David Martin MEP

Labour Member of the European Parliament and one of the six MEPs representing Scotland in Brussels and Strasbourg

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On what would be Harold Wilson's 100th birthday, some reflections on a successful Labour leader


Although sometimes forgotten in the list of great British Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson deserves a place at the top table for his Labour governments' achievements in education, technological advancement and in the fight for equality. A multiple general election winner and – significantly for today's debate – triumphant in an in/out referendum on the EU, his two periods in office (1964-1970) and (1974-1976) merit a more positive reassessment.

It's easy to overlook the economic achievements of the 1960s because of the economic turmoil towards the end of his time in power, but Wilson should be remembered as the first PM to truly embrace the technological revolution. His White Heat speech at party conference in 1963 still reverberates today – a highly-skilled workforce making the most of new technologies would ensure Britain's place in the world.

His commitment to equality is also a commanding legacy. Born in Huddersfield to a factory worker and a schoolteacher, he appreciated the importance of a good education to get on in life. The Open University, established in 1969, has given over two million people the opportunity to get a degree – people from unconventional or underprivileged backgrounds for whom a traditional university education was difficult. Under his leadership Labour also passed the Race Relations Act (1965) and the Equal Pay Act (1970), as well as other big social advances such as outlawing the death penalty and legalising abortion.

In terms of foreign policy, he also deserves credit for the way he maintained the strength of the transatlantic alliance without dragging Britain into the disastrous Vietnam war.

Finally, we should remember that Mr Wilson won four general elections and was acknowledged for his skill at holding a fractious party together. Furthermore, he led the successful referendum campaign to keep Britain in the EU (then the European Economic Community), winning it convincingly by two to one.

For these two facts alone, the current leaders of both main parties should study his premiership carefully.


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