Harold Wilson

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James Harold Wilson, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, KG, OBE, FRS, PC (11 March 1916 – 24 May 1995) was a British Labour politician. One of the most prominent British politicians of the latter half of the 20th century, he served two terms as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, first from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 to 1976. He emerged as Prime Minister after more general elections than any other 20th century premier, contesting five general elections and winning four of them (in 1964, 1966, February 1974 and October 1974). He is the most recent British Prime Minister to have served non-consecutive terms.

Harold Wilson first served as Prime Minister in the 1960s, during a period of low unemployment and relative economic prosperity (though also of significant problems with the UK's external balance of payments). His second term in office began in 1974, when a period of economic crisis was beginning to hit most Western countries. On both occasions, economic concerns were to prove a significant constraint on his governments' ambitions. Wilson's own approach to socialism placed emphasis on efforts to increase opportunity within society, for example through change and expansion within the education system, allied to the technocratic aim of taking better advantage of rapid scientific progress, rather than on the left's traditional goal of promoting wider public ownership of industry. While he did not challenge the Party constitution's stated dedication to nationalisation head-on, he took little action to pursue it.

Though generally not at the top of Wilson's personal areas of priority, his first period in office was notable for substantial legal changes in a number of social areas, including the liberalisation of censorship, divorce, homosexuality, immigration and abortion (see Social issues, below), as well as the abolition of capital punishment, due in part to the initiatives of backbench MPs who had the support of Roy Jenkins during his time as Home Secretary.

Overall, Wilson is seen to have managed a number of difficult political issues with considerable tactical skill, including such potentially divisive issues for his party as the role of public ownership, British membership of the European Community, and the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, his stated ambition of substantially improving Britain's long-term economic performance remained largely unfulfilled.

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