50 years ago Harold Wilson became the leader of the Labour party. He went on to lead Labour to a narrow victory in 1964, a landslide in 1966 and two further wins in the 70s – unequalled four victories. A much underestimated politician he cunningly combined a message to the traditional families of Britain (with HP sauce on the table) with a carefully crafted appeal to be the agent of change and the candidate for the future. In the post-Suez, post-Profumo, jaded Britain, he projected an image of energy and optimism in Britain’s prospects.
In this, of course, he was aided by the decline of the Macmillan government, particularly following the Profumo affair, but also the image of the grouse moors and the aristocratic, recently un-nobled successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Wilson recognised that he could not just win support on negatives and at the 1963 Labour party conference he made his famous defining speech in which he proclaimed: “we were restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution, that Britain is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution, with no place for restrictive practices, or outdated methods of industry.” In doing so he positioned Labour as representing the aspirations of the rapidly expanding group of technicians and scientists in the economy. He was also appealing to students and young voters enthused by the opportunities of science, making it clear that his was the party of optimism for the future and that science was the key to unlocking this.
Labour’s challenge today is very much to try and recapture some of that optimism. Interestingly, while in the succeeding years there had been growing scepticism about the claims and advances of science, it was always clear this was less strong amongst the public than in the columns of some newspapers. There also seems to have been a recent significant shift, even amongst those who had been traditionally antagonistic to technological development. Not only have we seen many of those from the green movement come round to the merits of nuclear power as a crucial component in dealing with the growing output of carbon, but also the challenge of a rising world population is leading to a reassessment of GM crops. There has been a major field experiment all around the world over the last decade with massive acreages now producing GM crops which have been sold right the way across world markets with no detected effect on human health.
It is important, therefore, for Labour to re-evaluate its position on scientific development and to become a clear champion for science over superstition and for Britain to continue as a world leader in scientific excellence. This would enable Britain’s huge reservoir of scientific talent to contribute, not only to national but international welfare and to the growth of our national economy.
The former Australian Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, remarked many times that “good policy makes good politics.” In embracing and promoting science Labour will be doing the right thing for Britain, for our young people and for securing the next election of the Labour government.