It is a common saying here that for the Conservatives and their supporters there is no Labour leader like the dead one. This was amply proved at the time of Mr Hugh Gaitskell’s death last month. The man who had been denounced for his “dishonest vote-catching” anti-Common Market speech at Brighton only three months earlier was then hailed for his courage, humanity, incorruptibility and great ability. The same point is being proved once again now in the attacks on the new Labour leader, Mr Harold Wilson.
The sharpest attack has come from The Economist. It said last week: “On the big things – defence, the American alliance, East-West, the need to give Labour a twentieth century look – Mr Wilson has been consistently ambiguous, indeed deliberately and cleverly. These are the reasons for more than doubt about his leadership. In the last ten years he has evinced a perpetual itch not to be outflanked by even the neutralist wing in his party; an unflagging facility for framing every utterance in language which suggests that he is further left in both international and internal politics than he really is.” As if to soften the blow, the subsequent paragraph said that the above description did not “provide a complete picture of Mr Wilson in the human round.”
Other commentators have been less severe to Mr Wilson. They have at least admitted that he was one of the ablest ministers as President of the Boardof Trade in the last Labour government under Earl Attlee, though he was only 31, which made him the youngest Cabinet minister since Robert Peel 120 years ago. He is known for his phenomenal memory and is rated as the ablest parliamentarian in the present House of Commons. But to the best of my knowledge, not one commentator has so far related Mr Wilson’s past performance to the debate inside the Labour party. The debate is by no means over but it has ceased to be acrimonious and the party is capable of pursuing clear-cut policies on what The Economist has called the big things. To put it differently, the differences are now more of emphasis than of principles.
Outside of the numerically insignificant and politically ineffectual extreme left-wing, the Labour party is agreed that Britain cannot afford to weaken her ties with the United States. This includes NATO. In point of fact the anti-American sentiment is far stronger among the right-wing Conservatives than among the left-wing in the Labour party. This has been evident throughout the tenure of the Kennedy administration. The Conservativeshavebeen critical if not positively hostile to President Kennedy’s support to the United Nations in general and its action in the Congo in particular. The echoes ofthe uproar caused by America’s cancellation of the Skybolt missile in the ranks of the Conservative party are still audible.
The Labour party is no longer attracted to the concept of unilateralism which is quite an achievement for a party which as recently as 1960 voted in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Out of the debate emerged the sensible policy of opposition to an independent nuclear role for this country, a view with which the American administration enthusiastically agrees. This Labour policy does not oppose either the existence of American bases (though it prefers these bases to be placed under NATO) or participation by Britain in the proposed multilateral NATO nuclear deterrent.
The party fully shares the American view that Britain should make greater contribution to the NATO conventional forces. This can be possible only if she gives up the ambition of maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent. The Labour leadership has repeatedly endorsed the American criticism that the British army on the Rhine remains undermanned and ill-equipped with conventional weapons which makes it too dependent on tactical nuclear weapons.
On the East-West relations the consensus here is that while the changes in the Soviet bloc towards greater liberalisation are welcome, it is premature to lower the guards. The major difference between the Conservative and Labour parties relates to the Polish Foreign Minister, Mr Rapacki’s well-known plan for the denuclearisation of Central Europe. The Labour party regards the plan as both desirable and feasible. Apparently on this question the Conservatives have been closer to Washington. But the position could well change with the dismantling of American land missile bases in Europe (a beginning is already being made with the bases in Italy and Turkey) and growing emphasis on the role of conventional forces.
The main difference between the Kennedy administration and the Labour party in recent years related to the question of Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. This divergence of approach has not yet become wholly irrelevant with the breakdown of the Brussels negotiations. While the Conservative government enthusiastically supports Washington in its bid to isolate President de Gaulle’s France, the Labour party in power would have no reason to do so. But how this Franco-American clash would shape in the coming months and years is a matter of conjecture and it cannot be ruled out that the American administration might revise its policy and seek reconciliation with President de Gaulle.
In terms of Britain’s role in the world, her policy towards the new countries of Africa and Asia and the United Nations would become increasingly important. The government has successfully sidetracked the massive pressure of its backbenchers on the question of Kenya, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. There is reason to hope that it will not abandon light-heartedly the African majority of three million people in Southern Rhodesia to the mercy of about 250,000 White settlers determined to perpetuate their own domination. But the party as a whole has not gracefully accepted Mr Macmillan’s outlook of “wind of change.” The pull of the past remains too strong for it. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, speaks for many in the Tory establishment when he ridicules the Afro-Asian majority in the United Nations General Assembly.
To the old inhibitions the Conservatives added a new disability last year. In their enthusiasm to join the Common Market, they downgraded the importance of the Commonwealth, both as a valuable institution in itself and as an instrument of Britain’s influence in the world. Inevitably the mystique of the Commonwealth has been gravely damaged and it will take quite an effort to restore the old confidence. This is relevant to Britain’s standing in both Asia and Africa.
In these inter-related fields of the Commonwealth, Afro-Asia and the United Nations, the Labour party is clearly at an advantage over its Conservative opponents. It is the architect of the Commonwealth as it exists today. India, Pakistan and Ceylon became independent members when it was in power. During the Brussels negotiations it studiously espoused the cause of the Commonwealth. It is not tied to financial interests which have such a baneful influence in African politics. It allots United Nations a key role in the task of preserving world peace. It welcomes the fact of Afro-Asian majority in the General Assembly and has not accepted the facile view that this majority can be used by the Soviet Bloc to further the cause of Communism. Facts have piled up to underscore the correctness of this assessment.
On this reckoning, the Labour party has a better chance than the Conservatives of working out a foreign policy which meets the needs of Britain in the new world. It is in the field of home policy that it remains vulnerable to criticism. This weakness arises from its continued adherence to clause 4 in its constitution which refers to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” and “control over each industry and service.” Mr Gaitskell fought unsuccessfully for years against this clause on the plea that it opened the party to avoidable misrepresentation. Labour under Mr Wilson is particularly open to misrepresentation because he challenged Mr Gaitskell’s leadership precisely on this issue in 1960. The Conservatives have chosen this as the first weapon of assault on him.
The Times of India, 23 February 1963