|October 1964||"Let's Go With Labour" sums up the desire for political change that co-incide with the social and cultural changes already beginning to take shape by 1964. The first televisual election illustrates Harold Wilson's wit and intellectual capacity to great effect, especially compared with a gerontocratic Tory leadership. |
The election galvanises the Conservatives to attempt to shrug off the label of being upper class, old boy, school tie network which the Profumo Affair had exposed to ridicule. In future, leaders are to be elected by Tory MPs, and their first choice, Edward Heath, fits the new mood with his Grammar School origins. Indeed, the next three leaders of the Conservatives are former grammar school pupils. Both parties have yet to see a Comprehensive-educated leader.
Labour's majority is only five seats. The election campaign is dirty - the conservatives fight in Smethwick under the slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour." The new government has inherited a number of problems - possibly the greatest is a balance of trade deficit amounting to #800m. As the Chief Whip struggles with a tiny majority, ambulances ferrying sick MPs to Westminster become a common sight. The atmosphere surrounding the government would soon become feverish as the pound sinks rapidly.
|November 1964||The House of Commons votes for the abolition of the death penalty in Britain. Prescription charges are abolished.|
|December 1964||A financial crisis is staved off by foreign borrowing and a 15% import surcharge. Meanwhile, the new government pushes a programme through with some amount of zeal. A National Plan envisaging growth at 25% by 1970 and a government, TUC and CBI voluntary incomes policy is installed.|
|February 1965||Jennie Lee, Nye Bevan's widow, as Minister of Education, commences planning to establish the Open University. Public spending on education is to rise for the first time above that of defence. More teachers are trained, class sizes are cut, more pupils stay on at school and more students enter further education. The 1965 Race Relations Act bans racial discrimination in public places.|
|October 1965||The sale of all assets bar owner-occupied homes are to become subject to a Capital Gains Tax. Corporation Tax is introduced, whilst petrol charges and income tax are increased.|
|December 1965||The first US bombing campaigns in Vietnam leads Wilson to offer to broker a peace. This is rejected contemptuously by US President Lyndon Johnson. Over the next few years, Wilson's refusal to commit troops to Vietnam leads to a souring of US-UK relations and a reluctance of the US administration to help in economic matters - most importantly, the defence of the pound on the currency markets. And Wilson's government was constrained in its criticism of American policy in Vietnam by the desire not to compromise NATO. Wilson is to become a lightning rod of attack for left and right, as the Vietnam War intensifies.|
|March 1966||Labour returns to the electorate in
March 1966 and wins a good overall majority of 96 - arguably only the second time it has been enabled to govern effectively. Events, however, are to unkindly dictate the direction of the government.|
Wilson's chief aim is to protect the pound from devaluation and improve the balance of payments, and there is much effort placed into achieving this.
|June 1966||A lengthy seaman's strike in the summer of 1966 threatens economic paralysis - docks grind to a standstill. The ending to the strike is bitter, and labour movement unity is damaged by the episode.|
|July 1966||When the pound still fails to revive, a wages and prices freeze are announced and taxes are bumped up on tobacco, wines and spirits. Restrictions are placed on foreign currency for holidays abroad. These were unpopular moves, especially as foreign holidays were in the process of becoming more affordable.|
|October 1966||The Selective Employment Tax is introduced in the first budget of the new Parliament and is designed to boost employment in export industries rather than the 'service' sector. |
All measures would help for a short time and then the pressure on the pound would mount again. Take a civil war in Nigeria and the Six Day War in the Middle East to cause increased oil and shipping charges, and the balance of payments problem worsens still further.
|January 1967||Parliament decides to nationalise the overwhelming majority of the British steel industry.|
|March 1967||The Redundancy Payments Act is introduced. A vital plank in the creation of a decent society, for the first time employers are obliged to offer employees a fixed amount in the event of their redundancy.|
|May 1967||To the surprise of many, Wilson decides to apply for Britain to join the EEC.|
|July 1967||Parliament decriminalises homosexuality. Defence Minister Healey announces the closure of British military bases in Singapore and Malaysia.|
|October 1967||Clement Attlee, widely considered one of the best British Prime Ministers, dies. Abortion is legalised.|
|November 1967||Sterling is finally devalued and Wilson makes a special announcement to quell fears of a valueless pound. His words are cruelly twisted by the Tories and the press to mean devaluation would not mean a rise in prices. This sees the end of Jim Callaghan's reign as Chancellor. His successor Roy Jenkins' declared aim was 'a stiff Budget followed by two years of hard slog.' Wilson loses credibility, having clung desperately to the idea of a pound worth 2.8 dollars.|
|January 1968||Whilst devaluation helps sterling temporarily, at least until the franc devalues a year later, domestic inflationary forces now rise.|
|March 1968||Charges on NHS prescriptions are re-introduced, free milk in secondary schools is abolished and the raising of the school-leaving age to 16 is postponed. As well as this, Jim Callaghan and others give Harold Wilson just cause to think that they are plotting against him.
Roy Jenkins' budget is the most punishing in Britain's peacetime history and taxes are racked up across the board. Working people are hit hardest, especially by the bill putting a ceiling of 3.5% on wage increases. The Bill only succeeds in being passed with a majority of 35. The 'hard slog' has become a forced march.
By this stage the atmosphere surrounding the Prime Minister has soured. Harold Wilson believes that many members of his Government are set on removing him. He observes the old Gaitskellite network, which he had never been a part of, at work. Hence, the Daily Mirror's chairman, Cecil King, meets with a leading Cabinet minister to try and initiate a challenge to the Prime Minister. By putting so much responsibility within the Prime Ministerial office, he makes himself the centre of dissent and intrigue. He is pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables by students. "Even students can afford eggs under Labour," he drily remarks.
In addition to this, some members of the security service are acting beyond their remit and attempt to discredit and remove Wilson. He suspects that he is under surveillance and that there is a search for scandals concerning him and members of his staff. This is widely dismissed as paranoia at the time, elements in the Establishment view Harold Wilson as a dangerous threat and are acting against him. Constitutional reform is not, however, treated seriously by the government.
|April 1968||One of the problems that the government have inherited from the Conservatives is that of race relations. Throughout the 1950s thousands of people from the New Commonwealth had been invited to work in England, and seeing the chance of a rise in living standards, many arrived. When the economy slowed, this was resented by many, as illustrated by the Smethwick campaign. The hysteria which heralds the arrival of expelled Asians from Kenya compounded problems further.
Labour passes the Commonwealth Immigrants Act which deprives UK passport-holders of the right to enter Britain unless they could prove substantial connections with Britain. The 1968 Race Relations Act, meanwhile, lays the framework for integration in Britain. It bans discrimination in jobs and housing. As Roy Jenkins said, the process was 'not as a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.'
The Private Members' Bill legalising abortion enters into law.
|April 1968||British troops arrive in Northern Ireland in a last-ditch attempt to reduce the increasing violence in the province. Unfortunately their active involvement lasts longer than anybody would have predicted.|
|May 1968||The Transport Act establishes the principle of government grants to help preserve uneconomic passenger services on social grounds. This is too late to reverse the Beeching cuts, but alleviates some of the pain. In Britain, local elections lead to massive swings away from Labour, as Scottish and Welsh nationalists benefit from dis-illusionment.|
|January 1969||Relations between a Labour Government on the one hand and the Party and the unions on the other reach an all-time low with the publication of the White Paper 'In Place of Strife.' This suggests that there should be a month-long conciliation period before any strike action could be taken, with ballots when necessary. |
The White Paper reflects growing public disquiet at the power of unions, which had been fanned by the press. It is becoming easier for the general public and the 'Gnomes of Zurich' to make the unions the scapegoat for Britain's economic ills. In retrospect, 'In Place of Strife' seems very reasonable as providing the unions with a solid democratic base, but causes many in the Labour movement to protest strongly.
'In Place of Strife' is dropped after the TUC adopts its own code of practise. The decision to abandon it is portrayed by the media as a surrender. Harold Wilson has been forced to disregard the work of one of the most successful Cabinet ministers, Barbara Castle, whose innovative previous work as both the first Minister of Overseas Development and as Transport Minister had won many plaudits.
There is special help for areas with declining industries, with coalmining contracting sharply, and docks were re-organised to put an end to casual labour.
|December 1969||The permanent abolition of capital punishment - surely the crowning achievement of the social legislation passed in this Parliament.|
|June 1970||The Labour Party itself is changing, increasingly becoming the Party of the public sector and of a new generation. If Wilson's government is notable, it owes much to its libertarian outlook, which shapes the sixties almost as much as the sixties shaped it. Liberty arrives with a bottle of brown sauce. It may be fair to say that the 1964-1970 Parliament is a great reforming legislature. The Government itself has succeeded in many regards.|
The opinion polls in 1970 indicate a Labour victory, after a good record of social legislation and an improved balance of trade. However, many Labour supporters abstain on polling day, despite the recent inclusion of 18-year olds on the electoral roll, and even many party activists are reluctant to throw their weight into the battle, with memories of pay freezes and continued inequality - as well as a slight rise in unemployment. Edward Heath promises to slash prices at a stroke. In a shock result, the Conservatives win the election. Heath is to be the new Prime Minister after the election gave Labour only 287 seats, down from 363 in 1966.
The 1966-70 Government can be seen as a genuine and worthy effort to address the long-term problems of the British economy, and this effort is not without reward. The fact that 'stop-go' has not been curbed does not diminish the fact that a balance of payments deficit of #800 millions a year has been turned by 1970 into a surplus of #600 millions.
Thanks to Wilson's administration Britain has become a better place to live. In the social sphere, in the cultural sphere and with Denis Howell as Sports Minister, various "life-enhancing" areas receive increased public support.
Social security is re-organised with one ministry in overall charge, and the humiliating system of national assistance replaced by supplementary benefits as of right. Pensions and other benefits (including those for industrial injury) are increased. Labour doesn't see the first stream of Open University graduates from a position of office. The new Leader of the Opposition suspects a World Cup defeat for England just a few weeks beforehand may have played a crucial part. There are to be plenty more of them.