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White heat and low politics

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This is one of a short series of posts based on papers that will be presented to a conference to be held on 5th July, organised by the People’s History Museum and our Centre for British Politics  to mark the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s iconic  ‘white heat’ speech. If you want to read the speech in full, it can be downloaded here.

When Harold Wilson sat down after finishing a speech that opened the 1963 Labour conference debate on science, he probably did not think he had just delivered one of post-war British politics most cited pieces of rhetoric. He just wanted to win a general election.

Yet, contemporaries hailed Wilson’s invocation of the promise of ‘the scientific and technological revolution’ and of the need for government to plan Britain’s response to ‘the white heat of technological change’ as outlining a new vision of socialism. Many historians have subsequently praised the Labour leader’s evocation of a spirit of optimism in a society emerging from austerity into affluence.

As I have pointed out here, Wilson’s speech was part of Labour’s attempt to make itself relevant to what its leaders were assured was a new electoral landscape, one in which the traditional working class was in decline and nationalization outmoded. That at least is what Labour leader Hugh Gaistkell told his party’s conference in 1959 a few weeks after it had lost its third general election in a row.

Those who accepted Gaitskell’s analysis believed Labour had to focus its appeal on those ‘intermediate voters’ found in the skilled working class and lower middle class who were enjoying rising real incomes on an unprecedented scale. They believed this group had rejected the party in 1959 because they thought it out of date and only stood for the lowest in society.

Labour’s leaders and officials also accepted the view that: ‘Elections are won by the picture the party … has presented over a period of time prior to the election.’ The intermediate voters were deemed to be uninterested in the substance of policy and only reachable through catchy slogans and images.

With that in mind, in 1961 the party launched a competition to improve the appearance of Labour’s local offices. Constituency agents were asked of voters: ‘Do they, from looking at YOUR premises, get the idea that Labour is finished, down-at-heel, out of date, or do they get the impression of a modern forward looking Party, clean, efficient and belonging to the space age?’ In the summer of 1963 Labour also launched an expensive national campaign based around the slogan ‘Let’s Go With Labour and we’ll get things done’, one accompanied – as in the poster illustrated above – by a thumbs up symbol, as well as the promise to make Britain ‘Dynamic and Prosperous Again’.

By this point Gaitskell was dead. Wilson’s ‘white heat’ speech – the first he made to Labour’s conference as leader – was however part of that wider effort begun under his predecessor. So, his invocation of science was meant to appeal to the intermediate groups and impress them that Labour was ‘modern’ and able to address their concerns.

As Wilson confirmed in subsequent speeches, which expanded on the ‘white heat’ theme, the full exploitation of the possibilities of science was only possible if Britain could unlock the talents of the intermediate groups, talents allegedly frustrated by companies run by public school boys whose authority was based on aristocratic connections not ability. By helping the intermediate groups get on through taking science and technology seriously a Labour government would help Britain prosper: but it also meant that their interest was the national interest. As Gaitskell had told the 1959 conference: ‘the typical worker of the future’ would be  ‘a skilled man in a white overall watching dials in a bright new modern factory’. Wilson used the rhetoric of science to appeal to these watchers of the dials.

The product of a very different age – Wilson’s speech was delivered in Scarborough and he mentioned ‘socialism’ a few times – the political calculations that underpinned his ‘white heat’ speech are very contemporary, at least with regard to how Labour’s leaders looked upon ‘intermediate’ voters and their use of what would come to be called ‘spin’ to reach them. Yet, while apparently effective in the short term – Labour ended 13 years of opposition in 1964 – historians now debate how far ‘white heat’ was underpinned by a real strategic vision. A highly regarded and effective Leader of the Opposition, Wilson’s reputation as Prime Minister is less positive, lurching as he did from crisis to crisis.

Was ‘white heat’ just a nice phrase designed to beguile voters deemed too busy watching their new television sets to take politics seriously? Perhaps our conference will help us arrive at a clearer answer.

Steven Fielding

 

Published inBritish PoliticsLabourPolitical historyWhite Heat

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