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The Labour Government (1964 to 1970) Was Strong on Rhetoric, but Not on Action.” to What Extent Do You Agree with This Statement? (45)

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Harold Wilson, who was the Prime Minister during 1964-70, had promised Britain one of his most effective campaign speeches. He had promised that Britain would catch up with “the white heat” of technological change. Wilson had successfully linked the Labour Party to modernisation in contrast to what were described as the “wasted years” of the Conservative government. The Labour government seemed to be more in touch with the social and cultural trends of the 1960s.

Modernisation of the British economy was one of the key priorities for the Labour government. By 1964, it was widely accepted that Britain was lagging behind other countries such as West Germany and Japan. Britain’s economy seemed to be trapped in the cycle of “stop-go”, with bursts of prosperity always leading to inflation, runs on the pound snd regular crises over the balance of payments. Reorganising the economy to break out of this cycle was the key aim of Wilson’s government in 1964. Moreover, Labour inherited a deficit of about £800million. The two classic economic solutions to this kind of problem were deflation and devaluation. But Wilson and his Chancellor of Exchequer, James Callaghan, refused to do neither. Instead, Wilson was convinced that these problems could be fixed by careful management and planning. A new department, the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) was set up, led by George Brown and a National Plan had been drawn up. He had set growth targets and devised a national system of “economic planning councils”. The aim was to secure the restraint needed to prevent inflation rising which the government would then need to stop with controls. However, Brown’s economic proposals came to nothing which suggests that the Labour government was strong on rhetoric, but not on action.

Furthermore, the Labour government introduced a “prices and incomes policy” to keep inflation down. Wilson’s attitude disappointed the left of the Party and angered the trade unions, which had hoped a Labour government would bring them benefits not lectures on their need to be responsible and shore up the capitalist system. The leader of Britain’s largest union, the TGWU, Frank Cousins, whom Wilson had made his Minster of Technology in 1964, resigned over the creation of the Prices and Incomes Board. The relationship between the government and the trade unions was starting to break down. But the gap between the two became even more evident in a series of strikes over pay in 1966 and 1967, the most disturbing being lengthy stoppages by the seamens' and the dockers’ unions. As a result, 4.7 million days were lost and by 1970, the days soared to 11million. These strikes had further weakened the British economy and also the Labour government’s image. Wilson believed that the industrial troubles were a key factor in the increase in Britain’s trade deficit, resulting to him approaching the IMF for another large loan in 1967, having already borrowed from it in 1964. Again, Wilson blamed the trade union troublemakers, claiming that the government had began to surmount the financial problems only to be “blown off course by the seven weeks’ seamens’ strike”. The IMF was became a sign that the government was losing control over its finances which highlights the weak actions undertaken by the Labour government.

In the same year, Wilson’s concerns over Britain’s economic situation reached its peak when he took the step he was determined to avoid since he came to power - the devaluation of the pound. This involved reducing the exchange rate of the sterling from $2.80 to $2.40. Wilson assured the British public that the devaluation of the pound did not mean that it was worth any less. However, this appeared a great political and economic failure for the Labour government. A depressed Callaghan stepped down as Chancellor of Exchequer over it. It was these economic fears at home which forced Wilson to make Britain’s second attempt to join the EEC four years after the French veto of the first application. But this was again rejected. Having the rejection of the second application hard on the heels of the devaluation crisis made the government’s economic policies look futile. However, the economic situation improved markedly from this low point when Roy Jenkins replaced Callaghan as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Jenkins raised taxes and tightened up government spending in all areas of the economy, giving top priority to improving the balance of payments. These tough measures made the Labour government very unpopular but, by 1969, he had achieved a balance of payments surplus. These actions had therefore proven that the Labour government was strong on rhetoric and also by actions.

The infamous numbers of “wildcat strikes” has led to Wilson and his new employment minister, Barbara Castle, into planning to use the law to limit these unofficial strikes. She believed strongly in a powerful trade union movement but she was also convinced of the need for it to act responsibly. As a result, Castle produced her white paper in 1969, In Place of Strife. In many ways, Castle’s policy proposals would strengthen the unions in dealing with employers but the trade unions were not fooled. Castle’s In Place of Strike never got beyond the White Paper stage which proves that the Labour government were only strong on rhetoric but not on action. This is also evident through the deep divisions it had created within the Labour Party. The left asked bitterly why the government was contemplating a measure that undermined the principles for which the Labour Party was supposed to stand for - the protection of the unions.

On the other hand, while the government may have done nothing new on the economic and industrial front, the same could not be said of its social reforms. In retrospect, these social reforms appeared groundbreaking. In 1965 and 1968, the Race Relations Act prohibited racial discrimination in public areas and in areas such as employment and housing and also made racial hatred an offence. In 1967, The Abortion Act, The Sexual Offences Act and the Office of Ombudsman were introduced. The Abortion Act made abortion of a baby of up to 24 weeks legal. The Sexual Offences Act permitted male homosexual acts in private between two consenting adults. In addition, two other laws were passed the following year - Commonwealth Immigration Act and the Theatres Act. The Commonwealth Immigration Act prohibited new immigrants from settling in Britain unless they had family connections already established. The Theatres Act ended censorship by removing government control. Furthermore, three other laws were again passed in1969. The abolition of the death penalty came into effect. The Divorce Reform Act allowed couples to divorce on the grounds of the irretrievable breakdown of their relationship. Also the remarkable The Open University, which Wilson himself claimed to have been his greatest achievement as Prime Minister. This new higher education institution was established to enable previously unqualified students to study for degrees. These reforms, particularly those relating to abortion, divorce, homosexuality, censorship and the death penalty, may be said to mark an important stage in the modernising of British social attitudes. Therefore, the Labour government was not only strong on rhetoric under these social reforms, but also strong on action which is evident to these achievements.
In conclusion, it was obvious that by 1970, there were the signs that the post-war consensus was breaking down. Britain’s economic problems did not seem to have been solved by Wilson’s government. Trade unions were seemingly more uncooperative, forcing even the Labour Party to try and reform industrial relations. Also, the left wing of the Labour Party was dissatisfied by moderate consensus Labour policies which therefore, supports the statement that the Labour government between 1964-1970 was only strong on rhetoric but not on action. However, this statement is proven to be true to some extent because the Labour government did undeniably improve and revolutionise Britain’s social attitudes through their numerous social reforms in the late 1960s.

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