An endless job for Labour historians is the expunging of inconvenient memories, of which their party has more than the most industrious of harlots. Some memories, from Labour’s earlier life, have been successfully blamed upon the treachery of Macdonald, Snowden and the other villains of that time. Their more recent experiences are proving more difficult.
The 1964 Labour government came to power, as they never tired of telling us at the time, after thirteen years of Tory misrule. Their election programme had opened like a bugle call:
The world wants it and would welcome it. The British people want it, deserve it, and urgently need it.
And now, at last, the general election presents us with the exciting prospect of achieving it.
The dying months of a frustrating 1964 can be transformed into the launching platform for the New Britain of the late 1960s and the early 1970s.
And after a brief description of this New Britain, the manifesto trumpeted:
The country needs fresh and virile leadership. Labour is ready. Poised to swing its plans into instant operation.
Well, not enough workers were frightened by this and Labour won the election but now that we are in the late 1970s it is clear that something went wrong with their plans because, as Callaghan and Healey are continually reminding us, the New Britain is still not due to arrive. In fact, Harold Wilson in 1964 made rather a bad start at it; although he had spent a lot of time grumbling about the alleged overmanning in industry, he contributed his bit to this process by appointing one of the biggest governments in recent history, with over a hundred people in it. And he obviously did not take the words “fresh and virile” to mean youthful; the average age of his Cabinet was 56, compared to the Tories’ 51.
This must have been disappointing to all those workers who were keen to be led to the New Britain as quickly as possible, but they could still keep faith; Wilson’s government included a lot of people who were supposed to be both talented and dedicated. Who would have thought that so many of them would have become, in one way or another, disillusioned, disaffected, or discredited?
One of the first to go was Christopher Mayhew, whose resignation was greeted with the response “Christopher Who?” Mayhew left the government in 1966 when Denis Healey, who was then Minister of Defence, decided that British capitalism must defend its interests without the benefit of aircraft carriers (Mayhew was responsible for the Royal Navy). In 1974 Mayhew joined the Liberals, although there was no sign of their having a big aircraft carrier-building programme, declaring that Labour was “too vulnerable to the extreme left and too dependent on the unions”. He handily filled the role of Liberal spokesman on the forces but since 1974 he has been out of Parliament. He is not, as they say, sadly missed.
Roy Jenkins was rather cleverer; he had, after all, prepared himself for his part in the revolution by getting a First at Balliol, where everyone is said to be imbued with “effortless superiority”. Jenkins seemed to agree with this; he joined a couple of the best clubs in London and was in the habit of offering his opinions as if they were a glass of the finest sherry. During his time he was Home Secretary (a very “liberal” one, of course) and Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he would fill the television screens with doleful rebukes to the workers who, although they could not run to membership of expensive clubs, were living so riotously on the council estates that they were selfishly delaying the achievement of the New Britain. Jenkins left Parliament in February 1977 for the job of president of the European Commission. Some thought he had got out while the going was good; others that he was signalling his abandonment of all ambition to become Prime Minister. There were gasps at the high wage he was getting for his new job and any envy among his former colleagues was not mollified when his seat at Stechford was lost in a by election on a 17.6 per cent swing to the Tories.
Another by election defeat — with a swing of 22.5 per cent — was at Walsall North
but in this case the ex-member had left Parliament for the less well paid job of sewing mail bags. John Stonehouse
was one of Labour’s rising stars until the pressure of his job and of organising a number of complex financial frauds brought a mental breakdown and a warrant for his arrest. For a long time, while awaiting trial, he refused to resign his seat. The embarrassment this caused the Labour Party was not eased when, in April 1976, he joined the other misfits in the English National Party, whose members like to dress up as Beefeaters. Stonehouse, who might justifiably complain that he is one of the few crooks in Parliament to have been caught, got seven years, which effectively removed his seat .from under him.
In the case of George Brown
events followed a different sequence; he lost his seat before he left the Labour Party. Although he was one of Wilson’s deadliest enemies, Brown held some important jobs in the government — Minister for Economic Affairs (in which he promised to plan British capitalism into a new shape) and Foreign Secretary (where he was inclined to enjoy himself too much at official functions). He was also rather touchy, given to resigning whenever he thought his contribution to the New Britain was being undervalued. Wilson affected an air of weary patience with all this: ” . . . sooner or later”, he wrote in his memoirs, “one of George’s late night resignations would stick”.
The one which did stick, in March 1968, was provoked by, wrote Brown, “. . . the way this Government is run and the manner in which we reach our decisions.” At the same time he pledged his future loyalty to the Labour Party but in the subsequent general election he lost his seat at Belper, was kicked upstairs to the House of Lords and, apparently forgetting that he had climbed to power through the trade unions, resigned from the Labour Party in March 1976 over their policy on a part of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill.
Up to the present Brown has not actually joined the Conservative Party but it is not his opinions which prevent this. In an article “If Winston Could See Britain Now” (Sunday Express
3/12/78) he bemoaned the decline of British capitalism, blaming this partly on the power of a minority in the unions “to obstruct and destruct (sic) our essential industries and services” and what he called this “ignoble period in British ‘Foreign Policy”. These sour ramblings, which might have been written by a member of the Monday Club
, came from a man once thought of as a future Labour Prime Minister.
Considered by some to be cast in the same mould as George Brown — and by Marcia Williams
to be “a latter day Nye Bevan” — was Ray Gunter
. Whether these assessments were intended to help Gunter’s career is a matter for speculation. Gunter always looked as if the frustrations of getting the workers to man the barricades was about to bring on an apoplectic fit; he growled or bellowed rather than spoke and his dumpy, restless frame exuded irascibility. When Wilson made him Minister of Labour he snarled at the reporters outside Number Ten that he had been given “the bed of nails”. Soon after Wilson took the job away, demoting him several places to Minister of Power, Gunter resigned, writing huffily “I have to inform you that I no longer desire to be a member of your government”.
He then sulked on the back benches until, in February 1972, he left the Labour Party over membership of the common Market, with a parting shot at Labour’s “middle class intellectuals” (whoever they are) who seemed by then to be infesting his nightmares. A couple of months later he relieved his constituents in Southwark of the unusual experience of having an Independent MP.
A worse record for desertion was that of 1964-70. The personalities of politicians — whether they are clever or stupid, honest of corrupt — are of little account. Capitalism deals with them all in the same way. But the first government of Wilson’s came in on such high promises that their exposure had to be that much crueller. Who can doubt that had they succeeded, even by their own standards, there would not have been such a bitter, disillusioned procession to leave?
Nobody should conclude from this that the answer is another sort of government, composed of more stable personalities. No government has ever “succeeded”; Wilson’s ministers, for example, were grappling with problems basically the same as those which broke Macdonald’s men in the thirties. For capitalism does not discriminate in what or who it destroys; its history is studded with politicians who became discredited in their efforts to deceive the rest of us that this is a benign, caring, humane society.