New Labour, Old Labour: The Wilson and Callaghan Governments, 1974-79 edited by Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson

9 September 2007

Once again balancing out the posts on the Tories, here’s a book on Labour during one of its more difficult periods in power.

New Labour, Old Labour: The Wilson and Callaghan Governments, 1974-79 edited by Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson

To make a fairly crude analogy, editing a book about the Labour governments of the 1970s is somewhat akin to performing an autopsy on a corpse that has been dragged about, kicked around, and otherwise mangled almost out of recognition. For the last two-and-a-half decades, politicians on both the left and the right have been pointing to the 1970s as an example of what they DON’T want to see happen again. Militant industrial action, a stagnating economy, rampant inflation, the humiliation of the 1976 IMF loan, and finally the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 all combined to a no-confidence vote in Jim Callaghan’s leadership and the 1979 General Election that brought Margaret Thatcher into power. In the years that followed, Thatcher and her successors (both John Major and Tony Blair) sought to distance themselves from that particular time in British history. Blair even chose to rebrand the party as ‘New Labour’ specifically to assure the electorate that Labour had shaken off its past failures and flaws and was prepared to be a party capable of governing once again. Yet any number of questions still remain: To what extent is New Labour really a radical departure from the party of Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Jim Callaghan? Were the Wilson and Callaghan years really the string of disasters that today’s politicians like to spend their time rabbiting on about? And if not, why have both the new left and the new right found the 1970s to be a surprisingly useful time period to denounce?

The essays and articles in New Labour, Old Labour are on the whole an excellent collection of analyses of different aspects of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Well-known and respected historians and political scientists delve into the details of government and governing in the latter half of the 1970s, such as industrial and social policy, Scottish and Welsh devolution, the crisis in Northern Ireland, the Labour Party’s near-meltdown over relations with the EEC, and the ups and (mostly) downs of the economic cycle. Other articles take a more personal look at the mechanics of government, specifically with regard to Wilson and Callaghan’s relationships with their Cabinet ministers, the Parliamentary Labour Party, and the Labour Party rank and file.

There were several articles I particularly enjoyed — not surprisingly, they happened to be by authors I’ve read before whose writing styles appeal to me. Philip Norton’s article about the Labour Party’s struggles to keep control of Parliament was a personal favourite, though that might have something to do with the fact that thanks to my master’s dissertation, I can practically cite chapter and verse out of some of Norton’s other books about parliamentary dissent. Dennis Kavanagh also does a fine job looking at why it’s so convenient for politicians today to misread and misinterpret Old Labour, finding in it a useful way to define themselves and their political platforms to the electorate (‘this is what we’re not’ rather than ‘this is what we are’). The one article that I wish had not been included was about social inequality under Old Labour, written jointly by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. I’m not overly fond of Polly Toynbee’s writing style to begin with, so perhaps that was a mark against the article to start. However, in the midst of so many well-written scholarly articles on the time period, the work of two journalists simply doesn’t feel like it belongs — it feels lightweight, somehow. I suppose it was added in there to make the book more marketable to a nonscholarly audience, but I think I would’ve rather seen the article written by someone else (who doesn’t set my teeth on edge to read him/her).

I used Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball’s similar book on Edward Heath’s government (1970-1974) extensively when writing my dissertation. I’ve a feeling that this book will be of use to anyone interested in the two governments that followed — and for that matter, it should be required reading for anyone who wants to take a stab at doing some serious analysis and criticism of British politics since 1979.


  1. […] coming year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 General Election, called after Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost a vote of no-confidence — by one vote — on 28 March 1979. That election brought […]

  2. […] to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays seems to suggest. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour […]

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