Party like it's 1974

We talk about the current election by talking about two previous ones: the February and October general elections of 1974. A lot of 2019 politics started back then, from the rise of the SNP to Liberals getting squeezed by the electoral system. But it was different too and we have stories of campaigning by landline and hovercraft, MPs on acid, naked civil servants and experts being taken seriously. Plus we discuss how the 1974 elections led to the rise of Thatcherism and changed British politics forever. With Helen Thompson, Chris Brooke and Peter Sloman.


Talking Points: 


The election of February 1974 was the last winter election.

  • The Conservative Edward Heath called the election, and tried to frame it as ‘Who governs Britain?’
  • The election took place amid the National Union of Mineworkers strike, increased oil prices after the Yom Kippur War, and concerns about inflation. 
  • Heath’s policies were not aligned with the kind of election he wanted.


The bigger backdrop was a deep sense of political uncertainty. 

  • Sir William Armstrong, the head of the civil service had a nervous breakdown.
  • Enoch Powell encouraged people to vote for Labour. This act was at least informally coordinated with Wilson. 
  • Europe was also in the background.


‘74 was a Liberal surge election under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe.

  • The Liberals broke the two party stranglehold on voters.
  • Northern Ireland and Scotland also became electorally distinct. 
  • The SNP significantly increased their vote share.


The election, which was set up as a binary choice, created an even more fragmented government.

  • Heath got the first go at forming a government, but he miscalculated.
  • Wilson knew this, and called the Liberals’ bluff.
  • Wilson and his cabinet were incredibly experienced. Corbyn and his team are less so. 
  • Wilson had the luxury of waiting for a majority, but the Brexit timetable makes this impossible for today’s Labour party.


Mentioned in this episode:


Further Learning:


And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here: lrb.co.uk/talking

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