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Our colleague Matthew Francis provides this guest post:
On Friday 5th July the People’s History Museum, Manchester, is hosting a one-day conference to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech. Though he might not have realised it on that day in Scarborough in 1963, Wilson’s speech would quickly become one of the most famous pieces of political oratory of the twentieth century, and would set the tone for the remainder of the 1960s.
In the run-up to the conference the Nottingham Politics blog has been running a short series of posts exploring the background to and legacy of Wilson’s speech. Steven Fielding begins the series by examining the backdrop to the speech, and in particular the political context of the early 1960s. For some years Labour had been concerned that rising real incomes and the advent of the ‘affluent worker’ had been eroding the Party’s base among the traditional working class. Wilson’s speech was the zenith of a strategy that sought to reconnect Labour with these new affluent workers by recasting the Party as modern and dynamic, abandoning the traditional association with the cloth cap in favour of the white laboratory coat.
Andrew Scott Crines focuses on Wilson as an orator, exploring the rhetorical devices that Wilson deployed and the reasons the speech proved to be so effective and so memorable. He concludes that Wilson did indeed seek to project an image of the Labour Party as a dynamic and modernising force, but also that this message was underpinned with a warning that economic decline and national irrelevance would be the inevitable consequence of a failure to adapt to technological change. There was thus an undercurrent of fear and foreboding in a speech that was otherwise characterised by its hopefulness and optimism.
In the final post I consider the way in which the ‘spectre of technological revolution’ has haunted the post-war Labour Party. Though Wilson might have been one of the first Labour politicians to attempt to ally science with socialism he was far from the last, and many of the themes that characterised his speech would recur in socialist rhetoric, particularly that of Tony Benn and Tony Blair. All three men shared a vision of technology as a distinct force in history, operating independently of other economic or social processes, to which government had little choice but to respond.
Though half a century has passed since Wilson delivered his speech, the themes of technological and social change that he addressed retain many contemporary resonances, as well as posing a number of intriguing historical questions. Friday’s conference hopes to tease out the answers to some of these questions, and to consider the relevance of Wilson’s ideas for today’s Labour Party.