Ahead of the October 1964 general election, the New Statesman’s then editor John Freeman urged readers to oust the Conservatives and vote for the Labour Party. His reasoning was simple: “Britain urgently needs a new government, and the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson and George Brown, is fit to provide it.” Since 1951, the Tory government had failed to strengthen the UK’s economy, “squandering” the “windfall of affluence which has enriched virtually every industrial country” on “inessentials”. What’s more, British industry was “ramshackle and riddled with nepotism”. And worse, those who had made fortunes from this mess were the ones who deserved it the least. The “desperate” Conservative election campaign exemplified it: the Tories, Freeman argued, were not fit to remain in office.
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The New Statesman is not a party journal, and we owe no allegiance to the Labour Party. We have often disagreed with it in the past, and no doubt we shall in the future. Nevertheless we have uncompromisingly supported it these last few months – and asked our readers to accept a great deal of domestic politics in our columns. The reason is simple: Britain urgently needs a new government, and the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson and George Brown, is fit to provide it.
If there were no ideological differences at all between the parties, there would still be an overwhelming case for removing the present government. It is tired, demoralised, ill-led and accident-prone. When governments reach the stage where everything goes wrong, it usually means that ministers have run out of energy and ideas. So it is with the Tories – and it is the intuitive understanding of this which will lead hundreds of thousands of non-socialists to vote Labour this week.
But, of course, there is an ideological difference as well, and the effect of Labour votes will be far more constructive than merely to kick out a tired, discredited government and replace it by men who are fresh and full of new ideas. British politics are essentially about priorities. And Britain requires today a change of priorities as much as it does a change of leaders.
The Tory government since 1951 has failed on two central counts: given the windfall of affluence which has enriched virtually every industrial country over the last decade, it has failed to recreate the foundations of our economic strength. The windfall has been squandered on inessentials. Thus, although it is perfectly true that most of our people are better off than they were 10 years ago, they have done less well than they should have done, less well than they deserved to, less well than most other industrial peoples.
Moreover we are now entering a period when the struggle to maintain the affluence we have is bound to intensify. There are disturbing signs that the terms of trade may be turning against the developed world. If this trend is confirmed, the need for overseas markets, on which the British consumer ultimately depends, will become even greater and the competition keener. But our economy today is purposeless, too much of our industry ramshackle and riddled with nepotism; our share of world export markets has already declined, our production is nearly static, our overall productivity has actually been falling, and in almost every respect we are less competitive in the world than we were 13 years ago. It was in relation to Mr Butler’s pre-election boom of 1955 that Harold Wilson warned the nation that the seed-corn was in danger of being consumed. Those words have a prophetic ring today, as Mr Maudling borrows from the foreign bankers to stave off the visible signs of our economic crisis till after this weekend.
Secondly, in addition to squandering the portion of our gains which should have ensured a solid, competitive future, the government has bestowed the rewards of affluence with cynical disregard for need or justice: the greatest prizes have gone to those who have contributed least; the greatest burden has been borne by the weekly wage-earner and the salary-earning, tax-paying professional; the greatest – and least necessary – hardship has been reserved (as Dr Abel-Smith pointed out in this journal last week) for those whose need has been the greatest – the sick, the poor and the lonely.
It is no accident that the three names which spring most rapidly to mind as symbols of the social history of the Sixties are Rachman, Keeler and Bloom – the slum landlord, the well-connected trollop and the fast-talking salesman. They are the flotsam of an ailing society. This has in truth been a squalid government, as well as a heartless and incompetent one. To live by the doctrine of I’m-alright-Jack means more than neglecting the future and despising the weak; it publicly denies the private goodness of individuals and the pride in membership of a community which in a healthy society should be the greatest reward of citizenship.
What Britain now needs is a new deal which will assert a whole new series of priorities; and that has been the theme of Mr Wilson’s election campaign. It is not by divine law that the gamblers, the property racketeers and the clipjoint sharks have pillaged the cream of affluence; it is the direct result of Tory priorities. A new government which asserted top priority for the schools and homes of our people and for the machines which make our wealth, which released the flood of talent and energy, now dammed up by the barriers of class and privilege, could do more than make Britain once again a competitive nation. It could make us a healthy society, in which individual citizens would see in their government an affirmation of the same values decent people accept in their personal lives: The divorce between public and private standards is perhaps the greatest abuse this government has committed on the people of Britain.
The desperation of the Tory election campaign – especially these last few days when they have gazed on the spectre of defeat – illustrates these points better than any argument. Personal attacks on the Labour leaders, scares about the bomb, the pound, the unions, nationalisation – all irrelevant to the real problem Britain faces, all totally devoid of new ideas, all the last-ditch thrashing of men who will face any scorn or humiliation except that of being successfully challenged by the people for the power they claim for themselves by right of birth.
I have no illusions about the magnitude of the task which awaits a Labour government. I do not agree with every detail of its policy. But this is not the time for haggling over details. The choice is the greatest which has confronted Britain since 1945. Are we to refuse the challenge of the future and settle for the old, complacent ways? They will lead to a gradual rundown of our natural resources and a widening of the social divisions between our people. Or can we find a new release for our energies in an all-out effort to meet the challenge of tomorrow? To meet that challenge, we need new ideas, a new set of priorities and new men. This week we can get them if we will.