Harold Wilson Resigns

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Harold Wilson Resigns

Whitehall, London The 16th of March 1976 AD

Harold Wilson, one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a cabinet minister at 31, (the youngest since Pitt the Younger ), and the longest serving Labour Prime Minister until Tony Blair took that record, suddenly announced his resignation on March 16th 1976. He had served as PM from 1964 to 1970 when the Conservatives under Edward Heath took power. The Labour Party triumphed again in 1974 and Wilson was back at 10 Downing Street.

The Queen , it seems, was warned of 60-year-old Wilson’s departure the previous December, but the cabinet, only told on the day, was genuinely shocked at the news.

Wilson’s resignation was followed by all sorts of speculation about the reasons, though no definitive proof of anything other than his wish to enjoy a happy retirement after 31 years as an MP has ever surfaced, and he claimed his decision had been taken two years earlier.

Burglaries at his home and the homes of friends and allies led to rumours of blackmail. There was strange talk of links to the Soviet Union. Was he, as Denis Healey thought, ensuring key ally Jim Callaghan took his place (“making way for an older man”)? Was he avoiding the upcoming economic mess that his experience and formidable intellect had identified as inevitable? It is even posited that his leaving was a ruse designed to allow him to return as head of a coalition government to sort out that coming mess. He never did return, though as Lord Wilson he did produce a telling report on the failure of British investment in the 1980s.

When he died after a long illness in 1995 Harold Wilson left a huge political and social legacy: Britain firmly placed in Europe; abortion and homosexuality legalised; the class system and the deference that went with it mortally wounded. For an economist of exceptional brilliance it is, however, somewhat perverse that he also presided over a slide into economic chaos and declining industrial power, the union movement growing in strength and in independence from the Labour Party in spite or because of his policy of conciliation towards the TUC.

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