Wilson's cabinet `riven with division'

 

British state papers for 1968 reveal a Labour government riven with divisions and buffeted by international events, its special relationship with the United States in crisis and led by a weak prime minister obsessed with plotting colleagues and press leaks.

It was the year of student and worker revolt, worldwide demonstrations against the escalating US war in Vietnam, and the rise and Soviet-enforced fall of the Czechoslovak Prague Spring.

In Britain, government documents released under the 30-year rule highlight the factionalism and conflict at the heart of Harold Wilson's cabinet over everything from Vietnam to spending cuts, prescription charges to the Nigeria-Biafra war, the school leaving age to the Greek junta, immigration and economic policy, withdrawal from Singapore and the Gulf.

The official papers - many of which have been held back on "national security" grounds, including several on the Falkland Islands - are also rich with contemporary resonances, including arguments about House of Lords reform, Saddam Hussein's assumption of power in Iraq, the Falkland Islands and relations with Europe.

As ministers fought line by line over Chancellor Roy Jenkins's spring cuts programme, Wilson and his Foreign Secretary, George Brown, wilted under pressure from the US government to delay the planned military withdrawal from the Gulf and Far East.

Brown reported a "disturbing and distasteful discussion" with Dean Rusk, US Secretary of State, in January, at which Rusk had accused the government of "opting out of our world responsibilities" and "implied that it was the end of co-operation". "For God's sake, act like Britain," Rusk had thundered - and the cabinet agreed to postpone the pullout by nine months.

A secret official minute of George Brown's final farcical resignation in March - circulated only to Queen Elizabeth, prime minister and his trusties - records how the foreign secretary stormed out of a hastily-convened cabinet meeting held at 1.15 in the morning.

Brown denounced Wilson for deliberately avoiding consulting the cabinet over an emergency bank holiday to prevent a run on the pound and accused the prime minister of a cover-up. As he left the room, Tony Crosland, Board of Trade president, said Brown's behaviour had been "regrettable", but "one could hardly blame him". The papers show Wilson then went through 17 drafts before settling on his final reply to Brown's resignation letter.

The repeated personality clashes between senior ministers, who used off-the-record briefings to journalists to fight internal battles, dogged Wilson throughout the year. By December, he was warning that if war by leak continued, he would have "no alternative, without further warning or further discussion, to reconstructing the cabinet".

Ministers were meanwhile anxious about the influence of "extremists" on the rising tide of protest, including two major demonstrations outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square in March and October. Throughout the year, the Cabinet discussed how to prevent foreign students - some fresh from the May street battles in Paris - from coming to join the fray in Britain.

At one point, it was suggested that all foreign students be banned from the country, though that idea was dropped. Ministers wrung their hands at what one called the "more extreme manifestations of youthful insubordination".

At Easter, Wilson was warned by officials, drawing on MI5 and Special Branch intelligence, that 5,000 anti-nuclear marchers planned a "mass attack" on the Aldermaston and Burghfield nuclear weapons plants, egged on by the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign - though, in the event, it was a low-key event.

Amidst widespread paranoia about demonstrations and security, the head of an English-language school in London told the prime minister her students were planning to disrupt a prime ministerial visit to Bradford University, assisted by "the gangster, Danny the Red", the student leader, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who had been active in the Paris events and is now a German MEP.

Home Office officials were particularly agitated about Wilson's safety, and his private secretary warned security chiefs at No 10 that the "policeman who patrolled the Horse Guards side of the garden wall was open to distractions of passing girls".

Throughout this fevered atmosphere, the government wrestled with the problem of House of Lords reform, with the arguments and debates an exact reflection of those now preoccupying the Blair government.

Wilson wanted a two-tier system of life and newly-created hereditary peers, and another group of hereditaries, who would be able to speak but not vote. As today, the proposal was attacked as leading to increased prime ministerial patronage and was killed off by opposition from left and right.

In another echo of current concerns, the government was privately positive about the Ba'athist coup in Iraq in July, which brought Saddam Hussein to power. Britain should be "ready to help Iraq by meeting requests for military supplies and training", the new Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, noted, and "give our exporters every assistance to sell in this relatively rich market".