Skip to main content

Harold Wilson a memorial to better days?

Former UK prime minister Harold Wilson is to be honoured with a memorial stone in Westminster Abbey. I have always thought he has been one of the most misrepresented party leaders and prime ministers. It is difficult for those who lived through his time to see it in an historical perspective. But it is only in an historical context that  a government or a politician can be judged. Only then can we see if they left any lasting legacy or whether they changed peoples lives.  With time, heroes may lose their sheen whilst those denigrated may regain respect. This is certainly true for Harold Wilson. He left office somewhat discredited. But looking back now, the achievements of his governments are impressive.

Wilson was often derided as a technocrat, 'all bloody fact and no bloody vision'. But Wilson was ahead of the game as a party leader who realised the potential and challenges for scientific and technological change. It is difficult to see it now, but I recall his 'white hot heat of the technological revolution' speech to Labour's party conference in 1963 as being inspirational.


"We are redefining and we are restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution...The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry."


Harold Wilson led Labour through difficult times. His governments were beset by division and by economic circumstances; yet they achieved lasting change for the good. The 1960s are looked upon as a period of liberal social reform. Others, such as Roy Jenkins as the then Labour Home Secretary, took much of the credit individually for this reform. But the nature and tone of a government is more than simply the sum of its parts. Wilson's first period as prime minister was particularly noted for substantial liberalisation of laws of censorship, divorce, homosexuality, immigration and abortion, as well as the abolition of capital punishment.  A lasting memorial to Wilson's time is the ever developing and successful Open University. The OU transformed access to higher education at a time when only a few had the privilege of going to university.  At the same time his government set up the polytechnics broadening access to tertiary education and skills.

 In housing too Wilson's government forged ahead with 1.3 million new homes being built between 1965 and 1970. Social housing provision increased from 42 to 50%. The Protection from Eviction Act outlawed the eviction of tenants without a court order, and the Housing Act of 1965 gave security of tenure. The number of homeless families dropped substantially. Generous subsidies encouraged local authorities to build more houses.

There were also massive real increases in spending on social services and a huge expansion of social security improving living standards for those on low incomes. Changes in welfare did much to take people out of poverty.

You might think that increased real terms spending on the welfare state would have left the nations finances in a parlous state. Yes governments of left and right were buffeted by economic winds and seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis. In those days the problems were the balance of payments deficits and runs on sterling. But astonishingly, the truth is, in spite of all this and the increased welfare spending, the national debt as a percentage of GDP continued to fall through this period from 100% in 1964 to less than 50% by 1970.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ian Duncan-Smith says he wants to make those on benefits 'better people'!

By any account, the government's austerity strategy is utilitarian. It justifies its approach by the presumed potential ends. It's objective is to cut the deficit, but it has also adopted another objective which is specifically targeted. It seeks to drive people off benefits and 'back to work'.  The two together are toxic to the poorest in society. Those least able to cope are the most affected by the cuts in benefits and the loss of services. It is the coupling of these two strategic aims that make their policies ethically questionable. For, by combining the two, slashing the value of benefits to make budget savings while also changing the benefits system, the highest burden falls on a specific group, those dependent on benefits. For the greater good of the majority, a minority group, those on benefits, are being sacrificed; sacrificed on the altar of austerity. And they are being sacrificed in part so that others may be spared. Utilitarian ethics considers the ba

Mr Duncan-Smith offers a disingenuous and divisive comparison

Some time ago, actually it was a long time ago when I was in my early teens, someone close to me bought a table. It was an early flat pack variety. It came with a top and four legs. He followed the instructions to the letter screwing the legs into the top. But when he had completed it the table wobbled. One leg he explained was shorter than the other three; so he sawed a bit from each of the other legs. The table wobbled. One leg, he explained, was longer than the other three. So, he sawed a bit off. The table wobbled. He went on cutting the legs, but the table continued to wobble. Cut, cut, cut! By this time he had convinced himself there was no alternative to it.  He ended up with a very low table indeed, supported by four very stumpy legs and a bit of cardboard placed under one of them to stop it wobbling on the uneven floor.  Mr Duncan-Smith argues that we need a 1% cap on benefits to be 'fair to average earners'. Average  earners have seen their incomes rise by less tha

His way or none? Why I can't vote for Jeremy

There is an assumption that all would be well with the Labour Party if people hadn't expressed their genuine concern with what they consider the inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. If only, it is said, the Parliamentary Labour Party and his Shadow Cabinet had supported him, instead of undermining him, all would have been fine. If they had been quiet and towed the line, then the party would not have been in the mess it is in. So, should they have stayed silent, or speak of their concerns? There comes a point when the cost of staying silent outweighs the cost of speaking out. This is a judgment. Many call it a coup by the PLP. They paint a picture of a right-wing PLP out of touch with the membership.  This is the narrative of the Corbyn camp. But Jeremy Corbyn, over the decades he has been in politics, showed the way.  It was Jeremy Corbyn who opposed almost all Labour leaders and rarely held back from speaking out, or voting time and again against the party line. As