Special Edition: Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat’ speech fifty years on

Harold_Wilson_3_Allan_Warren (1)To mark the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s iconic ‘white heat’ speech, the Centre for British Politics held a conference this summer at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Ahead of the conference we ran a series of blog posts on Ballots & Bullets.

In ‘White heat and low politics‘, Steven Fielding provides the context for Wilson’s speech, which was delivering to a Labour party that was trying to reach out to intermediate voters and distance itself from its image as the party for workers and manual labourers.

In the next post in the series, ‘Communicating the white heat of technology‘, Andrew Crines looks at the rhetorical devices Wilson used to convey his message of ‘science for socialism’ and how these devices aimed to create a sense of hope.

In ‘Wilson, Benn and Blair and the narrative of technological change‘, Matthew Francis looks at how Wilson’s narrative of ‘scientific revolution and technological change’ was later adopted by Tony Benn and Tony Blair. All three portrayed technology as a distinct historic force that Britain had no choice but to adapt to.

In the final post in the series, ‘Harold Wilson and the difficulties of democratic planning‘, Henry Irving looks at Wilson’s democratic approach to economic planning and Labour’s failed attempts to engage the public with economic policy – a lesson, Irving argues, government today can learn from.

Following the conference, it was featured in an article in the Telegraph, ‘Ed Miliband needs a blast of Wilson’s white heat‘.

More recently, the Guardian’s Political Science blog ran a series of posts on Wilson’s ‘white heat’ speech, and, the People’s History Museum hosted a re-enactment of the speech, with an actor playing the part of Harold Wilson. You can watch the re-enactment, along with an introduction from Steven Fielding, here:


Harold Wilson's pipe at the People's History Museum

White Heat Fifty Years On

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.

Prof Steven Fielding with Geoffrey Goodman and Sir Gerald Kaufman

Prof Steven Fielding with Geoffrey Goodman and Sir Gerald Kaufman

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.

Picturing Politics: the future of Trident

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have clashed over the replacement of Trident. Whilst the Conservatives want to see a like-for-like replacement of the four boat fleet, the Liberal Democrats want the fleet reduced to three boats. In the ninth Picturing Politics Dr David Gill looks at the history behind the four boat fleet, tracing its origins back to Harold Wilson and Trident’s predecessor, Polaris. Wilson’s decisions regarding Polaris, Dr Gill argues, may continue to influence the Conservatives and Britain’s nuclear policy well in to the 21st century.

Image from the Royal Navy Image Archive

Image from the Royal Navy Image Archive

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Can’t view the audio player above? Listen to the file here.

You can also download a written version here.

Picturing Politics is a series of audio and video clips featuring academics commenting on the political significance of a diverse range of images. The series is intended to offer an invaluable insight into the many ways in which politics has been imagined – quite literally – throughout history, and also the ways in which images have been used to shape and influence our understanding of politics.

Harold Wilson and the difficulties of democratic planning

Image from the National Archives

Image from The National Archives

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.

Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ speech encapsulated the duality of his political identity. It was, as other posts in this white heat series have pointed out, an explicitly rational call for ‘revolutionary’ change in policy making and a very clear piece of political positioning. The speech’s carefully constructed narrative drew upon both of these aspects to consciously embrace what Wilson referred to as ‘new thinking’. This enabled him to claim that only the Labour Party could create a ‘New Britain’.

This confidence eventually gave way to a feeling of disillusionment. Confronted with the challenges of office, Wilson’s government lacked the long term vision it had promised the electorate. This drew contemporary criticism and has left a contested historical legacy. Questions continue to be asked about the importance Wilson attributed to the renewal of British industry and the extent to which his invocation of ‘White Heat’ was underpinned by any real strategic vision. One issue that has tended to be overlooked, however, is the extent to which his ‘new thinking’ drew upon past experience.

Wilson’s promise of a ‘scientific and technological revolution’ was linked to a broader policy that would promote a consciously ‘democratic’ form of economic planning (which he claimed was very different from the state-controlled version made famous in the USSR). This meant setting down a number of targets for growth, but would involve collaboration with industry and was seen to require ‘active co-operation, involvement and understanding’ on behalf of the general public. This faith in collaboration later informed  the way that Wilson’s government approached its 1965 National Plan. Not only was this based on targets set by private industry, but it was followed up by a concerted publicity campaign to ensure that its recommendations were widely shared.

These activities echoed similar efforts undertaken by the 1945-51 Labour government. They too argued that a national plan was necessary to ensure that the economy grew in a rational way. They also stressed that this need not mean a reliance on state controls. Their approach was set out clearly in the Economic Survey for 1947. This document described the economic position facing Britain, predicted what would happen next, and attempted to set out a strategy for the future. But it remained adamant that ‘Everything will depend upon the willing co-operation and determined efforts of all sections of the population’ and was followed by a serious effort to use publicity as a tool that could avoid the need for more direct controls over the public.

It should not be seen as a coincidence that Wilson began his political career during this earlier period (he was first elected in 1945 and was appointed President of the Board of Trade in 1947). In fact, as I’ve shown in this forthcoming article, Wilson’s early experience of government shaped his political outlook and informed his contributions to Labour Party policy-making during the 1950s. However, despite gaining a reputation for pragmatism, he does not appear to have learnt from this time in office.

This is particularly important because his later attempts to foster active public co-operation with economic policy led to a peculiar type of participation. Only 220,000 copies of the National Plan’s ‘popular’ edition were sold and there was very little attempt from the government to measure the extent to which its message had been heard (a non-governmental investigation estimated that only one in ten could correctly identify its aim). This was remarkably similar to the situation in 1947. Indeed, The Economic Survey had been similarly blighted by low sales, struggled to translate its message, and was eventually overshadowed by a pessimistic government advertising campaign which called on people to ‘Work or Want’ (and which I’ve previously commented on here).

This post has tried to provide an additional angle from which to assess Wilson’s contribution to twentieth century Britain. But it might also offer something to contemporary debates about public engagement with matters of economic policy. Indeed, whilst the optimism surrounding Wilson’s ‘White Heat’ suggests that it is possible to create a connection, the need for active collaboration is as important today as it was in 1965. The economic significance of confidence should not be understated, but then nor should the need to balance expectations and to ensure a real process of communication.

Henry Irving has recently completed his PhD at the University of Leeds and is currently working as a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Bradford.

Wilson, Benn and Blair and the narrative of technological change

Image by byronv2

Image by byronv2

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.

In October 1963 Harold Wilson opened a debate on science at the Labour Party conference by warning that Britain was experiencing a period of unprecedented technological change. Already many people were ‘accepting as part of their everyday life things which would have been dismissed as science fiction a few years ago’, and Wilson predicted that this ‘scientific revolution’ would continue apace through the 1960s and 1970s.

This was, however, a revolution for which Britain was manifestly ill-prepared, having produced too few scientists and invested too little in technological innovation. Wilson demanded a crash programme of university expansion to boost the numbers of technically skilled workers, and called for the creation of a ‘University of the Air’ to allow those excluded from higher education the opportunity to update or upgrade their skills. And he also pledged that a future Labour government would establish a Ministry of Technology, which would coordinate research and development activities and provide scientists with promising ideas the opportunity to develop their projects using public money. These innovations, Wilson insisted, would help to forge a ‘new Britain’ in the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’.

This evocation of the ‘scientific revolution’ was, as David Edgerton has pointed out, in many respects something of a red herring. Far from being hamstrung by its technological backwardness, by the early 1960s Britain was producing more scientists and investing more in research and development than almost any other advanced capitalist nation. Moreover, once in office Wilson and his colleagues demonstrated a healthy scepticism about the economic value of technological investments (particularly in the defence industries), and cancelled a number of large projects initiated by their Conservative predecessors. But, despite the fact that the promised ‘revolution’ was something of an illusion, Wilson would be far from the last prominent socialist to develop a political narrative around the theme of technological change.

Among the politicians who revived this narrative was one of Wilson’s chief lieutenants, and onetime Minister of Technology, Tony Benn. Often lampooned for his enthusiasm for science – Private Eye once portrayed him as a robot with an unhealthy interest in traffic lights – over the course of the 1970s Benn developed a narrative of technological change that was very different from the story Wilson had outlined in 1963.

For Benn the true significance of the ‘technological revolution’ lay in its potential implications for the future of the state, and the contradictory trends it had unleashed in the economy and society. On the one hand technology had contributed to the growth of ever more complex and more powerful transnational corporations; on the other the affluence and instantaneous communications, both made possible by technology, had created a more demanding ‘new citizen’. This left the state facing ‘political obsolescence’ – too small to resist the manoeuvrings of transnational corporations, too big to respond effectively to the demands of its citizens – and Benn argued that it would be unable to survive in its present form. Power needed to be dispersed both ‘beyond and within the nation state’ if it was to withstand the challenges of technological change.

Many of these themes were revived by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s, at a time when rapid advances in computing and telecommunications (and particularly the advent of the internet) meant that the world was being haunted by ‘the spectre of technological revolution’. This latest ‘revolution’ had accelerated the process of economic globalisation – as if ‘someone had pressed the fast-forward button on the video’ – and as a result had left states more vulnerable than ever to the whims of capital. The introduction of electronic trading on global currency markets, combined with the deregulation of the 1980s, had increased the liquidity of capital and thus increased the power of financial speculators at the expense of the state. Governments therefore had relatively little leeway to control their external economic environments, and were, as Colin Hay put it, reduced to ‘studiously courting capital’ if they wished to prosper.

This was, nevertheless, a revolution from which the nation could benefit. Though the rise of China and India meant there was little future for British manufacturing industries, Blair argued that the qualities required to thrive in the information age – ingenuity, inventiveness, flexibility – were qualities that the British possessed in abundance. For all the challenges that the ‘information revolution’ posed, the transition to an economy in which knowledge and skills mattered more than plant and capital would allow Britain to ‘rise again as the electronic workshop of the world’.

What all three of these narratives had in common was a vision of technology as a distinct force in history, acting independently of other economic or social processes. There was little nations could do in the face of such forces except adapt as best they could, in the hope that they could benefit from (rather than being left behind by) technological change. If this meant that the modernisation programmes that Wilson, Benn, and Blair tied to their narratives of ‘scientific revolution’ carried an aura of necessity, it also leant their arguments a certain power. When socialists allied their cause to the ‘scientific revolution’, they were also allying themselves with the forces of history.

Matthew Francis