Britain’s Last ‘Crisis’: ‘Fear and Loathing’ in the October 1974 Election

In the Autumn of 1974, the Prime Minister called a ‘crisis’ election to end the parliamentary deadlock, halt Britain’s economic decline and to combat the fake smears media. Despite a heightened sense of societal breakdown, the electorate could not enthuse themselves for one of the dullest campaigns in history. 

The snap October 1974 general election was called to bring an end to the long period of division that had scarred British politics. It came, everybody agreed, amidst Britain’s biggest economic crisis since the war. A huge balance of payments deficit added to the fears of rising unemployment and severe levels of inflation. Prime Minister Harold Wilson promised voters a ‘quiet life’, free from trade union disruption and economic stagnation if they gave him a clear majority.

The newspaper editorials reporting the election made for grim reading. The Times claimed that ‘there has been no election since the war which has been held in such a mood of public uncertainty and depression’ . Equally as despondent was the Sun who did not even attempt to manufacture enthusiasm for an election that could have ‘voters yawning their heads off long before polling day’

Political apathy had grown in the short parliament, when Labour governed as a minority, between the February and October 1974 election. The fallout from Watergate in the US loomed large and British newspapers sought their own equivalents of Woodward and Bernstein.

The climax of the Poulson Affair, where two Labour councillors were jailed for six years for their role in corrupt building operation. Labour’s Deputy leader Ted Short was implicated (later exonerated) and Conservatives called on him to resign.

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Compounding the government woes was the ‘Land deals affair’ – a now-forgotten scandal involving Harold Wilson’s advisor Marcia Williams and the purchase of a slag heap of coal in Wigan – which threatened to bring the government down, following a week of intense media speculation. In the end, it proved not to be the smoking gun the media thought but the pressure took its toll on the Prime Minister.

It was the hostile media environment that Wilson centred his campaign launch on.In Portsmouth, he took aim at the journalists who ‘have been combing obscure parts of the country with a mandate to find anything true or fabricated to use against the Labour Party’. He warned them: ‘We are ready for you’.

Labour’s Tony Benn was equally gripped by post-Watergate paranoia that the hidden hand was at play. He confided to his diary that ‘one has to keep an eye out for British intelligence here at home’ and the potential that ‘American business is secretly mobilising in order to defeat the Labour Government’.

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To his critics, Benn was just the sort of extremist that could not be trusted to lead Britain out of the crisis. Just days into the campaign, Lord Chalfont – a Minister in the 1964-70 Labour Government – resigned from the party, admitting that he could not honestly campaign to ‘bring Labour back to power’ when there was a ‘growing influence of the left wing of the party’

To the delight of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, the resignation was a symbol of the ‘extreme left wing’ that had made politics intolerable for moderates and he urged more acknowledge that ‘the Labour Party is not the sort of party it was when led by Gaitskell and by Attlee’.

The perceived threat from Labour extremism was one pursued by the Conservative leader Edward Heath. In a speech in Glasgow he criticised the Marxist ‘hard-left who ‘welcome disunity and thrive on it’, before warning that by 1979 ‘we would well be on the way to state domination of every aspect of the economy and thereby our lives’

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This fear of Labour’s left-wing had fashioned a new idea within the media: the prospect of a government of ‘National Unity’ between the Liberals and the Conservatives. MPs such as Maurice Macmillan had floated the idea of a ‘real government of national unity capable in all circumstances’. Such calls had greatly enthused The Times who defied any politician to flow against ‘the tide that is moving in that direction’.

The Guardian agreed, writing that the ‘country will not thank or support any party which behaves like a self-centred prima donna in the face of crisis’ by rejecting compromise.

Even the Sun– then on the beginning of its journey from the centre to the hard right of politics – argued that ‘it grows daily more obvious that Britain’s economic plight demands some sort of coalition’

On the campaign trail however, there was little sign of a new era of compromise. Denis Healey set the tone early on when he accused the Conservatives of ‘ignorance’ in their calculation of inflation. He urged them to ‘withdraw the election manifestos already in circulation and to issue no others until these untrue statements have been corrected’

The constant bickering between the main parties led the Daily Express to conclude that it was the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ election; ‘where nothing is what it seems and words mean only what you want them to mean’.

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The electorate was clearly exasperated by it all. When the Financial Times sent Samuel Brittan to Putney to observe the mood on the ground, he found  ‘indignant apathy’ was bombarded with complaints from people that you ‘can’t get away from it’ and that politicians forever ‘ram it down your throat every night’

A media narrative developed that the politicians now treated the electorate with disdain. It was a mutual feeling, as The Economist concluded: ‘Britain is having a bad election’, whereby ‘the public’s distrust in politicians is equalled only by the politicians’ distrust of the public’.

For Bernard Levin in the Times, the apathy amongst the electorate was due to Harold Wilson who encapsulated the new breed of politics where ‘nothing matters – not principles, not pledges, not the truth, not facts, not reason – besides the slaking of the thirst for office’

Wilson did appear to be yesterday’s man with yesterday’s ideas. No longer the fresh face ushering in the ‘white heat of technology’ he showed increasing signs of frustration. In his big set-piece interview with David Frost, he admitted that he thought of leaving the ‘dirty business’ of politics altogether and was restrained from ‘finding those responsible’ for smears and ‘kicking them in the teeth’.

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This was the fourth instalment of the Heath/Wilson duel and many hoped it would be the last. The writer Ferdinand Mount summed up the choice: of ‘tired and devalued men who are physically exhausted by overwork and discredited by policy failures’

After a campaign which saw a record amount of rainfall for a post-war election, the public entered the polling booth unsure of the route out of Britain’s economic and parliamentary deadlock.

The Sun’s editorial on the eve of the election spoke best to the ‘state of near-despair’ that had engulfed the country, at the ‘tired and discredited’ leaders who ‘do not inspire’ with no hope of a ‘Churchill on the horizon’. They urged the political class to take their last chance to ‘get on with the job or make way for people who will’.

The paper refused to back a side, and in doing so, showed why it is often in line with the mood of the electorate. When the results were counted, Labour were able to form a majority of just three as turnout reduced by 6%. The ‘crisis’ election to solve all of Britain’s economic problems, in the end, led to more dither and delay.

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Margaret Thatcher emerged as the Tory star campaigner whilst Shirley Williams offered hope for Labour. Margaret Jackson, later Beckett, was part of a new breed of politician.

 

In hindsight, it was the election that marked the end of one political era and the slow birth of a new one. In October 1974, nobody under the age of 30 had yet had a chance to vote for a government led by anyone but Wilson or Heath and these titans of the post-war era would soon make way for the new.

The Sun thought they had found some potential when they compiled a list of ‘the five shining stars of this dreary election’. Shadow Housing Minister Margaret Thatcher, they argued, ‘could be the next Tory leader and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister’

With less than a week to go in the 2019 contest, it remains to be seen whether anyone will break the deadlock or whether this will again be the crisis election that in the end solves little.


 

 

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Sources Used

[1]“Election Under A Shadow.” Times, 19 Sept. 1974, p. 19. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CCnAU4. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[2]The Sun 19thSeptember 1974

[3]By Our Political Staff. “Mr Short should resign, Conservative MP says.” Times, 18 May 1974, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CK92w3. Accessed 22 Nov. 2019.

[4]Wood, David. “Mr Wilson believes Fleet Street is preparing smear campaign.” Times, 21 Sept. 1974, p. 1. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/C34m83. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.

[5]Benn Diary Monday 16thSeptember 1974

[6]The Times September 24th1974

[7]The Times September 25th1974

[8]Daily Express October 2nd1974

[9]Clark, George. “Mr Macmillan joins call for national government of unity.” Times, 29 June 1974, p. 2. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CCjqY8. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[10]“You Cannot Get IT From ME.” Times, 2 July 1974, p. 15. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/C8KnJ9. Accessed 4 Nov. 2019.

[11]The Guardian September 11th1974

[12]The Sun October 2nd 1974

[13]The Times September 24th1974

[14]Daily Express October 3rd 1974

[15]Brittan, Samuel. “Indignant Apathy in the Rain.” Financial Times, 9 Oct. 1974, p. 14. Financial Times Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CCDprX. Accessed 11 Nov. 2019.

[16]“Don’t let them steal it.” Economist, 5 Oct. 1974, p. 13+. The Economist Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/C3uBF3. Accessed 27 Oct. 2019.

[17]The Times October 1st1974

[18]BBC2 ‘Frost Interview’ 2ndOctober 1974

[19]Daily Mail September 18th1974

[20]The Sun October 8th1974

[21]The Sun October 4th 1974

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