Labour History Review

‘A Deplorable Episode’? South African Arms and the Statecraft of British Social Democracy

Labour History Review (1997), 62, (1), 22–40.

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The concept is defined and dealt with in more detail by Jim Bulpitt, ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy. Mrs Thatcher's Domestic Statecraft’, Political Studies, vol. 34, 1986, pp. 21-2, and Jim Bulpitt, ‘Historical Politics: Macro, In-Time, Governing Regime Analysis’, in J. Lovenduski and J. Stanyer (eds.), Contemporary Political Studies, 1995 (Vol. II), 1995, p. 520. ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy. Mrs Thatcher's Domestic Statecraft’ Political Studies 34 21 2 Google Scholar

Marcia Williams, Inside Number 10, 1972, p. 214. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Crossman, Richard, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister: Volume II, 1976. Google Scholar

Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, 1990, p. 337. The Time of My Life 337 Google Scholar

Harold Wilson, The Labour Government. 1964-70: A Personal Record, 1971, p. 470. Google Scholar

James Callaghan, Time and Chance, 1988, p. 297. Time and Chance 297 Google Scholar

George Brown, In My Way, 1971. Google Scholar

Michael Stewart, Life and Labour, 1980, p. 203. Life and Labour 203 Google Scholar

Roy Jenkins, A life at the Centre, 1991, p. 223. Google Scholar

Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1964-70, 1984. Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My life, pp. 334-6. Time of My life 334 6 Google Scholar

Clive Ponting, Breach of Promise: Labour in Power 1964-1970, 1989, pp. 296-302. Google Scholar

Philip Ziegler, Wilson: The Authorized Life, 1993, pp. 287-90. Google Scholar

Austen Morgan, Harold Wilson, 1992, pp. 319-22. Google Scholar

Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson, 1992. Judging from Pimlott's admirable refusal to allow the thirty-year rule to discourage him from exploring other episodes in Wilson's career, it seems unlikely that this explains the absence. A possible criticism of the present paper, of course, would be that it fails to make use of Cabinet Papers for 1967, which should (although exceptions are always possible) be available in 1998. It is the considered judgement of the author, however, that any documents that may be released are unlikely to change materially the account given here. In the event that they do so, however, readers will be informed in a brief update in the pages of this journal. Google Scholar

New Statesman, 22 December 1967, p. 865. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See CAB 128/39, pp. 60, 79. See also Chris Wrigley, ‘"Now you see it, now you don't": Harold Wilson and Labour's Foreign Policy, 1964-1970’ in R. Coopey et al. (eds), The Wilson Governments 1964-1970, 1993, p. 125. Google Scholar

See Peter Paterson, Tired and Emotional: A Life of Lord George-Brown, 1993, p. 227; Castle, Diaries, p. 339; and Christopher Mayhew, Time to Explain, 1987, pp. 167-8. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 22. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 172. Google Scholar

Bruce Reed and Geoffrey Williams, Denis Healey and the Policies of Power, 1971, p. 230; Castle, Diaries, p. 285. Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 172. Google Scholar

Crossman, Diaries II, pp. 476-7. Google Scholar

In fact, he found out - to his evident surprise - the next day from George Brown that Wilson had agreed months before to the Foreign Secretary entering into ‘all kinds of personal understandings about this change of policy’ (Crossman, Diaries II, p. 478). Google Scholar

This emphasis seems to accord with a furious letter sent by Brown to Wilson at the culmination of the affair (and quoted by Ziegler in Wilson, pp. 287-90) to the effect that at no time until the public crisis did Wilson ‘ever raise the issue of a moral objection’, but instead ‘always raised the question of timing and the Party reaction.’ Google Scholar

Possibly it was discussed in the meantime by what Crossman (Diaries II, p. 481) suspected was ‘an inner group [of OPD] which does everything important and has all the secret information and works under the personal control of the Prime Minister’ - if indeed this group existed at all. Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My Life, p. 335. Helicopters were also on the list but refused: the paper to OPD which Castle saw at a later Cabinet apparently ‘reluctantly concluded mat public opinion wouldn't stand for that’ (Castle, Diaries, p. 339). Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 338. Wilson also told the editor of The Guardian, Alastair Hetherington in an off-the-record interview as far back as 6 November 1967 that he opposed a resumption of arms sales, though ‘if the South Africans had really been prepared to bring Smith into line, that would have been another matter.’ As it was, they were not and never had been. Therefore any deal had to be stopped. ‘Apart from anything else, "the Party wouldn't stand for it".’ See Guardian Archive (John Rylands Library, University of Manchester): Hetherington Papers C5/321, © The Guardian. Google Scholar

Wilson, Labour Government, p. 470. Google Scholar

As Roy Jenkins, in similar words to a number of MPs interviewed by the author, put it, Gunter's ‘name does not now have much resonance, but he had a considerable public following at the time’ (Jenkins, Life at the Centre, p. 259). Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 336. Google Scholar

Andrew Roth, Can Parliament Decide … about Europe … or about Anything?, 1971, p. 14; Castle, Diaries, p. 338. Google Scholar

South African arms ban may be ended', The Times, 12 December 1967. The ‘if we don't, then someone else will anyway’ argument was heard frequently from those in favour of ending the embargo on South Africa. It was, of course, an undeniable point and, even if utterly uncompelling to those who took a ‘moral’ stance on the issue, a rather difficult one for Wilson himself to repudiate: he after all made exactly the same argument in support of allowing arms sales to the federal government in Nigeria in the Biafran conflict (Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p. 491). Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 174. Both McNamara and Ellis have persuasively argued in separate interviews with the author (26 January 1995 and 16 February 1995) that, at the very beginning, the motion was entirely their own work. Google Scholar

John Silkin, Changing Battlefields: The Challenge to the Labour Party, 1987, p. 78. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 337. Google Scholar

Guardian Archive: Hetherington Papers C5/322, 13 December 1967, © The Guardian. Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 173. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 337. Google Scholar

Jenkins, Life at the Centre, pp. 222-3; Healey, Time of My Life, p. 335. Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My Life; Castle, Diaries, p. 338. Google Scholar

Castle Diaries, p. 339. This certainly runs counter to Marcia Williams's rather truncated recollection: ‘Once those who were deeply involved within the Cabinet realised the sort of tide that was running inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, they quickly backed down’ (Williams, Inside No. 10, p. 216). Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My Life, p. 335. Time of My Life 335 Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 339. Note that Ponting, Breach of Promise, p. 301, says Thomson was in favour. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 340. Google Scholar

Crossman, Diaries II, pp. 604-5. Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, pp. 173-4. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

This is not to say that other members of the Cabinet, including of course Wilson, did not leak on this or other issues: after all, as one of them famously put it later in an academic work, leaks are ‘the mechanism by which the doctrine of collective responsibility is reconciled with political reality.’ See Patrick Gordon Walker, The Cabinet, 1972, pp. 34-9. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, pp. 340-1. But see also Crossman, Diaries II, p. 607. Google Scholar

‘Mr Wilson shoots his way out’, The times, 19 December 1967. Google Scholar

Crossman, Diaries II, pp. 607-8. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 342. Google Scholar

‘Mr Wilson shoots his way out’, The Times, 19 December 1967. Google Scholar

See ‘No welfare cuts say 90 MPs’, The Times, 15 December 1967. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 341. Google Scholar

Figures released in spring 1968 showed that South Africa, 32 per cent of whose exports (in financial terms) went to Britain, was in fact the latter's second biggest export market and that the balance of payments between the two ran in favour of the UK; there was no evidence that the continuance of the government's ban on arms sales hit trade in general (see ‘Record year for UK trade with South Africa’, The Times, 10 May 1968). Google Scholar

There is little to suggest that South African arms per se generated a great deal of feeling amongst the general public. However, limited polling evidence suggests that compared to December 1964, when Gallup (Index, no. 55) found 45 per cent disapproving sales (with 25 per cent approving and 30 per cent having no opinion), ‘realism’ had gained ground over ‘idealism’: when, at the turn of the years 1967 and 1968, NOP asked whether people agreed with the government's decision not to sell arms to South Africa, some 52 per cent disagreed (with 30 per cent agreeing and 18 per cent having no opinion); perhaps predictably Conservatives disagreed most, but even Labour supporters were split fairly evenly. Google Scholar

Guardian Archive: Hetherington Papers C5/335, 3 April 1968, © The Guardian. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Ronald Butt, The Power of Parliament, 1972, p. 305. The fact that Wilson allowed continued discussion of the issue in OPD even though he was convinced in early November that ‘the Party wouldn't stand for it’ (see note 35 above) doesn't necessarily mean that he was setting a trap; that discussions continued may have had more to do with the fact that he was simply in too weak a position at that time to assert ‘prime ministerial power’ as traditionally (though possibly rather simplistically) conceived. Google Scholar

The concept is defined and dealt with in more detail by Jim Bulpitt, ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy. Mrs Thatcher's Domestic Statecraft’, Political Studies, vol. 34, 1986, pp. 21-2, and Jim Bulpitt, ‘Historical Politics: Macro, In-Time, Governing Regime Analysis’, in J. Lovenduski and J. Stanyer (eds.), Contemporary Political Studies, 1995 (Vol. II), 1995, p. 520. ‘The Discipline of the New Democracy. Mrs Thatcher's Domestic Statecraft’ Political Studies 34 21 2 Google Scholar

Marcia Williams, Inside Number 10, 1972, p. 214. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Crossman, Richard, The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister: Volume II, 1976. Google Scholar

Denis Healey, The Time of My Life, 1990, p. 337. The Time of My Life 337 Google Scholar

Harold Wilson, The Labour Government. 1964-70: A Personal Record, 1971, p. 470. Google Scholar

James Callaghan, Time and Chance, 1988, p. 297. Time and Chance 297 Google Scholar

George Brown, In My Way, 1971. Google Scholar

Michael Stewart, Life and Labour, 1980, p. 203. Life and Labour 203 Google Scholar

Roy Jenkins, A life at the Centre, 1991, p. 223. Google Scholar

Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1964-70, 1984. Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My life, pp. 334-6. Time of My life 334 6 Google Scholar

Clive Ponting, Breach of Promise: Labour in Power 1964-1970, 1989, pp. 296-302. Google Scholar

Philip Ziegler, Wilson: The Authorized Life, 1993, pp. 287-90. Google Scholar

Austen Morgan, Harold Wilson, 1992, pp. 319-22. Google Scholar

Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson, 1992. Judging from Pimlott's admirable refusal to allow the thirty-year rule to discourage him from exploring other episodes in Wilson's career, it seems unlikely that this explains the absence. A possible criticism of the present paper, of course, would be that it fails to make use of Cabinet Papers for 1967, which should (although exceptions are always possible) be available in 1998. It is the considered judgement of the author, however, that any documents that may be released are unlikely to change materially the account given here. In the event that they do so, however, readers will be informed in a brief update in the pages of this journal. Google Scholar

New Statesman, 22 December 1967, p. 865. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

See CAB 128/39, pp. 60, 79. See also Chris Wrigley, ‘"Now you see it, now you don't": Harold Wilson and Labour's Foreign Policy, 1964-1970’ in R. Coopey et al. (eds), The Wilson Governments 1964-1970, 1993, p. 125. Google Scholar

See Peter Paterson, Tired and Emotional: A Life of Lord George-Brown, 1993, p. 227; Castle, Diaries, p. 339; and Christopher Mayhew, Time to Explain, 1987, pp. 167-8. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 22. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 172. Google Scholar

Bruce Reed and Geoffrey Williams, Denis Healey and the Policies of Power, 1971, p. 230; Castle, Diaries, p. 285. Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 172. Google Scholar

Crossman, Diaries II, pp. 476-7. Google Scholar

In fact, he found out - to his evident surprise - the next day from George Brown that Wilson had agreed months before to the Foreign Secretary entering into ‘all kinds of personal understandings about this change of policy’ (Crossman, Diaries II, p. 478). Google Scholar

This emphasis seems to accord with a furious letter sent by Brown to Wilson at the culmination of the affair (and quoted by Ziegler in Wilson, pp. 287-90) to the effect that at no time until the public crisis did Wilson ‘ever raise the issue of a moral objection’, but instead ‘always raised the question of timing and the Party reaction.’ Google Scholar

Possibly it was discussed in the meantime by what Crossman (Diaries II, p. 481) suspected was ‘an inner group [of OPD] which does everything important and has all the secret information and works under the personal control of the Prime Minister’ - if indeed this group existed at all. Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My Life, p. 335. Helicopters were also on the list but refused: the paper to OPD which Castle saw at a later Cabinet apparently ‘reluctantly concluded mat public opinion wouldn't stand for that’ (Castle, Diaries, p. 339). Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 338. Wilson also told the editor of The Guardian, Alastair Hetherington in an off-the-record interview as far back as 6 November 1967 that he opposed a resumption of arms sales, though ‘if the South Africans had really been prepared to bring Smith into line, that would have been another matter.’ As it was, they were not and never had been. Therefore any deal had to be stopped. ‘Apart from anything else, "the Party wouldn't stand for it".’ See Guardian Archive (John Rylands Library, University of Manchester): Hetherington Papers C5/321, © The Guardian. Google Scholar

Wilson, Labour Government, p. 470. Google Scholar

As Roy Jenkins, in similar words to a number of MPs interviewed by the author, put it, Gunter's ‘name does not now have much resonance, but he had a considerable public following at the time’ (Jenkins, Life at the Centre, p. 259). Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 336. Google Scholar

Andrew Roth, Can Parliament Decide … about Europe … or about Anything?, 1971, p. 14; Castle, Diaries, p. 338. Google Scholar

South African arms ban may be ended', The Times, 12 December 1967. The ‘if we don't, then someone else will anyway’ argument was heard frequently from those in favour of ending the embargo on South Africa. It was, of course, an undeniable point and, even if utterly uncompelling to those who took a ‘moral’ stance on the issue, a rather difficult one for Wilson himself to repudiate: he after all made exactly the same argument in support of allowing arms sales to the federal government in Nigeria in the Biafran conflict (Pimlott, Harold Wilson, p. 491). Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 174. Both McNamara and Ellis have persuasively argued in separate interviews with the author (26 January 1995 and 16 February 1995) that, at the very beginning, the motion was entirely their own work. Google Scholar

John Silkin, Changing Battlefields: The Challenge to the Labour Party, 1987, p. 78. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 337. Google Scholar

Guardian Archive: Hetherington Papers C5/322, 13 December 1967, © The Guardian. Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, p. 173. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 337. Google Scholar

Jenkins, Life at the Centre, pp. 222-3; Healey, Time of My Life, p. 335. Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My Life; Castle, Diaries, p. 338. Google Scholar

Castle Diaries, p. 339. This certainly runs counter to Marcia Williams's rather truncated recollection: ‘Once those who were deeply involved within the Cabinet realised the sort of tide that was running inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, they quickly backed down’ (Williams, Inside No. 10, p. 216). Google Scholar

Healey, Time of My Life, p. 335. Time of My Life 335 Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 339. Note that Ponting, Breach of Promise, p. 301, says Thomson was in favour. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 340. Google Scholar

Crossman, Diaries II, pp. 604-5. Google Scholar

Brown, In My Way, pp. 173-4. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

This is not to say that other members of the Cabinet, including of course Wilson, did not leak on this or other issues: after all, as one of them famously put it later in an academic work, leaks are ‘the mechanism by which the doctrine of collective responsibility is reconciled with political reality.’ See Patrick Gordon Walker, The Cabinet, 1972, pp. 34-9. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, pp. 340-1. But see also Crossman, Diaries II, p. 607. Google Scholar

‘Mr Wilson shoots his way out’, The times, 19 December 1967. Google Scholar

Crossman, Diaries II, pp. 607-8. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 342. Google Scholar

‘Mr Wilson shoots his way out’, The Times, 19 December 1967. Google Scholar

See ‘No welfare cuts say 90 MPs’, The Times, 15 December 1967. Google Scholar

Castle, Diaries, p. 341. Google Scholar

Figures released in spring 1968 showed that South Africa, 32 per cent of whose exports (in financial terms) went to Britain, was in fact the latter's second biggest export market and that the balance of payments between the two ran in favour of the UK; there was no evidence that the continuance of the government's ban on arms sales hit trade in general (see ‘Record year for UK trade with South Africa’, The Times, 10 May 1968). Google Scholar

There is little to suggest that South African arms per se generated a great deal of feeling amongst the general public. However, limited polling evidence suggests that compared to December 1964, when Gallup (Index, no. 55) found 45 per cent disapproving sales (with 25 per cent approving and 30 per cent having no opinion), ‘realism’ had gained ground over ‘idealism’: when, at the turn of the years 1967 and 1968, NOP asked whether people agreed with the government's decision not to sell arms to South Africa, some 52 per cent disagreed (with 30 per cent agreeing and 18 per cent having no opinion); perhaps predictably Conservatives disagreed most, but even Labour supporters were split fairly evenly. Google Scholar

Guardian Archive: Hetherington Papers C5/335, 3 April 1968, © The Guardian. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

Ronald Butt, The Power of Parliament, 1972, p. 305. The fact that Wilson allowed continued discussion of the issue in OPD even though he was convinced in early November that ‘the Party wouldn't stand for it’ (see note 35 above) doesn't necessarily mean that he was setting a trap; that discussions continued may have had more to do with the fact that he was simply in too weak a position at that time to assert ‘prime ministerial power’ as traditionally (though possibly rather simplistically) conceived. Google Scholar

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Bale, Tim