The Resignation: The End Of The Harold Wilson Era

Harold Wilson shocks the world as he resigns as Labour leader.

Dubbed ‘The man who came near to making Labour a natural party of government’ he brings an end to a thirty-year career at the top of British politics.

The story of his resignation:

Wilson had planned his retirement months in advance and had decided that he would not go on past the age of 60.

In September 1975, Wilson claims to have told the Queen of his plans to resign at Balmoral as she washed the dishes following a private meal between her, Harold and Mary Wilson.

His plans were stalled as the Government – working without a majority of one – faced a sterling crisis.

On Wilson’s 60thBirthday, the Labour Government was defeated on its public expenditure programme after thirty-seven MPs abstained over Denis Healey’s cuts.

In the immediate aftermath, Wilson told Callaghan that would be resigning in four days’ time and that he should ‘begin to make preparations for the inevitable contest’.

Tony Benn – despite being a member of the Cabinet – wrote that the defeat had ‘transformed the situation’ and that it ‘has ended the phoney peace and people see now that the Government is supported by right-wing forces in society’

In Cabinet, Jim Callaghan claimed ‘there are some people who abstained last night who wouldn’t mind a Tory Government’

Wilson immediately challenged the left to vote him down in a vote of confidence; ‘if we won that would expunge the previous nights defeat. If we lost it would mean a General Election’.

In the Commons, Wilson criticised

‘one of the most unholy parliamentary alliances in the history of Parliament. Nothing like it has been seen since the Shinwell-Winterton alliance, described in its day as “arsenic and old lace”. This time, it is arsenic and red chiffon’

Wilson warned that the left was

‘giving support to an opposition party whose Shadow Chancellor has said: There is no escaping from the fact that this — he meant cutting public expenditure now, this year— will increase unemployment in the short term’….

….I may be fastidious, but I would think many times before giving any help whatsoever to an Opposition who have made their policy on unemployment as clear as that’


Wilson remarked that

‘We always hear from the Tories about Marxists. They seem very pleased with their new allies’

Margaret Thatcher responded for the Opposition:

‘What the Prime Minister has is a coalition of Socialists and near-Marxists. He, and only he, is responsible for that failure to keep his own party behind his own Government. That is why he is so angry today—because it is his own failure that is on trial’

In a hot-tempered debate, it was the Chancellor Denis Healey who caused the biggest conflict with the backbenchers:

‘I hope that what happened last night will be a lesson to the whole of our movement. Those who thought it right to take the action that they did last night must know that they were falsifying the hopes of those in the trade union movement who have made sacrifices to help the Government and the country in the last few years…

‘to behave in such a way on another occasion will be to threaten surrender to the right hon. Lady the Member for Finchley To surrender to her would be to betray the whole of our Labour movement to its enemies.

‘No Government can be a Government if they surrender to blackmail. We cannot and will not surrender in this way’

Eric Heffer shouted ‘Stalinist!’ at Healey and claimed that he had learned nothing since they were both in the Communist Party years ago.

Russell Kerr shouted ‘Bastard! Bastard!’ at Healey and other MPs brandished the V sign at him.

Healey responded ‘Go and fuck yourselves you fuckers!’

Labour won the vote by 17. The following Tuesday at Cabinet, Wilson shocked them by announcing his resignation.


Wilson read out a seven page text outlining his reasons. He claimed after thirteen years as leader ‘no one should ask for more’. He claimed he had a duty to the country to give a successor time to implement a strategy ahead of a potential October 1979 election.

In a statement to the Cabinet and the nation, he claimed

‘These years of office spanned a period when Britain nationally and internationally had to face storms and challenges without parallel in our peacetime history’

‘This is the most experienced and talented team in this century, in my view transcending that of Campbell-Bannerman 70 years ago’

At PMQs Margaret Thatcher claimed:

‘we wish him well personally in his retirement. His decision has come at a time of great financial difficulty and unprecedented Parliamentary events’

Jeremy Thorpe claimed

‘Every Prime Minister who is worth his salt generates controversy and Mr Wilson has been no exception’

Edward Heath also paid tribute

‘Any man who has been able to lead a party as successfully as he has for 13 years, been Prime Minister for eight years and won four elections, deserves the fullest tributes for his achievements during that time’

Wilson responded:

‘I thank Mr Heath for the generosity of what he has said. It is characteristic…We have at all times enjoyed a courteous relationship’

The Telegraph dubbed him”

‘The man who came near to making Labour a natural party of government’

The paper claimed

‘He has long been the supreme example of the rationalist politician and also the most successful leader of the Labour Party in its history’

‘He rose by sheer ability, application and professional skill from lower middle class origins…it is not hard to accept the verdict of Richard Crossman that Wilson was the cleverest man to lead a party since Lloyd George’

‘Wilson, while a brilliant politician, does not deserve the title of statesman. He has been no worse than the times have required and he has been the ideal leader to guide Britain on her long slide down into mediocrity’

The Sun penned a ‘thank you from all of us’


‘All Britain will be poorer for his going. Time and again his judgment and his political timing have proved supreme. And he has begun to get Britain’s ship of state on a more even keel’

‘Thanks to Harold, Britain herself is still in the game with a chance’

Abroad, the Canberra Times credited him as

‘a brilliant politician who had managed not to alienate entirely the radical wing of his party’ who would be remembered for his reform of social services

Die Zelt dismissed him as

‘the archetypal insular Englishman’ who managed to ‘con his countrymen into permanent membership of the European Community by the trick of a referendum’

Bild Zeitung claimed

‘Wilson’s hot and cold baths over Europe did England a power of no good’. The paper concluded that with Britain ‘ungovernable’ he ‘treats himself to a quiet evening of his life’


Paris Match reflected:

‘Born in gloomy and uncouth Yorkshire…Wilson brought with him into No 10 for the first time the really lower English middle class. This big cat, plump and without arrogance had sharp claws’

The New York Times claimed

‘In his tendency to pass off appearance for substance and in his fascination for precedents, record and figures, Wilson’s style is reminiscent of that of Richard Nixon’.

Wilson hosted a dinner at Number Ten for the Queen and Prince Phillip.

Historians have since argued that Wilson is her favourite Prime Minister….

For Wilson, he claimed his biggest regret was not devaluating sterling and that is personal highlight was the setting up of the Open University

Inflation was seen to be the issue that defined his premiership with ‘the present day pound worth only 37p in 1964 money’

‘I believe we have above all achieved some social reform…and to a much greater extent than is realised institutional reform’

When he was asked what historians would make of his ‘movement from left to right of the party’ he rejected the claim

‘there has been no such movement. These simple-minded two-dimensional expressions have no reality to a multi-dimensional thing like politics…I decided each question on its merits when it came up’

On his legacy, Wilson believed he would be best remembered for

‘how we settled the position of Britain within the European Community once and for all and by consent’

2 thoughts on “The Resignation: The End Of The Harold Wilson Era

  1. Pingback: Sunny Jim: How Callaghan won the ‘Heavyweight’ Labour Contest of the 70s – Anthony Broxton

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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