Queen Elizabeth II has seen more than a few prime ministers in her time. Over her 67 years on the throne, there have been a total of 13, and some were, naturally, better than others. But Season 3 of The Crown introduces Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who brings something the show hasn’t had yet: a leader from the left-leaning Labour Party.
On previous seasons of The Crown, we’ve seen Winston Churchill step down, Anthony Eden replace him and later resign, Harold Macmillan replace him and later resign, and then the controversial appointment of Alec Douglas-Home. The Queen’s relationship with those prime ministers was mostly friendly, but she reportedly got along with Wilson so well, she broke precedence and asked him to stay after their first meeting to have drinks.
According to Royal biographer Robert Lacey, things were much more informal between them than they were with previous PMs. “Wilson persuaded the Queen to drop a lot of stuffy protocol that had remained since Queen Victoria,” he wrote.
Wilson served as prime minister twice, from 1964 to 1970, when he lost his reelection bid, and then again from 1974 to 1976. Over those years, he presided over many significant milestones in British history.
Liberalizing the UK
As prime minister, Wilson oversaw a number of historic moves that liberalized the United Kingdom, including the abolition of the death penalty, the legalization of abortion, the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, the outlawing of racial discrimination, and the initial decriminalization of homosexuality.
The Pound Devaluation
Wilson inherited a £800 million deficit when he entered office. (In 1964, one pound sterling was worth $2.80, so in U.S. dollars, that was over $2.2 billion.) To reduce the deficit and deal with the UK’s economic crisis, he announced a devaluation of the pound from $2.80 to $2.40. He defended himself by saying that the “pound in your pocket” would not be worth less, but the prices of goods in Britain rose. He was widely ridiculed for the comment.
The decision did, ultimately, help the economy for a few years, but the deficits eventually returned, according to the House of Commons Library. The pound sterling is currently worth $1.28.
The First “Brexit” Referendum
In 1975, back when the European Union was known as the European Economic Community, Wilson held a nationwide referendum to ask the public whether Britain should continue being a member.
While many people, including in Wilson’s own political party, voted to leave, the UK voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying part of Europe. The Guardian noted at the time, Wilson was then tasked with healing the “wounds” the referendum created. He resigned from office a year later, which prompted a host of conspiracy theories.
After his second term, Wilson was succeeded by Prime Minister James Callaghan. Wilson died in 1995 at age 79 after battling colon cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.