Spartacus Blog

Jeremy Corbyn, the new Harold Wilson?

Saturday, 5th September, 2015

John Simkin

In 1963 I was a 18-year-old youngster working in a factory. At the time I knew nothing about politics. I have been told that my father was a Labour Party supporter but he had been killed when I was a child. My mother was completely uninterested in the subject but her parents had been working-class supporters of the Conservative Party. My grandmother had been a maid to several wealthy employers and always voted for those who had been "born to rule". Her family had been labourers and servants since the beginning of the industrial revolution. My father's side of the family had the same sort of background.

The workers in the factory used to discuss politics during lunch-breaks. Harold Macmillan was prime-minister at the time. When he resigned in October, 1963, the Alec Douglas-Home, the 14th Earl of Home, became prime minister. He immediately resigned his peerage and won a by-election at Kinross and Western Perthshire. Both men had been educated at Eton (as has our current prime-minister, David Cameron, as well as those like, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, who are likely to challenge for the post when he resigns before the next election).

The men used to constantly complain about the way the country was being governed. Some thought that the leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, would make a good prime minister. I was unable to join in the lunch-time debates because of my complete lack of knowledge about the subject. I did start watching the television news and it was clear that Wilson was very different from Douglas-Home and Macmillan. He was a product of Bebington Grammar School and had risen through the ranks. Wilson also spoke in a language I could understand whereas in my short life I had never met anyone who had been to a public school. Even the doctor on our council estate spoke with a working-class accent.

Wilson had replaced Hugh Gaitskell as leader on his death on 18th January 1963. Gaitskell, another former public school boy, had failed to win the 1959 General Election by positioning the Labour Party to the centre-right. Wilson was seen as on the left of the party and one of his first acts as leader was to restore the whip to the little band of rebels who had been expelled two years before for their attitude on unilateralism. However, he had to go slowly. He told his left-wing intimates, Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and Michael Foot: "You must understand that I am running a Bolshevik Revolution with a Tsarist Shadow Cabinet."

Wilson was only 47 years-old when he became leader. He might have looked old when compared to John F. Kennedy, but was seen as young when compared to the 70 year-old Harold Macmillan. Wilson thought his youth was his great advantage and refused to wear spectacles in public.

When I discovered that the mother of my new girlfriend was a member of the Labour Party, I thought it was a sign that I should get involved in politics. When we joined the local Young Socialists we found that most of the members were highly critical of Wilson and seemed to hero-worship a chap called Leon Trotsky.

On 1st October 1963, Wilson made a speech where he argued that he was the future. Under his leadership Britain would experience a second industrial revolution: "Planning on an unprecedented scale to meet automation without unemployment; a pooling of talent in which all classes could compete and prosper; a vast extension of state-sponsored research; a completely new concept of education; an alliance of science and socialism." James Cameron wrote the next day in The Daily Herald: "Harold Wilson's startling essay into political science-fiction may well be held by experts to be the most vital speech he has ever made. Here at last was the twentieth-century."

As we approached the 1964 General Election the members of the Young Socialists began to get very excited about the possibility of Wilson being elected. I went to see him speak at a large school in Hornchurch during the campaign. He attracted crowds far greater than those recently obtained by Jeremy Corbyn. We arrived very early and were just able to squeeze ourselves onto a balcony overlooking the hall. Outside the school were several thousand people listening to the speech that was being broadcast via loudspeakers. The thing I remember most of all was the way he put down hecklers.

Labour were favourites at the beginning of the campaign but a vicious attack of Wilson by the right-wing press in the few weeks before the election saw the Conservatives edge ahead. Wilson appealed to the BBC to provide some balance. Wilson pressed for the political element of the daily programme Today's Papers to be suspended during the election period, on the ground that the papers were predominantly Tory. The BBC refused and the programme went ahead.

Wilson had more success when he protested to the Director-General, Hugh Greene, that the immensely popular Steptoe and Son was being screened an hour before the polls closed. He claimed that these viewers would more likely to be Labour voters. When Greene postponed Steptoe and Son by an hour Wilson telephoned in gratitude: Thank you very much, Hugh. That will be worth a dozen or more seats to me." If that was the case, it won him the election because by the time they finished counting the votes, Wilson had an effective majority of five.

Wilson held power for six years. By the time he left office in 1970, many people were critical of what he managed to achieve. However, looking back 45 years later, I think he did make changes for the better that would have never be brought in if the Tories remained in power for the rest of the 1960s.

During that period the government passed the 1965 Race Relations Act (outlawed discrimination on the "grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins" in public places), 1965 Abolition of Death Penalty Act (replaced the penalty of death with a mandatory sentence of imprisonment for life), 1967 Sexual Offences Act (it decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both of whom had to have attained the age of 21), 1967 Abortion Act (it legalising abortions by registered practitioners, and regulating the free provision of such medical practices through the National Health Service), 1968 Theatres Act (abolished censorship of the stage), 1969 Divorce Reform Act (allowing couples to divorce after a separation of two years); Comprehensive Education (1966 to 1970, the proportion of children in comprehensive schools increased from about 10% to over 30%), Housing (1.3 million new homes were built between 1965 and 1970), Family Allowances (from April 1964 to April 1970, family allowances for four children increased as a percentage of male manual workers aged 21 and above from 8% to 11.3%.)

Wilson greatest achievement was to reduce inequality in the UK between 1964-1970. This was mainly achieved by increases in the top-rate of income-tax (70% in 1970). Under the government of Tony Blair, inequality increased. As Professor Danny Dorling recently pointed out: "The last time the best-off took as big a share of all income as they do today was in 1940, two years before the publication of the Beveridge Report, which became the basis of the UK's welfare state after the Second World War." Maybe that is the reason why Jeremy Corbyn appears so popular in 2015.


Previous Posts

Anne Boleyn in the history classroom (29th August, 2015)

Why the BBC and the Daily Mail ran a false story on anti-fascist campaigner, Cedric Belfrage (22nd August, 2015)

Women and Politics during the Reign of Henry VIII (14th July, 2015)

The Politics of Austerity (16th June, 2015)

Was Henry FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, murdered? (31st May, 2015)

The long history of the Daily Mail campaigning against the interests of working people (7th May, 2015)

Nigel Farage would have been hung, drawn and quartered if he lived during the reign of Henry VIII (5th May, 2015)

Was social mobility greater under Henry VIII than it is under David Cameron? (29th April, 2015)

Why it is important to study the life and death of Margaret Cheyney in the history classroom (15th April, 2015)

Is Sir Thomas More one of the 10 worst Britons in History? (6th March, 2015)

Was Henry VIII as bad as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin? (12th February, 2015)

The History of Freedom of Speech (13th January, 2015)

The Christmas Truce Football Game in 1914 (24th December, 2014)

The Anglocentric and Sexist misrepresentation of historical facts in The Imitation Game (2nd December, 2014)

The Secret Files of James Jesus Angleton (12th November, 2014)

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