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House of Lords

Wednesday, 24th May 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Tributes to the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn.

It is my sad duty to pay tribute on behalf of the House to the memory of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx.

Like a number of your Lordships, I grew up in the 1960s. Many of your Lordships will remember the dominance which the noble Lord seemed to exercise over the political landscape in those years.

The crude statistics of his political life are in themselves impressive: an academic Bevanite of precocious brilliance who became the youngest Cabinet Minister since the second Pitt; then Leader of the Opposition; the youngest Prime Minister since Rosebery; and, eventually, the longest-serving Labour Prime Minister.

However, those achievements surely do not begin to convey the flavour of Lord Wilson's political persona. His skills as a party manager, even to an outsider, were clearly unequalled. He rightly—as I can testify as a novice party manager myself, in an infinitely more junior capacity—rated his achievements in that respect among his greatest. That is perhaps especially true since he had to exercise those skills at a time of rapid social and technological change.

However, it is as a parliamentary performer that Lord Wilson made his greatest impact. His quickness of mind and his command of the telling phrase made him one of the most formidable opponents any Conservative leader could find himself constrained to meet. His mastery of the other place contributed immeasurably to his ability to manage his party and to the impact he made on the electorate outside.

The noble Lord understood the importance of trade marks in politics, and he used his Yorkshire roots, his love of sport, and even his pipe, to create in public and on television a brand image for his party that was as instantly recognisable as it was effective.

Of late, the noble Lord was prevented by a long period of ill health from attending your Lordships' House as often as he would have liked. However, his interventions in our proceedings between 1984 and 1986 well reflected his special interests. For instance, it is hardly surprising that the begetter of the Open University should have made his maiden speech in this House in a debate on higher and further education; that a former Labour Party leader should, in May 1984, have introduced on behalf of his party a Wednesday debate on unemployment; and that an Elder Brother of Trinity House should have spoken to an Unstarred Question in 1986 on marine pilotage.

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I have spoken of Lord Wilson's public persona. What I had not realised until I joined the other place in 1979 was what an agreeable personality he was, too, in private. I first met him when he received an honorary degree from Liverpool University at the hands of my grandfather. My only memory of that occasion is his remark that he had never expected to find himself sitting to the right of Lord Salisbury. His willingness to reminisce in the Smoking Room with a new Tory Member like myself was delightful. To me, his talk was wholly absorbing. I for one shall always be grateful for the courtesy he showed me then.

The noble Lord was one of the leading public figures of our age and a most distinguished public servant. He deserves our tributes today. The rest that he now enjoys after a difficult last illness is one that we, of all people, should not begrudge him.

Finally, perhaps I may also pay tribute to his family, and in particular to Lady Wilson, who looked after him devotedly in his last years and was a constant support to him throughout his political life. Our respectful sympathy goes out to them this afternoon.

Moved, That the House do now adjourn.—(Viscount Cranborne.)

Lord Richard: My Lords, it is a privilege to join with the noble Viscount the Leader of the House in this tribute to my noble friend the late Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, one of the defining Prime Ministers of the post-war era and a great parliamentarian.

Much will be, and already has been, written about him and his achievements, and assessments have already been made of his career. It is, however, hardly possible yet to make any final or definitive judgments. Those will have to be made by future historians, not by present day politicians.

Unlike his predecessors, Harold Wilson's election in 1964 represented a clean break with earlier traditions. His father was a working chemist in Huddersfield, the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and he was the first Englishman outside the traditional middle or upper classes ever to become Prime Minister. Of the other two Premiers of humble origins, Lloyd George was, of course, Welsh, and Ramsay MacDonald was very Scottish, but Harold Wilson was invincibly and unashamedly, English, and a Yorkshireman at that, from his accent to his attitudes. He had a powerful combination of physical toughness, a brilliant mind and memory, and a strong sense of social justice—qualities which stood him in good stead throughout his active political life.

All of us, particularly perhaps those of us on this side of the House, have our own memories of him. I shall mention only two notable qualities. The first was his determination to do everything he could to keep the Labour Party united. He once said:


    "This Party is a bit like an old stage coach. If you drive it along at a rapid rate everyone aboard is either so exhilarated or seasick that you do not have a lot of difficulty".

He devoted much time and effort to ensuring that no one fell off. The second quality was his personal kindness. Many of us in this House today, myself

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included, can testify to that. He was remarkably thoughtful and considerate of others, a quality not invariably associated with high office.

Lord Wilson's successor, my noble friend Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, is unfortunately in Tokyo. He has sent me a message which, with the permission of the House, I should like to read. He says:


    "Harold Wilson's passing will be deeply mourned by all of us who knew him personally, and also by countless others who never met him but for whom in their youth he represented their ideals and aspirations.


    "All of us send our deepest sympathy and regrets to Mary and his family.


    "His purpose in politics was to remove the disfiguring evils of poverty and to create a caring society, with equal opportunity, open to advancement and in tune with the changing needs of his time. He was proud to have been responsible for the birth of the Open University. He was by nature a conciliator, and the least assertive of men, but he fought with the doggedness and determination of a true Northerner when he had to. Those qualities, and his high intelligence, kindliness and approachability, helped to spread his influence over a much wider area than his own party. It was a natural expression of that to be a passionate opponent of apartheid and of racial discrimination. He was the most successful leader that Labour has ever had, winning four elections out of five although on each occasion he came to office at a time of great economic difficulty. Above all, he was a devoted servant of his cause and his country".

I am sure that the House would wish to echo those sentiments and to send our deepest sympathy to Lady Wilson, his family and all who were close to him.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, I had a long working relationship with Lord Wilson which at times was very close. It was not without its ups and downs. He and I came from different strands in the sometimes somewhat conflicting fabric of the Labour Party. It was therefore a sign of his tolerance and his generosity that he gave me the great opportunities which led to my working so closely with him. I found, well before his death, that it was the ups rather than the downs which came to dominate my memory. In the same way, the last few years, which were very sad ones from the point of view of his activity, were nonetheless balanced by being good ones from the point of view of the justified recovery of his reputation. He will stand in history as a considerable Prime Minister.

I shall remember him above all for his courtesy and his kindness. He hated being disagreeable. He liked to be nice to people, which is not always the case with those who had his thrust to power. He also had very good nerve in a crisis. And as he experienced quite a number of crises, that was a big asset. In some ways he was easier to work with when things were going wrong. He was cool and unrecriminatory.

I conclude with this thought. He was one of the very few Prime Ministers voluntarily to surrender office, to go without the intervention either of debilitating illness or the withdrawal of confidence by Parliament or country. In this century, he and Baldwin stand alone in that respect. It was the more remarkable because he appeared so dedicated to and concentrated on politics. As a result some fantastical theories were developed about the reason for his going. I have always regarded them as nonsense. Much more likely, I think, is that he had some faint early intimation of the fading of his great

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powers of memory, speed of comprehension and zestful ingenuity, and decided that he had better go. If so, it was a noble decision of rare insight and self-discipline. He served his country well and was determined to continue that service only so long as he was at the height of his powers.

Our sympathy goes out to his family, and in particular to his wife whose devotion in a long twilight has been visible to all of us.


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