History / Politics

‘A silent majority behind their lace curtains’

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edward Heath. So here’s an extract from Alwyn Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? about Heath’s election as prime minister in 1970…

The 1970 World Cup was the first to be televised in colour in Britain and the viewing figures broke all records. The TV audience for the Brazil–England group match exceeded that for the 1966 final, whilst the quarter-final against West Germany was even more successful, attracting thirty million viewers for a game staged in the midday heat of Mexico to ensure prime-time coverage back in Europe. The majority of those viewers were to be disappointed.

With just over twenty minutes to play, England were 2–0 up and seemingly on course for their destiny, but, with Bobby Charlton substituted and with goalkeeper Gordon Banks sidelined due to a stomach upset, they proved vulnerable to a German counter-offensive, and went down 3–2 after extra time. The England team duly caught the next plane home, having played what turned out to be their last World Cup match not just of that campaign, but of the whole decade.

The massive interest at home was despite the fact that the public had been spared the worst excesses of jingoistic hype, thanks to a national newspaper strike that had wiped out coverage of the group-match against Czechoslovakia and the entire build-up to the Germany game.

Unfortunately for prime minister Harold Wilson, the strike ended the day after the quarter-finals, just in time for the post-match analysis of England’s exit from the competition, and for the full shock of defeat to be registered. In his calculations, he had counted on England reaching the final again, and had called a general election for the day after the semi-final, when euphoria was expected to be at its peak. Now that seemed a very foolish gamble indeed.

And at least one person picked up on the parallels: ‘Thinking of strange reversals of fortune,’ wrote a correspondent to The Times, ‘could it be that Harold Wilson is two-nil up with twenty minutes to play?’

The analogy was entirely appropriate. Wilson had gone into the election with every confidence. Both before and during the campaign the opinion polls – despite the usual inconsistencies – had suggested that a Labour Party victory was inevitable, and most of the media speculation concerned who would replace Edward Heath as leader of the Conservatives when the electorate rejected him for a second time.

All the indications were favourable for Wilson and, to stack the odds still further in his favour, he was expected to be the beneficiary of the extension of the franchise to eighteen-year-olds (following the policies of Screaming Lord Sutch, who had stood against him in 1966 for the National Teenage Party), since it was thought that youth were more likely to vote Labour than Conservative; in fact, the additional 1.8 million voters made very little difference, save to reduce the turn-out to a record post-war low.

There were, however, dissenting voices. ‘I have a haunting feeling,’ wrote the outgoing employment secretary Barbara Castle in her diary the weekend before polling day, ‘that there is a silent majority sitting behind its lace curtains, waiting to come out and vote Tory.’

And it turned out that she was right and the pollsters were wrong. The Conservatives won a decisive victory, sending Heath into Downing Street and Wilson into confusion: ‘The opinion polls have a lot of explaining to do,’ he declared in the early hours of that Friday, as the extent of his defeat became apparent. Others too were feeling perplexed; typical was Annie Saunders, a 55-year-old voter from Sheffield, who was quoted as saying: ‘I would have voted Labour, but I saw in one paper that the opinion polls gave them a nine per cent lead. I didn’t think, in view of the opinion polls, they would miss my vote. It just goes to show how misleading they can be.’


The nature of the incoming government was not entirely clear. In January 1970 Edward Heath and the Tory shadow cabinet had held a policy meeting in the Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon. Out of the weekend’s discussion had emerged a set of proposals that were to become the bones of the Conservative Party’s manifesto, A Better Tomorrow: tax reform, law and order, trade union legislation, immigration, a reduction in public spending, no government support for failing industries (so-called lame ducks) and no statutory incomes policy.

It didn’t, in truth, amount to a fully coherent philosophical platform, but Wilson was eager to give it that status. ‘Selsdon Man is designing a system of society for the ruthless and the pushing, the uncaring,’ he declared, as though outraged. ‘His message to the rest is: you’re out on your own.’ It was intended as a scare tactic but it had the reverse effect, as the Tory education spokesperson, Margaret Thatcher, was later to note: ‘It gave us the air of down-to-earth right-wing populism.’ Right-wingers were to cite Selsdon Man for years to come as being evidence that Heath’s agenda had prefigured the Thatcherite revolution, while Heath’s own supporters insisted that it was all a figment of Wilson’s fevered imagination.

That debate and its ramifications were to echo within the Conservative Party into the next decade and beyond, but in 1970 few people really noticed. The complaint was not that the Tories had adopted a hard-right position, but precisely the opposite, that there was so little to choose between the parties.

The Liberal Party issued a campaign poster that depicted Wilson and Heath as identical twins, asking ‘Which twin is the Tory?’, and underground rock group the Edgar Broughton Band echoed the thought, producing a poster of a cartoon by Ralph Steadman that showed the two men’s faces as a pair of buttocks, and the slogan ‘Why vote? It’s a double cross!’

Delegates to the Labour Party’s post-defeat conference at the end of September returned again and again to the same theme: ‘When people say they could not distinguish between us and the Tories, it is a dreadful indictment, and it is vital that they be left in no doubt next time,’ said one. ‘If we are to get the votes back, we must establish a clearly defined sense of socialist purpose and ensure that the edges between the two parties are no longer blurred,’ added another. Out of this confusion were to be born the moves to the left by the Labour Party and to the right by the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, the nation was adjusting to its new prime minister. Born just a few months after Wilson, and sharing his grammar school and Oxford background, Ted Heath seemed an extension of the technocratic meritocracy of his predecessor, though somehow even less rooted in a class system.

He once admitted that he had ‘a hidden wish, a frustrated desire to run a hotel’, which made some kind of cultural sense. Where Wilson self-consciously evoked the Northern humour and warmth of Coronation Street (he visited the set in the run-up to the election and sang a duet with Violet Carson, who played Ena Sharples), Heath seemed more akin to the soulless anonymity of the Crossroads Motel. He was also a much less familiar face for the general public, largely because his principal job in previous Tory governments had been as chief whip, though he had also led the unsuccessful negotiations to take Britain into the European Economic Community.

All that was really known was that he had an interest in classical music and that he was the skipper of the Morning Cloud, which in 1969 became the first British boat to win the Sydney–Hobart race since 1945, an achievement that, he said, had shown Australia that the British were ‘not quite such a decadent people after all’.

It wasn’t much of an image, but then Heath was apparently little concerned with image, keen instead to distance himself from the populist tendencies of Wilson in the 1960s.



2 thoughts on “‘A silent majority behind their lace curtains’

  1. Pingback: A long month in politics | Lion & Unicorn

  2. Pingback: Labour leadership elections: Part 3 | Lion & Unicorn

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