Complete Classes from the CAB & PREM Series in the Public Record Office
Series Three: CAB 128 & CAB 129 Cabinet Conclusions & Cabinet Memoranda, 1945 and following
Part 5: The Wilson Government, October 1964 - December 1968
(CAB 128/39-43, 46 & CAB 129/119-139)
CAB 128 and CAB 129 represent the highest level of British governmental documents recording the minutes and memoranda of the weekly Cabinet meetings held by the Prime Minister and his senior Ministers. These documents form the apex of the whole governmental and Civil Service structure; of the thousands of documents generated by the machinery of government and its many departments, only the most important and highly concentrated reached the Cabinet. As a result the material in CAB 128 and CAB 129 provides an excellent and unique resource for scholars; providing material that represents the core issues facing the government of the day, stripped down to the bare essentials and free from superfluous detail. This clarity of purpose and the succinct nature of the documents will be especially useful for academics studying Post-war Britain and the problems faced by successive governments.
In October 1964, the Labour Party's victory in the general election brought to an end thirteen consecutive years of Conservative rule. Alec Douglas-Home, who had succeeded to the leadership of the Tory Party following Macmillan's shock resignation in October 1963 had done his best to continue the policies and objectives of his predecessor, but lacking Macmillan's charisma and political acumen, faltered at the polls. In contrast to Douglas- Home, the former Lord Home, his Labour opposite number Harold Wilson, played upon his northern upbringing and repeatedly emphasised his Party's commitment to modernising Britain in all respects, politically, technologically and socially. He successfully made use of the television and press, and his handling of the election was generally regarded as far superior to that of the Conservatives.
Having been in power for over a decade, and considering the perceived stagnation and scandal which tainted its last few years in office, the Conservative Party gave Wilson a good run for his money at the polls, and the final election results were remarkably close, with Labour only managing an overall majority of four seats. Despite this slender margin, and the worsening economic situation, Wilson and his colleagues began their tenure in office in high spirits and with the determination to restore Britain's economic position and ease her social problems.
Perhaps the single biggest problem facing the new administration was a large balance of payments deficit. Ruling out devaluation as a solution, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, brought in a number of taxes and surcharges designed to stimulate exports and stifle imports, which combined with substantial foreign loans stemmed the problem in the short term. This concentration on the macro-economic situation was not reflected in the new administration's domestic policy, and a number of Cabinet decisions hampered the Party's popularity, culminating in early 1965 with the loss of the Leyton by-election and a reduction in Labour's Parliamentary majority.
In spite of this shaky start, Wilson's Government worked hard throughout 1965 to successfully revive the Party's standings. In this task they were helped by a number of events, especially the growing crisis in Rhodesia which split the ranks of the Conservative Party hampering their ability to pose a credible opposition to Wilson. By early 1965, following favourable polls and victory in the Hull by-election of February, Wilson called a General Election for March 1966 seeking to increase his Party's Parliamentary majority. The gamble paid off as Wilson successfully led the Labour Party to a comfortable victory with a 98 seat majority, thus giving himself much greater scope to govern. The continued failure of their economic policies, however, soon led to a loss of popularity for the Labour Party. This unpopularity was further fuelled by the 1966 budget which introduced a selective Employment Tax, and, later that Summer, a six month price and wage freeze backed up by a Prices and Incomes Act, which was particularly unpopular with the Trade Unions. By spring 1967 the Conservatives had overtaken Labour in polls. Then, just as economic conditions were beginning to improve and look more favourable for Wilson, a series of international events including the Six Day War, the closure of the Suez Canal and the civil war in Nigeria, coincided to adversely affect Britain's balance of payments, plunging the nations finances back into chaos. In November, the Government finally succumbed and sterling was devalued forcing cuts to Government spending and the removal of Callaghan as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The increases in indirect taxation brought in by Roy Jenkins, Callaghans replacement, in his first budget of March 1968 helped further boost the Tories, who gained a considerable lead over Labour in the opinion polls and won a number of unexpected by-election victories. Labour's popularity amongst its traditional supporters was further eroded by the introduction of a another bill restricting wage increases to 3%. Additional increases in taxation introduced by the 1969 budget only worsened Wilson's position, despite a steadily improving balance of payments position.
By April 1970, as the economic situation improved once more, allowing certain restrictions and taxes to be cut, Labour began to recover its position in the polls and regain its lead over the Conservatives. By May Wilson felt confident enough in Labour's position to call a General Election. The election was held in June 1970 and despite Labour's recent resurgence in the polls, it was Heath's Conservative Party that won with a majority of 31.
In all, the five and a half years in which Wilson led the country can be viewed in a number of ways. Economically Labour failed to halt the 'Stop-go' cycle that had so plagued the previous Tory administrations and labour relations were to remain a constant problem for British industry. Wilson also failed, like Macmillan, to get the United Kingdom into the Common Market, despite his May 1967 declaration.
Nevertheless, there were successes for Wilson in his ambitions to modernise Britain and liberalise its social and political institutions. Key legislation introduced included:
- Introduction of compulsory of redundancy payments in 1965
- Creation of the Ministry of Technology
- Creation of the Department of Economic Affairs
- National Board for Prices and Incomes set up in April 1965 -
- 1967 the Sexual Offences Act legalised homosexuality
- 1967 the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act legalised abortion
- 1967 Steel nationalisation
- 1968 Race Relations Act outlawed discrimination in housing and employment
- 1968 Transport Act
- 1968 Theatres Act abolished Lord Chamberlain's censorship of plays
- 1969 Divorce Reform Act simplified divorce proceedings
- 1969 Matrimonial Property Act guaranteed a wife's right to assets upon break-up of a marriage
- 1969 Abolition of the death penalty
Labour also succeeded in building many more houses than the previous administration, and in increasing the number of 16 year olds staying on at school. In higher education too, there was a growth in Universities and student numbers, as well as the decision to found the Open University.
On the other hand there were problems. Continuing worries over the levels of immigration led to the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which limited the number of non-resident British passport holders wishing to move to the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, serious unrest, led to the despatching of British troops to the province to protect the catholic minority, which soon created a fresh cycle of republican and loyalist violence . Wilson was also forced to back down from the government's plans to improve labour relations; the In Place of Strife document drafted by Barbara Castle, was vehemently opposed by TUC who forced the proposals to be dropped, thus ensuring the continuation of poor union/management relations in British industry.
All these issues and more are covered by this series of Cabinet Conclusions and Memoranda, providing a unique behind the scenes perspective of the organisation and decision making processes during the Wilson administration. Utilising this collection scholars can access government views on a whole range of subjects, domestic and international, such as:
- Commonwealth relations
- Anglo-American relations
- Britain's reaction to the war in Vietnam
- The National Health Service
- Rhodesia's declaration of independence, Wilson's visit to Salisbury, and British sanctions, 1965
- In Place of Strife, trade unions and industrial relations
- Growing European integration and the Common Market
- North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Western Union
- Industrial disputes and wages policy
- National and international economic problems
- Balance of payments and the devaluation of sterling
- Housing policy, new town developments, and town and country planning
- International relations
- The cold war, defence, and nuclear policy
- Race relations
Please note that Part 5 of this series does not contain all of the Cabinet Minutes and Conclusions for the Wilson administration, but rather makes available all those files released under the thirty year rule as of January 1999. We are currently covering the period from January 1969 to December 1974 as the thirty year rule permits.
We can also make available individual reels or segments of this collection covering specific years.