A Surprise Resignation- Harold Wilson, March 16th, 1976

On March 16th, 1976, the BBC reported on a political development that took almost everyone by surprise;

“…Harold Wilson, Labour leader for 13 years and Prime Minister for almost eight, has stunned the political world by announcing his resignation. Mr Wilson, who turned 60 five days ago, made his bombshell announcement to his Cabinet this morning. The news came after he had been to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen, although it is understood he had already confided his plans to the Monarch last December…Mr Wilson, who has served in Parliament for 31 years, said he intended to remain on the backbench of the Commons in an advisory role but would not interfere with government decisions…”

He insisted publicly there were no undisclosed reasons for his resignation. BBC investigative reporter Barrie Penrose (1942-2020) and producer Roger Courtiour subsequently met with Harold Wilson secretly at the former Prime Minister’s request, discussing, amongst other things, suspected interference by the South African Security Services, who were allegedly mounting a campaign of smear against opponents of Apartheid, which also included Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Harold Wilson then reportedly expressed distrust of his own security services, citing  ‘alternative centres of power’, and asserting that the security services had been actively plotting against him by managing unfavourable press stories about himself and his close colleagues.  

According to later news reports, the BBC investigators claimed to have uncovered credible accounts of some conniving toward the planning of a coup against the Wilson Government, involving the head of MI5 and other senior military and establishment figures. The BBC soon had misgivings, Penrose had his contract terminated and the story was spiked over lack of corroboration, with questions raised about direct government intervention into the BBC’s editorial decision. Penrose and Courtiour continued their investigations on a freelance basis, eventually producing a book, The Pencourt File.

Harold Wilson’s successor was Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, who had also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary; presented as a compromise candidate to provide at least some comfort to both wings of the Labour Party.  But Callaghan’s precarious minority government would face adverse by-election results, uncontrolled inflation, rising unemployment and increasing trade union militancy culminating in the chaos of the Winter of Discontent strikes.  The government fell  to a no-confidence motion in early 1979, and was defeated at the general election soon afterwards, consigning Labour to Opposition for 18 years.

Harold Wilson had won four general elections for Labour, and some of the reforms under his watch included the abolition of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, conditional legalisation of abortion, more liberal divorce laws, creation of the Open University, and the Race Relations Act, the second incarnation of which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. 

Later Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, he died in 1995, aged 79.

There’s more on post-war British politics, the backdrop for the Armstrong and Burton book series, at georgefairbrother.com