Harold Wilson's Governments (1964-70)
It was no surprise that Harold Wilson (Labour) would beat Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Conservative) in the 1964 general election.
The Labour Party represented a youthful image, in-tune with the progressive Britain and the "swinging 60s" compared to the 13 years of Conservative government. Wilson spoke of Britain's need to respond to the "white heat of the technological revolution"
However, it was a close win, Labour had gained an overall majority of four seats from Conservative decline, suggesting a significant number of electors may have simply wanted a change.
Reasons for Labour's victory in 1964
- Weariness & lack of spirit in the Conservative government
- Scandals that tainted the Conservative Party in 1963-64
- Unemployment reached over 800,000 in 1963, despite Macmillan's earlier claim that Britain had "never had it so good"
- Conservative's humiliating failure in 1963 of being rejected from the EEC
- The Labour Party was younger, and more with-it, in-tune with changing times
- Harold was more publicly impressive than Alec Douglas-Home
- Conservatives were the main target of the flourishing satire in the 60's in the theatre, radio and television
- Wilson had a skillful election campaign, presenting himself as better fitted to lead the nation in the technological age Britain had entered.
Labour's difficulties in government
Labour and Conservative administrations were both beset by constant economic difficulties. Britain was undergoing a major shift in its economic and social structure, changing from an industrial economy to a post-industrial one.
- manufacturing industries were shrinking
- service & finance industries were expanding
The transition caused considerable social disruption. Britain was the "sick man of Europe" - it was not matching the growth of industrial economies such as in Western Europe, Japan and USA.
One explanation for Britain's poor performance is that it spent too much on defense and too little on investment in industry.
The National Plan 1964
The new Department of Economic Affairs, under George Brown (Minister for Economic Affairs 1964-66) drew up a 'National Plan', and created a new Ministry of Technology, suggesting that the government was intent on modernising. The National Plan aimed at:
- stimulating industrial production and exports
- encouraging co-operation between governments, employers and trade unions
It set itself grand expansion targets, few were met and by 1967 the National Plan was quietly abandoned. However, it is important to realise that the electorate were impressed by the government's modernising programme, giving Labour a majority of 110 seats over Conservatives in the 1966 election.
Wilson believed industrial troubles were a key factor in the increase in Britain's trade deficit, blaming the trade union 'troublemakers'.
Wilson became so concerned that in late 1967 he devalued the pound, reducing the exchange of sterling from $2.80 to $2.40. After the Chancellor of Exchequer, James Callaghan, announced the measure in Commons, Wilson made a broadcast on television. Wilson, however, unwittingly made devaluation appear as a greater political and economic failure by his government.
Now, it is believed Wilson over estimated the seriousness of the balance of payments crisis. In the private sector of the economy, there was no deficit but in face a profit. Nevertheless, Wilson was convinced that Britain's sluggish performance was caused by poor industrial relations, the number of stoppages grew in Wilson's time.
'In Place of Strife' 1969
The failure of being rejected by the EEC in 1967 strengthened Wilson's determination to control unions. The publication of a white paper, put before the Cabinet by Barbara Castle, set proposals aimed at preventing future strikes, putting legal restrictions on the right of workers to strike.
It created immediate divisions within the party - the left said it undermined what Labour stood for, protection of the unions. It was what one would expect from Conservatives.
James Callaghan was the person who stopped 'In Place of Strife', stressing the dangers to the party it would cause by alienating the trade unions, who provided the bulk of Labour's funds.
The record of Wilson's government 1964-70
Although the government did nothing new on the economic and industrial front, it is vital to remember the groundbreaking social reforms:
- Race Relations Acts 1965 and 68 prohibited racial discrimination in public places, set up a Racial Relations Board and Community Relations Commission
- The Abortion Act 1967
- The Sexual Offences Act 1967
- The Office of Ombudsman created 1967
- Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968
- Abolition of the death penalty 1969
The Home Secretary between 1965 and 67, Roy Jenkins was largely responsible. He personified the tolerant, sophisticated attitude he wished to see in Britain.
Criticisms of Wilson's first government
To many, the social reforms were isolated achievements. Others complained Wilson's government had introduced...
- Rising unemployment
- Growing inflation
- Wage controls
- Attempted restriction of trade union freedoms
- Immigration controls
- Britain's failed attempt to join Europe (1967)
- Retention of Britain's nuclear weapons
- Support of the USA's involvement in the Vietnam War
The 1970 election
Wilson believed that Labour's basic support remained solid. The result of the 1970 election took him by surprise - Conservatives gained 3.4% more than Labour in votes.
Thanks to Wilson's undistinguished economic policies, his apparent failure to control the unions had lost a significant degree of support.
Many people became to like Enoch Powell (research his 'rivers of blood' speech), for his stand on immigration gained the Conservatives 2.5 million voters. R.W. Johnson claimed Powell won the 1970 election for the Conservatives, stating that those who had switched their votes were "Powellites"