Transcript for Sh 41e

And so we come to the last 50 years or so of this series. 1945 to 2000. I have been dreading it I have to tell you, because clearly it’s not history – more current affairs I’d say, loads of people are still alive who went through all of it and that can’t be right. I went through parts of it, though I’m not sure I remember much of it or took a lot of notice – there were much more important things than politics going on if my life, there was football, cricket and hormones. But I will do my best not to hate it all too much. I ended up warbling, again, partly because at the end it seemed sensible to have a bit of a look back and reflection on themes of the whole series, and so I have cut it into two episodes. In this one we’ll go from a highpoint where Labour appeared to be delivering on its great promise to a low point where Labour diehards felt their party had betrayed its mission. Atlee to Wilson, basically. Then next time we’ll deal with the death of what has been called consensus politics.

As the battle lines were drawn, it’s worth just reflecting a little on the parties through the thirties and the state they arrived at in 1945. Because it seemed obvious to Churchill in 1945 that he had led the country through the war, become something of a public hero, and would therefore be rewarded by an election victory, as was surely only fair. It’s a very common question today why did Churchill lose, how could he? Labour’s victory it seems counter intuitive. To adapt a phrase from the previous century, Churchill won the war and the country said thank you Mr Attlee’. A prize for those of you who remember the original occasion for a similar quote, unless I have of course mangled it too much.

Anyway, Labour had of course spent most of the 1930’s effectively watching the Tories in power, and in 1935 had not only lost, but lost badly – with only 151 seats as opposed to their 191 seats previously. Major Attlee, as he liked to call himself, reflecting on his time in the First World War, was elected to parliament in 1922; he opposed the general strike in 1926. He reached the top of the party when elected leader in 1935. Is was a bit of a surprise to be honest; the frontrunner was the charismatic candidates Herbert Morrison. But Charisma makes enemies, and Attlee trusted by most, and seen as honest, decent and competent. A good decision, as it would prove. The prospect of war caused big problems for Labour – they prided themselves after all as being the party of peace and pacifism. It was difficult to know how to react to the prospect of war with Germany; but even more complicated about what to do practically with the Spanish Civil war, which many saw as a moral campaign. But on the other hand, pacifism meant not getting dragged into a war.

During this period also, there happened to be concerns about religion – specifically, Labour were aware that their party had quite a strong protestant flavour, and that Catholicism was under represented.[1]  I thought I should use that as an excuse to reflect generally on religion. We started this series back in the day talking a lot about religion, and I have probably under represented it’s importance in the 19th century. Non conformism formed a vital strand of moral reform in the Liberal party, and the health of Anglicanism and worries about the increasing religious pluralism particularly worried the Tories. By the 1930s though, religion is far less obviously important in party loyalties and politicies. Very few politicians would have professed atheism, and most PMs have been open about their faith – Tony Blair for example – but it was no longer a fundamental political issue or faultline.

The other thing to mention about labour in the 30’s was that it was a period of introspection, especially as they were out of power, and as a result Labour went into the war period far more committed to an attitude of Statism, big government it might be called now I guess. The idea that it was not enough to simply remove the obstacle to fair working conditions, the State must intervene directly in the lives of its citizens, that nationalisation of key industries was a core part of policy. This was influences by Maynard Keynes of course,  and a Keynesian economic approach was increasingly adopted, and a belief that the state could do more to influence economic conditions. It laid the foundation for the attitudes of the party in 1945.

Now Labour had a good war, to use what always sounds like an unfortunate phrase. They’d held government posts, that was one thing, but everything about the need to deliver big government to mobilise a national war effort played to a Labour agenda –it was all about state driven planning, intervention in the daily lives of citizens; people had seen how well that had worked in the war, and a return to a more conservative view of individualism and small state would have seemed to many like a backwards step.

In addition, the Coalition government of the war had found time to think about what should happen after the war; and in 1942 the Beveridge Report was published.

William Beveridge was a Liberal and an economist commissioned by the government to look at ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’, which was the title of his report; Beveridge stated that he wanted to address the

five giants on the road of reconstruction”: “Want… Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness

The report that came out called for a comprehensive welfare state; the conservatives greeted it with scepticism at best; but it was grist to the Labour mill, and would form the basis of Attlee’s government.

And it’s important not to forget that one of the most significant reforms, which bears comparison with the following reforming Labour government, came from the office of a Conservative Minister, R A B Butler. The 1944 Education Act was very much part of the tradition of one-nation Toryism, and established the separation into Primary and Secondary stages, made education available to all, without respect of gender or classes, free to all up to the age of 15. It established vocational colleges of further education and the Ministry of Education.

So back to the future then and 1945, Churchill misread the peoples’ mood. They did not trust the CP to deliver a new world; and they also had the example of Lloyd George after the first world war, where a war leader had failed to deliver such a new beginning.

It used to be thought that the parties that emerged blinking from the cave of war into the light of a parliamentary election had little to choose between them, given they came from a national coalition government. But in fact they were pretty distinctive. So for example, while a 1944 coalition white paper had talked about achieving a ‘high and stable level of employment’, the two parties interpreted the objective very differently; for Labour, 3% unemployment was the most that could be borne, whereas the CP reckoned 8.5% would be desirable. The same paper had promised a National Health service free at the point of use, but by the time of the election the CP were already retreating to earlier, less comprehensive ideas. And in 1945, Labour were fully behind nationalisation, the Tories fully against the very idea. So the parties were very different; and indeed Labour withdrew early from the Coalition, because they wanted nothing to do with a repeat of the Coupon election of 1918 that had so badly damaged the Liberals.

So when people went to the polls, they had been through a war that in practice had embedded many socialist principles, and an interventionist view of the state. Meanwhile, it was the CP that had taken them into the war, the 1930s party in retrospect looked weak and vacillating in the face of Hitler’s rise, and further back the Post WWI reconstruction was felt to have been thwarted by selfish Conservatives. And maybe people were tired of Great Men, the time for Churchill’s bombast was gone, while many of the Labour leaders were well known and respected for the projects they’d delivered in the war – Morrison, Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps.

There was no mass radicalism; but there was a clear desire for a new approach and that the kind of government that had won the war might not be the same as could win the peace, The result was a landslide – with 48% of the vote, Labour won 393 seats, against a CP of 210. Clement Attlee and his government of stars had a mandate, none clearer. Churchill was gutted; Mrs Churchill tried to console him saying it was probably a blessing in disguise,to which Winston replied

It seems quite effectively disguised

From Labour’s point of view there was a feeling that this was simply the inevitable next step in the unstoppable onward march of socialism; Labour had been tricked of its inheritance before, but now at last they were in power with an absolute majority. Hartley Shawcross, a Labour Minister in 1946, put it thus

‘We are masters at the moment – and not only for the moment, but for a very long time to come

Harold Wilson would  later reflect this same optimism and belief that labour and socialism were the logical endpoints of politics when he described labour as

A natural Party of government’

Just as an aside…I should probably explain the ‘Papers’ thing, white paper and so on; they are part of a series that started in 1833, of ‘Command’ papers – starting with number 1, and we are now at over 9,000. As a general term these include all sorts of things; statistical reports, treaties, proposals – they share the common characteristic of information presented to parliament, and take their general name from a common title of

Presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for XXX by Command of Her Majesty

The one we come across most is the ‘White’ paper, which is the colour of the paper’s cover.  A white paper is a summarised proposal on which the government intends to act by legislation or administration. The other most widely used is the ‘Green’ paper – these are open ended proposals, designed for the purposes of consultation and development.

While I’m on procedures, I also realise I’ve used the phrases Readings a few times, without explanation. Here’s what that means, and I think similar processes are used all over. Readings are the processes new legislation goes through before it becomes statute law. There’s a first reading, which is basically just agreement for the Bill to proceed and be printed; a second reading where there’s a debate and vote; whence it goes for detailed review in Committee, and amendments suggested. Then there’s the Report stage where that all comes back for debate and finally the third reading which approves it or rejects it in the Commons; And then up it goes to the Lords for the same stages; at the end of which there might be a bit of ping pong where amendments of both houses are considered, sometimes controversial. When the Bill receives royal assent it becomes an Act; royal assent for some time has the application of a rubber stamp – the last time royal assent was refused was 1708 when Queen Anne refused assent for the Scottish Militia Bill.

Finally finally, and this time really finally I should mention the Queen’s speech – or King’s speech now. It has a long tradition; the monarch would address parliament, and give it an idea what was expected of it – usually, in brief and to be slightly cynical, give me a load of cash and don’t expect me to answer all your whines although I will of course promise to do so. I am being unduly cynical – most monarchs saw addressing the grievances and petitions of their people as their duty. In the main, after a shortish speech – unless you happened to be James I who was notoriously gobby – it was then a hand over to the Chancellor or the AB sometimes who would tell the combined houses, Lords and Commons, what was expected of them. Anyway, then we had the civil wars, and in 1642 Charles I attempted a coup d’etat – by storming into the house of Commons with a bunch of soldiers armed t the teeth, trying to arrest the five members of parliament he considered the worst troublemakers – the likes of John Hampden and John Pym. He found the birds had flown. Since that day it has been the convention that the king does not enter the house of commons, though it’s not actually illegal to do so.

So now at the state opening of parliament we have one of those delightful charades of which lemon suckers disapprove. A very posh bloke called Black Rod – who was the traditional messenger of the monarch – goes down to the house of Commons to call them to House of Lords to all meet up so the king can tell them what’s going on in this parliamentary sesh. Rudely, the doors of the house of Commons are slammed in his face. He knocks three times with his, ah, big black rod, the MPs say ‘oh go on then’ and all troop over to the lords. The king then sits there on his throne all grand like in his Sunday best and tells them all what’s going t happen in this parliament. Nowadays of course it’s much more detailed – in fact what Kingie or Queenie are doing is reading out their government’s legislative programme for the session, policies in which he’s had no part in selecting or forming.

Right, digression or rather a siding on the train track of podcasting should we say, completed. We must return to the new and fresh government of 1945, Under Clem. It’s probably a sign of Attlee’s stye that his administration has been described as the ‘highpoint of cabinet government’[2].




He built a team that worked together despite them covering a diverse range of political views, and as already mentioned he was lucky to have a very good, competent team of ministers; if he’d had a rubbish one, everything could have been different, but Clem gets the credit of course, deservedly and to Bevin, Morrison, Dalton and Cripps he added Aneurin Bevan at Health. Attlee had a close command of detail, and he was very connected to the house of parliament and his MPs, he was never distant or aloof. Now this is an important thing; because you are a grand leader, full of the importance of dealing with matters of high state and diplomacy, there is a danger that awareness of their own brilliance and status means they find it a bit of a bore to be dragged in front of their MPs to explain themselves and be held to account. Attlee was never like that – he assiduously cultivated his party MPs and they loved him right back for it.

Anyway, if you were to assemble a list of the most reforming governments in Britain’s parliamentary history you’d probably list 4; Robert Peel’s of 1841-6; Gladstones of 1868-1874; Thatcher you’d probably have to put on the list, but pushing for first place would have to be Attlee’s government of 1945-1950. I promised myself not to go into any depth about the ins and outs of each reform, otherwise we’d simply have a history of the UK and we’d be here well after the cows had come home. But it is quite a list, and together created the basis of the modern welfare state, inspired by the work of J M Keynes and William Beveridge. The one everyone focusses on is the National Health Service set up in July 1948 under the leadership of a Welshman, Nye Bevin, but that followed the National Insurance Act in 1946, piloted through by another Welshman, James Griffiths. It required everyone to make a contribution to national insurance in return for a package of benefits – pension, sickness benefits, unemployment benefit. Every bit as important, and how far we have come from the attitudes of Victorian Britain.

In industry the government nationalised 20% of the economy; coal, railways, road transport, the Bank of England, civil aviation, electricity and gas, and steel. But there was no attempt to dismantle capitalism; there was no attempt to put the workers in control of those industries, the means of production as it were. Labour remained sympathetic to private enterprise and business, and faithful to its belief that socialism would emerge from a successful and vibrant capitalism. So there was a hard line between private and public industry; no attempt to mix the two.

We might talk of failure just a bit though that’s almost a heresy when it comes to Saint Clement; the reluctance to intervene in private industry meant any idea of central planning went by the board, which probably wouldn’t be a loss if you happened to be a free marketeer; and nationalisation did not leave much money for modernisation of those industries. Which would be a problem.

There’s more; the 1946 New Towns Act was part of a programme of social housing, and several new towns sprang from it – including Basildon; Bracknell; Crawley; Hatfield; Harlow; Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage. But not Milton Keynes; I think that was 1967. And then, dear to my heart – the National Parks system was established, and that was not the least of the government successes. Abroad, there was nothing particularly radical about Labour; there was no coherent plan to withdraw from Empire, despite withdrawal from Palestine, and independence for India. The latter in particular being a process that was rushed and led to the horrors of partition – which Britain never wanted, but in which it must take some of the blame at least. In fact India’s independence led more to a realignment in policy around Africa, with colonial tariffs – which did not favour the colonial producers it has to be said.

One more thing – is another slug of Parliamentary reform in the 1949 Act, which amended the 1911 Act in its reform of the House of Lords. The lords could now delay bills by only 1 year; and offline, Attlee implemented an informal agreement called the Salisbury Convention. What this means is that the Lords will not make amendments to bills which are a result of policies in the party manifesto at the last election; it’s been slightly amended by custom and practice, so that now the Lords can introduce amendments – but only moderate ones, not designed to wreck the bill. How on earth one defines that and implements such a woolly agreement, I know not, but hey, Edmund Burke will be trilling with delight. A thoroughly organic part of an organic constitution in line with the spirit of the people. Possibly maybe perhaps.

So the record of Attlee’s government is not perfect, but is undeniably impressive. It was reform made at a time of severe financial pressure; the war had cost Britain about a quarter of its wealth, Lend Lease had been stopped abruptly, there was a collapse in the value of the pound in 1947, from which crisis the US helped us with the Marshall Plan, followed by a devaluation – the pound reduced in value from $4.03 to $2.80. In the light of such pressures, Attlee’s achievement is even greater. The Labour party had come of age – no one could deny it was now a credible party of government, and the obvious alternative to the conservatives.





Well, now, the same question we all had in 1945 – how on earth did the country not reward the party who had wrought such fundamental changes, surely the election would simply be an extended round of applause? Because as you will have guessed – that’s not what happened. It took a hung parliament and two elections in 1950 and 1951, but the result was the start of an extended period of Conversative party dominance of government, from 1951 to 1964. The campaigns of both elections were rather unexciting – Churchill even used the word ‘demure’. And it seems that essentially Labour had run into the same ‘range of exhausted volcanoes’ problem as Gladstone – they’d simply run out of steam, or run out of lava to avoid doing the mixing my metaphor thing, and were more worried now about not scaring the horses too much, than continuing a programme of reform. Despite that, it seems some of the horses had been scared – Middle classes in the North and Home Counties switched strongly to the Tories. Labour had lost some big hitters – Wilson resigned, Bevan left from an unfortunate case of illness, Cripps left because of an unfortunate case of death. The result was a slight swing in both elections, of about 2 to 3% in each, the cumulative effect of which was a Conservative Government, and Churchill’s Indian summer had pulled into the stations, a little late, but nonetheless arrived.

Attlee continued as Labour party leader until the 1955 election, which was another labour defeat losing 18 seats, and only then did he resign. It was not a positive period for him, and we can turn to one of the most over used quotes in politics, but then it is over used because it’s often true, by the MP Enoch Powell writing about Joseph Chamberlain

All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.

Gore Vidal made the same point when he described Truman Capote’s early death a ‘a good career move’, essentially.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make about the 1950s elections. First is that 1950 hit the high point of electoral turnout at 85%. Turnout at elections is one of those low level, constant worries – at some point someone will worry about engagement with politics and point to the recent figure and burst into tears; and usually at the same time someone will pipe up that voting in Oz is compulsory, why not here? I think why not here because it feels draconian, though I’m not aware that it causes any problems in Australia. Anyway the graph of electoral turnrout does go up and down; the lowest recorded general elections turnout since 1918 was in 2001 at 59.4, after which everyone bent down and pulled their socks up a bit to about 71%, though less in 2019 at 67% when I think people were confused about all the party messages relating to the Brexit stuff and probably too busy staying at home and eating their own livers instead.

The other point is about party membership. Now the labour party membership is a bit less clear, because of course many people are affiliated through their Unions; and Trade Union Membership grew until 1979 when it peaked at 13 million – today I think it’s around 6 million of which 3.5 million opt in to the Labour party; and there are 430,000 individual members. But in 1950 individual membership was about a million so it has fallen considerably. For the CP it is more dramatic; in the 1950s there were 2.8 million members – there are now 200,000 people only, who I assume, possibly wrongly are dominated by the loony, wearers of brick red UKIP trousers, a fringe of activists capable of electing Liz Truss to leadership and therefore PM. The fall in party membership is a worry, because generally there is a danger of activists dominating.  Let me explain why I think that is a problem, and if you look up Jonathan Sumption, Reithe Lectures, there’s a very good exposition of why.

People often talk about the UK First Past the Post system and it’s dangers; and I am an advocate I must say of Proportional representation; one of the reasons given is the need for the smaller parties elected under PR to compromise and talk together. However, with a few exceptional periods, compromise is not a problem of the UK system, because parties have traditionally been a superb engine for compromise – some might say leading at times to timid, consensual politics. Because parties all have wings – the Tories traditionally have one Nation Wets on the left to the radical free marketeers on the right, and even wearers of UKIP trousers. Or Reform UK trousers as I think is the latest iteration. Labour Traditionally have the loony left – we’ll hear about Militant tendency and all next time. Parties these days have to produce manifestos, since Rabbie Peel started us off in 1834. Manifestos are riddled with policies which each of the wings might not love, but can live with. Compromise. If parties are composed only of activists, the power of compromise is much reduced. And when highjacked by one of the wings electoral disaster often follows – viz Labour in the early eighties. Activists I suspect don’t necessarily prioritise electoral success over principles; I know many Labour party members who detest Tony Blair, Labour‘s most successful leader electorally of modern decades, with a virulence usually reserved for axe murderers.

Anyway I warble; two more fab facts, first one relating to the FPTP system actually. In 1950 the Liberals thought they could make a comeback, and fielded more candidates than ever before. They were wrong. They did worse than ever before and won just 9 seats; I think you may be aware that to stand for parliament you have to put up £500 as a deposit, which you can get back if you get more than 5% of the vote in a constituency. So many Liberal candidates lost their deposit that it apparently became a Music Hall joke. Fortunately, the Liberal Party had taken out insurance, with Lloyds! Canny or what. The FPTP system of course punishes small parties viciously – as we’ll hear with the Gang of Four. 1950 demonstrates this nicely as well though. Because despite the disastrous number of MPs elected, in fact, the Liberal party had polled 20% of the vote for its 1.5% of MPs. Put that another way, it took 42,000 people to elect a Labour or Conservative MP; it took 300,000 to elect a Liberal.

Final fact then before we get on; 1951 was the very first election where there was one of those 15 minute Party Political Broadcasts on the telly. I used to love those, because if you were watching something on the Beeb it gave you a chance to go and make a nice cup of tea.

I don’t think there’s a vast amount to say about Churchill’s government or indeed Eden’s and so I’m not going to, honestly. The CP has a long held and hard won reputation for pragmatism, and this came to the fore with Churchill. They made no effort at all to unwind any of the actions of Attlee’s government; their Industrial Charter accepted the new status quo including nationalisation. Churchill believed a long period of peace and quiet would be just the ticket. His last administration doesn’t get much of a press. Churchill was even less interested than ever in domestic politics, and left that to R A B Butler by and large, and spent his time irritating his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden who was supposed to be good at that thing. The 1955 election Campaign slogan from the Tories rather sums it up – ‘Don’t let Labour ruin it’ was the refrain, not the most forward looking or positive electoral pitch. Seemed to work though.



Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, an occasion of great excitement; Churchill resigned in 1955 and his heir apparent Anthony Eden, Foreign Policy specialist, took over to be dumped a year later in the aftermath of the national humiliation of the Suez Crisis which both demonstrated what Eden should have already known – that neither Britain nor France occupied the top table any more – and what the British have always suspected that you can’t trust specialists. Though pretty sure we’ve learned you can’t trust amateurs either, so we are like people who’ve been put in a round room and told to stand in the corner, or a person holding a bit of paper with PTO on both sides.

Which brings us to the Publisher and son of a Scottish Grocer. I speak of the conservative PM Harold MacMillian. Sit up everyone, you are loving this podcast, in fact you’ve never had it so good. This was one of the famous phrases used by Macmillian by which he’s remembered; I’m told it riffs on a 1940’s gag in America when moaning soldiers were told ‘What are you complaining about? You never had it so good in your life’. MacMillian used it to sell the message that the CP was doing just a jolly good job, well done us. Sort of thing.

It might be worth at this point, just to keep you all honest and on the straight and narrow, and have a catch up on the 1955 election and who elected Super Mac & his chumps to government. We are well into the era where the basic rule of politics is about class. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Labour pulled in support from about 2/3rd of the Working Classes, especially those in heavy industry – which was at its peak just then – living on council estates, the size of which were still growing, i.e. public housing, and members of trades unions. In this book I was reading it says it became a joke that in heartlands like Dagenham, they weighed the Labour vote rather than counted[3] it. Now, I can reveal to you that I have cracked that little witticism about 5,044 times relating to the Henley constituency in which I live which is tirelessly Tory, and never once even got a smile. Jane once even quizzed me once, in a genuinely curious way, not being snarky, ‘why do you keep saying that? Is it a joke or just meant to be witty?’. I think it’s a good gag personally, maybe not a belly laugh, I grant you, but certainly wry smile worth? No? Oh well.

Anyway the CP was more evenly spread; about 4/5ths of the Middle Classes voted Tory, and the MC comprised about 1/3rd of the electorate. Because they are a smaller part of the electorate, of course a working class vote is required o elect the Conservatives to government – and in 1955 they therefore contributed about half of the Tory vote which is interesting. There is a distinct geographical spread to this, if you look at an election results map it looks similar to day – the shires are coloured blue, and the big cities red. But I’m not being scientific.

MacMillian has been described as ‘the last Edwardian to inhabit Number 10’ by Ben Pimlott, but it’s a statement with a fair degree of hindsight; for at the start MacMillan was pretty perfectly designed for a party which relied on substantial working class support, despite its history as the protector of the propertied and landed classes. He talked often and proudly about his Scottish crofting heritage, he had his experience of business in the family publishing firm, and had been to Eton. There was an impressive ticking of boxes going on here. He was clever at controlling how to present himself, chameleon like in fitting in with his audience. The future Tory PM Edward Heath hated this and wrote

What a pity that now while we have the most intelligent PM of the century, he has to conceal his intelligence from the public for fear they will suspect it

But there’s something very British about MacMillian; I read one biography that said he saw politics as a game, in a very Patrician way, a bit of fun not to be taken too seriously; something your Margaret Thatcher would never have thought. He had that air of the amateur, and believed that was a good thing; so he is reported to have said

We have not overthrown the divine right of kings to fall down for the divine right of experts

He rather calmly accepted that planning was all very well, but you had to be able to adapt; When once asked what was the greatest challenge for a statesman, he replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events’.


He recognised that now political communication relied on effective use of the Telly, and an ever-smaller number of national newspapers. He hated the telly, felt physically sick before television interviews and called the recording studio the ‘modern torture chamber’; but he was good at it. He was mocked by a cartoonist as Supermac, but the mockery backfired; it became a term of endearment while he pulled off his balancing act.

His was a one nation Tory; he’d lived through the 30s, and was appalled at the sight of Tory colleagues seemingly allowing depression to run on for years unchecked with its resulting misery – and was determined that neither he nor his party would allow such a thing again. He espoused consumerism and modernisation, and was lucky enough to be in office in a time when wealth was rising, the economy was growing. But he also lived at a time when Britain was in relative economic decline, and growth was better in most of western and northern Europe, and Britain’s trade was increasingly dominated by European markets. Very sensibly then, he applied in 1963 to belong to the EEC, despite being suspicious of all the supra national nation federation stuff because of course who would be mad enough not to be part of such a large free trade area? I mean you’d have to wear UKIP trousers. Unfortunately in 1963, Charles de Gaulle, il dit non, and the UK membership bid was rejected.

Conservative policy towards the Empire was not instinctively towards decolonisation; but MacMillan took a practical approach, and recognised it was going to happen. Ghana for example became independent in 1957, and famously in 1960 he gave his speech in front of the South African parliament

The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact

He also spoke out specifically against apartheid and by 1961 South Africa had left the Commonwealth.

But by the time the 60s came around, MacMillian and the Tories’ balancing act was failing. The promotion of too many peers, and the presence of an increasing number of Etonians in the cabinet contributed to an aristocratic, Grouse Moor image for the CP; the same old faces became wearisome and entitled to the electorate, and then in 1963 came an event dear boy, in spades dear boy. The Profumo affair.

Well, with the possible exception of David Mellor and the toe sucking scandal, of which the less said the better, and in fact I deeply regret even mentioning it, the Profumo scandal has to be right up there in the Pantheon of the greats, scandal wise. John Profumo. The Secretary of State for war, and apparently a thoroughly upright man, was discovered to be having an affair with a 19 year old Christine Keeler, and Christine Keeler through her friends Mandy Rice-Davies and Stephen Ward, had connections with a Soviet Military attache. The whole affair had both political and social fall out. Here was the establishment found with its trousers firmly down as it were, and I’m not talking figuratively here. Of course these were different days so then that was a bit shocking, now they are part of the mainstream; these days in the lovely comedy series Ghosts by the same team that brings you Horrible Histories I think, there’s a Tory minister called Julian who died in the act and therefore is committed to eternal existence as a ghost wearing no trousers. It makes me laugh every single episode.

The Profumo trial weas seen in many ways to be am establishment stitch up – Stephen Ward was convicted for earning from prostitution, and killed himself, and was widely seen as an establishment victim. Profumo resigned and spent then a faultless and impressive life in charity work,  Christine Keeler’s life seems to have been rather dogged by the affair. Mandy Rice Davies of course had quite a wit about her. She was famous at the trial when the Barrister challenged here statement by saying that the Noble Lord Astor utterly denied her claim that she’d had an affair with him, she cooly replied

Well he would, wouldn’t he? Often rendered as ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he?’

Which was deliciously disrespectful of the establishment and undeniably true, and got converted into an acronym MRDA, Mandy Rice Davis Applies which is jolly handy. All of this was part of a general trend of freedom to lampoon the nation’s rulers, with programmes on’telly like Beyond the Fringe and That was the week that was.

Anyway, MacMillian refused this to allow this to bring the ministry down, but it was the beginning of the end. In terms of party politics, there’s a rather delightful little cameo. Since Peel, the Tory party had prided itself on loyalty to party – the fear of peeling apart, arf arf, like 1846 remained in the Party lexicon and blood. Lord Kilmuir indeed said in 1961 that loyalty was the CP’s secret weapon. This was just before the ‘night of Long Knives’ when he and a whole raft of Tory ministers were sacked without warning by MacMillian. Loyalty obviously travelled only one way. Brutal Pragmatism was in fact the secret weapon of the Tory party.

MacMillian began to be seen as increasingly seen as out of touch, was forced to resign from ill-health, and there’s then a compromise PM Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, selected by a magic inner circle and clearly poorly suited for the role; as a result, the CP would introduce elections for the party leadership. It is notable that did not prevent them electing a couple of stinkers, who shall remain nameless, but who are Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Anyway, We then have the arrival of the 1964 election. Labour under Harold Wilson ran a tight campaign; it took a while to ween the country off the Conservatives, but in 1964 Labour won a wafer thin majority, Wilson went back to the country in 1966 and won a stonking majority; in which, incidentally, the Scottish National Party, the SNP, began to show signs of electoral life.

Harold Wilson then, and his reputation. Well. Wilson had a reputation as being a bit of a lefty; in 1962 he declared at the Labour conference he proclaimed that

This party is a moral campaign or it is nothing

I have to note a certain willingness of party leaders to threaten their parties with nothingness – after all Dizzy had declared the conservatives were a national party or nothing. I must remember to use the phrase. The History of England is a moral crusade would probably condemn me to the black hole, though the History of England is a national podcast or nothing works slightly better.

Anyway, for the socialist wing of the party, now that Labour had an unassailable majority, this was meant to be the time the socialist society was finally built. The disappointing results by this standard has led the Wilson government, and indeed that of Callaghan that followed, to be not only failure, in the labour history books – but a wilful betrayal.

There are a few themes here. As seems to happen in Labour political history a period of opposition often leads to something of a bunfight between the more socialist wing, and the revisionist wing shall we call it. The first aiming to build a utopian society; the latter aiming to encourage economic growth so that they can afford spending on social reform programmes. In practice, the labour party leadership in government have always been revisionist, and moderate, which itself feeds the story of betrayal. In 1961, Ralph Milliband wrote a trenchant book called ‘parliamentary socialism’ which condemned the party for being more concerned about ‘parliamentarianism than socialism[4]’. As the perception of the failure of the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s grew, one Historian castigated the party for its

Repeated retreats from its socialist promise in the 20th C;

Another line of thought blamed not the labour party but the working class instead who, it seemed to some, were simply not as interested as they should be in the great socialist project; one revisionist historian characterised this as

Blaming the working class for the failings of the labour leadership

All jolly controversial I am sure, don’t shout at me. I found this comment, in Andrew Thorpe’s History of the Labour Party, fascinating; because it has a lot of resonance with a debate that has plagued labour since the fall of Blair and Brown; the idea of a rather nebulously defined ‘metropolitan elite’ disapprovingly building policy on how it feels the world ought to think, rather than the way it does think. Now this is an idea that has been leapt on by Labour’s political opponents, so it deserves some scepticism, but it is interesting that it is not the first time it’s come up.

Wilson, despite his left reputation, challenges some of the old socialist sacred cows, around the commitment to traditional heavy industry, facing significant competitive challenge; at a Labour conference he challenged this with his ‘white heat of Technology speech’, emphasising the importance of the increasingly globalised economy. Sadly, Wilson’s time on government came a difficult economic times, and severely compromised his room for maneouvre and investment.

But it is worth noting that a lack if money could not get in the way of a quite impressive number of social reforms; the Race Relations act, Abolition of the death penalty, equal pay act, Welsh language act, liberalisation of abortion.

However, the lack of success in terms of the socialist agenda and difficult economic times, meant that the Wilson administration, and the following labour government under Callaghan, whether fairly or unfairly judged, put paid to the rather whiggish view about the inevitable, onward march of socialism, the idea that the party had been bamboozled by the Tories in the 1930s, but the rise of the labour party was non the less inevitable.

[1] Thorpe, A ‘A History of the British Labour Party’, pp82-3

[2] Seldon, A; ‘The Impossible Office’, p125

[3] Ramsden, J: ‘An Appetite for Power’ p352

[4] Thorpe, A: ‘A History of the British Labour Party’, p xiv

Leave a Reply