Wilson’s white heat

Liam Byrne MP

This article is the fifth and final in a series of pieces on the life and legacy of Harold Wilson published in celebration of the centenary of his birth, 11 March 1916.

Click here for the first article in the feature: Reappraising Harold Wilson

Click here for the second article in the feature: Harold Wilson: a personal reflection

Click here for the third article in the feature: Europe and the Wilson legacy

Click here for the fourth article in the feature: The two Wilsons


Harold Wilson did not learn he had become prime minister until 3.50pm on Friday 16 October 1964. His office took the call from the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, who politely asked if it would be convenient for Mr Wilson to come and see the Queen.  And so Mr Wilson changed his jacket and trundled off to the palace.

That Friday afternoon, Labour became the first opposition since 1906 to evict a sitting Conservative government and though Wilson’s win – on a 3% swing – was narrow and his majority thin, his victory was the triumph of the bold and optimistic story he told about how Britain could face the future and master what it saw. When he arrived back in Downing Street from the Palace, Wilson had a very clear sense of his direction.

Key to his political sizzle and the palpable sense of change he embodied was the remarkable speech he had made in Scarborough the year before.  There by the seaside he offered Britain for the first time the prospect of harnessing the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ to create a different kind of country.

It was an electrifying moment. It epitomized Wilson’s ask of Britain: to cast out the privileged old boy’s club running the show, led by the ‘14th Earl’, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and put in its place a government prepared to drive through the reforms Britain needed to win a race to the top. Wilson’s speech to Scarborough captured not merely the spirit of the moment, but the spirit of the future. Not merely 1963 but the 1960s. Not the world that was passing, but the world that was coming.

Wilson said bluntly: nostalgia won’t pay the bills; the world doesn’t owe us a living; and we must harness the scientific revolution to win in the years to come. “This scientific revolution” he said “is making it physically possible, for the first time in human history, to conquer poverty and disease, to move towards universal literacy, and to achieve for the whole people better living standards than those enjoyed by tiny privileged classes in previous epochs”.

But, he warned change would have to reach every corner of the country; ‘The Britain that is going to be formed in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for the restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry’.

His agenda was bold: a new ministry of science; a university of the air; a revolution in education and apprenticeships; radical expansion of Further and Higher Education; action to stop the brain drain; the appointment of the first government chief scientist, Sir Solly Zuckerman. Re-reading it now, it reads like it could have been delivered last week.

The narrative Wilson set out was essential to Labour’s political appeal. The notion of a ‘scientific revolution’ had been slipped into the party’s veins amidst the debate over unilateralism in 1960. Searching for a few connected principles around which to fashion a ‘package deal’, Labour’s director of research, Peter Shore, and general secretary, Morgan Phillips, had secured ‘by acclaim’ agreement to the forward looking Labour in the Sixties paper at the 1960 conference.

Painfully aware of ‘de-industrialisation’ and the demographic shifts threatening Labour’s traditional base, Shore and Phillips called for closer links to scientists, administrators and professionals and those “disgusted by the Tory view that status-seeking and ladder-climbing are the most important human activities”. Their paperwork was the foundation for Signposts for the Sixties and in turn, the seminal Labour in the Scientific Revolution.

Wilson was quick to pick up the theme of science after his leadership win in February 1963; ‘We must harness Socialism to science’ he promptly declared, ‘and science to Socialism’. It’s a lesson we should learn today.

For several years now, many on the left have understood the sheer scale of the opportunity and threat now posed to the world of work and the life of our country by the breath-taking speed of technological change. The second machine age will destroy millions of old jobs – and create, potentially, millions of new ones. But it risks bringing with it an age of unprecedented inequality.

That’s why it is so important for Labour today to remember the lesson of Harold Wilson; to search for some simple ideas about the future, a sense of the challenges but above all some optimism about what could be possible if we find new ways of working together to create or renew institutions. There’s a big opportunity here for socialists. The zeitgeist of this age is the notion of sharing. Creating and sharing new assets that allow each of us to do more. The prize is vast. Personalised health care, based on your DNA, which radically extends life. Methods of learning beamed to your smartphone. And new opportunities to earn a good life. Look at it like this.

Today, our knowledge economy is a third of output, a third of businesses – but under 20 per cent of jobs. If a third of us enjoyed jobs in the knowledge economy, that would equate to 2.4 million extra jobs paying 40 per cent – £161 a week – over and above the average pay-packet. That is a powerful exit from a life of falling pay-packets.

Philip Gould used to say that Labour does best when we’re on a mission of national renewal. Well, the world is changing fast around us. Let’s define the mission of how we win the future. That, above all else, is the lesson of Harold Wilson today.

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