Paul Foot

Pipe dreams

(June 1995)

Obituary of Harold Wilson, Socialist Review, No.187, June 1995, pp.22-23.
Copyright © 1995 Socialist Review
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The death of Harold Wilson last month has been followed by a wave of nostalgia about the Labour governments he led. Paul Foot recalls the Labour victory of 1964 and how his hopes of the time were swiftly shattered

I remember polling day 1964 as if it were yesterday. In the evening after work I spent an hour or two canvassing for the Labour candidate at Hampstead, north London, and then went back home for a party to watch the results. What I remember most was the excitement, which had its roots in confidence. I was 26. For half my life there had been nothing but a Tory government. Now suddenly that government, despite its huge majority, seemed doomed. There was a mood for change, not just for a change of faces or style but a change of policy, a decisive step to the left.

We had grown used to full employment, to low inflation, to a welfare state and a big council house building programme. What was in prospect was a government which would shift the whole balance of society from rich to poor, from employer to worker, from (to use J.K. Galbraith’s famous phrase, which was highly popular at the time) private to public affluence.

One scene from the Labour campaign stuck in my memory. Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, carried out a whistle stop tour of London marginals. I followed him one afternoon to Clapham, where he spoke to a large and random crowd from the back of a lorry. He spoke without notes, almost inviting interruptions. The interruptions he got were all about race.

Race had played a big part in the election in the Midlands especially at Smethwick where the Tory campaign was supported with the slogan, ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.’ As a result, Labour trimmed its original opposition to Commonwealth immigration controls, and adopted a fudged compromise.

On that Clapham lorry Wilson could easily have retreated into this compromise and answered the racist taunts with the usual politician’s claptrap, ‘On the one hand, this, on the other, that.’ But he didn’t. Every time the cry went up, ‘Send home the blacks’, he rounded on the heckler, angry and sarcastic. ‘Whom should we send home? The nurses in our hospitals? The people who drive our buses. Where would our health service be without the black workers who keep it going?’ These questions were greeted with great roars of approval from the crowd, and the hecklers were silenced.

No wonder I was excited that October night. The excitement grew as the night went on. Bit by bit an impregnable Tory majority of nearly 100 was whittled down. Up all night, we clung through the day to the radio. At about 2.30 the following afternoon, a left winger called Mendelson was elected for Penistone, Yorks, and Labour had an overall majority. It was quite impossible for even the hardest revolutionary not to feel a rush of joy and even hope.

As the months of Labour government went on, the joy subsided, but the hope persevered. My first really grim disillusionment came in July 1965, when the government ushered in immigration laws far more racist and ruthless than anything the Tories had contemplated. Even so, I was prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt. In October 1965 Wilson could tell the Labour Party conference, ‘Sterling is strong, employment is strong, the economy is strong’ – and he was right. Pensions were up, arbitrary evictions were outlawed, a bill to nationalise steel was before the Commons.

In March 1966, less than 18 months after the 1964 triumph, Labour won another election – with a majority of nearly 100. The last conceivable excuse for dallying – a wafer thin Commons majority – had been swept aside. Caithness in the far north of Scotland was a Labour seat. So was Falmouth in Cornwall. It was 1945 all over again but 1945 in peacetime conditions where everyone had a job and there had not even been a noticeable recession for 20 years.

Harold Wilson, with his cheeky, cocky demeanour, his cheerful smile and his Yorkshire burr, summed up the confidence and hope. Here was living proof that Labour could deliver a prime minister who was plainly not a MacDonald or an Attlee – a man who genuinely believed in public enterprise and public endeavour, and would not sell the pass.

The collapse came very swiftly, in the middle of the clear blue summer of 1966. First, the same Wilson who had in opposition championed the low paid and the trade unions, threw all the forces of his rhetoric against an official strike of seamen, some of the lowest paid workers in the country. When he finally beat the seamen by the most revolting witch hunt, he turned his bile, his office and his government against the entire working class movement. The same man who had derided Selwyn Lloyd, former Tory chancellor, for a ‘one sided pay pause’, now instituted a year long total wage freeze, enforced by law and backed by savage cuts in the public spending programme he had advocated.

In 1967 he reimposed the health prescription charges he’d abolished. In 1968 he sanctioned another, even more racist, immigration act to keep out persecuted Asians from East Africa. In 1969 he proposed to ban unofficial strikes, the first plan for anti-union laws since the war. Throughout all this he supported the barbaric US invasion of Vietnam with a passion which inspired the US president Johnson to describe him as ‘another Churchill’.

Fighting my way through the mountains of guff which have greeted the death of Harold Wilson, I detect one consistent theme. This is the amazing view that Harold Wilson went ‘too fast’, that he was ‘too ambitious’, that he set out to achieve a reform programme which simply wasn’t possible. This theme quickly fades into another: that the Labour leaders of today have ‘learned the lessons of the Wilson period’ and will not make the same mistake. Blair, we are told by everyone, to tumultuous and unanimous applause, will not aim anything like as high as poor old idealist Harold did. As a result, new Labour will, it is widely predicted, last longer than Wilson did.

All this makes a grotesque mockery of what really happened in the 1960s and 1970s and what socialists felt about Wilson at the time. The universal feeling on the left – all sections of the left indeed, including many principled people on the Labour right – was that Wilson moved not too fast, but too slowly; that his stand was not too principled, but wholly unprincipled; that he was not ‘too robust’ with capitalists, judges and senior civil servants but too obsequious to them; and that his central failing was not his idealism but his pragmatism.

Black Wednesday, July 1966 – the day of the cuts and the wage freeze – was named as such not by a revolutionary but by a mild mannered television journalist called John Morgan, who, like hundreds of thousands of others, had high hopes that the Labour government would lead the way to a new social order. This hope was widespread throughout the left, and it was the dashing of this hope by backsliding and grovelling to the rich and powerful which brought Wilson down so low in the eyes of so many of his former supporters. It follows that if prime minister Blair proceeds slower even than Wilson, if his ambitions are even more circumscribed than Wilson’s were, his downfall will be even more sudden, and even more calamitous.


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