Harold wilson

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  • Created by: bethany
  • Created on: 03-05-13 18:27

Harold Wilson, an era disappointment 1964-70?

When Wilson came to office in 1964 he had promised a modern government. The party had promised a 'white heat technology', alongside improvements in education and the implementation of economic planning to end the stop go policies that had plagued Britain's economy. However, some historians argue, such as Marquand "that no modern British government had disappointed their supporters so thoroughly" and whils this can be seen as true to an extent, it was largely due to the fact that Labour inherited a catastrophic economic situation - a balance of payments deficit of £800 million (Marr). Alternatively, Ponting argues that  the Wilson government "had a significant impact on social attitudes and the lives of ordinary individuals" and again this view has validity as social change was rife in the 1960s. In my opinion, i woud agree that Wilson's government failed to deliver on some of it's promises, but would also acknowlege that the period 1964-70 was not a complete disappointment. 

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Firstly, in terms of Wilsn's promise for economis planning, he did not deliver. Although Wilson det up the Deapartment of Economic Affairs in 1965 it was largely an unsuccessful venture. The leader, George Brown was undermined by the Treasury who felt it was their role and not the DEA's to control the economy, secondly their was little organisation involved within the DEA itself. As the historian Morgan argued in his book 'the people's Peace' the DEA had no real regulation or procedure. The venture was abandoned in 1967 when Brown moved to Home Office. Perhaps the most imprtant example of economic mismanagement was the 14% devaluation of the pound in 1957 from $2.80 to $2.40. The government had promised that the pound would be 'safe in [their] hands' and evidently it was not. The historian Shore states that the event was "terribly damaging" to the government, and I would further argue that it did much to undermine the trust in Wilson's government. In addition, inflation doubled from 3 to 6% during Wilson's time in office (1964-70) and this only added further distain towards his leadership. On the other hand, there was some success, Wilson oversaw a hige turn around in the balance of payment. He was able to change the inherited £800 million deficit (Marr) into a £700m surplus (Jefferys) by the time he left office. Nonethess, as Jenkins himself was forced to admit "we didn't deliver the goods" and in terms of establishing a modern economy, I would agree with him.

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'White Heat of Technology'

In Wilson's Manifesto campaign he had put a lot of emphasis on technology, the slogan 'White heat of technology' had struck a chord with the electorate, and when he came of office their was expectation that he would deliver. In some ways this promise was fulfilled. Britain developed concorde with France and saw the first passenger plane to break the sound barrier when it took to the sky in 1969. Further technology and progression in this period is shown by the development of Birmingham as the city of the future and the development of nuclear energy in preference to nuclear weapons. However, Wilson's ability to fulfill the public's perception of a 'white heat of technology' was largely hindered by the economic situation he inherited from Labour. As soon as Wilson came to power the TSR2 plane project had to be scrapped. His technological vision was further hampered by his own governments lack of skills; the first minister of Technology, Frank Cousins was a Union man who had little knowlege in science or technological development. Therefore, whilst the 'white heat' was not fully delivered, it was partially, thus Wilson's technological revolution can be argued as not a complete disappointment.

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Welfare and education is perhaps one clear area that Ponting's view, that wilson's government effected the ordinary people, can be supported. Although it has to be said that Wilson's government did not manage to abolish the unfair prescription charges, he attempted to in 1965 only to reinstate them in 1968 due to the financial burden. He also has to postpone in 1968 his attempts to extend the school leaving age to 16. Despite the financial burden facing the government, Wilson was able to narrow the class divide as the incomes of the highest earners fell by a third, whilst the lowest earners saw their income increase by 104%. Moreover, there was a 12.7% spending increase on education, 12.6% on heath and 14.3% on social security. He also oversaw many changed in the education system, notably via the 10/65 circular that acted to promote coomprehensive schools and by 1970 one in three children went to a comprehensive school. University places also increased by the opening of eight new universities in 1966, including Sussex, Angia and Warwick. However, his "greatest educational achievement" as described by Marr, was the provsion of the Open University. This effectively created higher education for a greater proportion on society and by 1980 the Open University was awarding more degrees than Oxford and Cambridge combined. Therefore, from a social aspect, I would argue in favour of Ponting's view and support the idea that Wilson's time if office was not a disappointment.

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In additing to this, Wilson's government had many successes that weren't planned for, but maybe hoped for by the electorate and thus contrasts to the statment 'an era of disappointment'. The legislation that was passed under Wilson was revolution; the Abortion Act 1967 stopped the occurence of 52,000 illegal abortions that were occuring anyway, improving the health and safety of many woman. During Wilson's time in office Homosexuality was made legal, something that was still considered a mental illness in other parts of the globe. He also managed to change the voting age to 18 in 1969 allowing more people to have a voice in their government. Therefore, in many ways Wilson did not disappoint his voters and his time in office, as Jenkins accounts created a "civilised age".

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In conclusion, it it true as Marquand highlights Wilson did not fufill many of his election promises, but this was largely due to the contrains of the economy. His election in 1970 ultimately indicates that people were not happy. Nonethess, i would still argue that his time in office was not a complete disappointment as the historian Ponting suggests, he affected the lives of ordinary people. Wilson's liberalising legislation and educational reforms shaped British culture, and arguably still do, therefore it appears to me that it is impossible to argue that his time in office was a complete "era of disappointment", but perhaps areas such as the economic management were. 

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