for all throughout his four administrations.
The reforms were a complete achievement because it moulded society to value diversity to the present day and can often be undervalued, “his initiatives proved to be far reaching achievements”20. On the other hand, they can be overvalued, because the liberalising Acts were often private member Bills, which were not initiated by the government. This highlights that Wilson was not personally responsible for these outstanding achievements. Couple this with the following source and this view is completely evident, “abortion law reform and legalisation of homosexuality…
Wilson was unhappy about both of them”21. In fact the source suggests he did not agree with the named Acts being passed. Additionally, “abortion law reform was sponsored by David Steel (a Liberal)”22, which further contradicts that the reform was one of Wilson’s successful initiatives. I believe there are counteracting interpretations of this issue because the authors of the sources may have been positively or negatively affected by the reforms passed during this era and this may affect their judgement.
Edward Heath even though he was a political insider and was in a position to know the information he has given, the view may be biased due to him being leader of opposition at the time. However, interpretations may also differ due to the author comparing Wilson’s reforms to the social reforms achieved by the 1945 government, who during World War Two were able to direct the ‘Home Front’ and introduce the appealing idea of ‘Reconstruction’. Perhaps Wilson’s biggest failure was delaying the devaluation of the pound until 1967 as it caused pain and stagnation to the economy.
Wilson was responsible because of his selfish, personal reasons, “not want to damage Britain’s prestige or himself politically”23 nor did he want to be known as “the Party who devalued”24, suggesting he did not want to lose his political stability gained in the 1966 election. Some historian’s argue this point that if he had devalued earlier in 1964/65 it is possible he would not have had his major political achievements in the election. However, with hindsight it was not devaluation which eventually affected Labour’s prestige, but the Wilson’s choice to delay, “his protracted resistance to it made it an issue for Labour’s prestige”25.
Overall, this issue highlights Wilson’s moral cowardice. On the other hand, other sources suggest it was Wilson’s amicable nature that prevented him devaluing the pound, “wanted to protect Commonwealth”26 and “risked a government split and fell out with the Bank of England”27. With hindsight, Wilson would not have been able to keep the Party unified to the extent that he did had he devalued earlier. The following source enhances the reason that Wilson wanted good relations between himself and his allies, “we will not devalue… n return we receive a promise of massive US support for the sterling”28.
It is also evident that Wilson tried to achieve economic stability using an alternative policy, however, was forced to devalue when it failed, “had pressure from EFTA on the alternative solution, ‘J-Curve Effect’ and levying taxes on imports was received badly by Scandinavian allies”29. This source also suggests Wilson’s delay in order to keep relations with other countries amicable. Once devaluation occurred the economy began to improve and grew at a rate of 2. % per year, a creditable economic achievement. However, Britain was facing relative economic decline, this was far behind our European competitors. If Wilson had devalued earlier the growth rate could have been equal if not higher than the figures of other European countries.
Another economic failure was inflation peaked at 29% in 1975. Unemployment continued to rise “1. 5 million in 1976″30 and the economy was at a stage of stagflation. Some historian’s argue this was not a failure of Wilson and was caused by a situation out of his control, “effects of the OPEC oil crisis… 973… still felt… “31. Furthermore, he lowered inflation through negotiation with Trade Unions, “1975 government and Trade Unions agreed compulsory limit on wage increases lowering inflation to 8%”32 This achievement was as great as the policy adopted by Stafford Cripps, (wage restraint between 1948 and 1950) who had stabilised the economy considerably. On the other hand, Wilson failed miserably to reduce the unemployment rate compared to Macmillan’s Conservative government, “1962-3 unemployment touched 800,000”.
This is almost half the peak figure during Wilson’s era. However, Wilson’s handling of inflation was a great achievement compared to Heath’s government when inflation jumped from 6% in 1970 to 20% in 1974. The following source contradicts the idea that the peak inflation in 1975 was Wilson’s fault. It suggests he inherited the increasing problems of unemployment and inflation from the Conservatives 1970-1973, “Barber Boom… rising unemployment ensued… combined with acceleration of growth… led to deliberate economic expansion”33 Conclusions
Historians argue that the economy was to blame for Wilson’s lack of progress in his manifesto pledges. However, their views differ as to whether the poor economic situation was Wilson’s fault. Barbara Castle blamed the irresponsible behaviour of the Conservatives ‘boom’ policy to have caused the economic instability and suggests that Wilson is blameless, “put the government in a straight-jacket for three years”34. A good comparison is Heath’s failure to reverse the similar economic situation between 1970 and 1973, further suggesting Wilson was not culpable.
However, Reginald Maudling blames Wilson’s incompetence as PM and suggests that that incompetence led to the decline of the economy, “confidence in the sterling until Mr Wilson took over had remained high, a great opportunity for Britain, which the Conservatives had created… destroyed by Labour’s ‘loss of nerve'”35. This view may possibly be true in political terms but not in economic realities. Another reason for the poor economic performance causing Wilson’s lack of progress was the balance of payments crisis, “balance of payments is the core of the economic problems”36.
However, sources with hindsight suggest this reason never existed, “… was a myth… after a re-examination of the figures”37. Further enhancing the view that the economy was not a complete influence on Wilson’s achievements is that many historians compare his progress with the previous 1945 government and find him totally to blame. “… by the end of the war, Britain was effectively bankrupt…. yet Cripps managed to maintain full employment, increase exports and restore economic stability.
It highlights a very important point that Wilson’s overall situation as PM was nowhere near as difficult as that of the 1945 government, yet he was still failed to achieve all his manifesto promises, whereas the 1945 government achieved them and more. I believe a huge influential factor in Wilson’s achievements as PM was his personality. Healey argues that he was totally responsible for his failures; the following source suggests the negative affect of his character encroached on the party, “had no purpose or direction…. his short term opportunism allied to… self delusion… plunged the government into chaos”39.
However, the following quote contradicts Healey’s opinion, “Denis Healy is wrong… he had both political principle and a sense of direction… Labour was the instrument in his hands for the establishment of social equality”40 Goodman suggests that Wilson’s personality is responsible for his fantastic social reforms. His greatest social achievement was to narrow the gap between rich and poor, which was achieved through taxing the rich and granting more benefits to the poor. Many working class people could now afford to do only what the richer class citizens used to and study for a degree.
This view is supported by Lord Richards, “he had a strong sense of social justice”41. On the other hand, when he yielded to the Trade Unions over the White Paper, In Place of Strife, it is argued it was because he did not want to affect his political stability. However, other sources allow me to interpret that his personality prevented him insisting on the White Paper, “… he was a conciliator… least assertive of men”42 and “lacked conviction”43. They both suggest he did not have the strong willed leadership of Margaret Thatcher to tackle the Trade Unions effectively.
The major failure not to tackle Trade Unions was a key influential factor which resulted in poor industrial relations between the government and industries’; further adding to the negative impact on the economy. It was a symbiotic crisis, because the poor relationship reflected badly on the economy as inflation rose, simultaneously the weakness of the economy was a major cause of the bad relations. The abandonment of the White Paper shows that Wilson did not have complete faith in the Bill, because he surrendered immediately.
He had the political power to persevere with the Bill, however, he did not, maybe because he did not wish to jeopardise his political achievements. Philip Whitehead agrees with my judgement as he stated that “… his political success resulted in total abandonment of any beliefs he had. “44 On the other hand, compared to Heath’s government, Wilson did achieve something, because Heath had more opposition from Trade Unions than Wilson, which also highlights that the situation was impossible even in the hands of another PM.
Moreover, it was an impossible situation for Wilson, as many of his Cabinet members were Trade Unionists and he would not have kept the substantial amount of party unity he had built up had he been ruthless in his policies. I conclude that Wilson’s achievements did not outweigh his failures. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish some major social achievements, such as his liberalising acts. He provided more freedom to society and established a basis of equality between rich and poor.
However, his economic record undermined this. He did not handle the economic situation to the degree that a qualified economist should have. If he had not delayed devaluation or had been more involved in trying to secure entry into the EEC, he could have established the fundamentals of the scientific revolution he had promised and not only have received the funds to complete his manifesto promises, but he may have had consecutive election victories until his resignation in 1976.
Nonetheless, his overwhelming political achievements are evidence that he had the skills of a great politician. It needs to be remembered that the opposition towards Wilson was minimal, had it been severe he would have been unable to keep Labour unified for such a phenomenal amount of time and win majorities in four general elections. I believe he lacked the deep conviction of Thatcher and the inspirational qualities of Aneurin Bevan, which led him to be remembered as a hapless architect who failed to revolutionise Britain.