Former UK prime minister Harold Wilson is to be honoured with a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey. I have always thought he has been one of the most misrepresented party leaders and prime ministers. It is difficult for those who lived through his time to see it in an historical perspective. But it is only in an historical context that a government or a politician can be judged. Only then can we see if they left any lasting legacy or whether they changed peoples lives. With time, heroes may lose their sheen whilst those denigrated may regain respect. This is certainly true for Harold Wilson. He left office somewhat discredited. But looking back now, the achievements of his governments are impressive.
Wilson was often derided as a technocrat, 'all bloody fact and no bloody vision'. But Wilson was ahead of the game as a party leader who realised the potential and challenges for scientific and technological change. It is difficult to see it now, but I recall his 'white hot heat of the technological revolution' speech to Labour's party conference in 1963 as being inspirational.
"We are redefining and we are restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution...The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry."
Harold Wilson led Labour through difficult times. His governments were beset by division and by economic circumstances; yet they achieved lasting change for the good. The 1960s are looked upon as a period of liberal social reform. Others, such as Roy Jenkins as the then Labour Home Secretary, took much of the credit individually for this reform. But the nature and tone of a government is more than simply the sum of its parts. Wilson's first period as prime minister was particularly noted for substantial liberalisation of laws of censorship, divorce, homosexuality, immigration and abortion, as well as the abolition of capital punishment. A lasting memorial to Wilson's time is the ever developing and successful Open University. The OU transformed access to higher education at a time when only a few had the privilege of going to university. At the same time his government set up the polytechnics broadening access to tertiary education and skills.
In housing too Wilson's government forged ahead with 1.3 million new homes being built between 1965 and 1970. Social housing provision increased from 42 to 50%. The Protection from Eviction Act outlawed the eviction of tenants without a court order, and the Housing Act of 1965 gave security of tenure. The number of homeless families dropped substantially. Generous subsidies encouraged local authorities to build more houses.
There were also massive real increases in spending on social services and a huge expansion of social security improving living standards for those on low incomes. Changes in welfare did much to take people out of poverty.
You might think that increased real terms spending on the welfare state would have left the nations finances in a parlous state. Yes governments of left and right were buffeted by economic winds and seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis. In those days the problems were the balance of payments deficits and runs on sterling. But astonishingly, the truth is, in spite of all this and the increased welfare spending, the national debt as a percentage of GDP continued to fall through this period from 100% in 1964 to less than 50% by 1970.