What were the two greatest successes and two greatest failures of the Wilson government 1964-70?
This period of Labour rule is often marked down as a poor performance on behalf of the labour party, critically looked upon by many historians. There were many failings under the rule of this government however the circumstances they were placed in caused severe restraints in their options.
Wilson had been voted into government with the promise of central planning and “the white heat of new technology”, catching the mood of the moment, and making the public believe he was not just another old bumbling politician, but one who showed some promise in getting the country moving, and reinvigorating the lumbering economy. However when Wilson was appointed prime minister these issues got pushed back from the centre stage; dumped off into the newly created Department of Economic Affairs. The majority of research and development funds were being channelled into a few large scale projects which had no real impact on the economy, leaving the new department short on options and in conflict with the treasury over the power to control economic affairs. However the external image the government was giving out was promising, the signing of the National Plan by the government and the trade unions showed potential to the nation, an indication that the new leadership was active in its attempt to bring the suffering economy back to its feet. However this act in reality did very little to help, and paired with the discovery that the previous conservative establishment had played off the economic situation better than was the reality, it was clear that the labour party would have to make some big changes to how they were going to operate. In this situation the party really started to become unstuck, changes in the party manifesto were coming thick and fast. Priorities such as house building, and changes in the welfare state were postponed. Alongside an increased taxation rate and decreased public spending moves, which were unpopular with the general public and caused distrust amongst the citizens of Britain to increase as well as within the party’s own ranks. This situation in the British economy led to what was possibly the biggest error of Wilson’s government; in the fight against the devaluation of the pound. It was clear to many economists and members inside the Labour party that the pound was well over-valued, at a rate of $2.80 at which British trade was completely redundant in the world market, due to extortionate costs for countries wishing to import British goods. At this set rate the changes that Wilson was making to the economy had very little effect. Despite mounting pressure from many fronts, the government refused to devalue the pound until 1967. There were a range of reasons for this delay, but the majority cause was the worry that the drop in the value would lower Britain’s prestige in its world status, and that Wilson was assured that there was a way out without devaluing the pound; a dire misjudgement. As it became clear that the only possible way out of the economic downturn was devaluation, Wilson had left it too late, and suffered personal and professional disclaim, damaging his reputation and forcing the resignation of Jim Callaghan, a strong supporter of the pound not being devalued.
It was not only the economy which was handled badly by the Wilson government, but also their inability to deal with the trade unions let them gain a tremendous amount of power. Relations with trade unions became strained as the new government continued the Tory policies on freezing pay increases; a move which would not be expected from the everyday man Wilson, who was meant to be in line with the people. The situation was worsened by the implementation of strike action, most surprisingly the seamen strike between May and June 1966. This show that the party which was meant to stand for the normal people of Britain was being acted out...
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