Why Harold Wilson’s Government Achieved Little

Surreal-Politique: Harold Wilson and the collapse of Labour Reformism

by Gwydion M. Williams

Of all the periods when Labour has been in power in Britain, only the 1945 government has actually done what the Labour Party was intended to do. The others have all fallen short. And the worst and least excusable failure was that of the first Wilson government

In 1964, when Wilson was first elected, the country was in a mood for radical change. People were tired of the Tories, and convinced that something new and different was needed.

The need was there – and Labour failed to meet it. The fact is, the first Wilson government failed to do anything of substance during the years it held power. (Nor, for that matter, did the second Wilson government of 1974- 76).

Wilson viewed the Labour Party as being “the natural party of government”. That is to say, it should sit on top of a society that was content just to drift along. From this point of view, it really didn’t matter that Labour had ‘done nothing that the Liberals or the Tories might not have done.

Labour seemed to have the widest basis for support. It was tied to the Trade Unions, which seemed to have emerged as the most powerful vested interests in the society. Nominally, it would remain committed to socialism. But its ideology would be only a moral facade behind which cynical men of the world manipulated the sources of power.

Then came Thatcher.

Thatcher showed how superficial the “men of the world” really were. People like Wilson viewed the existing balance of power as something majestic and god-given. They might toy with ideas of changing this or that. But they would back away as soon as the conflict became serious. Thatcher has very seldom backed down on anything she has set her mind to do. And she has shown just how much a determined Prime Minister can achieve.

Thatcher’s success is no accident. It stems from her whole make-up. Thatcher has serious beliefs, and is in politics to carry them through. She can bide her time – she waited several years before risking a conflict with the miners. But when the time came, she was willing to carry on till the bitter end.

Labour was already heading for victory when Wilson took over as leader. If someone else had been in charge – someone with Thatcher’s determination to get things done – the history of the past decades might have been very different.

The need for change

From the sixties right through to the early eighties, an increasing number of people in Britain knew that things could not go on as they were. People were ready for a change, and their first thought was to look to the Left for a new way forward.

Wilson thought he knew better. His first priority, during the mid-1960s, was to keep up the value of the pound. He wasted time trying to salvage the old system of fixed exchange rates, and to keep the pound’s exchange rate higher than the actual strength of the economy warranted. He tried to defend the orthodoxy of a passing phase of capitalism. And of course he failed. In the long run, devaluation could not be avoided.

There were deeper reasons for Labour’s failure under Wilson. There was much talk of the “white heat of the technological revolution”, but in fact it was an old idea of the economy that predominated. Socialism was seen as identical with the creation of huge monopolistic industries. Leyland, formerly British Leyland and now Austin Rover, was a prime example of the sort of hopeless monster that was produced.

In point of fact, a very good and successful industry was sacrificed for Leyland’s sake. The old sort of London bus – the Routemaster, the sort that has a single open entrance/exit at the back – had been developed over a number of years to meet London’s needs. A real social need was being met, and met quite well.

But the Labour Government decided that there should be a single type of bus produced for the whole country, and that Leyland should produce it. The company that produced London buses was closed down. Leyland produced their own bus – which was quite unsuited to London conditions, with frequent stops and starts and crawls in slow traffic. It was some time before a new variety that was fit for London was produced. And a lot of the old style buses are still running. And the public are so disillusioned after years of troubles that there is no serious resistance to the idea of privatisation. People reckon that privatised buses couldn’t be any worse, though this remains to be seen.

Wilson on Wilson

Wilson has been good enough to tell us a great deal about himself. He has published accounts of both his periods as Prime Minister, and also a set of memoirs dealing with the time before he became Prime Minister.

The remarkable thing about all these works is the utterly superficial nature of Wilson’s mind. He was very good at making a fine impression on the public, and quite good at administration. What is utterly absent is any larger vision, either of what the world is or of what the world should be.

Wilson would phrasemonger about “building a new Britain” or about “the white heat of the technological revolution”. But these were only phrases. They didn’t lead to anything in particular. And Wilson seemed to be content with the shadow of events; the immediate media impact and the fine schemes that he could later write up in his memoirs to show what a wise far-sighted person he was.

The Background

Wilson’s background, as he tells us, was from a family of Yorkshire Congregationalists. His father had various ups and downs – being at one time a Departmental Manager, but also having periods of unemployment. On his mother’s side, he had various relatives who were railway workers.

Wilson’s progress came through academic success. He went to Oxford University and did very well there. While there, he joined the Liberals. He excuses himself for this by saying that he was put off the Labour Club by “Marxist public school products”. It’s a pretty feeble excuse, but somehow typical of the man.

Wilson also says “I have never read Marx – and still have not. It was that whacking great footnote on the second page which turned off any interest I might have sustained.” Of course Wilson was quite capable of digesting and remembering vast masses of dull economic statistics, when this was necessary in order to further his career. But he would have seen no personal advantage to be gained from reading Marx, and so did not bother.

Wilson goes on to say

“This did not prevent me, when I had entered public life, on visits to the Soviet Union for trade negotiations, quoting yards of Marx at them which I had made up for the occasion. No one protested or sought to correct my version, no doubt considering it was all the fault of the translation”. (Harold Wilson, Memoirs. The Making of a Prime Minister 1916-64. Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1986. Page 35.)

I very much doubt if anyone was fooled. The Russians, perhaps, were being polite. Or perhaps they decided that this was a vain lightweight person who could be suitably flattered and made use of.

Wilson’s real breakthrough was when he got a job as research assistant to Beveridge. He has a few interesting things to say about Beveridge. Apparently, Beveridge was put on to Social Services in order to keep him quiet. The man was a genius at understanding administrative structures. But as a practical administrator he was a disaster, according to Wilson, always upsetting people and making enemies by his rudeness.

Wilson managed to get involved in some moderately important decision-making during the war, and to get close to some important people. Here again, his comments are mostly very superficial. The most consequential thing he says about Churchill is an account of how Churchill re-painted a faded mouse on a Rubens painting!

Wilson also gives an account of an arbitration over miner’s pay. The miners had demanded a four shilling increase. Lord Greene, the man in charge of the matter, suggested splitting the difference and giving them two shillings. According to Wilson:

“The wage award was anything but a scientific proceeding. It ought to look as if we had reasons for our recommendation. What about 2/6d? The phrase ‘Greene half-crown’ would catch on, as in fact it did …. “. (Ibid, p69-70)

It ought to look as if we had reasons for our recommendation.” That sums up the whole Wilson approach to politics.

[The half-crown was a pre-decimal coin worth one eighth of a pound.  The pound then had a much higher value.]

Towards Power

Wilson had been influenced towards Labour by GDH Cole, or so he tells us. One might suspect that the continuing decline of the Liberals and rise of Labour also played a part. In any case, Wilson managed to get selected as a Labour candidate. He tried and failed to get selected for Peterborough, but then managed to get chosen for Ormskirk in Lancashire. In the election he was aided by a split between the Tories and an eccentric independent who had gained control of the more or less defunct ”National Labour” organisation in the constituency.

Having had experience in Whitehall, and given the general lack of experience of the new Labour intake in 1945, Wilson got a government post at once, as Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Works. Doing quite well, he went on to become President of the Board of Trade in 1947 – becoming “the youngest Privy Councillor in history”.

Somehow or other, Wilson became attached to Nye Bevan’s wing of the Labour Party. It’s not at all clear how or why this happened. They were not particularly similar in temperament.  Indeed, Bevan said of Wilson “All bloody facts. No bloody vision” (Ibid, pl78).

Wilson quotes this as a sort of conversational tit-bit, and seems to be quite unperturbed by the judgement that had been passed on him. Presumably, a man with no vision does not view his deficiency as a deficiency. Which does nothing to explain why he became a Bevanite.

In any event, when Nye Bevan resigned from the Labour government on the issues of rearmament and health service charges, Wilson was one of those who resigned with him. For a time, he followed him, through the deepening split with Gaitskell. (Incidentally, Wilson says that Ernest Bevin was trying to heal the split between Bevan and Gaitskell before he died, and might have succeeded had he lived longer.)

Wilson’s critical move came in 1954, with Labour out of power. Bevan had been elected to the Shadow Cabinet, but had chosen to resign. This meant, under Labour party rules, that Wilson would automatically be co-opted into the Shadow Cabinet. He had had the highest number of votes of those candidates who had not been elected.

Wilson had a simple choice between backing Bevan, whose principles he had seemed to support, or else advancing his own career. He chose to advance his own career, and did very well by it. Doing well in the shadow cabinet, he was well placed to succeed when Gaitskell died. Labour’s election victory then gave him the Prime Ministership. But he had no idea what to do with such power, and in fact didn’t do much.

The aftermath

Labour today is still paying the price of Wilson’s failure. In the 1960s, the Labour Left were content to stay in their place. They dreamed of utopia, but had a realistic hope that Labour would produce substantial reforms, as happened in 1945. But nothing substantial was done. It was at this point that a lot of people on the left decided that reformism was played out, and that they might as well have a go at realising their utopias. Why be moderate and pragmatic, when the result might be another bout of Wilsonism? Labour has not yet resolved the issue, and is doomed unless it can resolve it.


This article appeared in October 1987, in Issue 4 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  Michael Alexander was a pseudonym.