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John Palmer

The Labour Government 1964–1970

(October 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 72, October 1974, p. 29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Labour Government 1964–1970
Harold Wilson
Pelican Books, £1.50.

THERE ARE important questions to be asked about the experience of the 1964–70 Labour government. In many ways it was through this experience that the inadequacies of reformism, in a period of increasing instability in the capitalist system, were made clearly visible to a new generation of working class militants for whom the 1945–51 Labour governments were little more than a childhood memory.

If there is one word which sums up the political attitude that runs through this account of the 1964–70 government by its central architect, it is ‘cynicism.’ The diligent searcher after explanations of the Labour administrations’ policies will search in vain. The paper back version of this bestseller reinforces the impression of a scissors and paste job completed by Mr Wilson and his press aides (much of it consists of press cuttings) in haste to catch the market before it went off the boil.

In his introduction Wilson recalls how his six years in Downing Street (and how he loved the trappings of power – the RAF jets for ever standing by, navy frigates for dramatic mid ocean conflabs with Ian Smith etc., etc.) were dominated by the British balance of payments crisis. He is forever expressing ‘surprises’ and disgruntlement at the fact that in spite of ‘sober and constructive’ speeches in the House and endless instances of Labour goodwill to industry and the City, the ruling class were forever ungrateful and willing to ‘talk down the pound’ or decry ‘our real economic achievements.’

As far as the working class and the trade union movement is concerned Wilson suggests that here too He was the victim of public relations failures. Hostile reaction to wage freeze, Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife, the cuts in welfare spending after the 1967 economic crisis – these were all due to ‘misunderstanding’. ‘Communist’ or other ‘militants’ were present to ‘mislead’ workers about the true intensions of Labour ministers. Even on Vietnam where the Labour government’s grovelling posture of support for the US war efforts extended to almost every detailed atrocity of the war machine, Wilson insists that wrong headed critics put about a false impression of the objectives of Labour’s foreign policy.

The cynicism of the Wilson administration and its disastrous record over these six years has wrecked feaful havoc on the Labour Party’s fundamental credibility as a reformist political machine with consistent mass support. Wilsonism has seriously eroded the activist and even much of the electoralist loyalties Labour had been able to draw on even after 1951. Of course the collapse of Labourism is still some way off. The experience of the minority government has, however, restored its capacity for survival. What political forces within the working class movement then fill the vacuum will become the decisive political question. The job of the revolutionary socialists will be to win the support of these working people who (in the words of the Foreword to Wilson’s book) ‘by their efforts and idealism created the government of 1964–70.’

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