Wilson was loosely aligned with the left wing of the Labour Party, resigning from the government with the leading leftist figure, Aneurin Bevan, in protest over the rearmament budget of April 1951. Yet Wilson was pragmatic in his politics and never wholly a Bevanite. When Hugh Gaitskell succeeded Clement Attlee as Labour Party leader in December 1955, Wilson was appointed shadow (opposition) chancellor.
On the key issues that divided the party in the late 1950s—public ownership of industry and Britain's possession of the atomic bomb—Wilson was realistic although supportive of the nuclear deterrent and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1960 Wilson stood against Gaitskell for the party leadership. Wilson lost, but Gaitskell appointed him shadow foreign secretary in 1961. When Gaitskell died suddenly in January 1963, Wilson replaced him, taking his party to a slim majority in the election of October 1964.
Much of Wilson's first premiership (1964–1970) was devoted to managing a struggling economy. Wilson sought in vain to avoid a devaluation of the pound until it became inevitable in November 1967. The weakness of the pound and the need for American support may have been a factor in his lukewarm support of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Vietnam policies. Even if Wilson had wished to, however, he could offer little more than that because his party was deeply opposed to the war. Despite Johnson's pressure, Wilson refused to send British troops to Vietnam. Indeed, he tried to broker a solution to the conflict by proposing a 1965 Commonwealth peace mission. He also tried to arrange a cease-fire through Soviet leader Alexei Kosygin, with whom he met in 1966 and 1967.
Economic weakness prompted a new defense policy in July 1967, which proclaimed Britain's intention of withdrawing its forces from east of the Suez, a policy shift not welcomed by the United States. Wilson also faced an intractable problem in southern Rhodesia, where the white minority government under Ian Smith had declared the country independent of the United Kingdom. White minority rule was unacceptable to Wilson, but using force as a solution was ruled out, leaving only ineffective economic sanctions. Wilson met with Smith on two occasions (in December 1966 and October 1968) to negotiate a settlement, but the gap between the sides was too great, and the problem remained unresolved. In October 1966 Wilson launched a second application to join the European Community. He and Foreign Secretary George Brown pressed their case with key European leaders in early 1967. Nevertheless, French President Charles de Gaulle, who had vetoed an earlier application in 1963, did so again in November 1967.
Although Labour lost the 1970 election, Wilson returned as prime minister in February 1974. While struggling with serious economic problems and the fallout from the 1973–1974 oil price shock, Wilson renegotiated the terms on which Britain had entered the European Community in 1973 and held a referendum in June 1975 on the outcome. Wilson unexpectedly resigned his post in March 1976. He later took a seat in the House of Lords as Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. Wilson died on 25 May 1995 in London.
Pimlott, Ben. Harold Wilson. London: HarperCollins, 1993.; Wilson, Harold. Final Term: The Labour Government, 1974–1976. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.; Wilson, Harold. Memoirs: The Making of a Prime Minister. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986.; Wilson, Harold. The Labour Government, 1964–1970: A Personal Record. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.; Ziegler, Philip. Wilson: The Authorized Life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.