chapter  6
The climax of European Social Democracy?
By1969–82
Pages 19

Harold Wilson, elected British prime minister in 1964, enjoyed a higher average popularity rating between 1964 and 1966 than any other previous prime minister. He came to office ‘with the emphasis on policies that would appeal to the middle classes and those who were more concerned with national prosperity and an efficiently run economy than with abstract justice or the application of egalitarian principles’.1 Despite the economic problems he inherited, his government increased its majority from four in 1964 to ninety-six in 1966. Yet his popularity waned rapidly after that, as his government stumbled from one crisis to another. Wilson appeared to have done no strategic planning.2 He was not a Socialist in any real sense.3 In his first television interview as Labour leader he said his Socialism was rooted in the Boy Scout movement.4 He had a preference for ‘order and hierarchy’5 and was a dedicated monarchist.6 Wilson had an inflated view of what Britain could do in the world. He had been many times to the USA and the Soviet Union before becoming prime minister, but he did not seem to understand the realities of world power. He believed fervently in Britain’s imperial role and the sanctity of Commonwealth ties.7 Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state, regarded him as ‘a sincere friend’ of the USA.8 Economics rather than conviction forced Wilson to embark on a rapid retreat from Britain’s global role. One legacy of Wilson that his left-wing colleagues hated was the setting up of a new defence sales department in the Ministry of Defence, headed by a private sector businessman, to boost British arms exports. It was arguably the most successful of his innovations.9