History / Politics

‘Petty differences’: Not a government of national unity

This is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s (Aurum Press, 2008)


Both parties were moving away from the centre in 1974. On the Left, Tony Benn was riding high, looking forward to the European Communities referendum he’d brought into being. And on the Right, Keith Joseph was renouncing his past and that of the country: ‘The path to Benn,’ he proclaimed, ‘is paved with thirty years of intervention, thirty years of good intentions, thirty years of disappointment.’

Against this background of hardening positions, there was also a counter-demand for a moderate coalitionist force.

In 1971, a full decade before the SDP came into existence, Benn had identified the trend that would lead to its birth. ‘There is a small group of highly dedicated Marketeers led by Roy Jenkins,’ he wrote of his colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party. ‘This group, working with the conservative Europeans, really represents a new political party under the surface in Britain.’

On New Year’s Day 1975 Jenkins confided to his friend Ronnie McIntosh that he felt his moment of destiny approaching. ‘He wants a coalition government and expects to see one in the first half of this year,’ reported McIntosh. ‘He wouldn’t mind whether Wilson or Callaghan led the new government but made it clear that he would expect to succeed whichever of them took it on – and implied that he would expect to do this quite soon.’

The appeal of a new force was understood in many quarters. At one end of the social spectrum there was Len Fairclough in Coronation Street, who served as an independent on Weatherfield Council and who insisted that ‘It’s party politics that’s strangling this country. It’s out of date.’

And at the other end there was the Queen herself. ‘Different people have different views, deeply and sincerely felt, about our problems and how they should be solved,’ she was to have said in her Christmas broadcast for 1973. ‘Let us remember, however, that what we have in common is more important than what divides us.’ Those words were never broadcast, because Edward Heath asked that the passage be deleted, for fear of it being interpreted politically.

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But in the period between the two elections of 1974, there was renewed talk of the possibility of a government of national unity, bringing together Tories and Liberals, and possibly even the right wing of the Labour Party. Several leading Conservatives, including future members of Thatcher’s cabinets like Nigel Lawson, Ian Gilmour and Peter Walker, floated the idea of a coalition, and some Tory MPs went into the October election with unequivocal statements. ‘I stand for a government of national unity,’ read the pitch from Peter Rost, MP for South East Derbyshire, for example. ‘Our problems can be solved if we drop selfish interests and petty differences.’

Heath himself was clearly attracted to the concept of coalition, and floated the idea of working with other parties in the interests of national unity – but only after, and if, he won the election. And the problem with that was that the people were no longer attracted to him, so while he remained as Tory leader no such coalition was possible; he regarded himself as a unifying force in the country, but the country simply didn’t agree.

Even so, the idea was to remain through to the next decade, sometimes lurking in the depths of political discourse, sometimes forcing its way to the surface.

‘In November 1976,’ wrote Cyril Smith, ‘I called for the foundation of a new party of the centre to be joined, I hoped, by such political heavyweights as Edward Heath, Peter Walker, Shirley Williams, Reg Prentice, David Steel and John Pardoe.’ And behind it all was the reality that this was to be in essence an anti-Benn alliance, so great was the fear of the forces he represented.

‘For the last three years, ever since the miners brought down Ted Heath,’ Smith claimed, ‘there have been long and passionate discussions in all the rooms of Westminster except the chamber of the House of Commons, in the bars, in the restaurants, even in the splendid marble halls of the toilets, about the possibility of revolution in this country. I am by no means the only MP who thinks that it is not only possible, but, in fact, quite likely if the present situation is allowed to drift.’


extracted from Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s

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