Harold Wilson was born 100 years ago today. He was a Prime Minister who made Britain more equal – and there is no better accolade than that.
He was a proud Yorkshireman whose outlook was shaped by his experiences. He became an MP in 1945 when Labour was swept to power with a mandate to transform Britain through the introduction of the welfare state.
He is most remembered for radical changes to the law which gave people control of their own lives. In response to the Ford Dagenham machinists’ strike of 1968 – immortalised by the film Made in Dagenham – Wilson’s government passed the Equal Pay Act. His government boosted women’s equality by liberalising divorce laws and legalising abortion under certain conditions.
Crucial steps were taken by Wilson governments towards stopping discrimination against ethnic minorities and he ensured homosexuality was decriminalised. A seminal moment of Wilson’s social reforms was when he abolished capital punishment.
He famously tried to harness the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to modernise the British economy. He knew that a strong economy relied on a healthy and educated workforce. He prioritised the building of high quality homes for everyone and he created the Open University which – to this day – gives thousands of people opportunities to build successful careers with new qualifications.
One of his achievements, which is often forgotten, is his decision not to take Britain into the Vietnam War, despite huge pressure from the US president Lyndon Johnson. His position as an internationalist was secured when he oversaw the independence of Zambia, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland. This was no surprise to his peers as he was a member of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, now called Liberation, of which I was a Chair.
Harold Wilson’s accomplishments as Prime Minister demonstrate the best values of the British Labour Party: equality, internationalism, and social justice.
The year before his time as Prime Minister came to an end, Britain had the lowest levels of inequality in our history. That was his legacy, he made Britain more equal.