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21 February 2024

When the lights went out

Fifty years ago, Harold Wilson’s Labour took power in a snap election called to resolve the 1974 miners’ strike. But had the Tories won, would Britain have avoided the worst excesses of Thatcherism?

By Colin Kidd

Received wisdom holds that the decisive turning point in late-20th-century British politics was the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979. It was followed a year and a half later by Ronald Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter in the American presidential election. These two events marked the rise of the New Right. The failures of its supposedly wimpish predecessors – respectively, a paternalistic One Nation Toryism and a liberal country-club Republicanism – had led to the emergence on both sides of the Atlantic of a harsher, more doctrinaire conservatism committed to free markets. That’s the accepted version of history, cherished by Thatcherites, but equally compelling on the left as an account of how and when things went wrong.

The folklore in my own family was different. An abiding memory of an Ayrshire childhood was my parents’ fixation with the “Who governs Britain?” election of late February 1974. That was when the British people were asked to choose between supporting the democratically elected Conservative government of Ted Heath in its battle with the trade unions, or caving in to those unions that had the muscle or expertise to turn off the lights. Literally. Among my recollections from the early Seventies are eerie evenings in candlelight during power cuts, and, when our electricity was off, the exquisite flavour that my mother’s cooking with methylated spirit on a Primus stove gave even my least favourite foods; the tang of meth-enhanced custard remains an enchanting Proustian memory.

Heath did not win his desired mandate from the public, much to the regret of my late father, who worked in a declining sector of heavy industry and would find himself made redundant three times during the Eighties and Nineties. Had the people given their wholehearted support to Ted Heath’s beleaguered Conservative government in 1974, my father felt, Britain might have avoided the callously applied rigours of Thatcherism. 

Unlike Thatcher, Heath did not set out to inflict a bloody defeat on the unions, which he recognised as essential pillars of a decent modern society. Notorious for frosty relations with many of his own Conservative colleagues, Heath enjoyed surprisingly warm personal contacts with trade union leaders. Sympathetic as an undergraduate to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, Heath had gone out to Spain, where he formed an unlikely but enduring friendship with Jack Jones, later the leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. A similar fondness marked Heath’s dealings with his supposed nemesis, Joe Gormley, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). On one celebrated occasion when Heath, as opposition leader in the late Sixties, had invited an assortment of trade union leaders round for a private evening in his flat, they prevailed on the Tory leader – who was a fine musician – to play “The Red Flag” on his Steinway. Heath sincerely desired corporatist accommodation among government, business and unions in the national interest. A progressive Conservative, he had no truck with the uncaring Conservatism of the Thirties, when high unemployment, as he saw it, was deployed as a deliberate instrument of policy.

In stark contrast, Thatcher’s view of the unions – not least after the election of February 1974, when it appeared as though the NUM had brought down the Tories – was resolutely negative and darkly vindictive. Nevertheless, the eventual turn to rigid laissez-faire prescriptions came at the end of the decade when it seemed as though all other options – Heathite corporatism; prices and incomes policies; Labour’s concordat with the unions – had conspicuously failed.

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[See also: The David Cameron effect]

But today the 50th anniversary of the February 1974 election carries other resonances. The dominant issue in the election – as never before or since, until now perhaps – was the country’s energy supply. How was Britain in winter to be kept warm, nourished and entertained? Factories were on a three-day week to preserve energy and the television stations were not permitted to broadcast after 10.30pm. The pall of conflict in the Middle East – the Yom Kippur War the previous October: a surprise pincer attack on Israel by Egyptian and Syrian forces exactly half a century before the events of 7 October 2023 – still hung over proceedings. This was because Western support for Israel had led to an Arab oil embargo and a sudden quadrupling of oil prices by the time of the election. Nor did Britain’s own domestic energy source – coal – provide the answer; for the miners were on strike again in the early months of 1974, as they had been two years before in January and February 1972.

The discovery of oil in the North Sea offered an alternative solution, but only in the longer term, as the industry was not yet set up to bring the oil onshore on a commercial basis. Besides, North Sea oil was no uncomplicated panacea. Rather, it threatened the break-up of Britain by way of the enormous boost it gave to the Scottish National Party. Previously a fringe concern that had only ever won one seat in a general election – the Western Isles in 1970 – the SNP won a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Govan in November 1973, and now campaigned successfully on the very plausible slogan “It’s Scotland’s oil”, winning seven seats in February 1974.

These portents of our present situation serve to remind us of opportunities squandered. How seriously have we taken the question of energy provision in the subsequent half-century? Why has something as fundamental been so marginal in political debate in the decades before the climate crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Except, of course, in Scotland, where the SNP spent almost 50 years promoting a vision of prosperous, oil-based independent nationhood, until in the past decade it pivoted away from fossil fuels to renewables and eventually entered into a governing coalition with the Greens in 2021. But we might also ask how the UK mismanaged this North Sea windfall. Not only did the Norwegians set up a sovereign wealth fund for the long-term benefit of their population, they also managed – incredibly – to extract three times as much public revenue as the UK per barrel of crude.  

That the miners brought down Heath is only a half-truth, for he was under no necessity to call an election in February 1974. Although his government was floundering in what we would now call a polycrisis – strikes and energy worries compounded by rising inflation and the bloodiest years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland – he possessed a healthy majority in a parliament, elected in June 1970, which had a year and a half still to run. But in the enveloping crisis, Heath saw that a new mandate would give him enhanced legitimacy in tackling the problems with which he was confronted. From November 1973 the miners had staged an overtime ban, which exacerbated the effects of the Arab oil embargo. From the start of 1974 power was rationed, and industry went on a three-day week to conserve coal stocks. When the NUM raised the stakes still further in early February by going on an all-out strike, Heath called an election for 28 February.

In another weird foreshadowing of recent experience, contemporaries felt that democracy itself was under threat, though as much from the left as the right. Were the miners in the vanguard of radical revolution? It was hard to tell. The placidly pragmatic Gormley was a non-ideological champion of his members’ material interests, wishing only – as he later recorded – that every miner could have his own house with “a Jaguar at the front door… and a Mini at the side to take the wife shopping”. But the vice-president of the NUM, Mick McGahey, was a communist who called for “agitation in the streets of this country to remove the government”.

In late January Heath’s closest collaborator, the head of the civil service, William Armstrong, began to show serious signs of stress, ranting about the imminence of a communist coup. Rumours abounded that the government would deploy the army to maintain coal supplies. McGahey urged the troops to mutiny if ordered to interfere in an industrial dispute. Geoffrey Rippon, Heath’s environment secretary, feared that the UK was “on the same course as the Weimar government”: runaway inflation would lead to insupportable levels of unemployment, and then what?

Throughout the February 1974 campaign, the polls gave Heath’s Conservatives a consistent lead, and at the election itself they narrowly won the popular vote. The Conservatives took 11.87 million votes to Labour’s 11.65 million. However, in a rare hung parliament, Labour had won 301 seats, edging out the Conservatives on 297 MPs. Heath tried to knit together a deal with the Liberals, who had won six million votes and a mere 14 seats, but was unable to agree to their understandable demands for proportional representation.

At this point Heath’s fair-minded handling of the Northern Ireland crisis also contributed to his undoing. In 1972 he had imposed direct rule from London on an increasingly violent province used to devolved government by and for its Protestant majority. In a huff, most Ulster Unionist MPs at Westminster, who had traditionally taken the Tory whip, renounced their long-standing connection with the Conservatives. In the tight arithmetic of early March 1974, Heath resisted the temptation to woo the seven Ulster Unionist MPs whose support would have brought the Conservatives marginally ahead of Labour. Instead Harold Wilson, who had not expected to fare well in the election, found himself back in Downing Street at the head of an insecure minority government. A further general election followed swiftly in October 1974 which gave Labour a bare majority of three seats.

The February 1974 election was largely decided by a Liberal surge, which took votes away from the Tories. However, the election also witnessed early stirrings of the Eurosceptic cross-party populism which eventually brought us Brexit and the Tory capture of the Red Wall – but with some ironic wrinkles. Heath’s Conservative government had taken Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC) on 1 January 1973, and it was the Labour Party that held out the tantalising prospect of an exit from Europe.

Labour was hesitant about committing itself to a capitalist bloc known colloquially in the UK as the Common Market, and was divided on the issue, between Europhiles such as Roy Jenkins and anti-marketeers led by Tony Benn. Labour went into the election under the wily Wilson with a carefully fudged non-solution that kept both factions on board: the offer of a future referendum on EEC membership. This bare compromise was enough to detach Heath’s most powerful Tory rival, Enoch Powell, from his own party. Powell was already a back-bench politician, having been sacked from Heath’s shadow cabinet in 1968 for his racist “Rivers of Blood” speech, and decided not to run in the election of February 1974. Although not standing as a candidate, Powell made clear in his public pronouncements that he backed Labour’s manifesto promise of a referendum on continued membership of the EEC. Arguably, the populist Powell had brought Heath unexpectedly to power in the election of 1970, and unmade him in February 1974. 

Although race and immigration played a limited part in the election itself, there were reverberations then – and now – from the antipathy of recently independent African governments to the Asian populations that had arrived during the era of colonial rule. Indians in Kenya faced a hostile “Africanising” environment, and many, including Suella Braverman’s father, emigrated to the UK.

Things were immeasurably worse in Uganda. In August 1972 Uganda’s dictator, Idi Amin, who had seized power the year before in a military coup, expelled the country’s Asian population, giving them a mere 90 days to leave. In the course of 1972-73 around 40,000 Ugandan Asians – the majority of whom were British passport holders – came to the UK, including the parents of Priti Patel. An opportunistic Powell – still at that point a Tory MP – proclaimed that “people were rightly shocked at the prospect of 50,000 Asians from Uganda being added to our population”.

Heath knew that the influx of Ugandan Asians was electorally unpopular, but – as in other areas, such as Northern Ireland policy – put duty ahead of political expediency, and set up a Uganda Resettlement Board to assist these unwanted refugees. But the decencies of Heathite Conservatism have long since evaporated. Douglas Hurd – Heath’s political secretary for most of his time in Downing Street, later a cabinet minister under Thatcher and Major – has bemoaned the gradual displacement of Tory concern for the less well-off by what he calls the “sour right”: tight-fisted, mean-minded, xenophobic. Such sourness is no longer – as it was in the era of Powellism – the exclusive preserve of angry white gammons. Fifty years on, the children of the displaced Asians of Kenya and Uganda are among the loudest Conservative voices against immigration.

In retrospect, both Conservatives and Labour have been twisted out of shape in the subsequent half-century. When Egypt and Syria launched their surprise attack on Israel in October 1973, Labour was loud in support of its fellow socialists in Israel. Heath – the least Atlanticist of our prime ministers – was acutely aware of Europe’s energy dependence on the Arab world, and during the conflict tried to steer a middle course between the two sides. The supposed even-handedness of an arms embargo on both sides in the conflict hit Israel harder. The UK government refused to resupply the Israelis with munitions for the Centurion tanks which it had earlier sold to them. As a result, Wilson accused Heath of “dishonouring contractual obligations at the very moment of Israel’s greatest need”.

The two members of Heath’s cabinet who found it hardest to swallow his Middle Eastern policy were the Jewish politician Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, the MP for Finchley, a London constituency with a large Jewish population. Within a year Thatcher and Joseph – for reasons unrelated to foreign policy – were to become the most prominent opponents of Heathite corporatism. In the course of 1974 the masochistic Joseph came to regard himself and his Conservative colleagues as prime contributors to our economic malaise. Labour was worse, but sentimental Tory paternalists like his former self, he argued, also bore heavy responsibility for the decline of Britain. This uninspiring tendency to self-laceration – combined with his outspokenness and eccentricity – ruled Joseph out as a contender for the Tory leadership. Instead, Thatcher headed the free-market insurgency, replacing Heath as opposition leader in 1975.

However, this turn towards a more grimly – and supposedly – “realistic” political economy did not go far enough; it ignored the limits nature imposed upon growth. The most influential environmentalist of the day was, strangely perhaps, a former National Coal Board adviser, EF Schumacher. In Small Is Beautiful (1973), Schumacher warned that, in accounting terms, it was wrong to treat fossil fuels as income, when they formed part of an irreplaceable trove of capital – something which ought to be carefully conserved for the future. Schumacher worried about resource depletion not global warming, though he also warned that ever-growing pollution was testing nature’s resilience.

The election of February 1974 served for a moment as a fire bell in the night, drawing the attention of politicians to the fundamental importance of energy in sustaining our way of life. But that anxiety soon passed, as did Ted Heath’s vision of a progressive, corporatist Euro-Conservatism.

[See also: The white heat of politics]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation