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 1963 Harold Wilson delivered an oration to the party conference which captured science for the Labour movement. It was a forward looking, progressive speech that argued “the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.” By adopting revolutionary and scientific rhetoric he sought to convince his audience that his Labour renewal strategy necessitated a break with its past image and to usher in a technological socialist utopia in the 1960s.
For this famous speech he drew upon three rhetorical devices. These were ethos, pathos, and logos. Because oratory (delivery) and rhetoric (content) are distinct from each other they can be examined in isolation, but both are key to effective communication. For a rhetorical analysis, these devices allows us to deconstruct the speech into three key areas. These being ethos (character; credibility), pathos (emotions), and logos (logic of argument). For rhetoric to be most effective the communicator draws upon each interdependently, however as political scientists these can be deconstructed for analytical purposes.
Wilson’s speech was delivered at a time when the Conservatives were in decline and increasingly inward looking. The Etonian image of the Tories enabled Wilson to redefine Labour as the inverse. Labour would be forward looking and dynamic whilst the Tories would be traditionalist and conventional. This message defined the character (ethos) of the speech. Using this approach Wilson embedded a sense of newness in the Labour Party, which following the defeats and divisions of the 1950s would give back the movement its confidence.
The pathos of the speech was a strange one. Whilst most orators are happy to mainly use humour or even anger to motivate an audience to action, Wilson used fear. Fear of inaction and fear of irrelevance unless the movement engaged with his message. Labour as an industrial movement that protects the foundry worker or the miner from exploitation would not be sufficient in an era of new computers, scientific advances, and the emergence of new technologies. Put simply Labour had to choose between protecting the past or shaping the future. One option led to prosperity for Britain and the Party, the other led to decline and irrelevance. By using fear Wilson was able to draw out the need for immediate action to renew industry using scientific advances.
This brings me to this final rhetorical device. The logic (logos) of the speech was defined in terms of the global economy. Because automation in the United States had already reduced the size of the workforce Wilson argued productivity had increased considerably, with the likelihood that it would continue. Moreover, the Soviet Union was investing in new scientific advances to renew its economy. Meanwhile, Britain remained rooted in the past. For Britain to compete globally, Wilson argued an investment strategy towards scientific education was vital in order to generate the specialists needed to reshape Britain’s industrial base. The new technologies needed to speed up production could only be produced through scientific innovation, thus the state had to direct its development because the free market was unable to address the scale of the task. Thus, Wilson sought to connect the future of British socialism with the technological advancements he argued were vital for economic prosperity.
By using each of these rhetorical devices in an effective manner Wilson was able to communicate a clear message. That clear message is still remembered today because it resonated with his audience and refocused the movement. It resonated because of his oratory and, most importantly, his rhetoric. It was a message of hope which the Party needed to hear having endured the Gaitskell/Bevanite divisive axis since 1951, and it was a message of socialist renewal which went beyond the traditional heavy industries often associated with the Labour movement. Put simply, Wilson did indeed seek to capture science for socialism that could change the face of Britain. It is a matter of history, however, to determine the extent of his success.
Andrew S. Crines is the co-editor of two forthcoming volumes published through MUP looking at oratory and rhetoric in Labour and Conservative Party politics respectively. He has also published on political communication in academic journals and is the Publicity Officer for the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Group. He tweets at @AndrewCrines.