‘Who Governs Britain?’: The last time the Tories called a snap election…

heath

In between the ‘hey-day’ of 1968-69 and the upsurge in trade union militancy and political radicalism of 1971-74, the 1970s began for the British left as a period of a political plateau, only shaken up by the unexpected election of the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Although Harold Wilson had faced several political problems in the dying days of the 1960s, such as increased trade union militancy, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a burgeoning anti-war movement against Vietnam and some economic woes, it was still expected that Labour would win the 1970 General Election, probably with a reduced majority of seats. However, once the Conservatives were elected to power, Heath introduced a piece of legislation that would transform the labour movement for the first half of the decade. The Industrial Relations Act 1971 created a groundswell of resistance to its implementation and in 1972, the trade union movement, with the lead taken by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), undertook a strategy of continual strike action, which led to paralysed industries.

Britain was thrown further into disarray over the next few years, beginning in late 1973 when the Oil Crisis plunged the Western world into economic shock and the re-election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1974. The Oil Crisis emanating from the Middle East in October 1973 caused massive energy problems for the Western world, particularly in Europe and North America who were facing the start of winter, which impacted upon industry, causing a rise in inflation and living costs. The Heath Government, concerned about conserving energy now that the price of oil had risen exponentially, instigated a three day business week, but was also concerned about an on-going pay dispute with the NUM, which looked threatened access to coal stocks. To break this deadlock, Heath called a snap election in February 1974 with the campaign promise to be tough on trade unions who held the nation to ‘ransom’, with the NUM calling a strike a few days later. The outcome of the February election was a hung parliament with no clear majority to either Labour or the Conservatives and thus another election was held in October 1974, which Labour won with a majority of three. After the February election, Labour ruled momentarily as a minority government and the NUM called off its strike, but Wilson, not wanting a return to the industrial action he faced in the late 1960s and fearing that any strike activity would hinder Britain’s economic recovery, negotiated a ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress that agreed to a voluntary wage freeze and a cessation of strike activity for the short-term future. Many felt that the victories of the early 1970s had not produced their desired effects and that end result of years of militant industrial struggle was a return to the same old Labour Government that had preceded Heath and had now restrained the unions with the Social Contract.

But the crisis that Britain faced in the mid-1970s was not remedied by reinstallation of a Labour government. Despite Labour’s best efforts, unemployment and inflation still rose and productivity declined. The economic crisis compounded the feelings that a political crisis was impending. Wilson suspected that a right-wing conspiracy, with sections of the military and intelligence services involved, was out to unseat him from being Prime Minister. The National Front, as well as the Monday Club, started to agitate for stricter immigration controls and the repatriation of non-white Britons, as well as the elimination of trade unions and the monitoring of those considered ‘communists’ or ‘socialists’. In 1976, the International Monetary Fund agreed to loans to assist the Labour Government, but only on the condition of strict public spending cuts, which exacerbated the problem further and turned many sections of British society away from Labour. This, alongside the view that the Social Contract agreed between the TUC and Labour was on the verge of collapse, placed an enormous burden upon Wilson, who resigned due to ill health in March 1976, with James Callaghan becoming Prime Minister. Increasingly it looked to many observers that Britain was experiencing a crisis of the post-war social democratic consensus and that the bipartisan framework constructed by both major parties in the early 1950s was now falling apart. As Stuart Hall and others from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies wrote, the crisis of the mid-1970s was ‘a crisis in political legitimacy, in social authority, in hegemony, and in the forms of class struggle.’

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