The Labour Party and nationalisation from Attlee to Wilson, 1945-1968 : beyond the commanding heights
The 1964-70 Wilson government has been the subject of intense criticism, yet limited academic study. Attention has focused primarily on its failure to achieve any breakthrough in the application of 'white heat' technology. The effect has been that many important aspects of the government's industrial policies have been ignored. In particular, its commitment to public ownership has received little consideration, despite appearing anomalous compared with the nationalisations of the preceding (and succeeding) Labour governments. Between 1964 and 1970, only iron and steel was brought into public ownership, and that was primarily 'unfinished business' from 1945-51.This thesis determines why the 1964-70 government was so reluctant to use public ownership and, specifically, nationalisation. Firstly, the relationship between public ownership and the Labour party in 1964 is examined. The Attlee government’s experiences with nationalisation and the revision of the party's programme during the 1950s are considered, along with the contribution which Wilson made to that revision. The thesis contends that, by 1964, the party's commitment to public ownership was genuinely different from that in 1945. However, it further asserts that the economic analysis on which it was based had already become outdated by 1964, and encumbered the government with an inappropriate ideological framework. Secondly, the recent release of official papers has made possible a detailed consideration of the 1964-70 government's performance. They reveal that the government pursued a more active public ownership policy than is normally considered by historians. In shipbuilding and aerospace partial nationalisations were undertaken, while more generally interventionist frameworks were established. This thesis concludes that such policies were fatally undermined by the over-commitment of Wilson to sterling parity. Coupled with the shortcomings of the party's ideological framework, this explains both why the 1964-70 government's policies appear anomalous, and why the government continues to be severely criticised.