Harold Wilson's rhetoric: revisiting the Wilsonian language of renewal.

Author:Crines, Andrew Scott

Harold Wilson's 1963 'White Heat' speech still has impact today because it challenged some of the very fundamentals of British socialism. It demonstrated that renewal was not only possible but also necessary, and so represented something of a watershed in Labour's evolution. Put simply, old agendas revolving around heavy industry and trade union rights verses a new economy that embraced the realities of an increasingly interconnected global economy were brought forward by the speech. 'Wilson did indeed seek to project an image of the Labour Party as a dynamic and modernising force' although 'this message was underpinned with a warning that economic decline and national irrelevance would be the inevitable consequence of a failure to adapt to technological change. There was thus an undercurrent of fear and foreboding in a speech that was otherwise characterised by its hopefulness and optimism' (Francis, 2013). It helped keep Labour relevant by kick-starting that debate in British politics, and by showing how the party could adapt to the onset of new technologies and ideas, whilst simultaneously connecting them to the changing face of the British economy.

As Ed Miliband continues remoulding Labour's economic and social vision through One Nation Labour, it seems fitting to look back at the role played by the speech in Wilson's renewal of the Labour party in the 1960s. Significant works on Wilson's political career have been produced by Ben Pimlott, Philip Ziegler, and Thomas Hennessey, illustrating the character, successes and failures of Labour's first post-Attlee Prime Minister. It is not my intention to revisit any of these, which are thoroughly explored in existing Labour scholarship. As a result I have chosen a more distinctive route to focus on his White Heat speech, through the presentation of a few thoughts on his use of rhetoric.

My objective is briefly to scrutinise the content of the speech at the time of delivery. I am purposefully shying away from the subsequent political realities because they are beyond the scope of classical analysis of specific rhetorical devices.

What is rhetoric?

To analyse the 'White Heat' speech, I use three classical rhetorical devices as identified by Aristotle, namely ethos, pathos, and logos:

To define briefly, ethos is the character and credibility of the orator, required in order to have rhetorical integrity with a chosen audience. Without such credibility an audience cannot be convinced of the argument, given that the trustworthy character of the speaker is undermined. Pathos is the capacity to generate emotion in an audience. This can be used to mould the audience into supporting the argument by alluding to some sense of common objective or belief. Logos relates to the convincing logic of a chosen argument, as without a logical basis any orator would find their position unappealing. (Crines, 2012, 84)

Each device can be taken in isolation for the purposes of academic analysis, but for a politician they tend to be interdependent. The combination of the use of ethos, logos, and pathos varies between speakers, and can depend on the audience and its expectations. I will return to this at the end of the article. But Wilson can justly be described as a skilful communicator who drew from each of these devices. I will now briefly discuss the speech in relation to the three rhetorical devices.


The first device to consider is ethos. The character of the speech is undoubtedly one of progress. It looked into the future in a manner that unsettled some of the traditionalists in the audience, who saw Labour's reason for being as protecting British workers from the very thing Wilson was suggesting they should embrace. But he attacked such traditionalists saying 'there is no room for...

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