Talking Politics 201: Party Like It’s 1974

The Editors

In the latest episode of the Talking Politics podcast, David Runciman, Helen Thompson, Chris Brooke and Peter Sloman look back to the February and October general elections of 1974. A lot of 2019 politics started back then, from the rise of the SNP to the Liberals getting squeezed by the electoral system. But it was different, too: they have stories of campaigning by landline and hovercraft, MPs on acid, naked civil servants and experts being taken seriously. They also discuss the way the 1974 elections led to the rise of Thatcherism and changed British politics for ever.

David Runciman: The bigger backdrop was a state of emergency, effectively. It was tough times, we’re embarking on the mid-1970s, which is the really scary bit of British politics. We’re a year away from people in London clubs chuntering about a coup with Lord Mountbatten as the new head of state, and tanks in the streets in London. Which never happened, for our younger listeners. But this election is happening – we’re not in a state of emergency but there was this feeling that British government was kind of breaking down, a few weeks ago even – some of the parliamentary scenes gave people a sense that there was something quite fragile and not just fractious but actually potentially slightly dangerous at work, and having a winter election symbolises that. I mean, that’s part of what a winter election means: we can’t wait for the sun to come out, it’s too serious. Do we know enough, was there a panicky air around the ’74 election? It feels like a slightly panicky act by Heath, but was there a feeling, in the political establishment, that things were quite hairy?

Helen Thompson: Absolutely, I mean the head of the civil service, Sir William Armstrong, who sometimes got called the deputy prime minister, such was said to be his influence over Heath, he had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the campaign, to the point that he was found naked lying in his office, loudly muttering about apocalypses and the end of the world and the battle between good and evil. And he was taken home, I think he went somewhere in the Caribbean in order to recover.

DR: It is lucky that this was pre-Facebook Live.

HT: But there was a sense – I mean, Armstrong was taking it into this near-biblical state of apocalypse, what was happening, but there was a general sense that the whole way of Western economic life, since the recovery in the 1950s, was on a knife edge, and in some sense falling apart.

Related pieces in the LRB:

Ferdinand Mount on Edward Heath (July 2010)

Stuart Middleton: Reappraising Harold Wilson (September 2016)

Colin Kidd on the 1975 referendum (October 2018)

Ian Jack: Misremembering the 1970s (August 2009)