It was eerie. I had a Friday evening free, fired up a casserole and channel surfed for something better than another yuppie house makeover to watch. And there it was—forty years almost to the day the cusp of change in the British two-party state. Anorak as I am for being able to watch BBC Parliament for more than five minutes without throwing something (including up), here was politics (and broadcasting) in aspic—a whole era of accents, suits and attitudes that looked outdated and seemed as remote as Peel or Disraeli or even Arthur’s Camelot.
Though nobody knew it at the time, the February 1974 UK General Election was the last of a long line of binary tussles between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (not to be confused with Christine Grahame’s Borders constituency) that had driven British politics since the post WW1 self immolation of the Liberal Party. Graphics were hilarious by today’s standards, links were clumsy, with Alastair Burnett and Robin Day desperately picking up pieces and patching in gaps as they anchored a period piece of reporting with ugly cracks and stuffing leaking out the back like an old sofa.
To appreciate its full glory, you had to re-imagine life in the seventies—interrupted by repetitive strikes, living standards wobbling as once-muscular industries were debilitated by the devilish cleverness of Johnny Foreigner. Cities were echoing to glam rock and random explosions as provos and proddies had eternal goes at one another and most of the British Army then deployed to Ulster—to the despair of most of the rest of us. It was not anyone’s finest hour.
So it was weird, if understandable, that half the commentary was about or came from Ulster and the results in its dozen seats. Paisley’s unionists disparaged Fitt’s unionists and both had a go at the struggling SDLP when their real problem came from Sinn Fein. Ian Paisley’s resounding victory was celebrating not with a victory speech but with a psalm. The main story of the election was expected to be the resounding endorsement of Ted Heath’s Tory government who, after suffering years of fractious behaviour from various unions, had called their bluff with an election on the basis of “who rules?”
“Well, not you”, came the people’s response. Yet they also could not raise enthusiasm for the alternative: Harold-Wilson-led Labour who struggled to overturn many Tory-held seats and barely scraped past them with 305 seats to 299. As with every election in modern times until then, the pendulum between the two was all that counted and they totalled 95% of all seats even that time. So, much of the long night and well into the following afternoon was taken up by speculation of coalitions and repeated strutting by Ulster Unionists anticipating the power of being kingmakers.
But there were two spectres at their collective feast. One was the Liberals who, although having a hugely successful election, garnering 6m votes. By spread evenly across Britain as a solid 25% share, they could not translate those votes into seats, winding up with barely a dozen—it was taking over 800,000 votes to elect a Liberal MP. This was discussed across the BBC studio with much wringing of hands and anticipation of voting reform. Aye, right. Bottom line was the Liberals were too weak to be power brokers and the two big party’s stiff indifference still lasts to today.
The other was ignored until well into the following day when the catch-all group of MP’s lumped together as ‘others’ grew too big to be ignored. In this were Selwyn Lloyd the Speaker (whose contest drew much sucking of teeth because both Labour & Liberals had had the temerity to break convention and oppose him) an Independent Labour win at Blyth as a poke in the eye to machine Labour who deselected him for exposing cronyism in the CLP and the usual (at the time) Irish unionist suspects.
This still left an unexpected squad of nationalists—two from Plaid and seven from the SNP—who had gone through rural Tories like a dose of salts, presaging their eventual 1997 wipe-out by 23 years. The import of this was lost on the entire BBC studio crew, who yammered on about LAB/CON swings: none seemed able to escape such binary politics and could only treat Northern Ireland as if it were a separate planet.
So, we had a toothsomely young Esther Rantzen interviewing vowel-mangling Tory toff St John Stevens for holding off his Liberal challenger in Chelmsford, various Tory nabobs dissing the Liberals’ complaint for fairer representation and some frightening union dinosaurs of the era like Jack Jones and Frank Cousins clearly chuffed to see themselves as power brokers now that Heath had thrown down the electoral gauntlet at them.
But there was no outside broadcast interview North of Newcastle, Worse was the level of ignorance displayed, labeling George Reid as ‘David’ and Gordon Wilson as ‘Grahame’. As a piece of metropolitan reporting it is a history lesson both in how simplistically British politics was treated (with the massive, almost kow-towing exception of Ulster) and in how the SNP could build up a significant head of political steam simply by highlighting the complete lack of understanding/sensitivity where Scots were concerned.
Even when the SNP ‘football team’ of 11 was sent to Westminster in the second election in October (that still failed to form a real majority but did unseat Ted Heath and launched Thatcher), Wilson and then Callaghan’s fixation was the cat fight into which British industrial relations had fallen—and that they felt elected to resolve. The naescent surge for independence on the back of North Sea oil was cleverly run into the sand by a scheming Willie Ross as Scottish Secretary and the connivance of the Westminster establishment, culminating in the odious ‘40% rule’ that lost the 1979 Referendum, despite a clear majority.
Watching the whole election unfold explained why so many other things were anguished over but the SNP’s surge was not. As my granny would say: “Aye, they ken noo!”