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Harold Wilson

Volume 601: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered commemoration of the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth.

I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to introduce a debate on Harold Wilson. I have a great affinity with Harold Wilson, because he was born in my constituency and was educated in Huddersfield. I knew him well towards the end of his life, and I was privileged to have him campaign for me in the 1979 general election. I know many people in Huddersfield who knew him and thought he was a wonderful Yorkshireman and a wonderful national representative of the Labour party as Prime Minister.

Many colleagues have talked to me about the fact that Harold’s memory has not been very well documented. Some have said that his contribution to British politics, British Parliament and British life has been neglected, undervalued, underrated and forgotten.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Nuttall. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is paradoxical? Harold Wilson retired only days after beating the then record of Herbert Asquith as the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century. Since then, only Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher have served as Prime Minister for a larger number of days. His Governments brought in great social changes in the 1960s, and the Open University truly changed society. Should Harold Wilson not be a figure who we honour? His “renegotiate and decide” approach to the European Union might be familiar to a modern-day Prime Minister too.

I fear my hon. Friend has stolen most of my thunder there, but I absolutely agree with him.

To set the scene, this very much neglected man was a great Prime Minister. People might remember the celebrations of Denis Healey’s life only two or three weeks ago. Denis Healey lived a vigorous life to a great old age and, in a sense, could look after and defend his record. He did that brilliantly right to the end of his life. I also knew Denis very well, as did some of my colleagues. Harold was cruelly struck down by a wicked onset of illness in his late 50s, when he was in his prime. He had to retire at the age of 60, stunning the political world and most people, who could not quite understand what was going on. He was a very ill man, and the nature of his illness was kept quiet out of respect for his wife, Mary, and his sons, Robin and Giles.

This is our opportunity, because 11 March 2016 will be the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth. My colleague from the other side of the Pennines, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), is in his place. We share Harold Wilson between Yorkshire and Lancashire, because Harold was never a Yorkshire Member of Parliament. He was the Member for Parliament for Ormskirk, originally, and then for Huyton.

We have a unique opportunity next year to celebrate Harold Wilson’s life. A small committee of Members want to ensure that all parliamentarians are aware of that date and that we honour his memory in a significant way, not only through lectures or great events. Mr Nuttall, you might remember my campaign three years ago for there to be a proper statue of Harold Wilson in the precincts of Westminster. It failed, because the Speaker’s Art Fund turned us down. Let us do it again, because it is quite wrong that in the Members’ Lobby there is just a small head and shoulders of Harold Wilson. It is about time we honoured him with a full statue.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I applaud and will support the work he is doing to commemorate this important centenary. Harold Wilson actually inspired my own lifelong devotion to the Labour party when I heard him speak at Reading town hall in the 1964 general election campaign. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the many remarkable things about Harold Wilson was his combination of high intellect and political skill with the common touch and the ability to inspire the trust of working people?

My right hon. Friend, like me, was very much influenced by hearing Harold on the stump when we were young men. He had great repartee. I will come to that in a moment, but first I must remind everyone what a brilliant young boy Harold was.

Harold’s father was a works chemist and his mother was a schoolteacher. He went to Royds Hall school. In fact, he had a severe illness when he was a child, which affected his education but did not prevent him from going on to be a brilliant young scholar at Oxford. He started off doing a history degree and switched to philosophy, politics and economics. He became the youngest Oxford don at the age of 21—what a remarkable career. In his first year at university, he was recruited into the Labour party by G. D. H. Cole, one of the great founders of the labour movement. Later on, as a brilliant young academic, Harold, like much of that generation, gets involved in the war effort and becomes a key civil servant in it. He worked in a number of Ministries, including as a researcher for William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state in so many ways. Harold was working on unemployment and the trade cycle, and worked at the Ministry of Fuel and Power.

When I first joined the House, I tried to look up Harold’s maiden speech, but he never made one; he was a Minister on the day he was elected. He was the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century when he became President of the Board of Trade—what a remarkable man. Then, of course, when Hugh Gaitskell died, which was a great tragedy because he was a relatively young man, Harold Wilson, from the left of the Labour party, became the leader of the Labour party.

In that very year, 1963, he makes the “white heat of technology” speech to the Scarborough Labour party conference that transforms how people think about the future of our country’s economy. He tells us how unskilled and semi-skilled jobs are going to go, and that the future of our country is in science and technology. He talks about understanding how the future is going to dramatically change and how we must prepare Britain to be a modern country. He says, “Why are only 5% of people going to university? Why shouldn’t it be 10%? Why is the country run by a few people who went to public school and posh universities? Why can’t everyone have the chance to go to university? Why don’t we have more scientists, people who know about stuff and good managers to run our country?” That reminds me of some of the arguments we are having today in the House.

I was going to make that very point. My hon. Friend makes a powerful speech about the tremendous legacy of Harold Wilson for this country and for Opposition Members. Harold Wilson, when he was first elected, represented Ormskirk, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Much of that constituency is now in my own constituency, and people in that area are extremely proud of the legacy that Harold gave to us. The parallel with today is striking. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have much to learn from Harold Wilson about the need to develop our skills base in this country, not least the management skills he just mentioned?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was just going to say that Harold worked with Nye Bevan, his great friend, on the foundations of the health service. However, as well as that, he saw the need in this country, which was ravaged by war, for the houses that had still not been built. He was behind the new towns movement, building new towns such as Milton Keynes and building more housing than I think anyone has ever built in this country. We should remember Harold for that, but people should remember him for the other things that he did, too, such as the cultural transformation in this country in our attitude to homosexuality and the change in the laws on it. There were the changes in our attitudes to divorce and the rights of women in property. He had a very good Home Secretary in Roy Jenkins, and in this House at the time, with that kind of ethos, we abolished capital punishment. So many of the transformational things that made our country what it is today happened under Wilson’s watch.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As the MP for Knowsley, which includes Huyton, I ought to have something to say on the subject. The only thing I want to add to what has been said, all of which I agree with, is that Harold Wilson is remembered very fondly in Knowsley as an outstandingly good constituency MP. To have held the high offices that he did and still be considered so highly as a constituency MP speaks volumes for his ability and commitment.

Again, my colleagues are making such good interventions that they are really overshadowing this poor speech of mine. I did not add, before that intervention, the change in the abortion law that took place during Harold Wilson’s premiership.

I talked to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who told me a story about being in No. 10 with Harold Wilson when Lyndon Baines Johnson rang Harold. My right hon. Friend answered the phone, and Lyndon Baines Johnson begged Harold Wilson to send a token force to Vietnam to show support for the Vietnam war. The conversation went on for some time—these two men were great friends—and eventually, Harold said, “L. B., I will not send a token force, not even a Scottish pipers band.” That was a Prime Minister who kept us out of a war, which is quite refreshing, is it not?

Again, all congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I want to say, as a Scottish Member, that Harold Wilson is fondly remembered in Scotland across the party divide, both for his humour and for the fact that under his Government the first genuine elements of devolution occurred, with the creation of the Scottish Development Agency and the Highlands and Islands development board, from which everything else has grown. The hon. Gentleman is also absolutely correct to say that the one great thing that Harold Wilson did and should be remembered for is something that he did not do: he did not take Britain into Vietnam. That would have ended not with one pipe band, but with tens of thousands of people from this country dying.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, too.

Harold was also a brilliant parliamentarian. People who can still remember his days as Prime Minister—before our time in the House—will know what a wonderful command of Parliament he had in the House of Commons. He had a brilliant ability for repartee, which was exhibited in his great speeches during elections. There was a famous occasion when he thought a Conservative supporter had thrown an egg at him during a speech at a big public meeting. He said, “In five years’ time, if the Tories win the election, people won’t be able to afford to buy an egg”, which although I thought it rather harsh, was very funny. He did not only have funny repartee. He said—these words leap off the page—that the Labour party

“is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”

That was matched by him saying:

“The only limits of power are the bounds of belief”,

which is absolutely wonderful. This week he is also particularly appropriate for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because it was Harold Wilson who said:

“A week is a long time in politics.”

Does my hon. Friend know that there was a tremendous amount of controversy about continuing to send arms to the apartheid regime in South Africa? The controversy was in the Cabinet, apparently. A number of Harold Wilson’s Cabinet colleagues believed that however much they were against apartheid, arms supplies should continue. Harold Wilson encouraged the signing of an early-day motion by literally hundreds of Back-Bench MPs, of whom I was one. That swayed the argument to a very large extent, and Harold Wilson won the day in Cabinet.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an apposite, timely debate. I can confirm the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick); it was Harold’s intervention against the supply of arms. In particular, Simonstown base in South Africa was being used, and only his direct intervention prevented certain other Members of the Cabinet from doing that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I am very grateful for the brief intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), who mentioned that he was brought into politics through Harold. I had a similar experience in the United States. He was on a tour at the time and I was studying for a graduate degree. He inspired a number of us on that occasion to come back and work for the party, as he put it to us.

Is not really the sum total of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield is making in this comprehensive review of Harold himself, his career and his Government that now is the time for a major re-evaluation, not so much of his reputation—his personal achievements are fairly well known—but of the Government at the time? It was a very fine Administration, and what my hon. Friend is leading up to is the need for a re-evaluation. May this be the start of it. I congratulate him, in that context, on a timely and correct choice of topic for today’s debate.

My hon. Friend has deep knowledge of this period of British politics and of Harold Wilson, and I very much appreciate his remarks.

We are opening up a broader debate about Harold Wilson, his contribution, and the effect of this brilliant young man when he got into politics, and having a broad debate will do us a great deal of good in Parliament, because we will celebrate not just a party politician but a great parliamentarian and a great public speaker.

I will, in two seconds.

We must remember that we want this centenary to be about more than just saying, “Yes, I have written to the Speaker and to the director-general of the BBC and others, and we are getting this concerted campaign to have a proper response.” We want to build something living. For example, the vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, Bob Cryan, is launching 50 Harold Wilson scholarships during the centenary year. I hope that that will be replicated in other parts of the country and in different ways. Later today, I am meeting the vice-chancellor of the Open University, which, again, is something that Harold Wilson started. The list goes on and on.

I give way to my friend from Colne Valley.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman—I will call him my hon. Friend—on securing the debate. It is absolutely right that we celebrate and mark the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson early next year. Does he agree that we should perhaps include his—and my—beloved Huddersfield Town? As a young boy, Harold Wilson stood on the terraces at Leeds Road with his father. We should include the people of Cowlersley in my constituency, as he was born on Warneford Road there, and include Royds Hall school, just on the edge of my constituency, because whenever I visit that school, I know how proud they are of the fact that Harold Wilson was educated there in his early life.

I have been blessed by so many interventions from knowledgeable people that I am now running out of time, and we want the Minister, whom I very much respect, to say something too.

Let me finish by saying that this issue is not party political. It is about the ability to recognise a man who was struck down by a vicious, aggressive form of Alzheimer’s. These days we are much more open about that challenge to health. There is more understanding of how awful it can be. One of the most brilliant young men of his generation had his mature life in politics snatched away by a form of that cruel disease. We are much more open than we were 20 or 30 years ago when he was ill.

I thank you, Mr Nuttall, for the opportunity today to talk about Harold and his impact on this country. I urge all parliamentarians to join us in celebrating his life on and around 11 March 2016.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech this morning. The many interventions from hon. Members across the House have made clear the importance of Harold Wilson in parliamentary and public life. Indeed, it seems that he was a key inspiration for many people, particularly Opposition Members, in entering political life.

This country, and indeed this Parliament, have a good record of marking anniversaries in a dignified and relevant way. The pessimists may say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, but I prefer the quotation, “Study the past if you would define the future”. I hope that Harold Wilson would agree, not least because he said of himself:

“I’m an optimist, but an optimist who carries a raincoat.”

This year marks a number of important anniversaries. We have commemorated 800 years since the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 and 750 years since the Simon de Montfort Parliament in 1265. The 2015 anniversary celebrations have raised awareness of our democratic heritage, with Parliament at the heart of the story. This year also marks other anniversaries, such as 50 years since Churchill’s death, 600 years since the battle of Agincourt, 200 years since the battle of Waterloo and 600 years since the appointment of the first Serjeant at Arms. I mention those anniversaries as many hon. Members will have noted the innovative ways in which they have been marked, both inside and outside Parliament.

As the hon. Gentleman said, 11 March 1916 marks the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson. Born in Yorkshire, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, he first visited No. 10 at the age of eight and, of course, it later became his home on two separate occasions. I believe that there is a special photograph of his first visit, which was almost a premonition.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned many of Harold Wilson’s career highlights, which I will not reiterate in full, but I will note a few historic elements. As Labour leader, he won four of the five general elections he contested. All current parliamentarians will appreciate what a genuine and truly magnificent achievement that was for any party leader.

Harold Wilson was a social reformer—reference has been made to that—and enacted reforms in many spheres. He will largely be remembered for abolishing capital punishment in Great Britain.

It would be wrong not to have on the record, in this year particularly, that Harold gave the British people a choice in the referendum on the European Union. That was the only time that people in this country had that choice, and he provided it in an adept and clever way. He totally outfooted a man called Benn.

That was coming up in my speech. The abolition of the death penalty, although it was initially introduced in a private Member’s Bill—Mr Silverman’s—was put into a permanent Act by Wilson’s Government. They abolished the death penalty in Great Britain and later in Northern Ireland.

As has been said, Wilson’s Government created the Open University. Dare I say it, but Margaret Thatcher, when Education Secretary, made sure that it stayed open despite a movement at the time to reduce its funding.

It was, of course, Harold Wilson who sought to renegotiate the terms of EU membership and offered the people of this country a referendum. Roll forward 40 years and we could argue about what a different position the Labour party takes on referendums on that matter. Nevertheless, it was significant, and I am sure the hon. Member for Huddersfield appreciates that we will be having a further referendum in a couple of years.

Moving on to popular culture, while Wilson never managed to make the pipe de rigueur, he coined a phrase that has never gone out of fashion:

“A week is a long time in politics”.

I believe that the phrase “kitchen Cabinet”, although it may have originated in America, described the core of what happened in Downing Street during his time there.

When preparing this speech, I was pleased to discover that Lady Wilson, Harold’s widow, celebrated her 99th birthday in January. She is the oldest living spouse of a former British Prime Minister and the last to have lived for two separate periods at No. 10 as wife of a serving Prime Minister. As we look ahead to next year, there is much to celebrate. I wish her well, hoping that she will receive her telegram from Her Majesty this coming January.

There is already much in Parliament to commemorate Harold Wilson. There are several paintings across the estate, and we pass a bust of him in Members’ Lobby on our way to the Chamber. In Portcullis House, the Wilson Room was named in his honour. In 2013, the BBC had an evening commemorating 50 years since he became Labour leader, so there may be opportunities there. He was certainly recognised as the first TV Prime Minister.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but will she please compare what we have in Parliament and in Westminster in memory of Harold Wilson compared what we have for other Prime Ministers? Thinking about statues and memorabilia of all kinds, what we have is very small and much less significant. Does she agree that the minimum we need is a proper statue of Harold and a full opportunity to pay tribute to him on the Floor of the House on the day of the anniversary of his birth, or as close as possible to it?

On the subject of recognition, such as statues and so on, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is for the House to make that decision through its committees. We should not denigrate the bust of Harold Wilson because it may be small, but I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says and I am sure that the House authorities will be listening.

As we approach the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth, the hon. Gentleman is right to consider further opportunities to commemorate his contribution to public and parliamentary life. I am sure he will pursue them in his characteristic and engaging way, as he does on other matters. On the subject of further debate in the House, I am not aware of previous debates that have commemorated the centenary of the birth of former Members, but he may wish to approach the Backbench Business Committee.

This has been a worthwhile debate, recognising many of the contributions that Harold Wilson made to the country. As has been said, many of them continue to this day and will shape the future of politics as we move forward. I welcome this debate.

That is not the normal practice, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, but on this occasion I will allow him to sum up this brief debate.

Thank you, Mr Nuttall. May I end by saying that I welcome the positive things that the Minister has said? I hope that Members throughout the House will take this anniversary seriously, because Harold Wilson’s was a very special retirement on medical grounds and we did not have the opportunity to do anything in previous years. This is a centenary, and there are precedents for special sessions after Question Time, perhaps even on a Wednesday, when we can pay tributes. I hope that the Minister is not closing the door on making a significant contribution and that we will not tuck Harold Wilson’s centenary away in some corner. Many of us will campaign for a high-profile event to recognise a man who changed Britain and ushered us into being a 21st-century, modern country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.