Britain since 1945. 4.

Publié le par jean-paul Revauger



1964-1970 : Labour Britain.



            a .  The white heat of technological change

Economic and industrial difficulties

Modernization and dissent

Foreign policy.



The White heat of technological change.


The 1964 election campaign was a hotly disputed one. The labour party had been weakened, throughout the 1950’s, by internal divisions, between left and right, but also between the supporters of unilateral disarmament and its opponents. The two debates interfered with each other , but did not overlap completely. Harold Wilson came from the left of the party: he had resigned, with Aneurin Bevan, in protest against the prescription charge and the Korean war. However, he was also supported by the Trade Union barons, who were attracted by his style. Wilson was modern, as well as reassuring. He was the first leader who used extensively  television, a relatively new medium at that time, and he had an aura of competence. He insisted very much on science and technology, as methods to solve the crisis of the British economy.  The spirit of the time was  one of confidence in the potential of science, and the arms race between the USSR and the USA made it a matter of survival. Irritated by the Soviet successes, Kennedy had just launched the NASA programme, intended to “land a man on the moon”.  Indeed, 25 years later, the USSR proved unable to match its opponent, and conceded defeat. More modestly, Wilson promised to change Britain  “in the white heat of technological change”. Social structures as well as industry and day to day life would be revolutionized.

His conservative opponents played a different card. They were weak on technology and scientific competence. Indeed, in the midst of an economic crisis, the aristocratic and slightly old-fashioned  Alec Douglas Home had prided himself on having to use matchsticks whenever he had to count, since he was not very good at maths. However, living standards had soared higher than ever before in human history throughout the 1950’s, and most people had something to lose. The mass basis for the conservative vote existed. Besides, in the context of the cold war, Conservatives also seemed to be more hostile towards communism than Labour. Given the amount of brain washing in the – largely americanized- media, this was an asset.

Labour won, with a narrow majority. With 44,1 % of the popular vote , it had 317 MPs, against 43,4% and 304 MPs for the Conservatives. There were also 9 Liberals. This represented an absolute majority, but a very small one. Since many  by elections are lost by governments , whose supporters rarely bother to turn out, a small number of  deaths or resignations would turn the government into a minority one, dependent on Liberal support, a very uncomfortable position.  It was clear from the start that Wilson would call new general elections fairly soon, as soon as his early measures had made his government popular enough . This happened in 1966, when Labour obtained a clear majority of 363 seats against 253 for the Conservatives. 

            Wilson appointed his Cabinet, and chose, as usual, a mixture of Trade Union men and Socialists. James Callaghan, in charge of the Exchequer, was the prototype of the British Labour politician. As a young man, he did not have much of an education, but he was spotted by his Trade Union as a rather clever person. He was therefore sent on to Oxford University, where he read economics  in a college created to train top Trade Union leaders and experts, Ruskin College. John Brown, in charge of Economic affairs, was  Wilson’s personal rival. Frank Cousins, in charge of technology, belonged to the Trade Union Left. Barbara Castle was considered as a figurehead of the Socialist Left.


The economic and industrial crisis.


The Labour government was immediately torn between its elections promises and the situation of the economy. Social measures, such as an increase in basic pensions, which had not benefited from the prosperity of the 1950’s, had to be taken. Most poor people were over 65, because the basic pension was very low, and the benefits of pension funds only appeared in the late I970’s, after people had saved for a few decades for their own pensions. In order to finance this and other measures, income tax, as well as National Insurance Contributions, had to be increased. The Pound weakened on international financial markets, and the government considered the option of a devaluation. This was not the course chosen by Wilson, since the risks incurred by the City  were deemed too high, at least for a few years. A 15% tax on imports was levied, which took the UK away from the global  movement for free trade, which all its partners, from the Common Market to the USA, were pursuing. The government had to resort to foreign credit, and borrow on the international markets.

      The political response to this problem was reminiscent of the tactic resorted to by Attlee in the Post war world. A Prices and Incomes policy was worked out, and agreed to by Unions. Wage increases would be linked to productivity. Wages would only increase if productivity also improved. This amounted to giving official sanction and backing to the concept of fordism. The only problem was nobody could decide how fast productivity would rise. In a number of industries, this was a realistic deal, since existing technologies or methods could be easily adopted . In others, it was not. Most firms had already been electrified, and mechanized. A limit was reached, beyond which one could not go. Work had, in some cases, been simplified and rationalized  to such an extent that only mentally sub normal people would agree to work on the assembly line, since the job was so boring. In technological terms, nothing really new happened from the mid 1960’s until the generalization of computers, and computer-assisted machine-tools in the early 1980’s. The15 year period between I965 and 1980 was the  period of transition between fordism and post fordism. This is easy to say with hindsight, but, at the time, no one could imagine that the trend which had started in the 1930s would be broken, and that , at a later stage, a decisive new technology, computers, would bring about a complete overhaul of the economy and social relationships.

      Harold Wilson’s government therefore devoted a lot of efforts to the improvement of productivity, and to the salvaging of the fordist system. In practice, the recommendations of the National Board for Prices and Incomes, set up in 1965, were not carried. Wage increases should not have exceeded 3,5 % ( a huge amount by today’s standards), but rose by  9%, which far exceeded the improvements in productivity ! Clearly, Trade Unions still behaved as they did in the 1950’s, on the assumption that the economy could afford permanent wage increases. Faced with a balance of trade deficit, the government cut spending and increased the cost of credit. The situation deteriorated faster after 1966. It became clear that voluntary wage restraint, which had worked well in the late 1940’s, was not sufficient. The government introduced a bill to restrict wage increases, which led to the resignation of Frank Cousins, a left winger trade unionist, from the government. A dramatic strike was organized, and won by seamen . Wilson publicly accused them of being manipulated by  “a tightly knit group of politically motivated men”, by whom he meant communists. This was an overstatement, although a slight one, since a number of trade unionists were becoming politically critical of Labour.

A package of measures was adopted, including wage freezes, tax increases, and increases in the cost of credit – but no devaluation, which a growing number of trade unionists were demanding. The relationships between Wilson and Brown, his Minister for Economic Affairs deteriorated rapidly.

In the workplace, a large number of unofficial strikes had broken out, under the leadership of the local shop stewards. The vast majority were not politicised, but the degree of enmity rose considerably. The movements were not hostile to the national leaderships of unions, just indifferent to them. The strikes were therefore called “unofficial” (“wildcat” in the US, “sauvages” in French) because they started spontaneously. The government appointed a commission, which, under Lord Donovan, produced a report advocating the recognition of  all unofficial, local negotiations. Giving them a part to play, as well as  legal backing was intended to give shop stewards  a stake in the smooth running of industry. This was not the course chosen by government, who tried to make unofficial movements illegal.

When international pressure became too high, the Pound was eventually devalued, in 1967,  by 14 %. This was accompanied by a package of austerity measures, designed to convince investors that the government was serious about cutting its deficit. Devaluations succeed or fail according to the degree of confidence foreign markets have in the devalued currency. Public spending was cut in defence, but also housing and the NHS. This was the beginning of a policy which would last for 20 years. The quality of the welfare state deteriorated, since the NHS was starved of money. As a consequence, even not very wealthy tax payers withdrew their support from public services: not only were they paying massive amounts in tax, but the standards of service were poor. The alternative system, i.e. the American one in which tax is low, and services have got to be paid for by the public, was increasingly attractive to a section of the population. The post war deal was broken. Twelve years later, this would carry Mrs Thatcher to Downing Street.

By 1968, feelings were running high, but for reasons which bore little relation to the French or the American movements. Harold Wilson entrusted one of his ministers, Barbara Castle, with the task of publishing a blue print for a reform of industrial relations. 

The White Paper, naively entitled In Place of Strife, advocated the outlawing of strikes that had not been officially authorized by the Trade Unions. This increased strife within the Labour Party, and between the party and the Trade Unions. A bill was drafted, and the government then made its second mistake. It was warned by whips at an early stage that a significant number of MPs would not vote for the Bill, and might even vote against it. It went ahead regardless, and was forced to concede defeat and withdraw its bill before it was defeated in the Commons. The Opposition made considerable political mileage out of this, and Labour proved completely divided. It lost support both from the Left and from the Right. Elections were called, and Labour was defeated.


Modernization and dissent.


The I960’s were a decade of contradictions, in which Britain experienced at the same time serious economic and social difficulties and, on the other hand, radically modernized its outlook. Modernization was encouraged by Harold Wilson’s governments, but was also due to technological and cultural developments quite beyond the control of the authorities.

         Technological and scientific improvements concerned a wide variety of fields: transport was revolutionized by the development of very large airports, the containerisation of harbours, and even fairly modern trains, which, at the time, withstood  comparison with continental networks. By the end of the decade, contraceptive technology offered complete control over reproduction. This increased the control of people over their own lives, a change whose momentous consequences were difficult to fathom at the time. The nuclear family, even though it was chosen by a large majority,  was increasingly seen as a temporary arrangement, as the divorce rate started soaring. This was seen simultaneously as a social problem, and as an improvement on the previous situation, when individuals had no choice at all. The opposition between cultural conservatism and liberalism became central.

         To some extent, this was also true in the field of popular culture. New technologies (the record industry) and new marketing techniques enabled the targeting of  teenagers and young adults as a huge mass market. The relative affluence of the population made this a very attractive venture. New fashions and musical styles were successfully marketed, and quickly exported, since the quality and creativity of British production was sometimes very high. It came under the label of  “Youth culture ”, and  included, as part of its sales pitch, an element of rebellion against previous fashions and norms, as all new fashions always do. Household names, such as the Beatles, became linked to  British identity.

         The government tried to ride this wave, and to modernize legislation. Laws repressing homosexuality were relaxed, or forgotten, abortion was legalized, censorship was relaxed, the regulations banning  private radio stations were , in practice, also relaxed. At some point private radio stations broadcasted illegally pop music from ships or tiny forts in the North Sea, whereas private television stations were legal. This did not seem very logical.


Opposing discriminations.


         A global approach of the question of immigration was adopted. On the one hand, the Labour party, which had protested against the adoption by the Conservative majority of the 1962 Immigration Act restricting immigration, did not repeal it at all. Immigration controls were maintained. Simultaneously, the Labour government introduced legislation designed to reduce discriminations, and improve the integration of immigrants. In 1965, a Race Relations Act was passed. This Act, and a series of others which followed, made discrimination on racial grounds illegal in a number of fields: access to leisure (obtaining entry to night clubs, discos and pubs), housing, employment. A national Race Relations Board was set up, which would monitor the situation, issue recommendations and help victims obtain redress. This national body was supplemented by local committees, and staffed by permanent employees.

The government rejected the old views concerning immigration , which were based on assimilation. This was the beginning of an evolution which took the British model very far from the French one. Britain chose to leave the immigrant communities free to preserve their own cultures on British soil. This was due to the convergence of two ideological currents: on the one hand conservatives felt that immigrants were so different they could not and should not be assimilated . Cultural conservatism rejected hybridity, and the mixing of blood. Liberals, on the other hand, increasingly felt that British culture was not superior to that of other countries, especially the highly elaborate ones of Asia. Nothing could justify the imposition of British cultural norms on “minorities”, as immigrants came to be called in the 1970’s. Therefore, instead of integration, multiculturalism became the British ideal, which implied complete acceptance of religious and cultural practices. This has been very controversial since the I970’s, especially when fanatical muslim fundamentalists took advantage of this, from the I980’s onward, and objectionable practices (e.g. arranged marriages) became widespread. Communitarianism, the definitive pigeon holing of people into a category and group,  is now seen as a by product of multiculturalism.

Contrary to what is often believed this side of the Channel, Britain did not adopt policies of positive discrimination, the equivalent of American affirmative action. Those policies consist in favouring individuals belonging to a particular community, by giving them priority in employment, housing, or access to university. This is against the law in the UK, as in France. However, areas where a large proportion of the population belonged to a minority were known to be very poor. Extra funding was made available to fight poverty and solve social problems in such places under “inner city policy”. Poverty, in the UK, was concentrated in city centres, where “multiple deprivation”  was to be found, ( i.e. unemployment, crime, poor education; squalid housing, poor health). In practice, concentrating public funds on areas where a large section of the population belonged to a “minority” amounted to “discriminating positively” in its favour. This was always collective,  and done on the basis of proven needs. It never  gave individuals preferential treatment on the basis of their colour.

            Education was one of the fields in which local targeting was implemented. Schools with poor achievements were included in the “Educational Priority Areas”, which entitled them to extra resources. 15 years later, this was also adopted by France, under the name of “Zones d’ Education Prioritaire”. In both countries, such policies are controversial. On the one hand, extra funding is welcome, but on the other hand the labelling of schools as “inefficient” or “poor” stigmatizes them.


Comprehensive schools


            The government pursued egalitarian policies in education. In 1965, the Minister for education, Anthony Crosland, issued a directive encouraging local authorities to abandon the old tripartite system, and create a single school for all children, between 11 and 16. This was intended to encourage social mobility, and avoid the channelling and the streaming of children according to their parents’ social origins. Since the British education system is fairly decentralized, the decision to adopt the new “comprehensive “schools or to keep the old selective grammar schools fell within the responsibility of Local Education Authorities (LEA). As a result of this, British education became a patchwork. Labour areas adopted comprehensives, but Conservative, affluent areas resisted fiercely the reform. They opposed the changes, on the grounds that the absence of selection and competitiveness would reduce work incentives for teachers and pupils, and would affect overall standards, including for good working class pupils. The debate therefore became highly politicised, the dividing line in Britain opposing the supporters and the opponents of selection within the public system, not, as in France, those of private education. The private sector in the UK was small, and reserved to a very tiny social group. The supporters of comprehensives were optimists, with a liberal philosophy trusting the potentialities of all children. They opposed classicism, and welcomed the introduction of many artistic topics  in schools, and the reduction in the requirements in English and other basic disciplines. Besides, it was then believed that “mixed ability teaching”, i.e. having in the same class bright motivated children and below average pupils would work very nicely. It did not.

            With hindsight, it is easy to see that the historical context in which comprehensives were introduced made failure inevitable. On the one hand, the 15 years which followed were years of budgetary constraints, and the funding available for education fell. The comprehensives would have required massive funding in order to succeed. On the other hand, the economic crisis, and the strategies which were adopted to solve it from the 1970’s onward brought about a considerable rise in the unemployment figures. Long term mass unemployment became the lot of many regions. Some of the 40 year olds  who lost their jobs in the 1970’s never worked again. Social mobility, which motivated parents and children in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, became an unrealistic goal, thus depriving education of any point. The loss of confidence in education affected dramatically the motivation of pupils, without which education is just an impossible task. The education crisis, in the 1970’s, was not therefore just due to the decline of authority, and a consequence of the naïve liberalism of educationalists.

The difficulties of comprehensives were blamed on Labour, and became a staple of  Conservative discourse in the 1970’s. Mrs Thatcher was elected on the basis of a programme rejecting radically the reforms of the 1960’s.




Although the movement was less dramatic than in other countries, such as the US, France or Italy, the mood of the time was one of dissent, and dissatisfaction with  ordinary politics  and with the social structure. This was due to internal, domestic factors, but also to the influence of developments in the rest of the world.

            The anti-nuclear movement, although it vanished after 1963, had accustomed the British to large demonstrations, and even to illegal events, intended to catch the eye of the media, and reach a wider audience. This included sit ins, hunger strikes, in the tradition pioneered by the Suffragettes before the First World War. The Vietnam war incited  thousands of young people to take to the streets, from 1965. Britain was not militarily involved in the war, but Harold Wilson’s government was the only one in Europe NOT to protest against the escalating of the American involvement in Vietnam, even after the bombing of the Vietnamese dikes by the US Air Force.

            Besides, the shops stewards, who were considered as trouble makers and strike-prone, were largely apolitical, but a minority of them was radicalised by the government’s firm stance. They were attracted by left wing socialist analyses, and started producing ideological discourses which justified their stance and existence, outside the official labour movement. One of the outcomes of this was an organization called the Institute for Workers’ Control, which, for a while, convened large gatherings of radical shop stewards.

            A number of militants rediscovered ideologies and political discourses which had never had much of an impact in the UK, but which attracted Labour supporters who were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the situation. A wide variety of Trotskist organizations saw the light, some within the Labour party, some outside it. The British constitutional arrangements do not enable the representation of political minorities, and the British far left never had the slightest chance of winning seats in the House of Commons, or large numbers of votes, but the combined forces of this (very divided) current became significant, at least within Trade Unions and among intellectuals.

            Finally, the influence of  the new feminism was also felt. This was largely due to the successes of the movement in the United States, and to the influence of French feminists. Both influences were felt in Britain. French feminists, since the 1950s and Simone De Beauvoir, had based their approach on the principle of equality, and on the importance  of waged work for women, as the main channel towards liberation. American feminists tended to stress difference rather than equality, and were very much attracted by psychoanalytical discourses, which tended to consider work and economic independence as secondary. The first groups appeared in the late 60’s, and the first national conference of the “women’s liberation movement” in Britain, an informal gathering,  took place in  Skegness in 1970. The debate between “equality” and “difference”, which is also central in the field of ethnic relations, has remained crucial ever since.




Foreign policy


As far as Europe is concerned, the Labour Party changed its approach, just as Macmillan had changed his in 1960. In the past, British Unions had been rather hostile to European integration. The  left wing unions in particular, such as the Miners, had considered Europe as a capitalist plot, which would prevent Britain from implementing socialist reforms when Labour returned to power. When Labour did return to power, in 1964, the prospect of  joining the Common market seemed to be more attractive than that of a radical social revolution. Britain applied for membership, but was again turned down by De Gaulle in 1967, on different grounds. This time, the difficulties experienced by the British economy were invoked in support of the veto. If the “sick man of Europe” was allowed to join, this would wreck the Common Market, so the argument went. In fact, France was at the time busy shaping the Common Market to suit its own needs, and De Gaulle’s view of the future, and it certainly did not want Britain to interfere. This was formalized by the “Luxemburg Compromise”. Under the influence of France, the European policies were reduced to the common agricultural policy, which, to this day, has  absorbed most of the European budget. British membership would have made this rather problematic , as became obvious when Britain did join.

            To compensate Britain for the veto, and to improve diplomatic relations, a number of Anglo French ventures were launched, as a “bridge building exercise”. The Concorde, a brilliant technological feat but a calamitous commercial venture, was a case in point. The Maison Française in Oxford was also built at that time.


            In the rest of the world, Britain cut its military involvement East of Suez: there would be no permanent military bases or troops to the East of Suez (in Egypt), the tacit agreement with the US guaranteeing the protection of British interests by the US military and diplomatic umbrella. Decolonization went on rapidly, and most of the times took place as a result of deliberate British withdrawal rather than pressures exerted locally. This was the case in the Caribbean. Some of the States which the Empire left in its wake were extremely small, local federations failed, as , again, in the Caribbean. The responsibility of managing the future now lied with the newly independent countries, and the United Nations. The cost, to Britain, was minimal. This was admired, in France, by people like journalist Raymond Cartier, who considered France was spending too many resources on its former colonies. He coined the phrase “la Corrèze, pas le Zambèze”. The doctrine of « cartièrisme » was named after him.

 However, Britain did try not to leave behind undemocratic or racist regimes. In some places, the minority of white colonists had tried to obtain independence on their own terms,  and to exclude Blacks from political representation. This had so far been refused by Britain. In Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe), the white minority, under Iain Smith, refused the transition process which would lead to independence under a black majority. In 1965, they therefore declared independence by themselves: this is known as the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, or UDI. This would have created a regime of apartheid, comparable to that of their neighbour, South Africa.

            Britain never recognized the racist regime of Iain Smith. It did not intervene militarily either, as African states wanted it to do, but imposed economic sanctions, and played its part in the diplomatic isolation of Rhodesia. A guerrilla war was launched by two rival black nationalist organizations against Ian Smith’s regime, one supported by the Soviet Union, the other one by China and Western interests. The latter, led by Mugabe, won the war and took over in 1977, in spite of British efforts at brokering a deal with a black Anglican bishop, Muzorewa. The  regime set up by Mugabe became gradually dictatorial and very hostile to Europeans. The decolonisation of Rhodesia was therefore a complete failure.





The I960’s were a decade of contrast. New ideas, practices and technologies flourished in a time of crisis and  retrenchment from the rest of the world. The day of reckoning came in the 1970’s, when the depth of the crisis jeopardized the fabric of society. In terms of policies, the ideas of the 1950’s still prevailed, by and large, in the I960’s. By 1980, most of the assumptions on which the 1960’s were based had been wiped out.

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