How do historians now view the premiership of Labour leader Harold Wilson from the perspective of the twenty-first century? To what extent was there genuine social change in Britain during Wilson’s time in Downing Street in the 1960s and 1970s? And do we have any further insights into Wilson’s own personal vision fifty or so years later?
Kingston University historian Dr. Jeremy Nuttall has just published some fascinating new research on the Labour party leader, which reconsiders Wilson’s personality, impact and historical reputation, and the extent to which he possibly helped reshape British society in the 1960s and 1970s. Was Wilson a ‘social modernizer’ or more of a ‘traditionalist’?
Harold Wilson (1916-1995), as Dr. Nuttall points out, was something of a surprise leader for Labour in 1963, a position he was able to secure after the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell (1906-63). Gaitskell had been from the centre-right of the party, while Wilson was from the centre-left. Labour had spent about 13 years stuck in the ‘wilderness’, during which time there had been open ideological warfare between the ‘Bevanite’ socialist Left and the ‘social democratic’ Right.
But Wilson proved to a be a canny operator: his public image (carefully cultivated) was that of a pipe-smoking ‘man of the people’, with a blunt and populist Yorkshire manner (in reality, he much preferred expensive cigars in private!), but he was also something of a healer within his party and was able to skilfully bring all sides of the organisation together in a temporary alliance. This certainly brought about significant electoral benefits for Labour. Wilson was able make the party into a more effective and professional electoral machine, which led to a slim majority in 1964, and a more substantial victory in 1966. Although Wilson lost the premiership in 1970, he was back in office in 1974, and finally stepped aside in 1976 due to declining health. All in all, Wilson won four General Elections (1964, 1966, and two in 1974).
However, regarding his social impact and his relationship to wider change in British society, Wilson’s time in office has been regarded with notably mixed feelings by historians, and has been subjected to a variety of interpretations. Perhaps this pattern has reflected Wilson’s own rather complex personality? On the one hand, Wilson set out to leave the ‘stuffy’ and deferential 1950s very much behind and to emphasise ‘modernity’, planning, science and the ‘white heat of technology’ in the new decade of the 1960s. This entailed some quite radical changes to one of his favourite areas of interest, education (including the creation of new comprehensive schools, establishment of polytechnics, construction of a wave of new universities, and the founding of the truly ground-breaking ‘Open University’ in 1969).
There were also major legislative reforms in the sphere of personal and social morality, such as changes to the laws regarding capital punishment, abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and race relations. As Dr. Nuttall notes, recent historians have been more willing to give credit to Wilson’s Labour governments for these watershed measures. On the other hand, as Dr. Nuttall also writes, Wilson was ‘in both personality and political ideology, a fusion of modernity and traditionalism’. He exhibited elements of social progress, but could also display some of the virtues and vices of traditionalism and ‘labourism’.
Indeed, Dr. Nuttall’s work has set out to explore and reassess the historiographical debates and controversies over Wilson and his governments in more depth. According to Nuttall, Wilson was something of a contradiction and paradox during his time in office but, more importantly, this may have been more a reflection of the society he oversaw: ‘It was a society in which people were often a mix of collectivist and individualist impulses, social democracy and conservatism, hungry for change yet fearful of it’.
Again, according to Dr. Nuttall: ‘People liked the avant-garde, surrealist humour of Monty Python, yet also the comforting, gentle, nostalgic humour of Dad’s Army‘. In other words, the liberal and ‘permissive’ social changes of the 1960s sat uneasily alongside the more traditional morality that was still evident in many parts of British society. In Dr. Nuttall’s estimation, the truth of the matter is that Wilson was a ‘balancer’, who mirrored both the advances and failings of wider British society at the time. Ultimately, however, in Dr. Nuttall’s view, Wilson steadily moved the country in the right direction, helping to create a more liberal, inclusive and socially mobile society in Britain.
There is much food for thought in Dr. Nuttall’s new work, and if you are interested in British postwar political and social history, this edited collection would be a great investment of your time.
Jeremy Nuttall: ‘Wilson and Social Change’, in: A. Crines & K. Hickson (eds.), Harold Wilson. The Unprincipled Prime Minister? (London: Biteback, 2016).
Date for your Diary: Dr. Kevin Hickson, from the University of Liverpool, will give a talk as part of Kingston History Department’s Guest Speaker Series on 26th October, 2016, at 5.00pm. Further details will be provided in due course.