Parliament Channel: Harold Wilson Night (Conference Speech)
February 22, 2013
The BBC Parliament channel, dedicated last Thursday evening to Harold Wilson, a set of programmes which included a broadcast of Wilson`s final 1975 Conference speech as Prime Minister. The speech with its valedictory tone is worth watching for reasons summed up by Ben Pimlott as Wilson appears to forecast the tough times ahead for the Labour movement. Pimlott reminds us that by 1975 the Party was on the cusp of tearing itself apart, in the early stages of an existential crisis. Wilson`s speech is delivered in a perfunctory manner to a morose audience, a conference of beleaguered looking delegates. If only they knew what was around the political corner, perhaps then they would have been grateful for the deliverance of Labour`s 1974 manifesto. A programme which if not socialist, was certainly socially responsible, in the speech Wilson describing the 1974 manifesto as promoting a fairer, more democratic and socially just society, an agenda transforming Labour into the natural Party of government. In the turbulent years ahead Labour would struggle to hold on to its position as the main party of opposition due to the threat posed by the newly formed SDP. It was interesting to hear Shirley Williams defend the Wilson legacy with such vigour last Thursday. One wonders what her `Orange Book` Liberal colleagues thought of her performance?
There is no searing oratory, no remarkable utterances or sound bites of the white heat of technology variety. Early in the speech, Wilson recites a list of thirty-five Bills, which became law emanating from the 1974 Labour Party Manifesto. This rather bizarre, mundane speech making ploy appeared to stretch the patience of the conference, which is ironic because it was an attempt to generate party unity. And while doing so Wilson describes himself as a full time, one man manifesto group. Wilson was keen to assure the assembled delegates that the party had stayed true to its campaigning promises. Such a commitment to a party manifesto is a revelation in these modern times, when manifesto promises are lightly made and easily broken. Indeed, Wilson went further informing delegates that `we are all manifesto custodians now` and he also employed a bit of humour (even raising a laugh in this desert of mirth) when he said, `never has there been such unity in the history of the Party in supporting the manifesto or such diversity in its interpretations.`
Despite this brief evidence of communal laughter, Wilsons was heard in silence (a heckler adequately dealt with near the end which reminds us that that Labour did not always remove vocal critics from conference). When the camera panned around the hall many delegates had their heads in their hands and morale seemed low. Those, whose faces were visible, carried a collective countenance resembling a hundred reflections from numerous gravestones. This was a party grimacing and not smiling even though they were in government and led by a politician adhering to his party’s manifesto commitments. Barbara Castle sat next to Wilson as he made his speech, smiled and appeared pleased with what she heard. Although, Ben Pimlott informs us that she described Wilson’s performance as `flat, uninspiring, unfunny and unphilosophical. ` With friends like this, Wilson hardly needed any enemies but there were clearly plenty in 1975 both real and imagined.
The context in which this speech was made is important and outlined by Pilmott. Who argues the party had lost its sense of purpose by 1975, a fact concealed by two election victories and the referendum on the Common Market. Pilmott points out that it `was as if the abandonment of scientific planning in the 1960s and the tossing aside of socialist planning in the 1970s, had left a gaping hole which few people either recognised, or any longer cared about filling.`
This gaping hole would of course soon be filled by a policy shift within Labour as it attempted to combat Thatcherism. There were of course signs of this shift in 1975 as Tony Benn grew in popularity heading the list on the NEC vote. While Denis Healey, despite his `brilliant mind` and ministerial position was voted off the NEC. This seemingly a testament to a breach that `reflected the yawning divide between activists who wondered what they were fighting for, and ministers who, with little collective spirit or faith, busied themselves in their departments. `
How seriously Wilson took the Conservative Party at this time is debatable. He pointed out in the speech that the Tories `were now hurdling backwards over two centuries to Adam Smith.` The Conservatives wished to cut public expenditure argued Wilson but voted against Labour defence cuts amounting to six million pounds. Wilson predicting that the Conservative agenda will divide a nation and was little more than a hard faced doctrine which will cut the social wage. He explained that the social wage incorporated such themes as `the NHS, Housing and help for those in greatest need`. The current Coalition government are continuing with this programme, while Ed Miliband quotes Disraeli – interestingly, Wilson referenced Disraeli several times during the 1975 speech.
Wilson was clearly pre-occupied with divisions within the party; he called for a mass party that moved away from `extreme so called left and in some cases extreme so called moderates. ` The emergence of the Militant tendency and the gang of four an inevitable development when viewed in hindsight. A house divided is a house defeated and the split became even more likely when Labour in 1976 took the humiliating decision to hurdle backwards themselves two hundred years by adopting a monetarist agenda at the behest of the IMF. This policy decision was of course not in accordance with Labours manifesto promises but in politics, ideas while important must always coincide with circumstances. From 1945 the circumstances were good for Labour and from 1976 the economic tide turned but was full blown Thatcherism the only alternative?