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International Socialism, Summer 1963


Notes of the Quarter

Wilson’s New Frontier


From International Socialism, No.13, Summer 1963, p.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The search for the fight slogan was intensive. “Let’s GO with Labour and we’ll get things done” was eventually chosen. But until almost the last moment it was to have been “GO with Labour and get things done.” The revised version was thought to emphasize the required sense of togetherness.

But the team hope their master-stroke will prove to be the choice of the thumbs-up symbol ... It was not hit on without anxious thought. Was it sufficiently used, with-it enough? More seriously, had it too much of a ‘manual’ connotation? But there were a limited number of gestures fit for the purpose ...’ – Pendennis in The Observer, 19 May 1963.

The presence of Harold Wilson in the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party has virtually paralyzed the official Left. Tribune has in general confined its role either in praising him or reprinting him. Victory for Socialism has officially announced suspension of its existence (of which some of us had in any case doubted for a considerable while now). Socialist demands which in the past have been voiced in a reasonably straightforward manner are often now phrased in the form “Let Harold Wilson declare ...” (e.g. support for the railway men, or for the nationalization of this or that). Wilson’s numerous Right-Wing utterances are habitually discounted as mere lip-service to the Parliamentary Labour Party, while the significance of his radical statements (whether his Parliamentary bravado with Clause Four, or his limited denunciation of the arms-trade with South Africa) is magnified to fantastic proportions.

It should be enough to recall that, on assuming the leadership. Wilson’s first act was to deny the very supremacy of Conference decisions, on which he had based his candidature against Gaitskell in 1961. His subsequent performance has included the sapping of the strike-decision taken by an already pussyfooted NUR leadership, the championing of American standards of security-vetting in the construction of Polaris, and the reiteration, in a message for the May local elections, of the call in Signposts for the Sixties to “clear the dead wood out of the boardrooms and replace them by vigorous young executives.”

Pronouncements capable of a more Left-wing interpretation could no doubt be cited in his favour; but it would be unwise for the supporters of Wilson to lean too heavily upon their memories of his role in the Bevanite controversy of 1951. In a broadcast book-review (subsequently reprinted in The Listener) Wilson’s apologist R.H.S. Crossman did indeed justify the revolt of Bevan and Wilson against the Attlee government’s arms-program, but in terms that related exclusively to the economic strains of that particular period. Wilson’s Bevanite deviation has not been repudiated : it has simply been harmlessly fossilized.

In any case, it is not a matter of balancing Wilson’s past against his future, or of swapping plus and minus in the assessment of his speeches. What must be judged is the general role that British Social Democracy must be expected to play within capitalism, once it is returned to power. It is within this context that Wilson’s individual contribution will, after all, operate.

The function of a Labour government, as determined in the present Party program and as emphasized by both Gaitskell and Wilson, may be summarized as the rationalization of certain traditional anomalies within British capitalism. This aim is admirably expressed in the slogan already cited from Signposts for the Sixties (and more recently from Wilson himself); it is further evidenced in such features as the watchword of ‘Expansion’ (with a wages policy in the offing that is intended to shackle the independent initiatives of the working class), the abolition of the British independent deterrent (and the consequent dovetailing of conventional forces into American strategic requirements), and the proposed creation of forty-five new universities (in order to supply industry and government with a supply of trained personnel commensurate with that of Britain’s economic competitors). Not all of Labour’s demands are deplorable; some of them are. indeed, on any reckoning necessary: but none of them goes to any degree beyond bourgeois limits. In large part they amount simply to a set of reforms which British capitalism must undertake if it is to survive in an increasingly competitive world situation; but which on various grounds (aristocratic inertia, excessive nationalism, weariness in office) the traditional bourgeois party has proved itself incapable of legislating. After the votes are counted at the next election, the dead wood will no doubt be found to have been swept out the Westminster boardroom and replaced by vigorous young executives, with whose faces we are becoming so familiar.

Indeed, in certain respects the Wilsonian personality fits this bourgeois-reformist role far better than did that of his predecessor. In the portly lineaments and plummy accents of the late Gaitskell the world could detect more than a mite of that amateur, gentlemanly, public-school tradition which Labour is so dedicated to combating Gaitskell did, in a curiously old-fashioned way. represent a certain view of politics as a luxuriance of ideas, not simply an effluence of economics; though the politics and the economics, it goes without saying, were both bourgeois to the core. By contrast, one cannot imagine Wilson invoking ‘a thousand years of history’ or remembering Vimy Ridge. Bland and rubberized as his Gannex raincoat, he is quite evidently a New Frontiersman, preparing to blaze the nation’s trail as he blazed his own of old from Council School to ‘T’ Top. And as such he will no doubt sit the more happily with his co-Frontiersman in the White House, and with whatever vigorous young successors may clear out the dead wood of the two Old Men of Europe.

There are still three factors which would argue for a continuing support for Labour: the first consists in the element of working-class (rather than bourgeois) reformism manifest in Labour’s welfare proposals. Nobody can fail to welcome Labour’s promised attack on poverty even if it does not go beyond the limits of bourgeois philanthropy. In the second place Labour still represents, though to a lessening degree, the political arm of the trade-union movement. Thirdly, the labour bureaucracy is still more responsive to pressure from below than the Tories. On these grounds this journal will continue to support the Labour Party at election time. To those who would dissent from this position, we may at least claim that we do so without self-deception; which is more than can be said of Harold Wilson’s Left.

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