Today it is fifty years since Harold Wilson became leader of the Labour Party, beginning one of the most intriguing periods of Britain’s modern political history. Wilson was an everyman, the famous pipe smoker who preferred cigars in private, the scholar who enjoyed the company of celebrities, the modernist with a streak of conservatism, the brilliant politician who couldn’t quite bring his reforming zeal to the premiership.
Wilson’s rise to power came just at a point when the days of the Edwardian politician were coming to an end. He was the man for a new era, as happy on television as he was in the House of Commons, and able to communicate with a Britain whose culture was being radically changed by the ‘swinging’ sixties.
Before image consultants became household names Wilson knew the power of perception. He was a man of the people and knew the importance of appearing so (the 1964 poster at the top of this blog is a case in point). Comparisons were made to Jack and Bobby Kennedy, but with his pipe and love of HP sauce Wilson’s modernism was tempered with a streak of northern, down to earth practicality. When he selected art works for Downing Street, the grammar school boy from Huddersfield did not go in for classic portraiture by long dead artists. Instead, Harold chose L.S. Lowry’s ‘Lancashire Fair: Good Friday, Daisy Nook’, a northern painting by a modern northern artist, for a modern northern Prime Minister.
Wilson’s persona of practical modern reformer was more than an aesthetic position. Wilson sought to remould the Labour Party and indeed Britain in the spirit of the new age. Nine months after becoming leader he delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the twentieth century. Speaking to the party conference in Scarborough Wilson famously declared his dream of a new Britain ‘forged in the white heat of [this] revolution’ and in a nod to both employers and unions he went on to state that this new Britain would ‘be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated measures on either side of industry’.
‘White Heat’ came to define the openness of the 1960s, shorthand for not just a scientific revolution but a cultural one also. According the journalist Geoffrey Goodman, ‘New Labour’ was not a product of the 1990s Blair-Mandelson-Brown nexus, but was born in the ‘White Heat’ of Wilson’s speech.
The cultural and political legacy then of ‘White Heat’ is long lived. But while the phrase may have lived on, Wilson didn’t quite manage the scientific or technological revolution he intended. His greatest reform came not in science, technology or employment but in social areas. He presided over a government that liberalised Britain, breaking down class barriers, abolishing the death penalty, and partially decriminalising homosexuality.
To discuss the legacy of Wilson and his ‘White Heat’, Nottingham University’s Centre for British Politics and the People’s History Museum are organising a day conference on 5th June. If you’d like to know more do get in touch, or you can find more details here.