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

Picturing Politics: the 1997 Labour manifesto

In the third post in the Picturing Politics series Prof. Steven Fielding discusses the rise of the party leader and the influence party leaders now hold over their party’s fate. Prof. Fielding examines this phenomenon using the example of the 1997 Labour manifesto – which featured a close-up of Tony Blair’s face on its cover – and looks at the effect this focus on Blair had on the Labour Party. 

new Labour because Britain deserves better 1997

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

You can also download a written version.

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.

Tony Blair’s tribute to the ‘Spirit of ’45’ was a skillful rewriting of history

Spirit of '45 This post originally appeared on Emily Robinson’s personal blog.  

Ken Loach’s new documentary The Spirit of ’45 is a romantic tribute to the achievements and ideals of the 1945 Labour government, with a clear political message. It cuts from an idealised social democratic nation celebrating the Festival of Britain (with no mention that within months Churchill would be back in power), straight to the dismantling of the welfare state, nationalised utilities and the ethos of community, first by Thatcher and then by Blair. Loach is famously no fan of New Labour, and recently called for a populist party to do for the Left what UKIP has done for the Right.

It is surprising then to note that Tony Blair produced his own tribute to the Spirit of ’45, in this case a national roadshow, marking the 50th anniversary of Attlee’s victory. The accompanying souvenir brochure is unashamedly sepia-tinted and like Loach’s film includes features on the health service, employment, education and housing, extracts from the 1945 Manifesto and reminiscences from those who helped elect Labour. It was also similarly keen to contrast the politics of 1945, with those of the 1980s and ’90s, under columns headed ‘1995: The rich get richer and the poor get forgotten’, ‘Cash before care – and the sick are stranded in the middle’ and ‘Two million jobless pay price for enterprise culture’.

Of course, the omissions are as striking as the inclusions – there is no eulogy to nationalised industry here. That this was no accident was made explicit in Blair’s speech to the Fabian Society on the fiftieth anniversary of 1945, in which he explained that socialism (or ‘social-ism’ as he put it) needed to be ‘liberated’ from the question of ownership and ‘economic dogma’. He also made clear that his narrative of British democratic socialism included ‘Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes and not just Attlee, Bevan or Crosland.’ Blair was not straightforwardly ahistorical or iconoclastic, as many have believed. Instead, he skilfully used different interpretations of the party’s and the country’s past, honouring and rewriting them at the same time.

The attraction of 1945 for Blair was the way in which ‘Labour spoke for the national interest and offered hope for the future while the Tories spoke for sectional interest and represented the past.’ He ‘passionately want[ed] to lead a party which once again embodies and leads the national mood for change and renewal.’ Well, who wouldn’t? But this emphasis on the future, on change and renewal also allowed Blair to distance himself from the specific policies and ideals of 1945: ‘It was a government for its time. Our challenge is not to return to the 1940s but instead to apply them afresh to our time.’

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can be used to open up questions and to close them down. Steven Fielding has pointed out that the history and politics of 1945 were far more complicated than Loach allows, noting that the film might be better titled The Myth of ’45. But even myths are complicated and slippery. With its ‘One Nation’ message, Labour is again trying both to unite the country behind a shared vision for renewal, and to invoke particular memories of British history. Again, the message is open to radically different interpretations.

Emily Robinson 

Ten years ago today: a record-breaking rebellion in the House of Commons over Iraq

revoltstitle2Ten years ago today, a record-breaking rebellion took place in the House of Commons. It was the largest backbench revolt, by members of any political party, on any subject since Sir Robert Peel’s administration repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, at a time when the franchise was enjoyed by just 5% of the population, and before anything which resembled today’s political parties had been formed. In other words, it was the largest rebellion since the beginning of modern British politics.

The subject was Iraq, and the rebellion involved 121 Labour MPs. It held that record for just a under a month, until the (more famous) rebellion on 18 March, when 139 Labour MPs (mostly, but not entirely, the same ones) took part in an even larger rebellion. Whereas we suspect the March rebellion – which triggered British involvement in the war – will be marked with lots of coverage, the rebellion of a month before has been almost entirely overlooked.

But the two rebellions of February 2003 – in addition to the 121 Labour MPs rebelling on an amendment, some 60 also voted against the government motion – deserve remembering. They were not the first rebellions over the issue but they formed the first real indication of the scale of opposition on the Labour benches to the Iraq war.

The debate took place on a government motion. Both the Government’s motion for discussion and the rebel amendment were carefully framed. The government motion supported UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein without even mentioning the possibility of war, in order to rally support from as many pro-UN and anti-war MPs. The rebel amendment – moved by the former Labour Cabinet Minister Chris Smith – was deliberately cast in such a way as to generate the maximum possible cross-party support, not just from those opposed to war outright, but also from those in the ‘not yet’ camp; it argued that the case for military action against Iraq was ‘as yet unproven’.

Smith’s amendment was defeated by 393 votes to 199. The Government motion backing UN efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein was then carried by 434 votes to 124.

There was a gasp of disbelief in the Chamber when the result was announced. It was not that the vote was particularly close – the support of the Conservative frontbench meant that the Government won both votes easily – but the size of the Labour rebellion stunned many observers.

In addition to the 121 who voted against the government, just over 20 Labour MPs abstained. Most absented themselves or by ostentatiously remained seated in the chamber during the vote. Andy Reed, the MP for Loughborough, had voted in both lobbies in order to register his abstention. Reed was a Parliamentary Private Secretary and was expected to back the government in the division lobbies. Normally he would have been sacked immediately. It was a sign of the difficulties that the Government were in that he was allowed to remain in post for a few days, before he resigned.

The previous weekend the Chief Whip had warned the Prime Minister that the rebellion over Smith’s amendment could involve as many as 100 Labour MPs. But armed with the amendment, it had taken Peter Kilfoyle, a former Defence Minister, just an hour to gather sixty signatures in support of it. By the Tuesday morning, the day before the vote, more than 116 Labour backbenchers had already signed it, with every indication that the numbers could rise yet further. But up until lunchtime on the day of the vote the Labour whips were still expecting 145 Labour MPs to back Smith’s amendment, and were pleased at having contained it as well as they had done.

The Iraq rebellions – both those in February and those in March – were key moments in the history of the Blair government. Despite their record-breaking size, the real damage caused by Iraq lay not in the numbers. The problem came in the effect that the issue had on the Parliamentary Labour Party. Immediately following March’s record-breaking rebellion, one whip was definite: ‘Once CNN start beaming up the pictures of Saddam’s torture chambers and the stockpiles of chemical weapons that he claims he does not have, you won’t be able to find anyone who remembers voting against Tony Blair’.

Although the torture chambers and mass graves were found, the stockpiles never appeared – and it was because of the stockpiles that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party thought they had voted for war. For some, those who had already been critics of the government before, this was the factor that destroyed their already weakened faith in the Government’s judgement and direction. For others – especially those who had stuck to the party line, in many cases against their better judgement, because they had put their faith in Tony Blair and his arguments – this was a defining moment. They felt let down, betrayed even, by what had happened. As one concerned minister put it immediately after March’s rebellion:

We’re not only facing the danger that Iraq will give some MPs a rebellion habit, it’s also that they are not giving us the benefit of the doubt any more. People are asking us questions about where quite ordinary policies are going as if we have a hidden agenda.

Just as with much of the electorate outside the Palace of Westminster, so too inside: Iraq was the moment when many Labour MPs stopped trusting Tony Blair.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

The invasion of Iraq did many things, putting young people off politics wasn’t one of them

The forthcoming tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War has prompted much debate – including the claim by Sam Parker in the Huffington Post that the invasion of Iraq and Tony Blair’s ‘hubris’ “robbed a generation of their faith in politics”. As a result of the Government’s refusal to change course, he and apparently his generation “don’t trust the political system, and… don’t believe in politicians”.  Owen Jones has similarly recounted his experience of discussing politics with young people: “When I visit schools, students who were six, seven or eight years old when we marched [against the Iraq war] ask how they can change anything if up to two million demonstrators couldn’t”, a sentiment shared by Andrew Murray who argues that the ‘shadow of the largest demonstration in history’ and the fact that it didn’t stop the war constituted a ‘body blow’ for British democracy.

There are good responses, on normative grounds, to both these articles, here and here, but is the claim true empirically?  Thanks to data available from the Audit of Political Engagement, the British Household Panel Survey and Understanding Society surveys, and the British Election Study, we can test the belief that Iraq has destroyed a generation’s faith in British politics.

Let’s start with measures of political efficacy – the perception of how capable people are of influencing political outcomes when they engage with politics. Figure 1 shows the political efficacy of young people (18 – 24 year olds) from the British Election Study (for 2001, 2005 and 2010) and from the Audit of Political Engagement (from 2003 – 2011). It also shows the efficacy of over 25s from the Audit series for comparison.

It is clear that the events of 2003 had virtually no effect on the perceived political effectiveness of young people, or indeed the rest of the electorate. In 2001, according to the British Election Survey just under 20% of 18–24 year olds reported having some feeling of political efficacy. By 2010, this figure had risen to 22%. The Audit of Political Engagement data shows that in 2003, 39% of young people reported some sense of political efficacy. This figure fluctuated slightly in the following 8 years, and was a slightly higher 41% by 2011. The lack of government responsiveness to the protests against the Iraq war therefore did little to disrupt British voters’ belief that they could change political outcomes if they engaged with politics.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1-9; British Election Study face to face survey, 2001-2010

Based on data from the British Household Panel Survey (and Understanding Society from 2009) we can also look at interest in politics. Had the Iraq war destroyed people’s faith in politics, we might expect interest in politics to drop from 2004; if people didn’t feel that politicians would listen to them no matter what they did, why be interested in politics?

The British Household Panel Survey shows that in 2002, 60% of 18–24 year olds had at least some interest in politics. This fell to 57% by 2004 immediately after the Iraq war (hardly indicative of a collapse of political interest), and by 2010 had returned to 60%. There was no collapse in the political interest of young people after the invasion of Iraq.

Data from the British Election Study confirms these findings. Figure 2 shows a range of variables measuring the political attitudes of 18-24 year olds. It confirms that there was no sudden drop in their political interest between the 2001 and 2005 general elections. It also shows that whilst young people’s belief that it was their civic duty to vote in general elections did fall (by 6%) between 2001 and 2010, their overall satisfaction with British democracy – perhaps the most direct indicator relating to the argument that  Iraq destroyed faith in British politics –increased in the same period. In 2001, 58% of young people were satisfied with British democracy; by 2005, the election immediately following the Iraq war, this figure rose to 61%, and reached 66% by 2010. By the time of the general election after the Iraq war, young people were more likely to be satisfied with British democracy than they were before it. There is no evidence at all that an entire generation has been politically scarred for life by the invasion of Iraq or the events that surrounded it.

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

Source: British Election Study face to face surveys, 2001-2010

We can go further still in this analysis, however, and compare the political attitudes of the 18–24 year old cohort in 2003 with those of the 25–34 year old cohort in 2011. In other words, we can see how the political attitudes of the generation who were aged 18-24 in 2003 have changed as they have aged. Figure 3 below does just this, using data from the Audit of Political Engagement.

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

Source: Audit of Political Engagement, 1 and 9

The figures show pretty definitively that the young people of 2003 did not have their confidence destroyed by the invasion of Iraq, or Tony Blair’s refusal to call off the invasion. The proportion who agreed that they could influence politics if they engaged rose by 3% between 2003 and 2011, and their likelihood to say that they will definitely vote in a general election rose by a similar amount. Their interest in politics fell slightly (by 2%), but certainly not to an extent that would suggest a collapse in democratic confidence.

There was a notable increase of 8% in the proportion who felt that the British political system needs to be improved, but before we read too much into that we should note that the equivalent figures for the entire electorate are very similar: 63% of Brits felt that the British political system needed to be improved in 2003, and this reached 74% by 2011. The generation of 18–24 year olds in 2003 are certainly not alone in becoming more likely to think that British politics needs reform, and following the expenses scandal of 2009 perhaps this is not surprising.

We can see that the invasion of Iraq, the government’s refusal to call off the war, the accusations that dossiers were ‘sexed up’, and the subsequent failure to find weapons of mass destruction, actually did very little to undermine the faith in politics of any generation of British voters. These things may well have contributed to a growing feeling that the British political system needs reform, and to the steady decline in political interest over the last decade. But it is clear that there was no collapse of faith in democracy amongst the young people who protested against the invasion of Iraq – or amongst today’s young. People looking to pin the blame for the low political engagement of young people with British politics will have to look beyond Iraq for their explanation.

Stuart Fox