I’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the governments of the 60s and 70s, and the parallels between Ted Heath’s snap election in 1974 and the recent debacle created by Theresa May.
The February 1974 election, which ended in a hung parliament, was the first held after Britain joined the EU in January 1973. This latest election was the first held after the vote to leave.
In February 1974, Ted Heath, Conservative Prime Minister, addressed the nation:
Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? […] This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. […] It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it. (wikipedia)
The nation answered with a shrug. Heath’s tactic had backfired and when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals (assuming also support from the Unionist MPs), Harold Wilson became the leader of a minority government.
Wilson called another election in October and won a narrow majority of 3 seats. This was the government that eventually creaked to an end under the leadership of Jim Callaghan in 1974, with sick MPs being wheeled in from hospital for Commons votes.
Regardless of whether you believe the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Wilson government, it’s fair to say that his governments of the 60s and 70s both faced strenuous opposition from the right wing press and were undermined by those ‘enemies within’ in the financial sector. Wilson himself claimed that he was undermined by elements within MI5, and there is a longstanding rumour about a possible military coup, with Lord Mountbatten touted as PM. Was the army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 a dry run? Was the cabinet office and waiting area bugged (almost certainly yes, since the Profumo affair of 1963)?
Whatever happened, the right wing press have painted the 1970s in dark colours ever since as a way of promoting neoliberal ideology and destroying faith and participation in the trade union movement.
When people wax nostalgic about Labour governments passed, they usually turn to the post-1945 government and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But look at the social reforms Wilson achieved in the 60s:
- abolished capital punishment
- liberalised censorship laws
- liberalised divorce laws
- liberalised abortion laws
- liberalised law on homosexuality
- created the Open University
- introduced comprehensive education
- took steps towards gender and racial equality
“1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.” (source)
Finally, and most importantly, under Wilson’s government, the property speculators were squeezed until the pips squeaked and taxes were high, high, high, which kind of explains why landlords, British industrialists, and bankers had an interest in creating as much economic conflict as possible. The 60s and 70s were characterised by lots of industrial action, but as hard as those workers fought, the result was a more equal society and better pay and conditions for everyone. So of course the billionaires behind the right wing press like to paint the 70s as the ‘bad old days’.
The current situation has so many parallels with 1974, you can’t help but wonder if this will play out the same way. At the very least, an October election might be on the cards. But another left wing Labour government being undermined by the bankers, the oligarchs and the security services? Corbyn has “MI5 Plot” written all over his face.