A New Britain: How Harold Wilson Became Labour Leader



Contested between Wilson, George Brown and James Callaghan in the wake of Hugh Gaitskell’s death, it was seen as a fight to select the next Prime Minister

A thread re-visiting the contest


On the 18thJanuary 1963, Hugh Gaitskell died of lupus disease – a rare and fatal condition. Aged just 56, Gaitskell had revived Labour’s fortunes and commanded a 9 point poll lead over Harold MacMillan’s Conservative Party.


Tributes were paid to his first-class intellect, integrity, great courage and to the prime minister Britain never had.

The Queen sent a message to Mrs Gaitskell expressing her ‘deep distress’

Harold Macmillan sent a telegram expressing his deepest sympathy

‘He had achieved great political stature and his premature death is a grievous loss to the whole nation’

Privately Macmillan wrote in his diary:

‘Gaitskell was the sort of upper-middle class leader which a party of the left requires in normal times – Asquith or Attlee’

‘His successor will be chosen soon. The candidates are Wilson, Brown and Callaghan. The first is able but dangerous. The second is a buffoon. The third is pretty good and would be a respectable leader’

Earl Clement Attlee said:

‘I am very distressed both at the loss of a good man and comrade and of an outstanding member of the Labour Party’

Roy Jenkins – a key Gaitskellite – wrote:

‘It is by far the biggest unexpected loss  to British politics this century. Without him a shadow falls over the whole political prospect’



‘In the last year of his life he was able to lead the Labour Party with an assured authority which no previous leader in the party’s 60 year history had ever attained’

‘Had he lived he would undoubtedly have dominated public life in the 60s’

Michael Foot, writing as the editor of Tribune, claimed:

‘To have so much, so arduously worked for, snatched from him was a grievous individual misfortune with scarcely a parallel in British political history’

Foot refused to join in the tributes that claimed he was a lost ‘great’ Prime Minister

‘The real challenge to Gaitskell would have been how much he was prepared to re-educate himself, to repudiate much of his past, to mobilise aspirations and acknowledge ideas which for so long he bitterly fought’

Foot believed that historians would:

‘rub their eyes when they read that Gaitskell was acclaimed at his death as the great unifier of his party’

The Daily Mirror declared the death a ‘tragedy’:

‘Gaitskell’s great achievement was to persuade the Labour Party to accept the realities of the modern age’.

In the wake of his death, Harold Wilson and George Brown emerged as the clear front runners to take the leadership from the left and right wings of the party.

Wilson had challenged Gaitskell for the leadership in 1960 and Brown for Deputy in 1962, losing both. Pundits made Brown the early favourite and speculation focused on Patrick Gordon-Walker and Jim Callaghan as a third candidate.

William Rees-Mogg, writing in the Sunday Times argued:

‘Wilson cannot reasonably be faulted; but his political reliability is questioned and is questioned by men who are his colleague and have known him longest’

‘Brown has earned a reputation for political courage and for being right on the big issues…he is the most European minded of the Labour leaders and under his Government Britain would be a loyal ally’

Brown had been on a tour of unemployed ‘black spots’ in the North-West whilst Gaitskell had been ill. Upon his death Brown spoke on television

‘I pray for his soul and I mourn his passing in every way’


Wilson had been preparing a leadership bid whilst Gaitskell had been in hospital and was in New York when he finally heard the news. Wilson was in the US to explain Labour’s position on the Common Market to the Kennedy administration.

The right of the party met at Tony Crosland’s flat to prepare a ‘Stop Wilson’ campaign. Brown emerged as the candidate after cutting a deal with Gordon-Walker and promised to ‘do his best’ to make him Deputy leader.

Brown launched his campaign as the continuity candidate around the slogan ‘To keep the spirit of Gaitskell alive, vote Brown’

As acting Leader, Brown became the dominant figure in the aftermath of Gaitskell’s death. In a speech in Newcastle, Brown claimed

‘Big, cherished, loved men and women have been called away from us before. The movement had gone one, not un-affected – relentlessly, remorselessly inexorably to its own fulfilment’

‘We will not lose the capacity to be comrades all the way through the debate and remain a united team at the end of it’

‘We have the policies. They do not die when a man dies, however cherished that man is’

As Ben Pimlott has outlined in his biography of Wilson, outsmarted Brown on this issue of unity, with Wilson’s version of events on a pact leading the headlines:

‘Brown thought he had agreed with Wilson that it should be a clean fight, with as little damage to be done to party unity…A public declaration by Brown to the effect that he could work with Wilson might draw the sting from the argument that Wilson was a part splitter (after 1960)’

‘Brownites realised Wilson’s tactical coup too late. Brown repudiated the idea of any pact— thereby unwittingly conceding that Wilson had a point: the deputy leader seemed to be setting himself up against party unity; unlike his conciliatory opponent’

By rejecting Wilson’s narrative, many began to question whether Brown could unify the party ahead of a vital election.


Tony Benn wrote in his diary that Gaitskell’s:

‘death seems a disaster because it looks as if George Brown will succeed him…and for a number of reasons he is totally unsuited to be leader of the party’

Tony Crosland was equally as worried

‘Are we really going to be led by a neurotic drunk?’

Crosland believed that the contest between Wilson and Brown was a choice ‘between a crook and a drunk’

After Crosland informed Brown of his decision not to back him, Brown wrote him a letter

‘I am deeply worried and anxious about the future…may God be kind to our movement at this moment’

Crosland, Douglas Jay and Michael Stewart pushed Jim Callaghan forward instead. Callaghan later claimed ‘I was not averse (to standing) – I was quite happy about it’.

Callaghan entering was seen to the advantage of Wilson in splitting the right vote. Reg Prentice, Chairman of the TGWU union, came out for Callaghan over Brown

However an initial poll showed that the voters preferred Brown (38%) to Wilson (33%) to Callaghan (6%). In a poll of Labour voters Brown held a ten point lead whilst Wilson led a poll of Tory voters by 2pts.

Feb 8th 1963

In the first ballot Wilson secured 115 votes to Brown’s 88 and Callaghan’s 41. One Wilson supporter claimed

‘If I could find it in my heart to feel sorry for George I would have felt it then’

Callaghan admitted that

‘I knew I never had a hope but people that I respected like Douglas Jay and Denis Healey asked me to stand’

Callaghan refused to back either man:

‘I still prefer myself. People vote for a party in Britain, not for a leader’

Despite much media pressure, Brown refused to stand down.

‘This is not the moment for withdrawing or changing ones position’

Brown was reported to have met with his supporters at is home in Dulwich. He asked

‘Is there a big enough trade union leader in town to swing this thing?’

The same evening, 12 of Callaghan’s supporters swung to Wilson. The news prompted Wilson to make what his biographers called ‘a rare emotional gesture’ through a toast to Nye Bevan – alongside George Wigg, Dick Plummer, Anthony Greenwood and Richard Crossman.

Feb 15th 1963

When Wilson appeared at Blackburn on the 9thFebruary he was introduced as

‘the man whom we all hope in a week’s time will be designated our next Prime Minister’

Politically, Britain was reeling from its rejection from entry to the Common Market.

Speaking in Chorley, Wilson claimed that Labour would

‘put forward a constructive policy at home and abroad as an alternative to the breakdown at Brussels’

‘Let’s not have it all blamed on General de Gaulle for the failure of the Common Market negotiations’

It was clear that Wilson had the momentum behind him. In a bid to shift himself to the centre of the party he spoke of the need for a Western Alliance and to stand by NATO.

Mary Wilson was interviewed by the Mirror on the changes that might occur to their marriage:

‘Thee thing I should miss most of all if Harold became Prime Minister would be getting up early to cook him a big bacon and eggs breakfast’

‘Breakfast is the one time of the day we can be sure of be- ing together. It means o lot to me to cook for him and wait on him. But I suppose the servants at No. 10 wouldn’t think it quite the thing’

‘Of course, I’m terribly thrilled for Harold. He really will be a wonderful leader.’

On the second ballot, Wilson defeated Brown by 144 votes to 103

Feb 15th 1963c

In his first speech as the new leader, Wilson took a statesmanlike approach

‘It is an occasion for a deep sense of responsibility. It is at the same time a very humbling experience to be elected as leader of this great movement’

All three of the candidates in this election felt a sense of inadequacy but it has been fought with no rancour or bitterness. The leadership of the party is united’

‘The first mandate given to me was a sacred trust to maintain the unity of the party’

‘The second is to continue those policies worked out under his leadership’

‘The third is to lead the party to victory in the coming election. And with the help of the whole party that is what I intend to do’

‘I am in no doubt about the gruelling nature of the job. We in the party must recognise the toll we took of Hugh Gaitskell’s health by taking advantage of his unstinting willingness to serve the party regardless of self’

‘It is vital that George Brown and the Chief Whip continue as a team. George has a unique contribution to make to the Party both inside and outside Parliament’

‘Michael Foot was positive about Wilson’s victory

Feb 22nd 1963

‘He assumes the leadership committed to no special section or interest. His chance to heal past asperities within the party is clear. The early prospect of power should act as a further cement’.

‘Altogether the Labour Party’s opportunity for a new start is unique. Another 1945 could be in the making.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: