Previous Section Home Page

Column 908

tormentors, and one of the good things about him were the stories that he would tell against himself. The best, I believe, was when he was at a vast public meeting. Speaking about the Navy, "I will always defend the Navy," he said, "and why do I say that?" "Because you're in Chatham," shouted a voice from the crowd. Knowing that he was beaten, he joined in the laughter and moved on.

When Hugh Gaitskell died in 1963, Harold became the leader of the Labour party. He stayed leader for 13 years, won four out of five elections and retired in 1976 at a time and in a manner of his own choosing. It is hardly surprising that succeeding Labour leaders look upon him with envy and admiration. Indeed, he is, I believe, the only politician to have won four general elections. My party has been in power this century for something over 20 years and 11 of them were delivered by Harold Wilson.

In 1964, Harold Wilson symbolised the new mood of change. There had been 13 years of unbroken Conservative rule, the memories of war were becoming more distant, technology and science were revolutionising people's lives, and a cultural transformation in popular arts was waiting to happen. It was an age for meritocracy, for sweeping away the old and ringing in the new, and Harold Wilson captured it. Harold Wilson's speech at the 1963 Labour conference about the new Britain to be forged in the white heat of the technological revolution, where there would be no room, as he said, for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry, encapsulated the spirit of the time. All the forces of

change--political, industrial, cultural--propelled him into office, but his was the victory because in him those forces were personified. It was a time of hope and opportunity, and although the judgment has occasionally been harsh, it was a time of achievement, too. When Harold Wilson lost office in 1970, Britain had enjoyed low unemployment and low inflation and its finances were in sound and balanced order. No Government have achieved that since. By the end of six years, three times as many people were going into higher education. He created and drove through the Open university, which has given to tens of thousands of people the chance of a university degree. He introduced the first legislation against discrimination in respect of women and racial minorities.

It is no doubt fashionable now to knock the '60s and, like any age, it had its share of faults, but for many, let us not forget, it was a time when opportunity began, horizons opened and ambition and aspiration were spread to a multitude of people previously denied them.

The defeat of 1970 was a bitter blow, but Harold Wilson came back. He won two elections in 1974. This time, the majority was small, and I think that it is right to say that the impending fracture between right and left within our party grew. He had to deal with the problems that eventually boiled over in the 1980s and whose resolution has been the single most outstanding change since Wilson's day.

Although known, sometimes dismissively, as, above all, a party manager of skill, it was, it is fair to say, Harold Wilson who advised his party to accept "In Place of Strife" in 1969 and, again, had his advice been accepted, who knows what the future course of history could have been.

Column 909

Even with his difficulties, Harold Wilson achieved much in that Government. He improved pensions. He passed the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. He started to plan child benefit. He set up the National Consumer Council.

No tribute to Harold Wilson would be complete without a word about the foreign policy. Again, the challenges were immense. He had to withdraw defence obligations east of Suez, a difficult but necessary task. He negotiated Britain's remaining in the European Community. He had the painful task of trying to end UDI in Rhodesia. He kept Britain out of the Vietnam war. He was an unrelenting opponent of apartheid and the South African regime. He founded War on Want. He established the Overseas Development Ministry. It is an impressive record. When we look back over those years, there is much of which to be proud.

The end of Harold Wilson's life was often spent in illness and I would like to pay special tribute to Mary, his wife, who cared for him in the last years. She was a source of love and comfort beyond compare.

I believe that in time the perception of Harold Wilson and his years in government will change and, indeed, already is changing. To many, he is defined as a clever politician--and he was. Yet it would be most unfair to let that eclipse his real character and his deep commitment. He had, in the end, a very simple belief in the virtues of social justice and equality and, by and large, throughout his time in politics, he applied them. He once said:

"The Labour party is a moral crusade, or it is nothing." That should be his real epitaph and long may it remain so. 3.49 pm

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): I wish to associate myself and all in my party with the very full and, if I may say so, moving tributes made by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party. I am sure that most politicians, certainly most party leaders, would recognise that politics can, from time to time, be pretty tough going. To have led one's party for a handful of years, against the pressure of what Macmillan called events, the attack of the press and the business to which one always has to attend of party management, is a success in itself; but to have led one's party--a great party in the state--for 13 years is a remarkable achievement in its own right and an extraordinary testimony to human endurance. By the same token, to have won one election is a triumph; to have won four, it seems to me, is a remarkable achievement.

Harold Wilson, as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said, often regarded holding his party together as one of his main achievements. Leading a divided party might at times look messy and manipulative to contemporaries in one's political time and in the press of the moment, but although it is easy to pillory pragmatism as lack of principle, it is nevertheless not the issue by which a politician and a party leader will be judged. History highlights results, and four election victories out of five campaigns is a historic achievement by any standards.

Lord Wilson was Prime Minister through times, as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said, of great social change in this country. There were

Column 910

disappointments--of course there were; that is the way of politics--but there were also great achievements. In particular, the caring and progressive outlook of the personality of Harold Wilson shines through that wide range of the social achievements of his Governments--from equal opportunities legislation to the introduction of redundancy payments and to his own personal pride and joy, the Open university, which changed the nature of education in this country and has been such an assistance to so many who would never otherwise have had access to higher education.

This is a sad day for the House. It is a sad day for our country. But, in particular, our thoughts and our prayers at this moment must be with Lord Wilson's family.

3.52 pm

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup): Harold Wilson was a true House of Commons man. He knew, loved, enjoyed and respected its traditions. Throughout his life, he spent a great deal of time here, not only in the Chamber, but in the Smoking Room, the Tea Room and the Library, talking to his colleagues and to all who enjoyed talking to him, regardless of party. In that, he showed a touch which earned him great respect and admiration.

Harold Wilson never hesitated to tackle problems and he saw them very clearly. He saw the problem of sterling in the late 1960s. He saw the problem of Rhodesia and tried to resolve it. He not only kept us out of Vietnam, but he saw the problems there and tried to bring peace. He saw the problems of joining the European Community. My greatest regret was that we were never able to come to an agreement about that key policy issue.

Harold Wilson was also a master of the media--all of them, television, radio and the press. Occasionally, he had a slight quarrel with a press correspondent whom he regarded as disagreeable, but he was always on top of every medium in which he was performing. That gave him great influence with the general public which he, quite naturally, used to the advantage of his party. But what really endeared the people of this country to him was that they knew from his background, his upbringing and his own life, in which there was hardship, that he was a compassionate man who understood their needs and who was doing his best, often in difficult circumstances, as we have heard, to meet those needs and to ensure that people had a better life. That was his philosophy and his purpose in coming into the House, in being in opposition and in being a Minister. We were together for 35 years- -in confrontation, some would say, for more than 10 years as leaders of our respective parties. I would not say that it was confrontation during that time. It was facing each other and arguing about the problems. I like to think that we were constrained. We were not abusing each other and we were not trying to get cheap results quickly from each other. That was proved by the fact that behind the scenes, we had frequent exchanges about his intentions, the problems and the sorts of things which one cannot always discuss publicly, but which the leader of the other party ought to know about. In that, Harold Wilson was absolutely faithful and we always knew what the purpose of each other's intentions was.

Column 911

It is sad that at the end of his life, Harold Wilson's illness lasted so long. In regretting his death, we can only be glad that he no longer suffers in that way. We can share the joy of Mary and his family that they, too, know that his achievements are recognised by the House and that, with help from the historians, they will be recognised in due course by the country and by the rest of the world. This country owes a great deal to him. We are grateful and we would like Mary and the family to know that today.

3.56 pm

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley): In the mid-1970s, when no one party had a clear majority, it was necessary for me to co-operate with the then Prime Minister, Lord Wilson. We had a kind of unspoken understanding that we did not always take the most direct route to any particular objective and that gained for both of us a distinct reputation. That was illustrated one evening in the Cafeteria, when I had ordered a rather exotic dish of scrambled eggs on toast and Harold had picked up a salad from the other cabinet. He said to me, "Jim, would you mind if I bypassed you up to the cash desk?" I took my empty tray from the rails, did a military two steps back, bowed and said, "Prime Minister, I am delighted to yield to an expert in the art of bypassing." Harold was vastly amused at that, took it as a compliment and invited me to share his table when my scrambled eggs eventually arrived.

This morning, some commentators have been rather less than fair in implying that Lord Wilson had only one guiding principle, that of keeping his party together and keeping it united. There is nothing disreputable about that objective; it is just that some of us are more successful than others.

As the Leader of the Opposition said, Lord Wilson had other principles, mostly based on his non-conformist Christian background. There was, for example, a deep respect for this place, for the traditions of Parliament and for democracy itself. Another principle was revealed to me shortly after he became Prime Minister in 1974. One evening, he invited me to meet him on a one-to-one basis to discuss the position in Ulster arising from the massive electoral rejection of the Sunningdale agreement. I had been stressing the need for sensitivity and caution in a rather volatile situation: there was, for example, talk of a protest strike getting under way. Interrupting all that with a flourish of his pipe, Harold said, "Jim, let me explain that I did not become the Queen's First Minister for the purpose of using the forces of the Crown to suppress the verdict of the ballot box."

Those are not the words of a man with little faith and few principles.

4 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): May I also associate myself with the moving speeches made by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Father of the House about Harold Wilson? May I add a point about Mary Wilson--who, happily, is with us? She supported him throughout his life, and suffered with him all the pains that come to families in public life. I have a feeling that his retirement was a time to which she looked forward. It is sad that he did not enjoy those years of retirement in good health; but she nursed him and cared for him. Therefore, our feelings are rather personal.

Column 912

Everyone looks back on those whom they knew with their own perspectives. When I arrived in the House, Harold Wilson was President of the Board of Trade. He was never a Back Bencher: that was actually one of his great problems. He did not serve on the Back Benches until he retired. I made that point at his farewell dinner at No. 10. He put that right in the end, however.

Harold Wilson was passionately committed to British industry and technology. He set up the National Research and Development Corporation. He was very keen on that, and also--as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out- -on east-west trade. He thought that trade might well have eased the problems of the cold war.

I heard Harold Wilson's resignation speech--only the Father of the House and I will have heard it. He said that the defence burdens that we had been asked to bear were too heavy. I believe that he was right, and that we paid a heavy price; but that is for historians to assess. He then went through a period in the wilderness, which people hardly mention. He was vilified. Hugh Dalton, who spoke very plainly, described him as "Nye's little dog" because he worked with Aneurin Bevan. He stuck it out, however, and always remained loyal to the friends who supported him during that period-- including Lady Falkender, who helped him at a time when he had very few friends in the House. Then Harold Wilson became leader of the party. He made a series of speeches--including the "new Britain" speeches--which were not soundbites but substantial speeches on every subject. I remember him saying to me--I have never forgotten it--"Tony, in the post-industrial age social expenditure will be the engine of economic progress." I think that a very profound comment. He also made a speech that was much laughed at, in which he spoke of the white heat of the technological revolution. He was not saying that he would put on a white coat, go around with a blowlamp and modernise the economy; he was saying something quite different. He was saying, "If we do not have socialist planning of technical change, there will be mass unemployment, and we shall be burnt up in it." History may well record his judgment to be right.

When Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, he renewed his interest in British industry. He really did believe that public investment and public planning were a necessary part of maintaining a manufacturing base, and I am sure that history will see sense in that.

Undoubtedly, as has been said, Harold Wilson will be remembered in future centuries for the Open university, which he fought through against great opposition. Arnold Goodman, who died the other day, was used to help Jennie Lee to bring that about. As the Prime Minister said, the Open university provided opportunities for people who would never have had access to higher education, including pensioners. Harold Wilson worked with all wings of the party. Every Prime Minister must think that his Cabinet is difficult, but think of Harold's Cabinet. Two of its members were former members of the Communist party--Lord Healey and Edmund Dell. Two deputy leaders left the party--Roy Jenkins and George Brown. His Minister of Transport, Dick Marsh, joined the Tory party; Christopher Mayhew joined the Liberal party. He stuck it out.

Column 913

Harold believed in close links with trade unions. He appointed the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union to be his first Minister of Technology. He believed what Ian Mikardo always said, that, "Every bird needs a left wing and a right wing and it can't fly on its right wing alone."

I had fierce arguments with Harold Wilson, but when I look back, they were family rows in a spirit of great friendship, and I look back on him with enormous affection because all my ministerial offices, except for the last one, I owe to him.

Like all Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson worried about plots. That is not uncommon. I asked him once, when the plot stories were thickening, "Harold, what shall we do if you are knocked down by a bus?" and Harold said, "Find out who was driving the bus." 4.5 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): I would first like to join other right hon. Members in expressing my sympathy to Mary Wilson. She has gone through a very long period of great stress, and the months and years that preceded Harold's death have not been easy for her. Now she has to live with her bereavement, and I am sure that the House will want her to know that all our thoughts are with her. I suppose that, of the people who are now present in the House, I knew Harold Wilson better than anyone. For five years, as a member of his staff in No. 10 Downing street, I spent almost every day with him, conversing with him, enjoying his confidence, sharing that mutual loyalty that Harold provided for those very few people whom he trusted completely.

It did mean that one had to go through certain ordeals. One of them was Harold's pipe. Stories arose in the press that Harold in private never smoked a pipe but that he smoked cigars instead. I only wish that that had been true. To get out of a sleeping compartment of a train in the early hours of the morning and enter a closed car with Harold lighting up immediately was not the best way to start a day. I remember Mary saying on many occasions, "Oh, Harold, do stop kippering us," but he never paid attention to her.

The other aspect of Harold's private life that was both legendary and true was HP Sauce. He was bewildered by the propensity of Roy Jenkins to go out and have dinner in fashionable restaurants. He could not understand why anyone would want anything more than to sit down at a table in the Downing street kitchen with a plate of steak and chips smothered with HP Sauce.

Unlike many politicians who have followed him, Harold wrote his own speeches. He used to stride up and down the study in No. 10 Downing street, dictating to a succession of secretaries. When the transcript was brought in to him, he would correct it with the green ink that he had always used ever since he was first in the Cabinet. Harold prepared his speeches with meticulous care, and was always extremely careful about the effect that he could create with them.

When Harold was having one of his not infrequent differences of opinion with the BBC, he prepared a speech at the Labour party conference, rose to his feet as leader and Prime Minister, and was greeted with the most

Column 914

enormous ovation by the assembled delegates. Then, after waiting carefully for every last vestige of applause to die down, he said, "I suppose the BBC news tonight will describe that as a cool reception." He then got another ovation.

Harold planned ahead in many ways. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) may remember receiving a letter that I sent to him when I was a junior Minister at the Department of the Environment in charge of the Government car service--possibly the most powerful position in any Government apart from that of Prime Minister.

I received a direct minute from the Prime Minister--it was very rare for the Prime Minister to send such a minute to a junior Minister--instructing me to write to all former Prime Ministers still living offering them a car and a chauffeur. I then realised that Harold had definitely decided to resign.

Harold was an extremely accessible Prime Minister. Every Tuesday and Thursday, after Question Time at 3.30 pm, his door was open for two hours to any Labour Member who cared to call upon him. I believe that he was ready to see Conservatives as well in certain circumstances. He was an extraordinarily kind man. During one reshuffle, he had decided to sack from the Government for a lack of highly visible competence a junior Minister called Charlie Loughlin. He then heard that Charlie's daughter had died in a car crash. That was the end of the sacking of Charlie Loughlin.

Harold had great ideals. He had an enormous love for the state of Israel. In his latter years, he wrote a book about it and sent his son to a kibbutz there. He had a great affinity with the then Prime Minister, Golda Meir.

Of all the things that have been said about him, and of all the things that he has done, the achievement of which Harold was most proud was that he was the first Prime Minister this century under whom expenditure on education became greater than expenditure on defence. He believed in education, and he believed in Parliament. He believed in democracy, and he left democracy firmer and more secure then when he first became Prime Minister.

4.12 pm

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): As is well known, Harold and Mary Wilson have had a house on the Isles of Scilly in my constituency for many years, and I know that my constituents, the Scillonians, would like me to pay tribute to Lord Wilson, and to echo the words of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who paid tribute to the way in which Lady Wilson nursed Lord Wilson through the last sad years of his life. It was my privilege and pleasure on a number of occasions to call at the bungalow on St. Mary's, the standard of Trinity house flying proudly above it, to see both of them. I can tell you and the House, Madam Speaker, that the people of the Isles of Scilly love Lady Wilson. She has made a truly remarkable impact on them. They hold her very dear. Of course, they always saw the value of Lord Wilson, particularly during his premiership, because he was a major tourist asset to the islands. I am not sure that that persuaded quite all of them to vote Labour in various elections. Lady Wilson is not just respected, but held in the highest regard.

Column 915

To give just one personal reminiscence; when I was a very young reporter, I had my first big break covering the 1964 general election. I followed Harold Wilson literally everywhere around the country. Strange as it may seem now, in those days very few newspapers or television cameras did that. I was present at the famous meeting in Chatham to which the Leader of the Opposition referred.

At the end of the campaign, when the results were coming through, we were in the Adelphi hotel. One can see how times have changed, because the few of us who had followed Harold Wilson around were in his bedroom. He was stretched out on the bed, and I think that he was puffing on his pipe. He turned to me and said, "David, you have followed me all around the country, and you are still a damned Tory." In that, as in some other things, he was right.

4.14 pm

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe): This is indeed a day of deep sadness for everyone who knew Harold and had the privilege of working with him. In a very brief tribute, I want to start with a statement of fact. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, whose 25th anniversary is being celebrated in many parts of Britain this week, would never have become law had it not been for Harold Wilson. He gave the Bill a very powerful helping hand. In a moment of decisive importance, he decided on the dissolution that ended the 1966-67 Parliament, and gave the Bill preference over many others, including seven of his own, in order to ensure the Bill's enactment. The late and much respected James Margach, the parliamentary correspondent for many years of The Sunday Times , spoke of the utter genuineness of Harold Wilson's concern to make life better for disabled people, their families and their carers. He was utterly right to do so.

In his memoirs, Harold made it clear that the entirely new initiatives he took as Prime Minister to enhance the status and improve the well-being of the weak and vulnerable gave him more satisfaction than any other initiative he took over the whole area of social policy. For that, his death will be widely mourned among severely disabled and other needful people. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said, he was an extraordinarily caring man, and his memory will be cherished by us all.

I hope that Mary and the family will be comforted by the deeply heartfelt tributes that have come this afternoon from all parts of the House.

4.16 pm

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North): Above all, Harold Wilson was a unifying force. He took over a divided party in 1962, but by 1964 he had turned it into a party of government. One reason for that was that he was prepared to accept people from all sides. He had in his Cabinet people who he knew were not admirers of him, but whom he had selected for their ability. It was a question not of friendship, but of whether they were the right people for the job.

Before the 1964 election, Harold made a number of keynote speeches. One party had been in government for a long time, and the country was looking for a change. However, he did not simply allow it to drift into change:

Column 916

he embraced the features of the day--in particular, new technology and science. In a speech, he showed how they could be harnessed for the benefit of people, rather than putting people on to the scrap heap.

Harold Wilson was trusted by ordinary people. He believed that a great deal of talent had gone to waste. That is why, as has been said today, among his memorials will be the Open university, which gave many people a chance in life that they had not previously had. It allowed them to develop and fulfil their capabilities.

Harold Wilson also had a great knowledge covering many areas. Many people from the arts and from sport visited him while he was at No. 10. He was knowledgeable about Yorkshire cricket, and once referred to Fred Trueman as the greatest living Yorkshireman.

I remember that Harold came to help me in 1979. He said, "What are we doing?" It was about lunchtime, so I said we would go in the pub for a pint and a pie. In the pub were many people on a break from their offices or factories, and they came to join us. He spoke to many of them. I introduced him to a young woman, aged about 25, from Huddersfield, and he showed his knowledge not only of Huddersfield, but of Huddersfield football. He referred to the three great Huddersfield teams of the 1920s, but when he began to name each member of those teams, I am afraid that the young lady's eyes glazed over, and everybody left the table.

Harold Wilson never forgot whence he came. That was his great attribute. He has been described as a pragmatist, but he was also a man of great beliefs. He had a great understanding of ordinary people, and people trusted him and, in fact, related to him when he was Prime Minister. I shall remember the ordinary things that he did. His pipe has been referred to, but along with his pipe went his raincoat. They became symbols of a caricature, but one that related to ordinary people and their lives.

Throughout Harold's extremely distinguished career, even before he became a politician, he was always interested in ordinary people. Imprinted on him were the hard times that people went through in the 1930s. Indeed, Harold's father, despite the fact that he was a scientist, lost his job in the recession, and times were very difficult for the Wilson family. He believed that, in the post-war era, people should never again suffer the indignities of unemployment or the difficulties caused to families under those conditions. I join the tribute paid to Mary. Her devotion to Harold all through his life, especially in the latter years when he was not very well, was dedicated and caring. We all owe a debt to her for what she did for Harold. As for Harold, he not only won four elections: he carved for himself a niche in history. As we reflect on his years and what he did for the country, his stature will grow and grow, and he will be remembered as one of the great Prime Ministers of the century. 4.21 pm

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): I wish to associate my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party and our colleagues in its sister party Plaid Cymru with the genuine and heartfelt tributes paid to Lord Wilson. We send our kind thoughts and sympathy to Lady Wilson and her family.

Column 917

I remember being a Member in the early 1970s when Sir Harold was Prime Minister. People have already recounted the kindness that he extended to people in his party and other parties. I too remember that kindness. I also remember many of the phrases he used from the Dispatch Box, which have become part of modern political vocabulary and are part of the inheritance that we owe to him.

Tribute has rightly been paid to the Open university, the creation of which Sir Harold and Jennie Lee steered through the House, and which has been welcomed by so many thousands of people, not least in more remote areas such as my constituency, where the facility to study through the Open university has been a great boon to our communities.

I would also like to mention--it has not been said already--that in 1965, under the premiership of Sir Harold, the Highlands and Islands development board was established, which many of us in Scotland remember with great affection. The board was--I think--the brainchild of the late Willie Ross, whom many of us called basso profondo when he was Secretary of State for Scotland, but it was established under the premiership of Sir Harold.

Many of us in the highlands and islands have a great respect and affection for that organisation. The appointment of Tom Fraser as its first chairman may have caused a by-election result in 1967 which Sir Harold did not enjoy, but at the end of the day, the establishment of the HIDB and its successor body was very welcome in our area of Scotland.

4.23 pm

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): In associating myself with the condolences and the eloquent and deserved tributes which have been paid so far, may I express a few remarks on behalf of the people of my home town of Huyton, whom Harold represented with such distinction for so many years, and of Knowsley, South constituency Labour party--my home party--the successor party to Huyton. Harold Wilson was synonymous with Huyton, as I have found in many places, no matter how far afield. Say "Huyton", and the immediate response is "Harold Wilson". Harold was loved by the people of Huyton, no less than he was admired by them. What endeared him to them? He had a common touch and a ready wit, and perhaps one of the greatest tributes that can be paid to him was that the wit of Harold Wilson, the Yorkshireman, was so widely admired by Scousers.

I remember much badinage in private in the bar of Huyton Labour club, but I fear that, if I repeated it in the House, it might not pass your rules on parliamentary language, Madam Speaker. Harold Wilson had no side and no false humility, but he had remarkable attributes. He understood the people of Huyton and the ordinary people of this country, their lives and concerns, and was superbly equipped as a Member of Parliament and as a Prime Minister with intellect, political skills and a deep social commitment to addressing those concerns, as has been said.

Many ordinary people in this country today perhaps do not adequately realise what they owe him. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) gave an

Column 918

impressive list of Harold Wilson's achievements, which it behoves us all to recognise this day, but they were his achievements on behalf of the ordinary people, which gave them benefits and opportunities that we hope that they will recognise today--benefits in work, their social lives and educational opportunities.

Harold Wilson was a product of the state education system, and I know from talking to him in Huyton that education was always high among his political priorities. Indeed, when I asked him what was his proudest achievement, he said without hesitation, "The Open university," which gives so many people opportunities today. I will not detain the House overlong, but I wish to say that, to me, Harold Wilson was a man of the people. He lived for the people, and was loved by the people--the ordinary people, by whom he will be sadly mourned this day, and no more so than by the people of Knowsley, South and Huyton.

4.27 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North): I first joined the Labour party in Huyton in the 1960s, and a substantial part of my constituency came from the old Huyton constituency, when it was formed in 1983. The greater part of that constituency went to Knowsley, South.

Harold Wilson was held in enormous respect and affection in Knowsley, both for his achievements nationally, to which many hon. Members have referred, and for his work as a constituency Member of Parliament. It is the measure of that affection that he was always known locally simply as "Harold". Although originating from Yorkshire, he became intimately associated with Merseyside and with the spirit of the 1960s and all that that period held, particularly for the people of Liverpool and the surrounding area.

Despite his achievements, Harold Wilson remained a man wholly without affectation. It was for that quality that the people of Huyton and Merseyside held him so dear, and for those reasons that he will be missed so much.

4.29 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I was a young student at the London School of Economics in 1962 when Harold Wilson became the leader of the Labour party, and many of us forget what enormous charisma and power Harold had for my generation. He brought me and many others of my generation into the Labour party with his vision of a classless society, and an end to a society that depended more on connections than on ability.

Harold touched my life in another way, because I was one of the original Open university tutors, and I was grateful to Harold when I was a young and struggling university teacher. When I became the Member of Parliament for Huddersfield, it was with some surprise that I was adopted by Harold. He took a great interest in Huddersfield, and I tried to live up to his expectations. I looked for his maiden speech when I arrived here to get some clues, but he never made one. His first speech in the House was as a Minister, on Members' pay and allowances.

Everyone knew of Harold's fondness for Huddersfield, and many people have referred to it. I was privileged, because he often came to the town. Following a phone

Column 919

call, Mary would kindly organise the visit, and we had some splendid days together. I can remember one occasion in a Huddersfield hotel when Harold was trying to get the autograph of Bill Owen --Compo in "Last of the Summer Wine"--while Bill Owen tried to get Harold's autograph.

Harold would meet people with whom he had gone to Royds Hall grammar school, and people who had lived on the same street as him. He had a phenomenal memory for their backgrounds, their relatives and everything about them. As everyone has said today, he had that common touch. Many people become famous and move on--they might refer on "Desert Island Discs" to their place of origin--but Harold made sure that he went back and helped.

There would not have been a polytechnic in Huddersfield, which is now a thriving university, if it had not been for Harold making darn sure that there was one, and it is the largest wealth-creating institution in my town today. I saw that the people of Huddersfield loved him, and he loved them.

Harold Wilson was able to carry out the work that he did only with the support of Mary and his family. The last time I saw Harold was at the silver anniversary of the Open university. He was then very ill, but he was there, and he was proud. His family were proud with him, and I pay tribute to them and to him today.

4.32 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): As a long-serving Conservative Back-Bench Member, I should like to pay tribute to Lord Wilson, and to express my sympathy to Mary and to his family. As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, Lord Wilson served for very few years on the Back Benches. But I can say--as an evergreen Back Bencher- -that Harold Wilson valued Back Benchers in this House. Harold Wilson understood this House. Harold Wilson commanded this House. Harold Wilson was a compassionate and caring man, who was highly respected and will be long remembered. 4.33 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (Lancashire, West): I am grateful for the opportunity to say a word about Harold Wilson on behalf of the people of Ormskirk, where--as the Prime Minister rightly pointed out--Lord Wilson began his parliamentary career. Many older people in my constituency remember Harold Wilson not as a pre-eminent politician, but as the young candidate in 1945 and the young Member of Parliament thereafter.

People in the rural areas of my constituency, and in small villages and hamlets such as Banks and Scarisbrick, recall Harold Wilson standing on soap boxes in the middle

Column 920

of nowhere and conjuring up street meetings. That habit died down thereafter, but it was revived again in 1992 with some success. Elderly people in the area will open their drawers and get out faded photographs from those days of themselves in their gardens with Harold Wilson. He is remembered in the Ormskirk area with enormous affection for his courteous approach to everybody and his down-to-earth manner. He never lost the ability to relate closely to the working people he represented.

The last time I spoke to Lord Wilson was in the 1983 general election campaign, when I chaired a public meeting in Ormskirk, to which he returned to speak on behalf of the then candidate, Josie Farrington, now Baroness Farrington. As he came in, somebody said, "It's not Harold Wilson, it's Mike Yarwood," and he said, "Yes, that's right," and left everyone in total confusion for the rest of the evening. Despite his failing health on that evening, he made a superb and witty speech. His memory had not failed, and he recalled in detail both the geography of the area from 30 years before and the people in the Ormskirk district. He had a clear grasp of its economic difficulties, and he answered questions with much of his old flair. My right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party mentioned Harold Wilson's response to the lady with the crying baby in one of his audiences. I must tell my right hon. Friend that he used that line again at that meeting in 1983. Furthermore, I have used it since, and I have heard Baroness Farrington use it, which goes to show that, when one has a good line, one should not let go of it.

Many of us will remember many of Harold Wilson's good lines. I am sure that many Labour Members have sat at the front of Labour party meetings, and will remember Harold's great line when he was in trouble at conference: "I know what's going on: I'm going on." Lord Wilson was a distinguished Yorkshireman, but his political life was centred in west Lancashire and Merseyside. In our area, we remain proud of our association with him and of what he achieved and became. We remember with enormous satisfaction that he managed to win four elections for the Labour party. Those of us who were young in the 1960s will always associate those exciting and stimulating years with his premiership.

Like other speakers this afternoon, I wish to extend the deep sympathies of the people of west Lancashire to Mary and his family.

Madam Speaker: Thank you.

The House has heard the tributes to Lord Wilson, and I wish to make only one point, which has been touched on by many right hon. and hon. Members today. In my view, one of Harold Wilson's lasting achievements was to bring into being the Open university, of which I have the honour to be the current chancellor.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.

Next Section

  Home Page