The 'Little Things That Mean a Lot' was the major policy initiative undertaken by Harold Wilson's minority Labour administration during its term of office between March and October 1974.
In a memorandum dated 8th July 1974 addressed to the 'Ministers in charge of Departments' and titled 'Little things that mean a lot', Harold Wilson noted that he had recently sent several minutes to colleagues about "matters which, though they may be trivial in the total context of Government policy, arouse strong feelings in the country" and noted that "it is important that we show in the next few weeks that we are sensitive to these feelings". He attached a list of "some of the points" he'd asked to be considered, expressed the hope that his government would be able to "announce initiatives within the next few weeks", and also called for any other such ideas to be put forward, in order that they might be "considered for inclusion in our Manifesto".
One of the major 'Little Things' that excited Wilson's interest was his own proposal that the government should act to protect local breweries, and Wilson wrote to Shirley Williams, the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, and offered the opinion that "Much local resentment is caused when a local brewery is taken over by one of the anonymous national breweries thus reducing the choice - and often the quality - of beers available". He therefore suggested that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission should intervene to prevent such takeovers. However, Shirley's second-in-command Alan Williams later told Wilson in September 1974 that it was very unlikely that the Monopolies Commission could be persuaded to act in this way, and suggested that the solution "would be for the government (and perhaps the National Enterprise Board when it is established) to declare its readiness to acquire small brewery companies". This however, did not meet the approval of the teetotal Tony Benn, the Secretary State for Industry, or indeed the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett, who believed that it would set "a dangerous precedent, leading to pressures to preserve all sorts of local services and companies".
Another of Wilson's 'Little Things' was his idea that everyone who was sent a tax return should also be sent a diagram showing how total taxes were used. He wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey to inform him that "One of the complaints which I often hear from constituents and others is that in contrast to the local rates, no one ever bothers to tell them how their taxes are spent, I find it hard to believe that the job of putting this extra slip of paper into each envelope would bring the Inland Revenue machine to a halt." Nothing happened regarding this proposal either. (Wilson was no doubt made aware of the fact most tax payers were never sent a tax return in the first place.)
Other 'Little Things' that failed to make any headway where his proposals to abolish hare coursing, make May Day a bank holiday (that didn't come until 1978), find some way of making use of empty office blocks, and nationalise certain rivers and lakes to improve fishing rights. Similarly his expressed desire "to be able to say that we mean to save the pint" was largely frustrated by the fact that no one was actually trying to abolish the pint in the first place. Indeed the only 'Little Thing' to ever see the light of day appears to have been the announcement by Reg Prentice, the Secretary of State for Education, of an expansion in the annual intake of the Open University from 14,000 to 20,000 students, at the cost of only £1.5 million over the next two years.
The truth was that Wilson had every intention of holding another General Election as soon as possible in order to obtain a working majority, and what he was looking for were cheap vote winning gimmicks that would facilitate this end. Wilson subsequently called his election in October 1974, and although he did win a majority it was only one of three seats, which later proved insufficient and forced the Labour Party to rely on the support of the Liberal and other minority parties to continue in government. Whether things would have turned out differently had he succeeded in finding a few 'little things' to excite the public's enthusiasm for his government remains to be seen.
- Little Things That Mean a Lot
- Ollie Stone-Lee, Wilson's plan to save breweries ,29 December 2005
- Huw Richards, PM Wilson cheerful at cheap OU expansion, 7 January 2005