Cabinet archives hold omens for new Labour

January 8, 1999

A G. Brown was the second most important minister in the Labour government of 1964-1970, which like today's was conducting rigorous reviews of its spending priorities, trying to reform the House of Lords and beset by sudden, dramatic resignations.

There is much in the cabinet documents for 1968, released last week by the Public Record Office, to encourage the belief that history repeats itself. But the year in which George Brown's resignation was big news and students demonstrated against the war in Vietnam is a different age.

Funding council heads will boggle at the leverage exerted by Sir John Woolfenden, chairman of that era's Universities Grants Committee. In the summer of 1968, a cabinet committee, seeking further economies after the devaluation of the pound, suggested taking Pounds 6.5 million from the universities. The Treasury reported a "violent reaction" by Sir John, and in 24 hours the cut was down to Pounds 2.5 million.

Earlier in the year, the comprehensive post-devaluation spending review put education, along with every other department, under scrutiny. Deferring the raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 by two years upset many ministers - Lord Longford, Lord Privy Seal and Labour leader in the Lords, resigned.

The universities were cut, but only marginally. Patrick Gordon-Walker, in his few months as secretary of state for education before Edward Short replaced him, reported that "a new quinquennium agreement had recently been made and there would be strong criticism if this agreement were broken".

There was no such luck for students. They were due a cost-of-living increase in their grants in September 1968, aimed at restoring awards to 1961 levels. This was expected to up the maximum award from Pounds 340 to Pounds 435. Instead, this increase was halved, saving the Exchequer Pounds 4 million.

Postgraduate awards were also squeezed, with some cabinet members arguing that they were diverting "graduates who were needed in industry".

Popular memory locates 1968 as the epicentre of the decade's youth unrest, but there is little in the cabinet minutes to reflect this, with only two references in passing. In October home secretary Jim Callaghan was congratulated for police handling of a massive anti-Vietnam demonstration in Grosvenor Square.

The chiefs of staff, contemplating military involvement should public order break down seriously, were told: "It appears that an increased readiness to resort to violence has developed so essentially non-violent groups, such as students, can be misled or provoked into violence by deliberate manipulations by small numbers, by crowd hysteria or by misjudgment on the part of the authorities."

Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, said: "This is the first time the Public Record Office has produced documents showing the student element in security issues."

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