In the 20th century, the two governments with the smallest winning majorities were Labour. The election of February 1974 was, in effect, a draw. Both major parties saw their share of the popular vote fall, and the Tories were some 200,000 votes ahead of Labour. However, with 301 seats to 296, Labour were the largest party in the Commons. Heath tried to broker a deal but, wisely one might feel, neither the Liberals under Jeremy Thorpe, nor the now separate Ulster Unionists, would not play ball.
Harold Wilson thus formed a minority government. Wilson had won a tiny majority in 1964, as explained here; in 1966, he went to the country and won a handsome victory. In October 1974, he tried the same trick. In some ways it was a result very similar to Cameron’s. Labour had a majority of 3, and polled 39% of the popular vote. The circumstances were, though, very different. Some were similar. These were not the easiest of times, for example. Nonetheless, whereas Cameron will, rightly, have been both jubilant and feeling more than a little vindicated, Wilson was not on a high. He had led two Labour governments before falling to another of those unexpected Conservative victories (more of which here). To say that the Labour Party was fractious and difficult to lead is something of an understatement. It was riven with bitter divisions between left and right which were often interlaced with personal rivalries and hatreds.
The most bitter division of all was over Europe. There were anti-EEC Conservatives, most notably Enoch Powell, though in 1974 so bitter was his Europhobia that he actually recommended voting Labour; however, the cohesion of the Tory party was not threatened by the issue. The unity of Labour was. Wilson’s solution was typically ingenious, and again perhaps typically, more of a political sleight of hand than a genuine process. I will look at the referendum of 1975 more fully, as will many others no doubt, but what the referendum did achieve was the trick of finessing the European issue and, most importantly, holding Wilson’s government together.
There were other reasons for Wilson’s political decline, but the experience of trying to hold a government together in the face of the referendum and bitter internal divisions, all with a tiny minority, did much to break him. The Wilson of 1976 (seen right, with Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins) was a long way from the confident operator of the 1960s. His retirement has always been shrouded in rumour and even paranoia. In part though, it was simple exhaustion.
It wasn’t long after Wilson’s resignation that Labour lost its majority. The government survived initially thanks to a Lib-Lab pact, a confidence and supply deal with the small Liberal group. Subsequently, it depended on ad hoc deals with the Scottish Nationalists and the Ulster Unionists. Meanwhile, the country faced a major sterling crisis which prompted a somewhat panicked and not entirely necessary recourse to the IMF, which saw the government abandon Keynesianism, introduce sharp spending cuts and a deal with the unions to limit wage demands.
With the most bitter of all ironies, the government’s downfall came in part at the behest of the Scottish Nationalists, in part thanks to the trade unions and the infamous winter of discontent (depicted right), and in part thanks to its traditional ally Gerry Fitt of the SDLP.
James Callaghan’s government had already survived a vote of no confidence in October 1978, after buying off the Ulster Unionists by promising Northern Ireland more parliamentary seats. In an earlier deal, the government he won the support of the eleven Scottish Nationalists by promising a referendum on devolution. However, a number of Labour MPs were unhappy with the idea. Most famously, Tam Dalyell posed the West Lothian question in 1977. More importantly, the government was forced to accept an amendment to the bill placed by a Labour MP, George Cunningham, requiring the Yes vote to be not merely a majority, but also be at least 40% of the Scottish electorate. The 51.6% majority for yes was only 33% of the electorate.
When the government, as a consequence, did not move to implement devolution, the Nationalists put down a motion of no confidence, which was in turn over-ridden by one moved by Margaret Thatcher. Talks with Enoch Powell and the Ulster Unionists floundered. The dying Labour backbencher Sir Alfred Broughton was willing to vote, but Callaghan was not willing to countenance that: Broughton died four days later. Attempts were made to win over the Liberal Clement Freud. The last hopes were two Irish nationalists. The key man was the SDLP leader Gerry Fitt. Normally, the SDLP was pro-Labour. However, Fitt detested the strongly unionist Northern Ireland Secretary, Roy Mason. He could not be moved.
Famously, Callaghan joked that the minority parties were, in effect, turkeys voting for Christmas. At the root of it lay the problems of minority government, which were in turn a product of that narrow win on 1974. The consequence? The most important British election since 1945, and the age of Margaret Thatcher.
There is an excellent BBC programme of the fall of the Callaghan government. If you follow the links, there is also coverage from the night.
1 thought on “The Joy of Small Majorities: Labour & 1974, & the end of Consensus”
The clip is BBC TV at its best.