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Harold Wilson, 'Selsdon Man', and the defence of social democracy in 1970s Britain

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On Friday 6 February 1970, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson visited Nottingham to address an evening meeting of party workers. After fighting his way through a hostile crowd of farmers and anti-Vietnam War protesters, the Prime Minister used his speech to lambast the policy agenda which Edward Heath’s Shadow Cabinet had announced after its conference at the Selsdon Park Hotel the previous weekend. The new Conservative policy, Wilson claimed, was ‘not just a lurch to the Right’ but signalled ‘an atavistic desire to reverse the course of 25 years of social revolution’:

What they are planning is a wanton, calculated and deliberate return to greater inequality. The new Tory slogan is: back to the free for all. A free for all in place of the welfare state. A free for all market in labour, in housing, in the social services. They seek to replace the compassionate society with the ruthless, pushing society. The message to the British people would be simple. And brutal. It would say: ‘You’re out on your own.’

Wilson returned to the theme a fortnight later in a rally at Camden Town Hall, in which he conjured up the figure of ‘Selsdon Man’ – a sarcastic echo of the famous ‘Piltdown Man’ forgery. ‘Selsdon Man’, he warned, was ‘designing a system of society for the ruthless and the pushing, the uncaring’. If the Tories won the forthcoming election, Wilson claimed, they would ‘make life dearer for the many’ by raising indirect taxes and food prices, cutting welfare services down ‘to means-tested levels’, and pushing up rents ‘in a free-for-all in housing’.



4303 Historical Studies, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology

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Twentieth Century British History

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Oxford University Press (OUP)


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