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Harold Wilson and the difficulties of democratic planning

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. Image credit: National Archives

Published inBritish PoliticsWhite Heat

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