The future of the left since 1884

The two Wilsons

This article is the fourth in a series of pieces on the life and legacy of Harold Wilson published in celebration of the centenary of his birth, 11 March 1916.


This article is the fourth in a series of pieces on the life and legacy of Harold Wilson published in celebration of the centenary of his birth, 11 March 1916.

Click here for the first article in the feature: Reappraising Harold Wilson

Click here for the second article in the feature: Harold Wilson: a personal reflection

Click here for the third article in the feature: Europe and the Wilson legacy

Click here for the fifth article in the feature: Wilson’s white heat


Harold Wilson harnessed the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to lead Labour to victory after “thirteen wasted” Conservative years in 1964. It was a narrow victory – his majority was only four, but it was enough to put a Labour PM in Downing Street for the first time since Attlee in 1951.

“Wilson caught the mood of the British people,” recalled Wilson’s rival and successor as leader James Callaghan, “and even elicited a hearing from industry and commerce.”  The theme with which Wilson caught that mood was science. For Wilson’s authorised biographer Philip Ziegler, Wilson’s “greatest contribution to the unity of the Party and its electoral prospects was to transfer its main thrust from the scorched earth of nationalisation and Clause IV to the brave new world of science and technology.” Wilson offered effective modernising government in contrast to Conservative incompetence of which the Profumo scandal, the rebuff to Britain’s application to join the European Community by de Gaulle and the failure of ‘stop-go’ economic policies were emblematic. Wilson’s famous 1964 new Britain speech, for which Tony Benn sought to claim credit, set out his vision and is worth quoting in length:

“We are living in the jet-age but we are governed by an Edwardian establishment mentality…They cling to privilege and power for the few, shutting the gates on the many.  Tory society is a closed society, in which birth and wealth have priority, in which the master-and-servant, landlord-and-tenant mentality is predominant.  The Tories have proved that they are incapable of mobilizing Britain to take full advantage of the scientific breakthrough.  Their approach and methods are fifty years out of date.

“Labour will replace the closed, exclusive society by an open society in which all have an opportunity to work and serve, in which brains will take precedence over blue-blood, and craftsmanship will be more important than caste…

“This is what 1964 can mean… A chance to sweep away the grouse-moor conception of Tory leadership and refit Britain with a new image, a new confidence…

“Socialism, as I understand it, means applying a sense of purpose to our national life: economic purpose, social purpose, and moral purpose… If you fly the Atlantic in a jet, you want to be sure the pilot knows his job, that he’s been trained for it.  If you’re in hospital, you feel more confident if you know that the surgeon has given his lifetime to fitting himself for his work.  Pilot or surgeon: it matters not who his father was, or what school he went to, or who his friends are.  Yet in Government and in business we are still too often content to accept social qualifications rather than technical ability as the criterion…”

Labour’s leadership was convinced that better economic growth was central to creating the money to invest in improving society, and they believed that the way to do it was through planning. Wilson believed that the USSR “plan their economic life in a purposeful and rational manner – however much we may detest their political framework.” Indeed planning was in vogue right across the political spectrum: it was the Conservatives, on the instigation of the CBI, who had set up the National Economic Development Corporation, modelled on the French Commissariat, to work out medium-term projections and advise on growth.  Labour, however, was convinced it could do it better. The aim was a 25 per cent growth in output over the next five years. This would facilitate, amongst other things, a record school building programme, the doubling of the numbers of teacher training places, and a 50 per cent increase in expenditure on further and higher education. The trouble was that Wilson and his government failed to achieve that growth.

Gordon Brown’s central insight as chancellor was that every previous Labour government had blown its credibility with party members by having to make spending cuts in response to an economic crisis shrinking the tax base and swelling welfare costs. Wilson’s credibility suffered massively from the cuts his government enforced following his 1966 landslide election victory. He had been the Labour leader who had promised to run the economy better than the Conservatives, and he appeared to have failed. It was this that allowed the 1970 election to slip from his grasp and Ted Heath to evict him from Downing Street in 1970.

On Wilson’s return to government in February 1974 following the industrial relations meltdown of winter 1973/4 and the enforced three-day week, it was a different Labour party and a different Wilson style – not least because Wilson was running a minority government. Gone was the heady optimism of ‘white heat’, of the Beatles of Love Me Do. Instead the 1974 Labour government was imbued with the pessimism of previous failures – Wilson’s own and Heath’s too – and the intra-party rows over EEC membership; while the 1975 referendum produced an atmosphere less Sgt Pepper and more like the Beatles during their break-up. Britain had resisted modernisation. In his 1963 ‘white heat’ speech Wilson famously declared: “The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.” But far too many of the strikes that beset British industry were caused not by managerial oppression but were instead demarcation disputes between unions caused by attempts to introduce new technology.

During 1969, Wilson and his friend and ally Barbara Castle had sought to reform industrial relations with In Place of Strife. The bloody nose they received from the so-called terrible twins (trade union leaders Jack Jones and Hughie Scanlon) was a permanent scar. “Get your tanks off my lawn Hughie” Harold had famously said. The tanks were duly removed – but only after Harold had signed the article of surrender. Publicly it was claimed that a “solemn and binding” agreement by unions and government to improve industrial relations had been reached. The reality so obviously belied this that the character “Solomon Binding” became a comedy staple.

During 1970-74 Heath’s reheated In Place of Strife would similarly come to grief, and this time Wilson was to be found opposing it, just as Wilson the Prime Minister seeking Britain’s accession to the EEC 1967-70 morphed in 1971 to Wilson the opposition leader opposing it. Back in government post-1974 Wilson embraced renegotiation and a referendum as devices to hold his party together and square the circle. His critics called him “tricky”. He saw himself as a peacemaker and bridge-builder, holding together an increasing febrile and fissile party, the Marxist left wing of which began to spend more time denouncing Labour MPs for betraying socialism than campaigning for a Labour government they declared to be little different than the Conservatives. The 1973 oil price shocks hit living standards across the western world and trade union shop stewards were quick to blame politicians for not having a magic wand to ameliorate the consequences. Tony Benn began to declare that there was in fact a magic wand (socialism – as distinct from the compromises with capitalism of Wilson and other ministers) and that the failure of Wilson and his government to build a more prosperous Britain reflected a lack of will to wave it.

But Benn had himself been the minister most responsible for creating that prosperity, as minister for technology in the 1960s and for industry in 1974-75. And despite the attempts by Wilson, Benn and others in the 1960s to sponsor greater efficiency in private industry, too often government-sponsored mergers and interventions had replaced small loss-making companies with larger loss-making companies. Nationalisation worked no better.

The management blamed the unions, demarcation disputes and outdated working practices. Often they had a point. But they themselves were frequently guilty of incompetence, venality and greed. To avoid massive job losses both Wilson and Heath had been intervening to prop up ailing capitalist concerns and finding that the taxpayers subsidies were all too often going into the pockets of the management and shareholders rather than being invested in productivity improvements. The shipyards were a case in point. What was needed was a means through which to tackle the reluctance of the private sector to invest. Wilson never found it.

In 1974 the situation confronting the new Labour government was not pretty. There was still a state of emergency and an unfinished miners’ strike. Wage settlements were nudging 20 per cent and the economy was reeling from the oil price shock.

As 1975 wore on, Harold Wilson was wearing out. Despite outward appearances, his health was not what it once was. The renewed economic crises and the grinding frustration of incomes policy took their toll. Downing Street head of policy Bernard Donoughue remembers Wilson saying to him in the summer of 1975: ‘Bernard, I have been round this course so often that I am too bored to face jumping any more hurdles.’ On another occasion Wilson said: ‘The trouble with me now is that I only have the same old solutions for the same old problems.’

While some of Wilson’s plans failed (e.g. In Place of Strife trade union reforms, the 1964 National Plan, and attempts at Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1974-76), Wilson’s legacy nevertheless includes both the substantive and the enduring (though there is more pre 1970- than 1974-76). While some reforms are famous (Roy Jenkins’ Home Office reforms and the Open University being perhaps the most), others (such as the Co-operative Party inspired introduction of consumer rights legislation) are less so. But they are part of the fabric of the better society that 21st century Britain takes for granted, and that is something of which the man with the pipe would have been proud.


Greg Rosen

Greg Rosen is a public policy consultant, chair of the Labour History Group

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