1974: The Year That Birthed Modern Britain

When I reached my third year studying at university, let’s just say that I was more than thrilled to discover that one of my modules focused on non-fiction writing. As a keen reader of history, politics, and biography, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to research and write about a topic that I believe is understudied or neglected.

As a rare year of two general elections, 1974 has always stood out to me as a defining moment in British history. In fact, the political climate of today was mostly created in that year. I knew there was so much to explore.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. After all, the very generous grade I received for it (a first!) from my great tutor Ariel Khan proved to me just how important the events of 1974 were and remain.

Here it is, sources and all. Enjoy!

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In this post-Brexit Britain, we have this vision of the 1970s. We perceive it to be a decade that paused the swinging sixties before its greyness crumbled and birthed the expressive eighties. Industrial unrest presided, and anti-establishment sentiment grew among the public. It speaks volumes when a chapter from historian Alwyn Turner’s book on the decade is named “violence.”[1] That mood culminated in 1974, the year of darkness that spawned the deep divisions we live with today.

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On the chilled evening of 13th December 1973, the pale man of power spoke to the public.
“We shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war,” awkwardly spoke Prime Minister Edward Heath as the country’s power reserves had faded[2]. He had beaten Harold Wilson’s Labour Party less than four years previously, promising a new age of glory. Instead, power became very limited, and the Three-Day Week began; homes were plunged into literal darkness as the unions held Heath’s government to ransom, demanding more pay in exchange for coal.
The walls of post-war cosy consensus were emerging no longer as a totem of respect but as a cracking relic. The power of the trade unions was growing, and they were far from pleased by both low pay and political animosity. Simultaneously, an oil crisis in 1973 as a result of the Yom Kippur war sent western economies into meltdown and Britain was not excluded.
In January 1972, unemployment hit one million. Heath was “the first dole-queue millionaire since Chamberlain,” a jibe made by Wilson as the country was falling apart; economic booms became elusive dreams[3]. The years that followed may have conveyed a country losing its way, but the public’s anger was unleashed full-heartedly when Heath called an election in February 1974.

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It was a match between the people and the unions, claimed Heath[4]. As the starting gun fired into the grey air, the prospect of a second Heath administration seemed likely. Labour’s divisions over Europe may have been neatly disguised by former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, but the throat-infected leader certainly didn’t shine. Labour’s Tony Benn dictated his depressing thoughts in his diary on 11th February. Its depressive vision deserves relaying in full:

“After lunch I went to Stockwood, the most difficult area in my constituency. It was windy and cold and pouring with rain. What was worrying was that out of the fifteen houses there were three women – housewives between twenty-five and thirty-five – who had voted Labour in 1970 but were impressed by the arguments about the unions, about the miners, about Communists, about militants, about strikes, and about being fair but firm. So Heath’s propaganda seems to be getting across and he is doing it on a big scale.
Came back absolutely persuaded that I would lose Bristol and that there would be a Tory landslide. Now, at midnight, having watched a lot of television and seen Heath doing a brilliant party-political broadcast and Harold floundering away about the price of petrol, I am going to bed tired, exhausted and rather depressed.”

For the man who was to be Industry Secretary after the election, the words were damning[5].
Wilson, although in his mid-fifties, appeared frail. The brightly lit candle of the sixties once stood alongside cultural icons such as The Beatles, but his day had come and gone.
The election was the first instance in modern history when the press truly spread its conservative wings. Five years previously, Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch bought the Labour-supporting Daily Herald, a red-top that was soon transformed into The Sun. Its long history of sniping left-wing figures and parties had begun.
However, the fortunes for the Tories turned around virtually instantly when a certain vocal right-wing firebrand spoke up.

Heath and Powell: Bitter enemies              (Credit – Harris, AP)

Conservative Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968 was a turning point for Britain. It was Powell, a force reckoned to be reckoned with, and admired even by opponents[6], who may have caused the Conservatives to unexpectedly win in 1970, with his rhetoric of “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” [7].
Powell’s true influence came in February’s election. To the shock of Heath, Powell endorsed Labour. It was primarily over Labour’s stance on holding a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC). Its impact was immeasurable as Powell had significant political power among the public. The battle over Britain’s place in Europe began.
Alarming is too calm a word to describe the positive reception many of his views received and he has since become an idol for divisiveness and the extreme right. It should be no surprise that Nigel Farage cites Powell as a hero.

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As discontent with the mainstream political parties grew ripe, other parties and minor fringe movements entered the spotlight. The Liberal Party once governed Britain as the dominant party, but it had fallen into irrelevance and achieved less than a million votes in 1951. However, recent polling had placed the distant third-party Liberals as high as 29%[8]. Leader Jeremy Thorpe dreamed of power for his party once again.
But elsewhere, darker developments were emerging.
Formed in 1967, the National Front came to idolise Enoch Powell’s race comments and launched its neo-Nazi platform to frightening feats for a wicked fringe movement.
“That is the National Front!” cried a Labour member after a hooligan threw a flour bomb at politician Roy Jenkins[9]. This began a new horrific trend of far-right political violence which led to the race riots of the 21st century and the rise of the National Front’s modern successor, the British National Party.
February’s campaign also conveyed protest in the country’s regions, with the Scottish National Party beginning their rise to dominate politics above the border after the patriotic boost of North Sea oil. The union was put under further strain as the old parties of Northern Ireland entered their dying days as extremism from both left and right materialised in the rise of both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists respectively. The grotesque violence spawned by extremism grew and became harder to ignore. The rise of neo-fascism and the riots it produced remain a key memory for those who grew up at the start of the new millennium. The failure to prevent its growth in the seventies divided Britain further.
When the results came after 10 pm on 28th February, it was the first of an ongoing series of anti-establishment polls.

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Simply put, no one won. Labour was the largest party with 301 seats, just four more than Heath’s Conservatives (despite the latter party winning more votes). The Liberals, even though gaining nearly a fifth of the national vote and obtaining over 6 million votes, increased their representation from six to just 14 MPs. Overall, the two main parties lost a combined 14.4% of the vote. The SNP won seven seats, up from one (before increasing their vote share to over 30% in Scotland in the year’s latter election). In Ulster, the unionists failed to unite over devolution as an overture of religious extremism and nationalism commenced and only grew larger as the years passed. It was one of the most important election results in history. While far from destroyed, the Conservative-Labour duopoly had taken a beating; the fringe movements had won.  
Heath acknowledged that a Conservative-Liberal agreement would be required to keep him in power[10]. On the other hand, Heath, the person, had a reliable knack for aloofness. Labour’s Roy Hattersley recalls in the aftermath of the poll[11]:

“I remember Jeremy Thorpe coming out of Number 10 and saying that “he (Heath) won’t give us anything.”

The Prime Minister’s aloof attitude and character cost him his position. When Heath absurdly offered the Liberals just a Speaker’s Conference on electoral reform, a mere sprinkle of power, Thorpe refused[12] and Heath’s career was over.
From when he entered Number 10 in June 1970 to his political demise, Heath had left Britain in ruins, with unemployment soaring and trade-union power growing larger. Margaret Thatcher’s comments that Heath was “one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers” is a laughable façade given their bitter relationship[13]. By the end, the only person who continued to support Heath was himself. Political arrogance claimed another victim.
Britain began to trudge along when, on 4th March, an old face re-emerged outside Number 10.
“Teds ponced it up a bit,” Harold Wilson told his adviser Bernard Donoughue before bathing himself in power once more[14], with the gleam of his 1966 landslide victory buried in the distant past.

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The mess inherited by Wilson’s minority government after four years of Tory rule proved incredibly daunting. However, progress was quickly made. As Wilson’s biographer mentions:

 “Two days after he became Prime Minister, a settlement was announced more or less on the NUM’s terms, and on 7th March notice was given that the State of Emergency would end.”[15]

These words suggest victory, and for a time, that was the case.

6th March 1974 – The crisis is over… or is it?  (Credit – Tides of History)

Labour, terrified by angering the unions after decades of attempted unity with the workers, gave the miners exactly what they wanted. Although polling suggested that the public was on the side of the miners, that was to change in a matter of years. At the start of 1977, a Gallup poll found that 54% of the public believed that Jack Jones, Britain’s most prominent trade union leader, was the most powerful man in the country[16].
Anger towards the unions was one aspect. On the other hand, stagflation, a mixture of unemployment and inflation, continued. The burden of the Heath years was immediately inherited by Labour, presenting the party with a struggle to unbind itself from the image of the seventies.

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With the public’s anger mildly extinguished, little appetite for a second election was shown. Nevertheless, on 18th September, Wilson, with those darkly lined bags underneath his crusty eyes, announced another poll to gain a Labour majority[17]. It was a lacking campaign and one which would bore the modern media. However, there was one moment of wonder. The tired Prime Minister became the centre of an egg-throwing incident in a largely-packed town hall meeting.
“You know, I’ll tell you something very interesting”, Wilson slowly remarked as he wiped the yolk off his crimpled coat.
“During the June 1970 election, after six years of Labour government, somebody threw an egg at me like the man has just done, the one who’s being escorted from this hall. During the campaign a few months ago, nobody threw an egg at me. I think it was an egg-free campaign,” he seemingly rambled aimlessly.
“Which goes to show that you can only afford to throw eggs under a Labour government!” exclaimed Wilson triumphantly as the crowd cheered[18]. It was proof that the sparkle of the sixties titan was still there under the metallic rubble of the seventies.
However, 1974 was not 1966; Labour won a majority of just three seats with a significantly lower turnout than in February. It was to be Labour’s last election victory for 23 years.
Two electoral disasters spelt the end of Heath’s rudderless decade as Tory leader. Margaret Thatcher, former Education Secretary, took on her former boss with characteristic boldness only to win handsomely. Blindly, Heath believed his time would come again.
“One day, he believed, he would recapture that position. . . it was to be a decade at least before he finally accepted that his hope was in vain” writes one of Heath’s more sympathetic biographers Phillip Ziegler[19].
The events of the year culminated in her election as Tory leader. People were fed up as they saw Britain’s sudden decline. Unlike Heath, Thatcher was a natural leader, but many in her party were shellshocked that a woman had been elected their leader. Her gender, however, was not to be the problem. Thatcher took her party in a radically different direction and electorally, a far more successful one. However, the growing gap between the wealthy and the underclass was only going to become more apparent.

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Sadly, the religious divisions in Northern Ireland descended into bloodshed. On 21st November, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) killed 21 and injured 182 in two Birmingham pubs, a move which signified the height of the Troubles[20].
“There were cries of ‘bring back hanging.’ It was four months before I again felt at ease in Birmingham”, wrote Home Secretary Roy Jenkins[21], the man who unleashed a liberal wave in sixties Britain only for it to be submerged in the seventies leviathan.
Northern Ireland’s division over unionism against nationalism, Protestantism and Catholicism, created bloodshed in Ulster for three decades.
The politicians of the day failed to resolve the issue; many went to their graves with the streets of Ulster coated red. Even Wilson himself had a “doomsday” plan which would have ejected Northern Ireland from the union[22], leaving the Republic to clear up the mess. The failure of political leaders over Northern Ireland, along with the acts of the attacks from both sides of the Northern Irish divide, created a vengeful form of politics.
As with the National Front, violence was becoming mainstream and anger instead of concern was the word to describe a vocal sect of the electorate.

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The country before 1974 was very different. That cosy consensus formed after the war had been killed in the space of a year. It remains one of the most important years in British history because of the degradation of the political class, the rise of violence, inflation, and unemployment, all of which led to the Thatcher decade of the eighties. The ugly trends of society fabricated by this era only expanded during the decades that followed as race issues and Europe grew more controversial. As a result, 1974 created a society less at ease with itself.

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References

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Notes

  1. Turner, Crisis? What crisis? Britain in the 1970s, pages 59-76
  2. Heath, “hardest Christmas since the war” speech, 13th December 1973
  3. Ziegler, Edward Heath, page 346
  4. Heath, The Course of my Life, pages 511-518
  5. Benn, The Benn Diaries, page 281
  6. Williams, Climbing the Bookshelves, page 193
  7. Powell, “rivers of blood” speech, 20th April 1968
  8. NOP poll, 13th October 1973
  9. Cockerell, A Very Social Democrat, 1996
  10. Heath, The Course of my Life, pages 517-518
  11. Charman, Heath vs Wilson: The 10-year duel, 2011
  12. Bloch, Jeremy Thorpe, page 395
  13. Ley, BBC News online, 9th July 2016
  14. Charman, Heath vs Wilson: The 10-year duel, 2011
  15. Pimlott, Harold Wilson, page 624
  16. Gallup poll, 4th January 1977
  17. Wilson, ministerial broadcast, 18th September 1974
  18. Richards, The Prime Ministers, pages 31-65
  19. Ziegler, Edward Heath, page 488
  20. BBC On This Day, 21st November
  21. Jenkins, Life at the Centre, page 396
  22. BBC News online, 11th September 2008

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Sources

BBC News. (2005). 1974: Birmingham pub blast kill 19. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/november/21/newsid_2549000/2549953.stm (Accessed on 07/01/2022)

BBC News. (2008). Wilson had NI ‘doomsday’ plan. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7610750.stm (Accessed on 04/12/2021)

Benn, T. (1995). The Benn Diaries. 1st edn. Great Britain: Hutchinson.

Butler, D., Kavanagh, D. (1975). The British general election of February 1974. 1st edn. Toronto: Macmillan Publishers.

Butler, D., Kavanagh, D. (1975). The British general election of October 1974. 1st edn. Toronto: Macmillan Publishers.

Bloch, M. (2014). Jeremy Thorpe. 1st edn. Great Britain: Little, Brown.

Campbell, J. (2015). Margaret Thatcher. Clarke, C., James, T S., Bale, T., Diamond, P. (eds) British conservative leaders. 1st edn. Great Britain: Biteback Publishing.

A Very Social Democrat: A Portrait of Roy Jenkins. (1996). Directed by Michael Cockerell. Documentary. BBC Two.

Heath, E. (1998). The Autobiography of Edward Heath: The Course of my Life. 1st edn. Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton.  

Heath vs Wilson: The 10-year duel. (2011). Directed by Isobel Charman. Documentary. BBC Four.

Jenkins, R. (1991). A life at the centre. 2nd edn. London: Macmillan.

Ley, S. (2016). Margaret Thatcher hailed Ted Heath as ‘great pm’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36745875 (Accessed on 11/01/2022)

MacArthur, A. (2017). The penguin book of modern speeches. 4th edn. Great Britain: Random House.

Mason, R. (2014). Nigel Farage asked former Conservative MP Enoch Powell to back UKIP. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/13/nigel-farage-enoch-powell-endorsement-russell-brand (Accessed on 08/01/2022)

Pimlott, B. (1992). Harold Wilson. 2nd edn. London: William Collins.          

Rallings C., Thrasher, C. (2009). British electoral facts. 7th edn. Total Politics: London.

Richards, S. (2019). The prime ministers: Reflections on leadership from Wilson to May. 1st edn. Great Britain: Atlantic Books.

The Guardian. (2009). 1974: The three-day week. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/gallery/2009/apr/16/past-conservatives (Accessed on 08/01/2022)

Turner. W, A., (2013). Crisis? What crisis? Britain in the 1970s. 2nd edn. Croydon: Aurum Press.

Williams, S. (2009). Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography. 3rd edn. Great Britain: Virago Press.

Ziegler, P. (2011). Edward Heath. 1st edn. London: Harper Press.

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