The Centre for British Politics and the People’s History Museum recently marked the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s iconic ‘white heat’ speech, which he used to open a debate on science held at the Labour party’s national conference on October 1st 1963.
His first speech to conference as leader, having only been elected in February after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell, and with an election in the offing, Wilson mapped out what Britain would have to do to prosper in a post-war world defined by the radical application of new technologies of production, one that posed as many threats as opportunities. Hoping to reverse the party’s apparently fatal electoral decline, Wilson claimed that only Labour could help the country advance in this context by using the state in new ways, thereby unlocking the full potential of science and of the British people themselves.
It was a speech that made a stunning impact on contemporaries. But its legacy is regarded less positively. If some historians think Wilson’s speech was rhetoric and little substance, all agree the government Wilson led between 1964 and 1970 never lived up to the vision he outlined in 1963.
The conference analysed the speech from a variety of perspectives. As with previous Centre events, the conference combined papers from established and newer academics, and from different academic disciplines, with the evidence of practitioners who could talk about the subject from their own perspective. The result was a fascinating day and the full programme can be found here.
David Edgerton opened proceedings by pointing out that Wilson’s was an unusual speech given Britain’s political culture rarely takes an interest in science. But he indicated that the early 1960s was an exceptional moment when even those on the far-right were interested in technology and how it could help ‘modernise’ Britain – albeit not in ways of which Wilson would have approved. David Edgerton pointed out aspects of the speech normally overlooked by some, notably Wilson’s criticisms of consumerism and the underlying desire to turn the economy away from its reliance on the military-industrial complex, by abandoning nuclear weapons, and towards the specific applications of technology.
There then followed a panel which put the speech into different kinds of context.
Henry Irving discussed Wilson’s promise to deliver ‘democratic planning’, something also made during the Attlee government, one which his post on Ballots & Bullets indicates was not lived up to.
Steven Fielding stressed the importance of the party context to the speech, pointing out that ‘science’ was a useful rhetorical tool to unite a divided party and win over key voters who the party feared it had lost during the 1950s. A blog post based on his paper is available here.
David McLoughlin cast a sceptical eye over accounts of how Wilson came to write the speech. He rejected the suggestion that the speech was improvised at the last minute, pointing to a series of similar speeches Wilson had delivered over the previous year, seeing it instead as evidence of Wilson’s hard and unique thinking about the subject.
We were very fortunate that our practitioner panel included two who knew Wilson very well. One of the post-war period’s most eminent journalists, Geoffrey Goodman, was working for the Daily Herald in 1963 and in that capacity was in the conference hall to hear Wilson’s speech. Sir Gerald Kaufman MP was also a journalist at the time, a leader writer for the Daily Mirror. Both came to work closely with Wilson and expressed their admiration for his qualities and stressed the significance of the ‘white heat’ speech in terms of setting down a challenging agenda, for the country, the party and its Conservative opponents. Goodman, however, conceded that it was probably an impossible vision to enact, indeed he claimed it would have required a ‘social revolution’ on the scale of that experienced in the Soviet Union to succeed. If both criticized the conservatism of Britain’s unions for not taking up the challenge posed by Wilson in his contribution Kaufman conceded that Wilson’s strength was in tactics not strategy and that his greatest insight was that there were ‘no solutions in politics only improvements’.
The conference resumed with a panel that focused on the speech in detail. Andrew Scott Crines analysed it as a piece of rhetoric and highlighted the extent to which Wilson used fear to mobilize support for his vision. A blog post based on his paper is available here.
Nick Randall looked at the speech as one of a long line of interventions that highlighted Britain’s need to modernize, something he claimed has marked post-war politics, from Attlee to Blair. Indeed, Randall argued, while Wilson’s narrative of modernization had particular heroes and villains and emphases, his speech was part of a tradition of invoking the need to modernize that embraced both Labour and Conservatives.
The final panel of the day considered the consequences of White Heat. The picture that emerged was mixed but modest. In a paper based on their forthcoming book on the subject Adam Sharr & Stephen Thornton discussed the plan to rebuild Whitehall along radically modernist lines. Initiated under the Conservatives, with the strong support of Harold MacMillan and Alec Douglas-Home, the plan floundered under Wilson, leading them to ask who were the real modernizers?
Stuart Butler was also very skeptical about how far Wilson’s approach to Europe matched the rhetoric of the 1963 speech. Though Wilson attempted to take the country into the EEC, his government’s record on technological cooperation with other European countries was patchy and inconsistent at best.
In the final paper Matthew Francis compared and contrast Wilson’s vision of the ‘technological revolution’ with those of Tony Benn and Tony Blair, arguing that all three men sought to align themselves and their party with the forces of technological change. A post based on his paper can be found here.
If there was a broad consensus that the speech marked something of a lost opportunity for both Labour and Britain, there was also greater sympathy for the reasons why Wilson failed to translate most of his words into practice. A few contributors suggested what the current Labour leadership might learn from ‘white heat’ – and in a piece for the Daily Telegraph, Stefan Stern, who attended the event, outlined some of his own suggestions.