March 16th marks 42 years since the resignation of Harold Wilson in 1976. The news came as something of a shock to the nation and the Labour Party. Wilson had been leader of the Labour Party since 1963, serving as Prime Minister from 1964-70 and 1974-6. He spent 13 years as leader of the Labour Party, one of the longest to hold the position. Upon his resignation a leadership election was held with Foreign Secretary James Callaghan becoming Labour leader and Prime Minister on 5th April 1976.
The news was announced shortly after Wilson’s 60th birthday; he announced that this had always been his intention and that he had made the decision two years prior and that it was not due to any other reason. Apparently he had informed the queen of his decision in December of 1975.
There are some who have argued this surprise resignation may have had something to do with the Alzheimer’s that Wilson would suffer from later in life and that he had recognised the early symptoms. In our modern political world of 24 hour media such things would be extremely difficult to keep from the public. Wilson was famed for his first rate memory so it is reasonable to assume the very indication of loss of ability would have been of great frustration to him. Others have put it down to sheer exhaustion brought on by the pressure of the job and health problems that would later emerge to be colon cancer.
During his time as Prime Minister Harold Wilson won four general elections, held the first referendum on EEC membership in 1975, abolished capital punishment, passed several laws around women’s liberation, decriminalised private homosexual acts and passed a string of social reforms.
Wilson left the Commons in 1983, choosing not to stand for re-election as an MP before being admitted to the House of Lords later that year. His health continued to deteriorate for the remainder of his life before his death on 24th May 1995 aged 79.