The Sixties 1964-1970 (Harold Wilson)


1964 Election

  • Harold Wilson won the 1964 election with just 4 MPs. 
  • Initially he struggled to lead a government. 
  • He referred to the 13 years of Conservative rule as ''13 wasted years''. 
  • He claimed that ''the white heat of technological change'' would aid him in developing New Britain. 
  • By this point, Gaitskell had died and Labour was no longer a divided party. The failures such as Suez and failure to join the EEC as well as government scandals aided Wilson's success. 
  • Wilson was from a lower middle class background and promised to build a government representative of the New Britain. 
  • His Home Secretary Roy Jenkins was one of the most reforming home secretaries of the 20th century overseeing the legalisation of abortion, homowsexuality and liberalising divorce laws. 
  • In 1966, Wilson called another election which saw him increase his majority. He was the 1st post-war PM to do so. 
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Promises of the 1966 Election

  • Economic reform was a priority for the Labour government who believed that Conservative stop-go policies only led to further debt and an inbalance of payments. Wilson had already inherited a budget deficit of £800 million which was a result of Conservative stop-go policies.  Wilson did not want to solve this by devaluing as it would make Britain seem weak and would mean she had to withdraw from her worldwide commitments. 
  • In 1966, Wilson along with his rival George Brown, established the National Plan which promised several things: 
  • A Department for Economic Affairs (DEA), would control the economy through prices and incomes rather than managing the economy through interest rates (stop go). in this way, the stop-go cycle of the 50's could be avoided. 
  • He also promised steel nationalisation as well as a national transport plan, a Ministry of Social Security and 500,000 new homes. 
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The Economy

  • During the late '60's Britain was suffering issues with trade unions who demanded higher wages consistently against the government's will. Wildcat strikes (strikes which occurred without warning) meant Britain lost over 10 million working days to strikes by 1970. 
  • In 1966 the National Union of Seaman went on strike and in 1967 there was a dockers' strike from the Dockers' Group inthe Transport and General Workers' Union. Both these strikes significantly reduced exports and thus caused issues with the balance of prices. 
  • The value of sterling was too high and discouraged foreign investment which further contributed to an imbalance of payments. 
  • Although Wilson and his Chancellor Callaghan had been against it, in 1967, they were forced to devalue to £ in order to save its value. The pound fell by 14.6% from $2.80-2.40. 
  • Wilson was forced to abandon the National Plan since it hadn't worked in solving Britain's economic problems. Callaghan resigned as Chancellor. He was replaced by Roy Jenkins. 
  • Although unemployment was below 2%, it was slowly and steadily growing. 
  • As a result of the devaluation, Wilson was forced to approach the IMF for a loan despite having borrowed £1 million 10 years earlier. 
  • He made his famous speech ''the pound in your pocket'' in which he tried to reassure the British people that the pound still had value in order to prevent panic buying which would lead to shortages. 
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Aftermath of Devaluation

  • After Callaghan was forced to resign as Chancellor, his position was filled by Roy Jenkins who'd favoured devaluation in 1964. Jenkins introduced inflationary measures in order to help get the economy back on track but raising taxes and cutting government spending (including defence spending). This was controversial but it essentially helped the economy get back on track and by 1969, there was a balance of payments surplus, however, nonetheless, inflation was still at 12% by 1969 which was a key factor in Labour losing the election. 
  • Unfortunately, Labour's attempts to move away from stop-go policies had failed and resulted in the devaluation of the £ which made Britain look weak. However, with Jenkins as Chancellor, the economy began to slowly improve achieving a budget surplus in 1969. 
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Industrial Relations

  • Economic issues were complicated by industrial relations. The Seamans' and Dockers' strike in 1966/7 were only exacerbated by a lack in oil supplies from the Middle East. 
  • The unions had been a huge part of the post-war consensus and keeping the unions happy was what determined economic success. Wilson's prices and incomes policy relied heavily on union cooperation. 
  • There was a growth in wildcat strikes across the decade with 3 million days lost to strikes in 1960 and 10 million in 1970. Employment minister Barbara Castle and Wilson started to plan using the law to limit the number of wildcat strikes. 
  • In 1967, Barbara Castle proposed her white paper ''In Place of Strife'' which sought to reduce union power whilst at the same time not completely limiting union influence. Her policies were controversial however and many on the left of the party disgreed with her proposals. It was never passed into government as the left of the party were in disagreement such as union leaders like Jack Jones. This ''political suicide'' caused deep splits in the party and was even more controversial considering that Castle had been absent during the papers' negotiations. 
  • Ultimately, Labour failed in trying to control the unions, maybe mainly because they represented such a large percentage of their support and doing anything that might have angered the unions would lead to a decline in support. Continuing strikes etc. led to 12% inflation by the end of the decade. In 1971, Heath tried to repeal In Place of Strife with his Industrial Relations Act which too failed and led to the imposition of the 3 day working week (which undoubtedly increased productivity). It would not be until Thatcher's reign that union troubles would come to a close. 
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Labour Divisions

  • Wilson was increasingly paranoid by his rivals such as Callaghan, Brown and Jenkins and regularly reassigned their roles in order to reduce their influence in the party. 
  • Although Bevan and Gaitskell were now dead, there were still party splits between the left and the right regarding party leadership and party policy.
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Beginning of the Troubles

  • The Troubles in Ireland initially began in 1922 when Northern Ireland was established as a state independent from Ireland. This was divided into 6 counties while the remaining south into 26. The people who supported Northern Ireland and union with Britain were known as unionists and those supporting a Republic of Ireland, nationalists. 
  • Northern Ireland was mostly Protestant whereas Ireland was mainly Catholic however there were Protestants in Southern Ireland as well as Catholics in Northern Ireland. 
  • Stormont Parliament in NI was dominated by unionists/Protestants who deliberately drew constituencies in their favour (gerrymandering). Catholics in NI were discriminated against in employment and housing. 
  • In 1964, the Catholic civil rights movement began with Catholics demanding greater rights in Northern Ireland. 
  • In 1969, matters became violent in the Battle of Bogside where violence and conflict erupted between the unionists and the nationalists. 
  • Wilson reacted by sending British troops to NI to keep the peace. This would later cause problems in the '70's. 
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Liberal reforming legislation

  • The 'swinging sixties' were characterised by Roy Jenkins' liberal reforming legislation for which he was equally praised and vilified. His reforms certainly represented changing views and moving away from the pre-war era. Whereas the 1950s had been relatively similar to the 1940s, the '60's was a new age of colour and diversity. 
  • Race Relations Act 1965/68 - sought to reduce racial discrimination. A landlord could no longer refuse to rent accomodation to non-white people. This conflicted with the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1968 which sought to reduce immigration. 
  • Abortion Act 1967: Legalised abortion for women. MP David Steel led the campaign and many were persuaded it was a good thing due to the outbreak of the thalidomide disaster. However, in 1966, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child was formed showing there wasn't much change in attitudes. 
  • Sexual Offences Act 1967: Legalised homosexuality between consenting adults of 21 in private. The fact that acts had to happen ''in private'' meant that homosexuality was no completely tolerated. 
  • Theatres Act 1968: Saw some liberalisation of censorship, nudity and rude language was now allowed on screen and in theatres and saw the introduction of plays like ''Hair'' which saw full frontal nudity on stage. While younger adults may have viewed this as a sort of liberation, the older generation did not agree with it so much. 
  • Divorce Reform Act 1969: Made divorce easier for couples who'd been living apart. The number of divorces each year increased but Parliament was not in complete agreement. 
  • Abolition of the Death Penalty 1969: Showed liberalising attitudes and a movement away from old fashioned times. 
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  • Wilson extensively sought to improve education. 
  • The 11+ system was continued in order to improve school quality. However, the tripartite system seemed divisive with those at secondary schools seen as 11+ failures and most grammar school pupils coming from middle class backgrounds. 
  • Wilson decided to introduce comprehensive schools - secondary schooling for pupils in specific areas, unlike grammar schools or secondary schools - they did not select pupils. 
  • Wilson also introduced many new universities such as Warwick, East Anglia, Kent, York and Newcastle.
  • Wilson additionally introduced the Open University for those who hadn't had the opportunity to attend a campus university. It was hailed a huge success and by 1981, more than 70,000 students were being educated by the Open University. 
  • Colleges of Technology were replaced by Polytecnics which would focus on education for work and science and would concentrate on teaching rather than research. 
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Society in the '60's

  • Teenagers - by the 1960's most teenagers had jobs and provided a new market in terms of fashion, music and film. Young people became a target for manufacturers. Young people constantly clashed with their parents who were shocked by their deviation away from societal norms. Women began wearing mini skirts and trousers and men wearing velvets and bright colours. The youth were influence by youth icons such as the Beatles and Twiggy who inspired their divulge away from societal norms. However, the majority of young people kept conservative attitudes, similar to those of their parents. 
  • Swinging Sixties and the Growth of the Mass Media: The 1960's seemed to open a cultural renaissance in Britain, very much focused on London as the ''fashion capital''. The emergence of youth icons such as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Twiggy heavily influenced fashions and young people. The art of Andy Warhol also became popular and characterised 1960's culture. TV and the media also grew rapidly. The introduction of ITV in 1955 meant many could enjoy another channel other than the BBC. By 1971, 91% of people had a television in their home. In 1967, BBC 2 became the first TV channel to regularly show colour programmes. Radio also persisted as did tabloid newspapers such as The Sun which grew in influence among working class people. However, many of these changes were not widespread and were restricted to middle class people in West London. 
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Society and Cultural Change

  • A relaxation of censorship in 1967 normalised sexual attitudes and nudity. Television programmes began broadcasting more controversial programmes and films were becoming more controversial. However, by the end of the '60's, there was a levelling out of attitudes and sex and violence became much more palatable. 
  • Progression towards female equality: The belief that it was a woman's duty to look after the house and children was still a prominent view in the 1960's, however, many more women were entering the workplace and establishing careers for themselves. However, most working mothers were deemed as selfish and uncaring for giving up their motherhood. In 1967, the NHS introduced the Family Planning Act to help women with contraceptives and advice. Few women were in higher education and even fewer made it into white collar professions. In 1968, the famous Dagenham Strike due to low wages popularised feminist attitudes. At this point, women were paid 60% of mens wages. Barbara Castle was a popular figure who supported the Dagenham Strikers and encouraged other women to join politics however, other such as Margaret Thatcher made no noticeable encouragement to other women to enter politics. 
  • Immigration and Racial Tensions: The Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968, sought to limit immigration from Commonwealth countries and critcis deemed the Act as unfair since it didn't allow for second generation immigrants to come and live in the country if they were above the age of 17. In 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his famous ''rivers of blood'' speech after a wave of Kenyan Asians entered the country. Powell was condemned by the liberal Establishment and Heath promptly sacked him from the cabinet calling the speech ''racist in tone''. However, despite the backlash caused by the speech, opinion polls suggested that 75% of people agreed with what Powell was saying. Nevertheless, immigration brought a mixture of cultures and the majority of people could get along easily. 
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Foreign Affairs

  • The Vietnam War: In the 1960's, the USA sought assistance from Britain. When the war escalated in 1964, Wilson assured that Britain would not be involved despite risking his relationship with President Johnson. The war was not favoured by the Left nor was it favoured by the British people. In order to keep the £ stable, Wilson could not risk any extra defence spending. This angered the US and caused divisions in the special relationship, but little could be done. Although Britain may have seemed weak, this act in comparison to Blair's invasion of Iraq in 2003 shows courage and pragmatism. 
  • EEC: Labour became increasingly divided over Europe however, there were many Europhiles in the cabinet which concluded Britain would apply to join the EEC again in 1967. The chance of joining however, looked bleak during the devaluation and Charles de Gaulle still remained President of France. De Gaulle asked Wilson if he was willing to give up his 'special relationship' with the USA however Wilson refused. The application was once again vetoed. 
  • Decolonisation East of Suez: Britain recognised that with a growing inbalance of payments and over committment to defence spending, something had to be done.  In 1967, Denis Healey announced that there would be a decolonisation East of Suez. This mean withdrawing military bases from East of Suez to reduce defence spending to £2 million by 1970. This included Singapore, Malaya and the Persian Gulf. However, it encouraged protests from the USA who argued it would allow the spread of Communism. 
  • Rhodesia: In 1965, white supremacist leader Ian Smith declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence without consulting the majority and lead with a white minority gvt. Wilson met Smith in 1966 and 68 however, no agreement was reached and Smith continued to rule despite oil sanctions imposed by Britain since Smith had the support of Portuguese colony Mozambique. This made Britain look weak. 
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