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26 March 2015

Party like it’s 1974: why a book about the Seventies is suddenly relevant again

Simon Hoggart and Alistair Michie's history of the Lib-Lab pact 1977-78 will feel eerily familiar to any student of the Coalition.

By Stephen Bush

Some teenagers want to be rockstars. I wanted to be Simon Hoggart.

I took the commuter railway to and from school, and I started buying the Guardian, believing, I think, that it would make me seem worldly and sophisticated.

As a sketchwriter, what I loved most about his work was that he gave you a sort of illuminating laughter: there was always a revelation concealed within the gag.

I feel I understand politics less well now without Hoggart’s writing, and the wonderful thing about The Pact – and what I enjoyed most about discovering a second-hand copy of it – is that reading it felt like getting another helping hand to decode the troubled politics of the last five years as much as that getting an insight into that short period of multi-party rule from 1977-78.

Then, as in 2010, the leader of the largest party found themselves without a majority in the House of Commons, although James Callaghan’s narrow majority had fallen away, while David Cameron never had one to begin with. Both faced disaster – a coalition of their old rival with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and a series of ragtag leftist outfits – and both found unexpected salvation in the arms of a Liberal.

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The deal that Callaghan struck with David Steel was some way short of the “big, open and comprehensive offer” that David Cameron made to Nick Clegg: there were no Liberal ministers, although they did participate in Cabinet committees, and, with the two parties having so much in common, little in the way of concrete concessions that Steel’s party could say it had won. The electoral fruits of cross-party co-operation appeared to be just as bitter, though.

Just as they would with the coalition negotiations, Liberal MPs emerged with a document “designed to please the Liberal party, rather than the Liberal voter”.  Their own voters saw them as traitors, and the party paid a heavy price in by-elections, with some in the party fearing that the consequence of the Pact would be electoral annihilation.

The Pact’s major player, too, feels eerily similar to the Coalition’s senior partner.  The Prime Minister was significantly more popular than his party, but he also appeared to embody its traditional core, something which probably helped to jolly his party along in difficult times, but also made him inadequate to the task of reforming and modernising his party. The rest of the party was hopelessly riven on European affairs, divided, as the authors put it between “those who are principally concerned with doing the right thing and those who prefer to get on with the job”.  (In worse news for David Cameron, all this faction-fighting happened after a referendum on the subject of the European Economic Community that had been intended to put the whole issue to bed.)

Their hopes for the next election rested on the popularity of the Prime Minister, a patchy economic recovery, and a Leader of the Opposition who seemed just too weird and too radical to ever win a parliamentary majority. As for Thatcher herself, she at times seems as ridiculous and hapless as Ed Miliband ever has: a lesson, perhaps, for those of us who have written off the Labour leader too easily.                 

If that all sounds like too much fun for Labour readers, there are plenty of observations that will provoke more mixed feelings.  “It’s carrying democracy too far if you don’t know the result of the vote before the meeting,” grumbles Labour’s Eric Varley at one point, an attitude to the electoral process that is still alive and well within that party, particularly, as the recent leadership election in Scotland reminded us, among trade union general secretaries.

When the authors finished the Pact, they didn’t know if the Liberals would survive their period of uneasy collaboration with the enemy, if Thatcher’s ideas for economic reform were simply too far from the political centre to be politically successful, and if Labour would be able to convert a period of minority rule into successful single-party government once again.

The names have changed, but the uncertainty remains. Liberal Democrats might take comfort from the fact that, for all their trials, their predecessors emerged from the 1979 election having lost just two seats, although the fact they were defending a mere 13 should temper any Liberal optimism. Labour might hope that the Thatcher precedent means that Ed Miliband, for all his unpopularity in the polls, might not yet be doomed to defeat. And it could yet be that the Conservatives in 2014 are, like Labour in 1978, on the verge of a generation in the wilderness, and that one-party rule will return once more.

But you know: I just don’t think it will. While one of the pleasures of the Pact is spotting the similarities between this last half-decade and those eighteen months of Liberal and Labour co-operation, I suspect that the value of this re-edition will be in as much in what it says about what’s yet to come in British politics, rather than what we’ve just been through. The vain Liberals, tribal Labourites and plotting Conservatives who dominate the book have their modern echoes; but so will the various nationalists and parties of the variegated left that make up the supporting cast. I imagine we’ll come to find Hoggart and Mitchie’s evocation of them just as oddly familiar as we do the parties that make up the Coalition Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition. 

This article originally appeared as the preface to the re-issue of the Pact by Faber & Faber – which you can order here.