After Gaitskell's death (1963), Wilson won the leadership of the party and became prime minister in 1964. At first his government had only a four-seat majority in Parliament, but it was reelected with a large majority in 1966. The Labour government under Wilson sought to offset Britain's diminishing role outside Europe by increasing its role in Europe, and in 1967 it reapplied for membership in the European Community (EC). Wilson also tried unsuccessfully to reach a settlement with the white supremacist regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which unilaterally declared itself independent of Britain in 1965. Domestically, Wilson imposed strict controls on wages and prices, raised taxes, and devalued (1967) the pound to end the growing economic crisis. By the spring of 1970 the economy seemed to be recovering, and Wilson scheduled a June election, which resulted in an unexpected defeat for the Labour party.
In opposition, Wilson led his party to reverse its stand on entry into the EC, but a significant minority voted with the Conservative government in favor of entry. Another divisive issue arose with the party's espousal (1973) of wide-scale nationalization. Nonetheless, in the general election of Feb., 1974, held at a time of severe economic crisis, Labour was returned to power, and Wilson again became prime minister.
Despite the fact that he headed a minority government (and was therefore very vulnerable to defeat in Parliament), Wilson announced his intention of implementing the controversial policies of renegotiation of the terms of Britain's membership in the EC and nationalization. His government faced continuing economic difficulties as well as a deterioration of the situation in Northern Ireland (which required the reimposition of direct British rule). It was also obliged to mediate between Greece and Turkey in the tense crisis created by the overthrow of Archbishop Makarios III in Cyprus and the subsequent Turkish invasion of that island in July, 1974. Wilson called another election in Oct., 1974, and secured a narrow majority in Parliament. In 1975 he called and won an unprecedented referendum on Britain's membership in the EC, largely silencing left-wing Labour critics who favored withdrawal. Wilson unexpectedly resigned in 1976 and was knighted later the same year. The longest serving Labour prime minister, he retained his seat in Commons until he was created a life peer in 1983.
See Wilson's Personal Record (1971), Final Term: The Labour Government 1974–1976 (1979), and Memoirs: The Making of a Prime Minister, 1916–64, (1986). See also biographies by A. Howard (1965) and E. Kay (1967).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: British and Irish History: Biographies