Harold Wilson, 79, the British Labor Party leader who guided his party to four election victories and served as prime minister for almost eight years during the 1960s and 1970s, died in his sleep May 24 at St. Thomas's Hospital in London. He had suffered from cancer for the last 15 years.

As a politician, Mr. Wilson was known as a skilled compromiser and pragmatist with a cheery self-confidence who forged a fractious coalition of social democrats, trade unionists and ideological leftists into an effective, though fragile, Labor Party organization.

But his years as prime minister spanned a period of steady decline in British national standing and prestige and an uneasy adjustment to a reduced influence in world affairs. During Mr. Wilson's stewardship, the British economy continued to slide further behind those of Germany and France.

On becoming prime minister the first time, in 1964, he promised to revive British industry in the "white heat of the technological revolution." But he left office in 1976 with his country's unemployment and inflation rates the highest in Europe, a rising trade deficit and a falling British pound.

He faced a crisis in Africa in 1965 when the white minority regime in Rhodesia led by Ian Smith unilaterally declared its independence from Britain. Mr. Wilson had refused to grant the former colony independence without assurance of safeguards for its black majority, and two meetings with Smith aboard British warships had failed to resolve the issue. Mr. Wilson called it one of the greatest disappointments of his career. In 1980, Rhodesia gained formal independence as the black-ruled Zimbabwe.

Under intense economic pressure, Mr. Wilson devalued the pound 14 percent in 1967, explaining to his countrymen that the move would not affect the value of "the pound in your pocket." But the explanation came back to haunt him in subsequent years as the devaluation was followed by increased inflation, higher taxes and limits on borrowing. In June 1970, he called an election and lost to conservative Edward Heath. He returned to office in 1974 as head of the minority Labor government.

James Harold Wilson was born in Huddersfield, an industrial town in Yorkshire. Throughout his life, he would speak in the broad accents of his native region. He was a scholarship student at Oxford University, where he graduated with honors in modern philosophy, politics and economics. At 21, he became a tutor at the university, the youngest at Oxford since Cardinal Wolsey at the turn of the 16th century. During World War II, he volunteered for military service, but the government assigned him instead to a civil service job as an economist and statistician.

In 1945, he won a seat in Parliament in the Labor landslide. Two years later, Prime Minister Clement Atlee took him into the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. In that role, he traveled extensively to promote British exports and negotiated a trade agreement with the Soviet Union.

During the 1950s, when Labor was the opposition party, Mr. Wilson was a key figure in formulating economic and foreign policy stands. He became leader of Labor in 1963 after the death of Hugh Gaitskell, leading the party to a narrow electoral victory in 1964. At 48, Mr. Wilson became Britain's youngest prime minister since Lord Rosebery, who took office in 1894 at age 47.

As Labor Party leader, Mr. Wilson projected an English working-class image. He smoked a pipe and supported his hometown soccer team. He liked going to the pub and walking his dog. Britain's 1966 World Cup soccer victory was one of the proudest days of his leadership. With his wife and family, he spent his holidays in a modest bungalow on the Scilly Isles, off the tip of Cornwall.

But there was another side of him. In a personal profile, a London newspaper said: "Wilson is shrewd, flinty, witty, analytical, classless, subtle, industrious, ambitious, cool, single-minded, clever and tough. Prodigiously clever and tough as old boots."

He rejected a request from President Lyndon B. Johnson to send British troops to fight in Vietnam. He outraged many Britons by recommending the Beatles for royal honors in 1965. In 1966, he called an early election, increasing his electoral power by defeating Heath.

Negotiations for Britain's entry into the European Common Market moved forward but then foundered on opposition by French President Charles de Gaulle during Mr. Wilson's first terms in office. Not until 1973, when Heath was prime minister, did Britain join.

Returning as prime minister and leader of a minority government early in 1974, Mr. Wilson waited six months and then called another election, winning a three-seat majority. That made him the first prime minister since William Gladstone in the 19th century to win four terms of office.

In 1975, with internal Labor Party strife at a boiling point over Britain's joining the Common Market two years earlier, Mr. Wilson put the issue to a popular referendum, where it passed overwhelmingly.

He resigned abruptly on reaching age 60 in March 1976, declaring in a statement to his cabinet, "I have a clear duty to the country and to the party not to remain here so long that others are denied the chance to seek election to this post."

His total time as prime minister was seven years and nine months.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Mary Baldwin Wilson, and two sons. HELEN MURPHY BIRDZELL Administrative Clerk

Helen Murphy Birdzell, 95, a former administrative clerk with the Veterans Administration, died May 22 at a retirement facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She had heart ailments.

Mrs. Birdzell was born in Washington. She attended Notre Dame Academy. During World War I, she was a Navy yoemanette.

In 1960, she retired from the Veterans Administration after 30 years' service. She moved to Florida from Bethesda upon retirement.

Her husband, Donald T. Birdzell, died in 1991.

Survivors include a sister, Margaret F. King of Fort Lauderdale. CAPTION: HAROLD WILSON