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2 April 2001

In those days, it really was tough

A foot-and-mouth crisis, a terrible train crash, rising petrol prices. In 1967, Harold Wilson had to

By Ian Aitken

There are certain things besides going to the loo that a prime minister has to do by himself, and the biggest of these is deciding when to call an election. There is never a shortage of colleagues eager to offer advice. They queue at the door, each with a bundle of cogent reasons why it should be now, or next month, or six months hence. But everyone knows that none of these soothsayers will be blamed if they are wrong. It is the man at the top who carries the can.

So it would be surprising if Tony Blair weren’t finding it burdensome to make up his mind. The poor fellow is desperately trying to balance the conflicting effects of the foot-and-mouth disaster and the menace of a possible Wall Street crash if he waits too long. It is a dilemma that would make a normal person wonder why he ever sought the job in the first place.

Should such thoughts be troubling Blair – and he is probably closer to being a normal person than most of his postwar predecessors – then I recommend him to look up the record of the last year in which foot-and-mouth ravaged the British countryside. The year in question was 1967, and the disease, though almost as widespread as now, was well down the list of the then prime minister’s worries.

True, 1967 wasn’t an election year. Indeed, Harold Wilson had won a resounding victory the previous year, and had settled down to carry out Labour’s programme without having to bother too much about parliamentary majorities. It was a welcome change from 1964, when an expected triumph over Alec Douglas-Home (the man who needed a box of matches to follow economics) turned at the last moment into a majority of just three.

Wilson emerged from his second election – fought against a newcomer, one Edward Heath – with a majority of almost 100. As he stepped back into Downing Street, he felt able to declare: “Now we have a mandate to act.” It all looked good, with output and exports rising.

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Yet within months, Wilson wasn’t acting so much as reacting to a series of unforeseen crises. At their heart was the state of the pound. Unlike Blair’s problem, which is an overvalued pound, Wilson’s pound was chronically weak. By the summer of 1966, there was a worldwide run on sterling, brought about partly by a seamen’s strike – one that John Prescott helped to lead – which paralysed Britain’s docks. There followed a horrendous package of measures to freeze pay and prices, axe public spending and jack up taxes.

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These measures moved Michael Foot, then still a backbencher, to remark that the government would shortly propose that “we all get out on the streets and tear down the hospitals with our bare hands”. Another backbencher claimed to have a recurring nightmare in which he heard a Commons clerk intoning, “Slaughter of the Firstborn Bill”, with the Speaker asking, “Second reading what day?”, and the clerk replying, “Tomorrow, sir”.

These so-called “July measures” set the tone for the events of 1967, in which Wilson was to come to regret the huge parliamentary majority that had brought a wave of left-wingers and militant trade unionists to Westminster. Such people regarded pay restraint as an outrage against the trade union movement, and they were to stage a series of Commons rebellions against its various manifestations during the year. The year 1967 also witnessed the first resignation from the new cabinet, with Frank Cousins angrily quitting to return to his union, the TGWU.

There were other hazards, too. There was an ongoing confrontation with Ian Smith’s all-white, unilaterally independent Rhodesia, and also the Vietnam war. Wilson was under considerable pressure from Washington to make at least a token commitment of troops, but under equal pressure from his party to denounce the whole enterprise. With the footwork of a political Fred Astaire, Wilson ducked sending troops but kept his mouth shut about the moral issue. It pleased neither the Americans nor his party, and brought about one of the first big back-bench rebellions of 1967.

That was in February, a month that also saw two further backbench revolts, over pay and defence spending. Then, in March, came one of those bizarre happenings that exactly fitted Harold Macmillan’s remark about the looming menace of “events, dear boy, events”. A monster oil tanker called the Torrey Canyon bumped into rocks off the Scilly Isles and spilt vast quantities of crude oil on to the holiday beaches of the south coast. A Napoleonic Wilson personally directed the bombing of the wreck from a clifftop near his little holiday cottage. Everybody laughed.

By April, these events were taking their political toll, with the Tories recapturing control of London for the first time since the 1930s, and later winning a string of by-elections. Then, in May, Wilson announced his intention to renew Britain’s application to join Europe – then, as now, the joker in the political pack. His move was promptly and humiliatingly vetoed by de Gaulle. With June came another Macmillanesque event: Israel’s devastating Six Day War against its Arab neighbours, leading to an Arab oil embargo and the closure of the Suez Canal. Coupled with a civil war in Nigeria, it sent the price of petrol through the roof.

A horrific train crash at Hither Green, in south-east London, in which 49 people died and almost 80 were injured, took place just a week before the sterling crisis – which ended on 19 November with the pound losing 14.5 per cent of its value against the dollar. This proved a psychological disaster for Wilson, leading to the resignation of his chancellor, Jim Callaghan, and confirming Labour’s image as the party of devaluation.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the foot-and-mouth outbreak – the worst since 1923 – remained a secondary issue. Although it raged through Northumberland and the Midlands for most of the year, and led to the slaughter of nearly half a million animals, it scarcely gets a mention in the ministerial diaries and memoirs of the period. Fred Peart, the agriculture minister, made regular statements to the Commons, but his colleagues mostly left him to get on with it. He bore the title of “Foot-and-Mouth Fred” until his dying day.

Oddly, 1967 had begun with Time magazine declaring shabby old London to be the world’s most swinging city, mainly on account of a tatty “fashion” market called Carnaby Street. Twelve months later, Wilson must have felt that it was he who was doing the swinging. His instinctive belief in conspiracy theory had become an obsession, and he saw anti-Wilson plots everywhere. The annual “July Plot” became part of the political calendar.

So my advice to the Prime Minister is this: cheer up, it could be worse. It isn’t like 1967. Yet.