Election cliffhanger brought longest sulk in history

PUBLISHED: 18:26 14 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:56 25 August 2010

AS the country faces the political turmoil of a hung parliament, Kentish Times columnist Bob Ogley reflects on the 1974 general election.

AS the country faces

the political turmoil

of a hung parliament, Kentish Times columnist Bob Ogley reflects on the 1974 general election.

Pundits, the length and breadth of Britain and, indeed, throughout the world, are making strong comparisons between today's political turmoil with that of 1974 when Prime Minister Ted Heath, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, attempted to strike a deal with Jeremy Thorpe and the Liberal Party after the tightest general election in history.

Labour, led by Harold Wilson, won by four seats and the final tally was Labour 301 and Tories 297. It meant the Liberals, with 14 seats, and Scottish and Welsh nationalists with nine, held the balance of power.

Heath, within his constitutional rights, offered Thorpe a cabinet post in an attempted coalition with the Liberals, but bowed to the inevitable when Thorpe rejected the offer. Heath resigned as Prime Minister, yet remained as Leader of the Opposition.

I remember those turbulent days clearly. If the 1970s define an era of uncertainty and hardship in our island story, then 1974 was the bleakest year of all, with Heath struggling to cope with the upheaval caused by the three-day working week, a miners' strike, rising unemployment, industrial unrest everywhere and soaring prices.

Only a few months earlier the miners had gone on strike, causing a crisis that paralysed power stations, railways and - eventually - all industry as Britain went onto a three-day working week. Ted Heath was forced to make drastic public spending cuts and axe one in five of the schools and colleges due to be built in 1974.

The election of February 1974 was fought by the Tories on the slogan: Who runs Britain - the Government or the Miners? It was a debate that raged only briefly because the election campaign was almost the shortest in history and there was a 10.30pm curfew on television - although it was lifted for election night.

With no party having a clear mandate to govern there was unrest all summer.

They included bomb threats against Kent's Conservative MPs, empty platforms during the train drivers' strike, a struggle in town centres between the police and gangs of unemployed youths, smash and grab raids on primary schools, pub landlords appealing to the police to help evict drug-crazed customers and bare shelves in the supermarkets. This was 1974. There was a second general election in October and this time Labour increased their majority with 319 seats to the Tories' 276 - holding onto a majority over all parties of just three seats.

Throughout those nine memorable months there were letters to Kent's newspapers, many from dissatisfied Liberals, calling upon the government to re-examine the electoral system - devised in the 19th century when there was a small electorate and a good deal of illiteracy.

There was no blind loyalty for the beleaguered Mr Heath. With two election defeats within nine months there were calls for him to resign, even within his own party, but he refused until the great leadership clash with Margaret Thatcher, once the Tory parliamentary candidate for Dartford.

The events that followed were riveting to everyone except the MP for Old Bexley. Die-hard Conservatives were amazed that a women should dare to assume the mantle of politicians such as Disraeli, Peel and Churchill.

She won the first ballot, forcing Heath to resign.

She then went on to become the first and only woman leader of a British political party and caused, in the words of a BBC correspondent, the 'longest sulk in history'.

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