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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 December 2005, 00:36 GMT
Wilson's plan to save breweries
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News reporter at The National Archives in Kew

Pint of beer
Wilson wanted to say he had 'saved the pint'
Harold Wilson wanted to protect local breweries by nationalising them as part of an initiative called "little things that mean a lot", it has emerged.

The details come from papers just released by The National Archives.

The Labour prime minister was keen to show he was sensitive to small problems which caused people particular concern.

As well as saving breweries from mergers with big firms, he wanted to be able to say he had "saved the pint" and to make May Day a bank holiday.

'Trivial but important'

Wilson's "little things" series is echoes Tony Blair's memo to close advisers in 2000 asking for eye-catching initiatives with which he could be personally associated.

Protecting local breweries and saving the pint
Abolishing hare coursing
Telling taxpayers how their taxes are spent
Making May Day a bank holiday
Tackling the impact of juggernauts
Plans for empty office blocks, including Centrepoint in London
Cutting or freezing telephone installation charges for pensioners
Protection for caravan dwellers

In 1974, Wilson sent a flurry of memos to ministers explaining the idea and asking them to explore possible schemes from their departments.

In one, he said: "In the coming weeks, I want to show that as a government we are sensitive to little points which may be trivial in the context of government policy but carry a disproportionate weight in people's minds."

Beer was clearly seen as one of the keys to public happiness, with Bernard Donaghue, Wilson's senior policy adviser, producing the idea of protecting local breweries.

In a memo to Shirley Williams, secretary of state for prices and consumer protection, Wilson asked how to ensure brewery mergers were referred to the Monopolies Commission.

"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 wrote.

In the same memo he raised concerns about the impact of metrification, saying: "One way or another I would like to be able to say that we mean to save the pint."

When Williams was reluctant to push ahead with some of the metrification measures - she believed the pint was safe in any case - Wilson told his private secretary: "Metrification is a bore, anyway. Local breweries is a winner."

'Dangerous precedent'

Prices and consumer protection minister Alan Williams told Wilson in September 1974 that "many of the horses have already bolted" because 30 of the remaining 120 small breweries were already owned by the major companies.

He warned that the Monopolies Commission was unlikely to rule against the mergers.

The only effective measure, he suggested, "would be for the government (and perhaps the National Enterprise Board when it is established) to declare its readiness to acquire small brewery companies to prevent them being taken over by the majors, and to be prepared to outbid them if necessary."

Denis Healey
Wilson wrote to Healey about diagrams for taxes

Donaghue thought the idea was not ideal but could be done and Wilson's notes suggest he agreed.

But the proposals ran into opposition from Industry Secretary Tony Benn and particularly from the Treasury.

Benn said it would not be possible to use the Industry Act to acquire the breweries as the Prices Department had suggested.

The chief secretary to the Treasury, Joel Barnett, echoed those concerns and had more general objections.

"I fear that any acquisitions of this kind would create a dangerous precedent, leading to pressures to preserve all sorts of local services and companies," he said.

"I think it would be extremely difficult to justify the use of public money for this purpose."

The minister of agriculture meanwhile said more takeovers of small breweries were unlikely over the next year or two because the big firms were feeling the pinch financially.

Tax demands

Other ideas in the "little things" series including abolishing hare coursing, making May Day a bank holiday, and plans for using Centrepoint in London and other empty office blocks.

New protection for people living in caravans and facing rent increases was also on the list, as were plans to make progress on nationalising rivers and lochs to improve fishing rights.

Wilson also wrote to Chancellor Denis Healey to try to ensure that people completing tax returns were given a diagram showing how total taxes were used.

"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," said Wilson.

He added: "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."

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