Tribute: Mary Wilson

Posted On: 
15th June 2018

Robin Butler remembers Mary Wilson, the warm and dignified wife of former prime minister Harold Wilson who was respected across the political spectrum

Harold Wilson at Chequers with his son Robin, daughter-in-law Joy and wife Mary, in 1974

Lady Wilson of Rievaulx, who died on June 6 at the age of 102, survived her husband, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, by more than 20 years. She was the first widow of a prime minister to become a centenarian – Clarissa Avon may well be the second – and, though she became physically frail, her mental qualities remained unimpaired. She was my wife’s and my neighbour in Westminster where she lived by herself in the flat which she had previously occupied with her husband, and my wife and I saw her regularly.

I first came to know Mary in 1974 when her husband returned to Downing Street for his second term as Prime Minister and I was one of the civil service private secretaries. His return was almost certainly not welcome to Mary. It is no secret that she did not enjoy the shenanigans of political life or the media intrusion which it involved.

When she married Harold in 1940 he was a Junior Research Fellow at University College Oxford, providing statistical support for the Master of the College, Lord Beveridge, in the preparation of what became the Beveridge Report. Their time in Oxford was a happy time for Mary. One of the things which I had in common with both Harold and Mary was that I had been an undergraduate at University College and, although I was of a later generation, we shared many mutual acquaintances.

Mary would probably have passed her life very happily as the wife of an Oxford don but wartime service took her husband first into the civil service and then, in 1945, into Parliament. Thereafter their lives were based in London, although they retained strong links with, and affection for, Oxford.

Having been brought up in what her obituary in The Times described as “respectable poverty” as the daughter of a congregational minister, Mary would always have had a sympathy with her husband’s strain of liberal socialism. Indeed, although she had no taste for the turmoil of political life, she always supported him loyally on those occasions when the support of a political wife was required.

She remained a Labour supporter all her life and she had a particularly soft spot for Gordon Brown, like her the child of a manse. Following the 2010 election, when it was still in the balance whether the Liberal Democrats would form a viable coalition with the Labour Party rather than the Conservatives, she telephoned me and asked: “Robin, is there any hope?” I had to say: “I am afraid not Mary, the numbers don’t add up.” She took a mischievous pleasure in recalling that the 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC was the only occasion on which she voted against her husband.

She had her own life apart from politics – to the extent that life as a prime minister’s wife allowed. Her interest in poetry, her friendship with John Betjeman and her production of her own volumes of verses are well known. She had a strong attachment to the Scillies, which she continued to visit to the end of her life.

She was proud of her husband but she had no airs and graces of her own. She enjoyed telling the story of a clerk in the Cabinet Office ringing her up after she had had the use of an official car in order to attend an event in the memory of her husband and asking her: “Lady Wilson, may I ask who you are?” She was a great royalist, and always wanted accounts of the annual Garter days.

Mary’s natural dignity and warmth gained her respect and friendship in all parts of the political world and outside it. I remember being touched by the fact that when Ted Heath celebrated his 80th birthday after Harold’s death, he placed Mary on his right hand. It was a placement which spoke volumes about both of them.

 Lord Butler is a Crossbench peer and a former Private Sectetary to Harold Wilson