Tony Benn: A Political Journey
Tony Benn died four years ago last Wednesday, March 14. In March and June 1982, members of the New Left Review editorial board conducted a series of interviews with Benn, "designed," the editors write, "to furnish a synoptic, critical survey of Benn's political thought" — collected as Parliament, People, and Power: Agenda for a Free Society.
In the excerpt below, the first of four extended interviews included in the book, Benn reviews his career in Parliament.
How would you describe your general political outlook in the period from 1950, when you entered parliament, to the eve of the 1964 general election?
To understand that you have to go back further. I was brought up in the household of a Labour MP, and therefore the thirties, when I was between five and fifteen, were one long family discussion of politics — issues like Spain and Abyssinia, the Japanese invasion of China, the rise of Hitler and so on. Besides, my father came from an old radical dissenting tradition and my mother was, and is, a student of theology, and this made the discussion of ideas and religion and politics very close. Then I went to university, and from there into the RAF. I had joined the Labour Party on the birthday when I became eligible, and I came back at the end of the war with my views deepened by — I suppose — the influences that made returning servicemen vote Labour, and strongly supported the new Labour government. During the war I had been interested in Common Wealth because I was opposed to the electoral truce, but of course I never joined that party (though I corresponded as a student with Richard Acland who was then involved in it). After leaving the services, I returned to university, eventually arriving at the House of Commons in 1950, just less than a year before the post-war Labour government was defeated.
It looked at that time as though the economic problems that had brought such a huge Labour majority were to some extent proving to be soluble. There were shortages and other difficulties, but I think a lot of people felt, and even at that stage I would have begun to feel, that the more radical socialist measures we had been discussing earlier might not have been so necessary. I did not concern myself with economic or industrial matters at the beginning. In those early years I was probably a pretty ordinary, run-of-the-mill Labour MP concerned with civil liberties, with the colonial freedom movement (I was very interested in that), with libertarian issues generally, and with the media — I worked with the BBC and one of my first speeches, in 1951 I think, was on the future role of the BBC. I served for ten years in the House of Commons before the peerage issue led to my exclusion. In that period I was made a front-bench defence spokesman; and in 1959 I was appointed shadow minister of transport. I got involved in industrial policy for the first time in that capacity. I would have regarded myself as radical then, but I did not join the Bevan group — though I was invited to do so — because I felt that a left that isolated itself from the mainstream of the party would weaken its own influence.
The Fifties Debates: Bevan and Gaitskell
But you seem to have developed quite early on a set of interests that were not at all particularly run-of-the-mill in the Labour Party at the time, focusing very much on the institutions of the British state. Your concern with the reform of parliament, with the civil service, seems to have been quite untypical of either the right or the left of the party. At the same time, the years immediately after you entered parliament were ones of extraordinary intense and acrimonious debate between right and left on economic issues, culminating at the end of the decade in the attempt to liquidate Clause Four. Did you really feel this was an irrelevant debate? After all, it was actually more alive after 1951, because the issues had exploded into the movement itself.
The two points are related. The issues that most concerned me then, and still concern me — democratic institutions versus the power of the secret police, the civil service, the military, and so on — have now become much more controversial, and indeed central, in the argument in the Labour Party. But at that time they were seen as marginal, and to that extent I was regarded as being out of the main stream. I was not really involved in the argument about Bevan's critique of Gaitskell's budget and the reintroduction of the Health Service charges and the rest. I had a radical instinct in support of what Bevan was saying, and, as I mentioned, was invited to join his group. But I did not engage in those central arguments. Even when it came to nuclear disarmament — a similarly divisive issue — my entry into it was on the grounds of public accountability rather than the straight question of unilateralism.
One very clear strand in your politics at the time was a passionate identification with the cause of colonial freedom; you were very militantly engaged over Suez, for instance. Now, for many who became involved at this point, Suez led very quickly and directly to CND; the two things were seen as being interlinked. It is clear that you already felt strongly about the dangers of nuclear weapons, yet it seems that on the whole you leant to Bevan's 1957 position in support of keeping the British bomb for purposes of international negotiation. You didn't actually join CND in 1958 though you resigned as spokesman for air over the policy of massive nuclear retaliation — and in 1959, and again at the Scarborough conference of 1960, you essentially supported Gaitskell's platform, while deploring the divisive way in which it was implemented and resigning from the national executive. Could you give us the background to your thinking at that time?
I was very deeply engaged over Suez. When Gaitskell made his speech on 2 August 1956 supporting Eden's position, I went with a delegation to see him and we brought him back, I thought, from the brink. I wrote with other MPs to Ben Gurion about the Israeli role and got a very bitter letter back; and I wrote to Pravda with others about the invasion of Hungary. That concurrence of issues involved me very actively — I spoke in Trafalgar Square, and so on. As for the nuclear issues, my first involvement in that was when I tried to put down a question about nuclear weapons, having discovered that the Labour government had built the atomic bomb without telling parliament. I was sternly rebuked by Attlee, which at the time was quite frightening, I being a new member and he a former prime minister and the party leader. Gaitskell put me on the front bench in 1956 — my first appointment — as a second defence, air, spokesman; I resigned a year later because I was not prepared to support the first use of nuclear weapons by Britain. Prior to that, I had been involved in setting up the Hydrogen Bomb National Committee. This was not specifically unilateralist; it was an attempt to see nuclear weapons as a problem of foreign policy. The campaign did not go very well; it culminated in the presentation of a petition at 10 Downing Street in December 1954. It later led to CND, however, and at that time I felt that British renunciation of nuclear weapons would not of itself contribute to the solution of the problem. This was quite different from Bevan's view, which I never shared, that we needed nuclear weapons to negotiate.
At the 1960 conference, when the clash between Gaitskell and Frank Cousins really developed, I felt — as I felt even more strongly over the Clause Four issue later — that the right was simply using nuclear weapons to cleanse the party of its left. I went to see both Gaitskell and Cousins to try to bring about a reconciliation. It was perhaps a foolhardy thing for a young MP to do. Gaitskell was so violent in his condemnation of Frank Cousins — using the sort of language he used in his Stalybridge speech, talking about “fellow travellers, nonentities, cranks. ...." He absolutely rejected my efforts. Then I went to see Cousins, who thought I had come as a representative of Gaitskell, and I had a similarly rough time from him! I concluded that the nuclear issue was being used as an excuse for a split on the part of the right, and that was when I broke with Gaitskell. I voted for Wilson in the subsequent leadership elections, but I lost my commons seat almost immediately afterwards, when my father died, and when I came back in 1963 Wilson was already leader of the party. So my interpretation of my position would be that — clearly — I was slow to see unilateralism as contributing to the anti-nuclear case worldwide, but not slow to see the importance of parliamentary control over nuclear weapons, and the relationship of this to foreign policy. I did not argue for unilateralism until the cabinet discussed nuclear weapons in 1974.
How did you see Gaitskell? Your perception must have changed over the years...
First of all, I think my view of him was shaped by my having been elected at the end of the 1945 Labour government and seeing it break up before my very eyes. I was present at one parliamentary party meeting in 1951, when Bevan and Morrison clashed openly. It was like being present at an earthquake. I was sorry that Bevan resigned in 1951, in part because of the effect on the general election prospects — and we were defeated in October 1951. At that time I would have been hoping that he could have carried on.
My assessment of Gaitskell was based partly on the fact that he had certain radical instincts. He was quite good on Africa, for example, and on racial matters — on the immigration legislation — certainly better than some other right-wing leaders we've had. He had, as we now know, a very strong instinctive opposition to the Common Market, which led him once to describe Roy Jenkins to me as an extremist, meaning somebody who was pro-Common Market! These were some of the qualities about Gaitskell that I found agreeable. I worked with him very closely on all his party broadcasts. At the time of Suez he made a party political broadcast as leader, and I spent the whole day helping him to draft his statement, in which he said that Labour would support another Tory leader if they'd stop the war. This pledge caused a tremendous sensation at the time. The moment of my break with Gaitskell came over nuclear weapons and over his determination to change Clause Four in 1960. Although he had accepted my help, I was never really trusted because I kept raising difficult questions which he regarded as either irrelevant or somehow too radical. Gaitskell was someone who thought you were either with him or against him: he could never see shades of opinion. That is the way I saw him in the end.
Renouncing the Peerage
Between 1960 and 1963 you fought what was obviously a very formative struggle to renounce your peerage, standing for your Bristol constituency in defiance of what was then the constitutional status quo. This seems to be one of the very few instances, if the record is right, where on a basic issue of democratic rights the whole of the Labour party did more or less stand behind you.
That's not quite right. I'm not making any complaint, but in fact some Labour MPs thought, “This is irrelevant, it's not a trade-union issue. Here is a privileged young man, who has been in parliament for ten years. His father took a peerage — all right, he was Labour but he took a peerage — and now this young man loses his seat in the House and wants us to save him." There was not much sympathy in the party for Hailsham ten years earlier when he inherited a peerage — I think rightly not, because Hailsham wanted to remain a peer and be in the Commons, and Attlee would not have it. Had there been a Labour government in 1960 when my father died, I would not have been helped at all; of that I am absolutely certain. But there was also a lot of support from the grassroots of the party, a lot of public support, and there were some members of the parliamentary party who were immensely helpful. Charlie Pannell, for instance: he was a right-wing AUEW MP, but he took up the case as an issue of personal liberty. Gaitskell was quite helpful too. Considering I had just voted against him in the 1960 leadership election, it was very good of him to reappoint me to the front bench and retain me as shadow transport minister when I was actually not in the House of Commons. He kept me as spokesman until the end of 1960, when it became absolutely obvious that he had to find a replacement, and he gave me strong support in the House. George Brown, by contrast, was very hostile, although he came down to Bristol to speak in the by-election.
The case had a strange effect: it produced a lot of public support; it divided radicals from, if you like, the non-radical element of the parliamentary party, and I can't blame them for not regarding it as central. It also drew support from outside the Labour Party — Churchill, Edward Boyle, Jo Grimond, and so on — and that worried some Labour people. But Nye Bevan did sign the instrument of renunciation, which was one of the propaganda devices. Bevan, Grimond, Julian Amery, all signed it: quite an interesting sheet of paper! The Labour Party stuck by me, but at the end, when I was defeated, I was summoned to see Ray Gunter, who was then the chairman of the organization committee of the party. He told me that in no circumstances whatever, if the man who had beaten me, Malcolm St. Clair, resigned, would the party support me in a second election. And Gaitskell suggested that my wife, Caroline, stand as a candidate — a ludicrous idea that incensed both me and her. It was a typical British device, you know, "You've made your point, now quieten down" — which is the way the left had been diverted century after century. In the end, of course, the victory went rather sour and became a farce, because Home took advantage of it, as did Hailsham, the 1963 Tory leadership crisis. But at the time it was a genuine radical struggle that attracted the support of a lot of very good people, though by no means all the PLP.
You say "a farce," but the irony is that you were directly responsible for Lord Home's becoming prime minister.
That's what the Tories said in order to laugh off what had been a very serious defeat for the Establishment. In 1950 you could not get into the House of Lords unless you were a man and unless you had been created a hereditary peer or had inherited a title, and you could not leave in any circumstances. After the 1958 Life Peerages Act — which was partly enacted to avoid the problems I had raised — and the Peerage Act which allowed renunciation, the law was transformed. Now people enter the Lords by appointment for life or may resign on inheritance; and women can sit in it. Moreover, the creation of hereditary peers has effectively ended.
On the other hand, the House of Lords is now a very much more dangerous organization, because it has been made respectable by these reforms in its composition. At the time the struggle was bitter, and when I re-read the speeches made in opposition to this modest change I am reminded that only twenty-five years ago there really was an absolutely feudal attitude to the parliamentary system. The Judges and the Election Court threw me out of the Commons on the basis of a single ruling by Mr Justice Dodderidge in 1626, which held that a peerage was an "incorporeal hereditament affixed to the blood and annexed to the posterity." On the basis of that phrase my constituents were denied their elected MP. It was an amazing battle, lasting ten years, from 1953 to 1963.
Wasn't Butler at the time especially intransigent?
His handling of the issue destroyed his liberal image. Butler found the whole episode acutely embarassing, but the government would not budge and Butler was the man who had to get up in the Commons and say: "Not only will we throw Mr Benn out, we will not even give him a hearing first." This did considerable damage to his reputation. In the end, as the Tories always do when the game is not worth the candle, they gave way on the minor thing in order to preserve their real interest — in this case the House of Lords itself.
Labour in Government 1964 - 70
Let's turn now to the Wilson administration, which was your own first direct experience of government. You made a speech in 1972 in which you said, speaking of the administration as a whole: "History will be much more generous about our achievements than are our critics." After the six years of government, what were your immediate reflections on the experience; and how would you judge the record of those years today?
I would divide them into different periods. I returned to the House in October 1963, and in the year leading up to the election I really did believe that we had found a very much better leader in Wilson. He had identified the scientific theme, which was important. He wasn't saying that science would produce miracles; rather that if you hadn't ever had socialism before, the scientific revolution would make socialist planning necessary. When he talked about "the white heat of the technological revolution," he was really talking about the effect of this on human beings. With massive investment in new technology, people would be sacked. That was the white — a sort of furnace which was going to recast the whole of our economic and industrial system. In justice to him, at the time he did inspire the Labour Party. He had a broadly internationalist outlook and he had talked a lot about the importance of the United Nations, which attracted many people of my generation. As for myself, for the first eighteen months of government I was busy in the Post Office, which was, and still is, the fastest-growing technology-oriented industry in the country. I found that very interesting, especially the close links established with the trade unions. I established, a publicly-owned bank, which had long been an aspiration of the Union of Post Office Workers and others, set up the national data processing service, turned the Post Office into a public corporation, and tried to develop a more pluralistic broadcasting system. I was not in the cabinet, and hence out of the main stream, but I had no general criticism of government policy at that time.
That was 1964–66. Then came 1966-68, when I was given what I would now call an "SDP brief" in the ministry of technology. The terms of the brief had already been set by the victory of 1966, and the U-turn that took place after the seamen's strike, on the eve of the July deflationary measures. My brief from Wilson was to try to improve industrial performance by micro-economic measures such as mergers, as with the Geddes Report on ship-building. For the next two years (apart from being involved now for the first time in central economic issues — in July 1966 I voted with a minority for devaluation against deflation), I was involved in trying, as best as I could, to pursue the sort of policies that were later applied by Heath and then Varley — dirigiste policies now espoused by the SDP. That was a very active period. But it was then that my political position began to change, because the more I saw of this process, the more I became convinced (a) that it would not work, (b) that it was corporatist, and (c) that it was anti-trade union and undemocratic. So, beginning in January 1968 and continuing through the year, I made a series of political speeches about the future of socialism. I led a dual life from 1968 to 1970: continuing in the ministry of technology as, I hoped, an efficient and hardworking minister, and at the weekends publicly warning the party that if we went along this route we were going to get into difficulties.
That's when my conflict with Wilson began. He had been very displeased that I voted for devaluation in 1966. But the real conflicts, which became very intense, occurred between 1968 and 1970. I used to get warnings from him: I was not to make speeches, all my speeches were to be vetted by Judith Hart, who was then the minister responsible for information, and so on. Then in 1970, after our defeat, I wrote a pamphlet, The New Politics – a Socialist Reconnaissance, in which I tried to put the experience and lessons of office together.
When I said in 1972 that history would be more generous to the 1964–70 Labour government, it was because I was anxious not to repudiate entirely the record of the government of which I had been a member. I would say the same, in certain circumstances, about the 1974–79 Labour government. I think history will be more generous than some critics were. Those governments did some useful things better than their predecessors or successors. But I did not want to give the impression that for the trade unions to come back into partnership with the Labour Party on a new basis it was necessary for them to repudiate the entire experience of Labour in office, though I also made clear that the next Labour government would have to be different.
Were you saying to the TUC: the defeat in 1970 was the responsibility not just of the Labour government but also of the unions, who had failed to educate their membership and to play a much more forward cultural and political role?
I was saying that they gave the impression of being concerned exclusively with wages, of being too non-political a movement; that the row between us had gone on for a couple of years now, and really it was time to pull together again. That's the sort of speech it was intended to be.
Deflation, Devaluation, and the Unions
Both within the cabinet and within the leadership of the Labour Party, the famous July 1966 measures created mixed sets of forces in which there was no clear left-right division. Some right-wing — Brown, for instance, and Crosland — argued for devaluation, as you did, while Barbara Castle would probably have supported Wilson. How did you perceive the issue at the time?
The decision to abandon the 1964 national plan in favour of deflation seemed to a lot of us, including myself, to be a return to the old stop-go policy. I can't say I believed then that devaluation would do the trick — though I did argue for it consistently when I was in the inner cabinet and we did decide to devalue, about a year afterwards. But in 1966 it was clear that deflation involved the destruction of the whole planning revival we had introduced with the establishment of the department of economic affairs. I was up at the Durham Miners' Gala with George Brown — it was the night before Wilson flew to Moscow — and Brown said to me: "I am resigning, this is the end, the whole thing is finished." Remember, at that time he was seen as an industrial planning minister whose job was to break the power of the Treasury. There was a lot of sympathy with him just then. The following day he spoke to Wilson — at the airport, I think — and the result was that he stayed in the cabinet, resigning from the DEA and moving to the Foreign Office. What happened was that the subsequent deflation destroyed the possibility of running even an SDP-type industrial policy. Wilson's alternative was to go for secret reflation through micro-measures of industrial investment. That was when we got the Industrial Reorganization Bill through, and the Industrial Expansion Bill. A lot of micro-investment was envisaged, which was intended to avoid the effects of old-style deflation. A year later we went for devaluation, but even that did not really solve the problem: there were cuts upon cuts after the 1967 devaluation, because there was no way we could manipulate ourselves out of the central economic squeeze.
The second such episode, which also had serious, probably decisive, consequences for the Labour government, centred on the scheme for trade-union law reform, In Place of Strife. Again the lines of division were rather confused: Callaghan seems to have been the main opponent of the scheme, while Barbara Castle, on the left, was the main proponent...
That's right. I was not involved in the early discussions about In Place of Strife. The policy implied two things: first, you can't run the system with full employment unless you get trade-union power under control; and secondly, a political strategy that was pure self-deception for a Labour party: that it was possible to rise above politics and so become "the natural party of government." The theory was that having won power on the backs of the trade unions, we could say to the electorate, “We are no longer under the influence of trade unions." This was extraordinary; but for a time I went along with it. There were some people who knew about trade unionism, including Dick Marsh and James Callaghan, on the right, who were very critical of the scheme. The trade unions themselves were divided about it. There were some leaders who were quite happy to see it happen because it would control their rank and file, but would not say so publicly; there were others who were totally committed against it. When we reached an impasse from which there was no possible escape except war with the movement or capitulation, I came out very strongly for dropping it. But I do not come out of that episode very well; my judgement was totally wrong, and I can now see that this was the second stage of revisionism in the party. Gaitskell had wanted to get rid of socialism by dropping Clause Four; Wilson wanted to break our links with the unions. I was slow to understand the danger of what was proposed
So were the line-ups, in your view, essentially ad hoc, or were you conscious of any developing left-right division in this period?
The devaluation issue was really seen as an argument about what one would call economic management: would you or would you not do better by trying to hold the value of the pound, which Wilson as an economic nationalist was very keen to do. I believe that Balogh and Kaldor had actually written a paper on devaluation while the government was busy with the 1966 elections, and that when Wilson heard of it he had every copy burnt. That was the story, and I believe it. Devaluation had become a taboo subject, and of course Callaghan, like every chancellor, felt he had to defend the currency. The cabinet decision not to devalue in July 1966 was seen as "a vote of confidence" in Harold Wilson. I must mention this because it is highly relevant to what I now believe about cabinet government. In every key argument in which I was ever involved, a majority was obtained for the prime minister's own view, which was always presented as a question of a vote of confidence in him personally, and this continued right up to the end of the Callaghan government. Too many votes of confidence destroy the power of cabinets to decide democratically on the merits of a case. I took the view that deflation would involve the destruction of the national plan, and you could argue that it was a a left-right division to that extent but it was more than that. Now, the second issue revealed some very complicated motivations. I believe that one of the reasons why Wilson and Castle were keen on In Place of Strife was to settle old scores with the trade-union leaders who had oppressed the left in the 1950s. Another motive was the desire to rise above politics. And the third factor, which was and still is very clearly identifiable, was this: unless you do concede to labour its rightful position in society, which means socialist reform, you are driven into a position where you are always fighting labour. Once we had closed the socialist option we had to resort to a pay policy, In Place of Strife, and so on. The wage-restraint option led us to defeat in 1970 — as it did Heath in 1974 and Callaghan in 1979. But in their own terms, Castle and Wilson did grasp that something had to be done to deal with the economic problem. Unfortunately their policy made the working class pay for the crisis.
Now, the opposition to In Place of Strife was partly that of right-wingers who had spent their lives in the trade-union movement; they were not prepared to see it crushed by a Labour government in whatever cause; and they believed, quite correctly too, that the movement had a life distinct from the party, for Labour would not always be in office, and there would have to be a trade-union movement in periods of opposition. That was the Callaghan-and-Marsh position, which was strongly reinforced in the House of Commons and of course in the trade-union movement. In retrospect, it was a highly significant episode, which greatly humiliated the prime minister. The defeat of In Place of Strife really established that the labour movement, when it had an absolutely fundamental interest to defend, could not be cajoled and bullied by an elected government, even a Labour government, and that was very important. The defeat also raised the question of whether Wilson could resolve his problem by calling an election. It was made absolutely clear to him that if he went to the Palace and resigned, somebody else would be in a taxi two minutes later, and would point out that our commons majority was so huge that Labour could form a government under a new leader if need be. So the interconnected issues of prime-ministerial power and the role of the Crown in agreeing to a dissolution, could have come to the forefront as well.
Vietnam and Rhodesia
There is a third crux in the record of this government, concerning foreign policy. Of all the shortcomings of the 1964-70 administration, the most lamentable lay here. Above all there was Wilson's refusal to take any distance from the American war in Vietnam, and secondarily, though in some respects even more culpably, there was a complete failure to do anything about Rhodesia, which was actually in the government's own bailwick. These issues must surely have concerned you a lot, given your early and continuing solidarity with anti-colonial struggles. How were such issues handled, and what were your own feelings at the time?
You must remember that for the first two years after 1964 I was still not a member of the cabinet. After that, I was watching what was happening in Vietnam and anxious about it, but I did not contribute very much in cabinet on the question of the British relationship with US policy, and it was not often discussed. On Rhodesia, which was discussed much more often, I did feel incensed, though the main decision — against the use of force — had been taken before I joined the cabinet, after UDI in October 1965. Another decision, which I was unaware of until the Bingham report, on oil supplies to Ian Smith, was published, was that anything we did about Rhodesia should fall short of confrontation with South Africa. But there was only one discussion, after I joined the cabinet, about the use of force against Rhodesia. I certainly felt that in ruling out intervention to secure African rights, the government had actually handed victory on a plate to Ian Smith who indeed retained power until he was forced to give way under the pressure of the liberation struggle.
On the Rhodesian question, I was more active in argument than I was on Vietnam, although I opposed the war. I was also, engaged in one area of foreign policy which occupied a great deal of my time, and which I still feel was greatly worthwhile: and that was developing, under the umbrella of technology, a whole series of agreements with Eastern Europe. I went to the Soviet Union several times, signed agreements with the Russians, with the Hungarians; went to Yugoslavia, talked to the Czechs, and so on. During that period I was deliberately trying to use technological cooperation as a means of easing Cold War pressures. The huge gas pipeline that is now being run into Western Europe from Russia, and which so upsets the Americans, is very much a product of that approach.
Were international questions completely marginal in cabinet discussion, then?
Yes. In all the cabinets I have served in there have always been three wholly unreformed departments: the Treasury, the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Whereas no other cabinet minister can do anything controversial without explicit consent from the cabinet — a paper is put in, there is a debate, the prime minister sums up, and the whole thing is decided — the foreign secretary normally reported orally under one item on the agenda: "Oversea Affairs." The foreign secretary would report every week, but there was no collective control whatever over foreign policy. Similarly, there was no collective control over the budget, which is the central economic judgement of the year. The Home Office operated over large areas of policy — as in security matters — largely by prerogative, so that was never discussed. When you look at cabinet government, you will find that on many crucial questions there is no real discussion. I involved myself very much more directly — this was the 1974–79 Labour government — in the Common Market debate, which, of course involved foreign policy. I put in rival papers to the chancellor on economic policy — these were permitted but not welcomed, and then were not always circulated. Home Office matters, like the Agee and Hosenball case, were never discussed. Now, if you add to that absolutely critical and structural problem of what I would call cabinet as distinct from parliamentary government the tendency to departmentalize ministers, you find that cabinets don't really govern the country. The Irish question, for example, was never properly discussed by the last Labour cabinet at all. There was a Northern Ireland Committee but we never had real discussion about major options on Ireland. I did, at the end of the 1974–79 government, write a minute to the prime minister asking for a cabinet discussion on Ireland. But it was not put on the agenda. Apart from the limited scope for individual ministers, where I see a lot I would have done differently, there are structural defects in cabinet government, which contribute to an acceptance of policies that really ought to have been identified as centrally important and argued out with passion and feeling, as other matters were during that period.
Two questions, then, about the general nature of this administration. One is, if you like, the socialist question; the other might be asked by a socialist or by a capitalist. First, why in your view did the radical promise of the administration fade so quickly and completely after 1965? Second, why did it fail so completely even as a project of capitalist modernization? The latter question touches directly on your own tenure in Mintech. After all, this was the period of great mergers, of state-sponsored industrial concentration, which was designed to rationalize the economy. But the results were minimal.
To look back on that period and comment on it in the light of what we know now is to take unfair advantage of hindsight, I think. I'm not sure that what I am about to say I would have said then, so I've got to be very careful. In 1964 the theme of modernization, of science, of better planning, of a radical Britain, was such an enormous improvement over the Gaitskell years that it was seen by a lot of people as a re-run of 1945. And it was, in its own terms, very radical. Immediately we came in the pressures were put on us, and we were wholly unprepared for them. The "Brown Paper," as it was called, published in November 1964, was the beginning of the attempt to control public expenditure and resist the pressure of the bankers. By the summer of 1966 that attempt had failed. After that we were trying to manage defensively. From 1966 onwards policy was really the product of the narrowing range of options available to a government not prepared to tackle fundamental questions. I don't think I fully understood that at the time. I thought that if you worked hard enough it would come right. Of course it did not come right. And so we not only failed to achieve our Socialist objectives but saw the progressive relative weakening of the British economy and industrial base which made us more vulnerable than any other industrialized country when the 1973 oil price increases came along and triggered off the events that led to the present depression. But if I had been asked to make a critique of the experience, even as late as 1970 my emphasis would have been on the undemocratic nature of government decision-making, and on the failure to do what might have been done, not on the fundamental weakness of the policy. That understanding was just beginning.
You seem to see a wholesale regression of the Wilson government after 1966. But wasn't the foundation of the Open University a sign that at least some democratic and progressive potential remained?
Yes, and that's one reason why I said what I did in 1972. The Open University, which Wilson was extremely keen on, was a very positive achievement; it has had, I think, a profound effect on our educational capabilities. But without wanting to write off the whole experience, I'd come back to my point about democracy. I was thrown out of Wilson's kitchen cabinet, of which I had been a member since 1963, after a conflict with him over this question in 1968. He said, in a nutshell, that as he saw it, "people want to go on playing cricket and let me run the country." He really wanted a sort of socialist doctor's mandate. Perhaps because of his civil service background, or his liberal background, or whatever, Wilson was particularly hostile to all the democratic ideas I was airing. He sent me a warning message in 1968, after my speech on broadcasting, in which I had argued for public accountability in, and public access to, the media. 1971 brought a complete break with him. I continued to work with him over a period after that, but the break had occurred, and it culminated, of course, in my dismissal from the department of industry in 1975.
This brings us back to the evolution of your own thinking in office. You've periodized both the course of the government and the shifts in your political outlook very clearly. But the public record appears in some respects discrepant with your interpretation. As late as 1967, for example, you made speeches lauding the mixed economy. You said: "In Britain we are working a mixed system, within which the frontiers of public and private enterprise will change and will be the subject of argument." And then: "Very few people will want to see this system fundamentally changed in one direction or the other."
That was an accurate representation of the policy of the government of which I was a member. Within a year you will find speeches about the democratic themes which run absolutely counter to that. The dichotomy between the week-day minister and the socialist who's trying to think it out in weekend speeches later became very acute, a sort of crisis within my own mind. It was during this period that my socialism was emerging from experience. It wasn't clearly formulated did not have the class basis it later acquired, did not have the theoretical superstructure or historical sense that were needed to make it effective. I was locked into a heavy programme of daily business that made it very hard to do more than air my developing ideas to myself and to others. It was after the 1970 defeat that the outcome of that inner conflict began to take shape for me, in a clearer socialist perception.
In your Llandudno speech, made in May 1968 as it happens, you were saying that a cross on a ballot paper every five years is completely insufficient as a definition of democracy. It was a very radical speech.
Yes, but it was not until the 1970–74 period, when I was a shadow minister, that I was free to allow the weekend-speech analysis to come into the policy-making.
In Opposition 1970–74
Your public political postures seemed to radicalize quite rapidly in the period of opposition. In the light of what you've described could you say whether this radicalization was also in part a response to the UCS work-in, the Pentonville Five, and the industrial struggles of that period? Did you feel basically at one with the flow of party opinion, or not?
A number of factors were at work. First of all, there had been this feeling of disappointment in the government, which had been held in control by the need for loyalty. I would not call it “collective cabinet responsibility," it was loyalty to a government and the desire not to open the way for the Tories. The second point, of course, was that events began to take hold in a very powerful way. There was the collapse of Rolls Royce, then UCS. In the course of all this a great deal came out that confirmed my own experience, and therefore I felt familiar with what was happening and was trying to develop the positive elements in the situation. The third thing was that in a shadow cabinet where you are elected, not appointed, your relationship with your colleagues changes. In the cabinet proper everyone is looking at the boss who can hire and fire them, but in the shadow cabinet everyone is elected and has his or her own PLP constituency. Therefore my conflicts with Wilson intensified. He was angry about my support for the UCS and various other things that I did, and absolutely furious about my support for the Pentonville Five, but there was nothing much he could do about it. So growing support in the labour movement allowed me to try to put into practice the ideas I had been developing in government. I suppose the movement as a whole had that pent-up feeling too. It had been equally contained by loyalty when Labour was in power, and there was probably a general sense of release corresponding to my own. Not all members of the PLP were pleased by what I was doing, particularly in relation to the EEC referendum initiative, and support for direct action.
Two rather contradictory themes appeared in your speeches in this period. On one occasion, at the end of the Wilson government, you claimed that by and large it would be a great mistake to think that Labour cabinets were not closely in touch with the feeling of the party's rank and file. Yet in your Fabian Lecture of 1971, you singled out, very clearly and self-critically, at least five major areas where you said the movement had been right and the Labour government wrong. Vietnam, In Place of Strife, East of Suez, prescription charges, and devaluation — a pretty comprehensive list. Were you already trying to work towards an alternative politics for the next Labour government?
But both themes were valid. The important aspect of the lecture was that it began to identify party democracy as a crucial issue. I didn't come up with a solution, but at least I was identifying a key question. When I look back on it now, that speech was very modest. It came in the middle of the deputy leadership election, in which I was a candidate, running against Jenkins. The constituency for the deputy leadership then was the PLP, and a lot of the speech was about the way the PLP was structured and on its relationship to the rank and file.
One very concrete outcome of the line of argument you started to develop in 1968 was your initiative for a referendum on the EEC. How was that received?
Initially there was no support whatever. I found myself in a minority of one both in the shadow cabinet and on the national executive. The proposal became bitterly controversial within the PLP, though the movement outside accepted it quickly.
So even the left in the NEC did not initially welcome the idea at all?
No, they did not.
Was all the opposition on the conventional grounds that this has got nothing to do with the way we British understand the sovereignty of parliament?
Jenkins, for example, compared the idea with plebiscites and authoritarian government, and claimed it was divisive. But when I first raised it in the shadow cabinet in November 1970 Jim Callaghan said at the close of the discussion — no doubt it was these qualities that led him to the premiership — "Well, at least we must thank Tony for launching a little rubber dinghy into which one day we may all wish to clamber."
It was rather like the peerage case, which had begun as a great radical battle and ended up as something convenient for the establishment. The referendum began as, and was intended to be, a radical initiative, and ended up as a little rubber dinghy into which the Labour cabinet did indeed clamber. (It was the shadow cabinet's final acceptance of the idea that precipitated Jenkins's resignation.) The dinghy then scuppered itself, of course, when the Labour cabinet came out by a majority in favour of renegotiated terms. This initiative represented my break with what I would call the inner-parliamentary, the parliamentarian view of politics — a break that had actually begun with the peerage episode, when I discovered that there was a thing called parliamentarianism that had nothing whatever to do with democracy. Parliamentarianism is the disease that has infected the Labour Party. It is not parliamentary democracy in a proper sense, but the idea that when you have elected MPs they join a little club of people who know better than everyone else. That's why those five examples in the 1971 lecture incensed the PLP: they revealed a widely held view that wisdom was not disclosed solely to the cabinet, indeed quite the opposite. The party was usually well ahead of events, and I still believe that most strongly.
Economic Policy and Party Democracy
Two of the most burning issues confronting the labour movement today were first posed in this period. One, as you say, is inner-party democracy. To what extent were you consciously taking up demands that were already being articulated by the activists from below?
The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was actually formed in May 1973, after the Churchill Hotel NEC, at which Wilson vetoed the commitment to nationalize twenty-five companies.
So your initiative preceded that in the party itself?
Only by a little: the Tribune group was working on the issue at about the same time.
The way in which you broached this question is rather curious — and not uncharacteristic. To put it very summarily, you make an extremely radical critique of the existing state of affairs, but then are studiously vague about the remedy. You say, for example, "We should resist the temptation to propose some obvious ways in which the democratic pressures within the Labour party could be considerably reinforced. ..." And again, ".... It would be a great mistake to start this debate by looking for precise solutions to problems of democratic responsibilities that have not yet been properly analysed and considered." What prompted this style of intervention?
At the time this was held to be a radical speech, and I had two thoughts in mind in drafting it. First of all, if I'd come up with specific solutions it would have been easy to shoot them down. You only have to look at the debate over the many variants of electoral college to see what an argument there might have been, and its probable outcome. I was trying to get these very explosive ideas on to the agenda without exposing myself to a whole range of objections to the effect that my proposals were impractical.
The second point was that I was immensely conscious of the fact, and my whole political life since the peerage case has borne this out, that you can never win a battle inside until you've actually stimulated a discussion and mobilized opinion outside. The belief that all change comes from outside entails opening up the argument so that people outside can begin pressing, and then you can assist them from inside. I have done this over a long period — the recent commons bill making nuclear bases illegal is a case in point. It is what I call "smuggling messages out of prison." This procedure may sound strange but it is the way in which the people who are near the top — which I suppose I am — can contribute and act constructively with people outside who know that something is wrong but don't have the confidence to press for reform. It is a view of how the parliamentary process properly works, based on the belief that all change comes from below.
The second urgent question is that of the Alternative Economic Strategy. At the Blackpool Conference in 1973, talking about future economic strategy, you said very clearly that the next Labour government would inherit a tremendous economic crisis, which should be seen as an opportunity not simply to patch up capitalism but to change it. Thus the phrase about an "irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power," which was much noticed in the press at the time. Yet in the same speech you fended off a demand for the nationalization of the 250 largest companies, a demand to which sections of the Labour Party are still attached today. Then, in presenting the new policy to the press, you actually sidestepped the more modest commitment to 25 companies. You did this in a radical way, it's true, saying that if the Heath government had already nationalized 27 companies, why should Labour get fixated on just 25. But do you think now, on looking back, that it was wise to dissociate the general objective, which you posed very clearly and eloquently, from specific actual commitments — in the light of what actually happened afterwards?
Your question in fact refers in several episodes and issues that came up in 1973. One turning point came on the home policy committee that year, when we were trying to formulate a new policy. Just putting public ownership back on the agenda was immensely radical — it still is — and I remember Callaghan saying, in effect, "Oh, we can't do that." I argued that we had to aim for some big objective, for a "fundamental and irreversible shift of wealth and power in favour of working people," and managed to incorporate that general commitment in the 1973 programme — it has remained, and appears in the 1982 programme.
The second issue arose at the Churchill Hotel, Judith Hart's industrial policy working group had come up with the proposal to nationalize 25 companies, and this was carried by a majority of one at the end of the day. Wilson immediately declared that he had a veto. I did not then want, any more than I want now, the arguments to be presented in such a way that the credibility of the programme as a whole came under attack. I said there need be no great emphasis on one number rather than another. Wilson, on the other hand, was determined to kill the specific proposal for nationalization; he spent the whole summer in the attempt and he came to the conference in October 1973 having succeeded.
Now, at the conference itself there were two events. The first was the resolution on 250 companies. That went beyond even what had been agreed in the Churchill Hotel, and I used the argument, which I think had a certain validity, that you should never nationalize anything without the consent of the people who work in the industry. Second, if you were really asking people to take on board a change of that kind without having thought out how you'd do it, you would encourage disappointment. That was the view that I put for ward on behalf of the executive.
As for "the crisis we inherit." That phrase formed in my mind after Roy Jenkins had declared, though not in so many words, that the economic programme was all rubbish, because of course when we came to power there would be a crisis. I said, replying to the debate, that "the crisis we inherit must be the occasion for radical change and not the excuse for postponing it."
Those two phrases have become in a way symbolic of the change that occurred then. I recently attended a conference in Bristol about the Alternative Economic Strategy, and an old trade unionist I have known for years came up to me and said "Surely the AES is what we agreed in 1973. What's the difference?" I replied: "There isn't any difference. It is what we said in 1973, but we never did it." Just as — I believe — we won the 1945 election on the basis of the 1935 manifesto, so in effect the next election will be fought on the manifesto of 1974. But this time we must mean it. I believe there is a kind of ten-year cycle involved in all reforms. The party democracy proposal of 1971 was realized in 1981. If you look at the time-scale of radical change from below, it does take about ten years for the wisdom of the rank and file to filter through and be acted upon by those at the top.
Return to Government 1974 - 79
When was the AES proper first conceived as a definite governmental option?
In January 1975. I submitted to the economic committee of the cabinet a paper drafted by Francis Cripps which we had discussed together with Eric Heffer, Michael Meacher, and Frances Morrell, and in which the options before us were classified as “strategy A" and "strategy B." That paper was the beginning of the AES. Cripps was saying, if you go for strategy A you will end up in a confrontation with the trade-union movement and will be defeated; if you go for strategy B, it will mean the following alternative course. In the IMF discussions eighteen months later this choice became one between the cuts and the full AES; the cabinet stuck to strategy A and paved the way for our defeat in 1979.
It is often said that it was a fatal tactical error on the part of the left inside the party and the government to concentrate so heavily on the EEC issue. The referendum defeat allowed Wilson and the leadership to reconstruct the government very radically, marginalizing you and effectively ditching the radical component of Labour's official programme.
I don't entirely accept that. The EEC was the inevitable focus for the debate as to whether we were to have a planned economy or whether we were to abandon national planning and submerge ourselves in the free movement of capital and goods under the Treaty of Rome. Wilson was unquestionably determined to take us into the Common Market. He appointed a cabinet with an allegedly anti-Common Market majority, but it included people who were not really serious about their opposition. Wilson was very doubtful and pessimistic about the miners: the strike would cost us the election, he would lose a law-and-order contest, and so on. He was very surprised when we won. However, he realised that we would have to call a further election six months or so later, and therefore he couldn't really disturb the balance within the cabinet until he had settled the European question in favour of entry. This meant that there was some tipping of the hat towards the programme of 1973, which some of us thought he did not believe in.
So throughout the summer of 1974 we had long arguments, the most exhausting and bitter disputes I have ever been involved in, over the White Paper on the regeneration of industry. Wilson took the chair himself in the end, because his views were losing out in committee. He announced endlessly that he was in charge. All this culminated in a series of meetings which I hope I never have to live through again. I simply took his speech from the 1973 conference, photocopied it and read it to him across the table. Remember that in 1973, having opposed the 25 companies proposal, he knew perfectly well that he had to make a very radical speech at the conference. And he did. It was the most radical speech I ever heard him give. So, in 1974 I quoted the words he had used. It was a bitter battle, and it resulted in a somewhat diluted White Paper. We had the second, October, election before the EEC renegotiation was over, and we won just marginally. Still Wilson could not make the disposition he wanted, removing me from Industry and changing the industrial policy — he had to keep the show on the road for the referendum.
So: we had an election victory in March on a more radical programme than the prime minister wanted, followed by a partially successful battle to water it down. Then we had the second election, on a weaker manifesto qualified by the White Paper. Wilson had to live through another six months before the renegotiation came back to cabinet in March 1975. But then he completed his hat-trick with a third election — because that's what the referendum was — in which the Labour Party and the labour movement were defeated, while his Labour government remained in power. After that he moved with tremendous speed. The way was then clear for the winding up of the industrial policy, and there was a Chequers meeting in November 1974, which I was forced to attend as a sort of captive and watch the whole thing being reversed.
But I don't believe that if we had focused on that rather than on the EEC question, which had to be resolved anyway, we would have gained any advantage. What is true, however, is that the referendum defeat frightened the trade-union leaders into believing that the government was only hanging on by the skin of its teeth; and the economic crisis following the referendum was in my opinion masterminded to create the atmosphere in which it was possible to get agreement to a pay policy and drop the industrial policy. Thereafter the Social Contract completely evaporated. I don't believe we could have avoided that by saying, well, we'll just stay in Europe and leave it at that. The European question became centrally important in the development of the new industrial policy. The exchange control was weakened and so on, and all this was under Common Market pressure. Once the Treasury had the Common Market on its side, it was easier to dismantle the remains of the policy. It was a sort of mopping up operation. On issue after issue the Treasury or the foreign office would say, “The Commission won't have this," so we dropped it; "The Commission won't have that," so we dropped it. The issues of the EEC and industrial policy were very closely linked, and still are. If you don't break with the Treaty of Rome you are never going to be able to have an alternative economic strategy in Britain.
Did you make any attempt, either alone or with other colleagues on the left of the party, to lobby in the trade-union movement on behalf of the AES? It's often pointed out that Jack Jones and other trade-union leaders argued for guarantees on questions like pensions, but completely abandoned compulsory planning agreements or any sort of state intervention in the economy.
The morning after the referendum Jack Jones made a statement on television saying that the unions would not understand it if I was dismissed. That kind of sentiment evaporated within twenty-four hours, as you would expect. But the thing I found most painful was that there was really no top-level trade-union support for the industrial policy at that crucial moment when it was reversed.
Of course the referendum and industrial policy defeats did not end the battles. I campaigned with other colleagues for the alternative strategy throughout the period from early 1975 to May 1979. Around the time of Wilson's resignation I was actually able, as a candidate for the leadership, to spell out in speeches and interviews a complete alternative strategy and still remain within the cabinet (these speeches were published in a pamphlet called The New Course for Labour).
In the spring of '76, you'll remember, just after Callaghan became prime minister, there was a leak about proposed deferment of the child benefits scheme, which was saved as a result. I was told that a number of ministers including me were going to be interviewed by a chief inspector, in an effort to trace the leak. Since I had no knowledge of this, I declined to see a police officer, so I had a senior civil servant come and see me, and he said, “We have three categories of suspects: those who believe in open government, those who keep diaries, and those who are politically motivated." What are ministers supposed to be if not politicially motivated! Anyway, I said to him, "I am at the top of every list, but I know nothing whatever about the leak" — which I didn't. That incident revealed — among other things — the intensity of the battles that were going on. We lost most of these, but not all. Several months later there was the battle against the July 1976 cuts — the ones intended to fend off the IMF — and then came the attempt, in October 1976, to cut benefits. In the course of this argument I circulated the minutes from the last days of MacDonald's cabinet in 1931 (these were available because of the thirty-year rule) which caused a great deal of anger. Those minutes were very useful, because they revealed that the cabinet of 1931 (of which my father was a member) broke on the issue of benefits. Although we lost on the AES, the proposal to cut benefits was killed. You could say that we were defending, with some success, a social wage against those who were trying to let that go down the chute along with the industrial policy.
From the Social Contract to the Cuts
How did the Social Contract originate, and how much hope did you yourself repose in it to begin with? After all, it did have a genuinely reforming edge to it initially.
It really concerned the relationship between the trade-union movement and the Labour Party. The divide was so deep after 1970 that for nearly two years the trade-union leaders actually would not meet the parliamentary leadership. It was around the time of my speech to the TUC conference, which you quoted earlier, that the TUC-Labour Party Liaison Committee was set up. But the early meetings of the Liaison Committee were frustrated by the fact that there was a school of opinion in the parliamentary committee and the shadow cabinet, of which Jenkins was a leading member and Prentice another, that was not prepared even to concede a commitment to repeal the Industrial Relations Act until they'd got something by way of return, namely an incomes policy. That caused a real tussle, and in the end it was agreed that the next Labour government would immediately and completely repeal the Act. That paved the way for the first statement we issued, on 28 February 1973, exactly a year before the election, a policy paper called "Economic Policy and the Cost of Living." The TUC was not prepared to agree to an incomes policy, beyond saying at the end that, on the basis of the policies canvassed in the statement, an incoming Labour government would discuss with the trade-union movement how to handle the situation. The unions couldn't go further, first of all because they simply were not prepared to, but secondly because the TUC can't offer an opposition more than it offers a government without undermining its position vis-à-vis the administration of the day.
Out of this joint statement came the Social Contract. It was not conceived as relating to pay — I remember drafting in one of the manifestoes the words “the Social Contract is not solely nor even primarily about wages, but about a joint agreement to carry through economic, social and political changes." That Social Contract — the one we needed — died with the virtual imposition of the pay policy in the summer of 1975 when, as I mentioned, the trade-union leaders really feared that without some support for the government, the labour movement's defeat in the referendum would be reproduced in a further election with a Labour Party defeat and the return of a Tory government.
But what was your view of the Social Contract that actually did come in summer 1975?
I was very doubtful about it. During the referendum a very senior civil servant with whom I was discussing the matter somehow indicated to me that as soon as the poll was out of the way they would begin work on the pay policy. By then, the party in my view having been defeated, the right-wing had their own terms for a settlement, and these included a pay policy. There was considerable resistance to this, and a bill to make it statutory was in preparation. I was involved with others (I was by no means the leading figure), in resisting such a measure. Of course throughout the period 1975 – 78, the position of those in the cabinet who were doubtful about, or opposed to, a pay policy was very much weakened by the assent that was forthcoming from the trade unions themselves. This came out at the Tribune meeting during the 1975 Labour conference, when Ian Mikardo made his speech implying that the union leaders had given too much for too little. Jack Jones was so annoyed that he got on the platform to protest. In the autumn of 1978, when the TUC and the Labour Party had rejected the pay policy, I put in a paper to the cabinet — it was the only paper I put in on the subject — saying that we should not stick to the 5% limit. Callaghan refused to circulate it. You see, this was not a battle that a left minister could fight in the cabinet when messages were continually coming in to the effect that there was a degree of consent to the policy, indeed more than a degree of consent, in the unions. The miners actually had pithead ballots on it — and the coal industry was then part of my responsibility. You couldn't outdo the view that was being accepted at that time by the unions themselves.
Comparing the July measures of 1966 with the October cuts a decade later — presumably the battle lines between right and left were much more clearly drawn, notwithstanding the role of someone like Crosland. ...
It's as I described earlier: at critical moments the issue was always presented as a question of confidence in the prime minister. And Callaghan played it extremely cleverly. There were various ways the cabinet could have discussed it. One was to say: "Are we prepared to accept the IMF conditions or not? If not, what shall we do?" But instead the prime minister decided that the first item would be the alternative strategy, so I was put on and spent a whole morning having my paper torn to shreds. Once the alternative strategy had been defeated, the question was, what was the best deal we could get from the IMF — who were without any doubt being encouraged by domestic influences — the City and the Treasury. When the IMF conditions were put as a confidence issue, Crosland said: “It's mad, but we have not got an alternative." That was the moment when social-democratic revisionism died in the Labour Party. It was killed, not by the left but by the bankers. Crosland knew it was absurd to return to stop-go and cut public expenditure, but he conceded on grounds of loyalty to the prime minister.
Were you very isolated at this particular moment?
We kept lists of the cabinet line-up — the cutters, the supporters of the alternative, and the wobblies. We hoped and believed that the wobblies, once they realized the price of cutting, would come over to us; we misled ourselves into believing that if it came to the choice between a Tory and a socialist policy, the social democrats would come with us. They didn't of course, and I should have known they wouldn't. So we were very heavily defeated — a minority of six or seven, no more.
The conclusion you drew from the episode, then, was that this was a third round of revisionist reduction of what the Labour Party had come to represent: first the attempt to strike away Clause Four; then the move against trade unions; and now the abandonment of full employment and minimum welfare provision. Even though it also meant defeat for one of the main revisionists, namely Crosland?
When Crosland said of local government expenditure, “the party's over," he was really beginning to chip away at his own alternative to socialism. The great theme of The Future of Socialism was, you don't need socialism because capitalism is now working and we will always have full employment and the welfare state, and public expenditure will redistribute the wealth more humanely than Tory ministers will. When that perspective was abandoned — Jenkins led the way, saying that political liberty is at risk if public expenditure rises above 50% — their party really was over.
The Right and the Left
In a way the social democrats must have found the experience of the Callaghan government as deeply disenchanting as you did, even though many of the decisions may have been going in the direction they wanted. Didn't they still feel that the government was being continuously impeded by an institutional trade-union pressure? Perhaps this would explain why they broke with the Labour Party only two years after that government fell.
Well, I think the right wanted to split the party from very early days. In 1960 Tony Crosland wrote to me and made that clear. He said the same to Gaitskell. That was twenty-two years ago. Gaitskell without a doubt wanted to shed the socialist commitment in Clause Four, though he did not want to break the trade-union link in so far as the trade-union leaders were the praetorian guard then protecting the parliamentary leadership from the constituencies. But there has always been a desire on the right to split the party; their argument has been about where it should split. They wanted the left to leave and wither on the bough, as the ILP did. In the end that failed and the SDP was formed. The Social Democrats left the party because they had failed. The Labour Party is too strong, too deeply rooted in the trade unions and in socialism and too self-confident ever to be taken too far away from its real purpose of transforming society. The right — or some of them — became pessimistic, and they left when they realized that if they could not achieve their purpose in the government, in opposition they were absolutely finished.
There is a danger of a sort of cant in saying that the Labour Party can't ever be taken too far away from its original purposes. The problem is the opposite. If its objectives are those proclaimed in Clause Four, the main difficulty seems to lie in getting it anywhere near them. Wasn't there something, in this period specifically, that traumatized the proto-SDP? Earlier on you referred to Wilson's pessimism about the miners strike and its consequences. Was it not the tremendous working-class upsurge of 1973–74, and the perceived political power of the unions thereafter, that triggered off the eventual split?
Yes, I agree with that. The election of Wilson as leader in 1963 had worried the right, because they had supported Brown or Callaghan. Then In Place of Strife failed, as the attack on Clause Four had failed before it. Then in 1973–74 there was this industrial militancy and an extraordinary socialist upsurge, and they lost control of policymaking on the national executive. Crosland tried to retrieve the position but he couldn't because there was such a head of steam behind the movement. The three-day week was the climax of this. Then came the March 1974 election: the cabinet majority were saddled with a victory they had not expected and a policy they did not believe in. The Establishment did believe it, however. There is no doubt that in March 1974 the British Establishment was more frightened than it had ever been since the General Strike. We could have done almost anything we wanted, even without an overall parliamentary majority. Wilson's great contribution was to restore the British Establishment's morale by dropping party policy, and by the summer of 1975 the party was in retreat.
The social democrats won the referendum, and thought they were home and dry. They then had a string of remarkable successes culminating in the decision to go to the IMF. But that was a bittersweet moment, because the price was more than the social democrats wanted to pay — the obituaries to Crosland were in effect obituaries to social democracy. The Lib-Lab pact gave them a new lease of life, a new way of fending off the left. But then came the "winter of discontent" and they realized they were up against something too strong. I don't mean by this that pure socialism was dominant in the Labour Party, but the party as representative of the working-class interest is too strong to be shifted far off course.
Yet you've made it plain that your own experience, the experience of the left, was if anything more frustrating. How would you summarize the 1974-79 administration compared with that of the 1960s, from your point of view?
Well, it was a re-run in many ways, allowing for changes and the fact that the situation was more difficult, the options narrower, and so on. The difference from my own point of view was that the preliminary radicalization at the end of the sixties had developed and become pretty fully formulated during the period in opposition. I was secretly afraid, returning to office in 1974, that the pressures of government would lead me to abandon the views I had then reached, but I found that they did not; indeed quite the reverse, they strengthened them. I was therefore much more courageous in cabinet, and argued what I thought quite freely throughout. On the other hand, the defeats suffered in the 1974–79 period were much more serious ones, because as I say the choices had narrowed as a result of the deepening crisis. The screw was tightened, with the cuts in public expenditure and the rise in unemployment. It was increasingly difficult, in cabinet, to get the words “full employment" into our annual statement of economic policy, even as an aspiration. In some cases we had to fight to get them included. The EEC controversy created a very deep divide, but I must say that the Labour cabinet never succeeded in getting a majority of Labour MPs to support the Common Market. The left of the party was stronger at the time and the pent-up feeling was much greater, especially during the "winter of discontent." The determination of the party after 1979 never, never to go back to what had happened then, let alone what had happened earlier, became in the end a totally invincible force, and expressed itself in the TUC and at the party conference by majorities of about four to one. That was a fundamental change. The experience of the 1974–79 government has brought about an irreversible shift of opinion within the Labour movement, which no amount of press campaigning will be able to change.
In considering the factors that shaped my thinking over these years, I must mention the close political colleagues with whom all these events were discussed in depth throughout. No one person, especially if deeply involved in day-today decisions and public campaigning, can hope to draw the right conclusions or prepare plans for the future without the discipline, the analysis, the criticism and the encouragement of close and trusted friends.
I've been fortunate to have such friends and comrades, and their contribution to the formulation of our shared view has been formidable. Some, like Michael Meacher and Bob Cryer, were ministers. Others, like Jo Richardson, Joan Maynard, Audrey Wise, Dennis Skinner, and Stuart Holland, were colleagues in parliament or on the NEC. Then there were Frances Morrell, Francis Cripps, Tony Banks, Ken Coates, and Chris Mullin, who were part of the campaign. Trade-union experience, especially among the shop stewards committees and the members of the general management committee of Bristol South-east Labour Party, played a very significant part. But Caroline was the principal colleague from the very beginning. Not only has she played a key role for twenty years in the development of a socialist educational policy; her powers of analysis, her understanding of Socialism, her commitment to collective action made it possible for us to see our own way forward through the complexities and the confusion of the unfolding situation, and to survive the unrelenting media harrassment and misrepresentation.
Above all this, of course, nothing could have happened without a parallel development of opinion throughout the entire labour movement and beyond. This opinion has been formed from experience, and it has expressed itself in the unions, the constituency parties, the women's movement, among the ethnic minorities, and in the peace movement. Those who share it can be found in the professions, in the civil service, in the media, and among radical groups everywhere. In thousands of private and public meetings I have attended, and in tens of thousands of letters sent to me, these experiences have been conveyed with criticisms, suggestions, and support. In this way, the ideas of democracy and socialism have reappeared on the national agenda and come together as an insistent demand for renewal. We are now at the beginning of a campaign to achieve that.