Snow, Wilson and the Scientific Revolution

Sheldrake, John (2013) Snow, Wilson and the Scientific Revolution. Global Policy Institute policy paper (24). pp. 2-11.


The strength, the solvency, the influence of Britain…are going to depend…to a unique extent on the speed with which we come to terms with the world of change. There is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living…that whatever we do, whenever we run into trouble, we can always rely on a special relationship with someone or other to bail us out. From now on Britain will have as much influence in the world as we can earn, as we can deserve. We have no accumulated reserves on which to live.” (Wilson, 1964, p. 14)

So began Harold Wilson’s, often misquoted, ‘white heat of technological revolution’ speech given to the Labour Party’s Annual Conference in 1963. Arguably Wilson’s most significant speech, it offered a vision of the future based on the impact of scientific and technological progress. As well as offering an alternative to the jaded approach of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government, it also provided a new ideological basis for the Labour Party – freeing the Party from the electorate’s perceptions which associated Labour with post-war austerity and nationalisation and embracing a new spirit of progress in tune with the times. The speech provided the Labour Party with the ideological wherewithal to win the 1964 General Election – albeit with a wafer-thin majority.

This article explores the origins of Wilson’s speech and it’s linkages to the ideas of the popular novelist C. P .Snow – basically a belief in the possibilities of generalised human progress – measured in terms of health, prosperity and life-expectancy and based on a combination of appropriate and relevant education and the application of applied science. First, however some background to the period – a period when post-war austerity was rapidly giving way to rampant consumerism.

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