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Fifty years on, who governs? Today's disenchantment dates back to 1974

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


February 28, 2024   6 mins

After months of speculation, the beleaguered Conservative prime minister summoned the cameras to Downing Street to make a special announcement. The economy was stagnating and his attempts to bring down inflation had been hammered by an energy crisis. Public sector strikes ground vital industries to a halt. And while some politicians looked towards Europe to boost trade, the deal that the PM had struck was seen as both bad for British business and a “betrayal” of sovereignty. Abroad, newspapers were shocked at how quickly Britain had lost its standing in the world. French and German publications wrote about the economic situation as the “Final Scene of the British Post-War Tragedy”. The New York Times, always eager to stick the boot in, told their readers that Britain was as divided as it was in the much-maligned Thirties.

Calling a general election, the Prime Minister said that there were “grave problems” facing the country “at home and abroad”. He then posed the question: “Do you want a strong government which has clear authority for the future to take the decisions which will be needed? Do you want Parliament and the elected government to continue to fight strenuously against inflation?” With the government seemingly unable to control events, the media dubbed the election a question of: “who governs?”

Far from a prediction of how Rishi Sunak will appeal to the voters at the next election, this was the ultimatum Edward Heath was forced to confront 50 years ago today. Heath had never planned to stake his leadership on a “crisis” election, but running out of options, and with the miners on strike, he felt he had little choice. However, putting the demand of “who governs?” on the table, he turned the election into a much wider debate about Britain’s place in an ever-changing world.

When Sunak and Starmer hit the campaign trail later this year, the same question will be asked about which has the right economic plan to steer Britain out of its post-Brexit malaise. Because, even after 13 years of Conservative rule, there appears to be broad political agreement that the way things are run in Britain needs to change.

Each new Conservative Prime Minister in this parliament has argued for a radical break with the economic consensus of the past.  For Boris Johnson, levelling up was our shot at turning around one the most “imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies” in Europe. Then, Liz Truss declared that her plan to transform Britain into a low-tax, high-growth economy would reverse the “current trajectory of managed decline” which spanned back to the Eighties. Even Sunak flirted with the idea of breaking with Treasury orthodoxy. There are “30 years of vested interests standing in the way of change”, he observed in his speech to party conference last September. “Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline”.

Fifty years ago, Edward Heath had grand ambitions to turbocharge the British economy and make businesses more competitive. Part of this meant bringing back some control to the government by introducing trade-union restrictions. The other aspect involved handing some power to Brussels, by joining the EEC and pooling sovereignty to have greater influence.  “We shall have to bring about a change so radical, a revolution so quiet, and yet so total, that it will go far beyond the programme for a parliament,” he had told the Conservative conference in 1970. Yet competing pressures meant that Heath was unable to deliver it. As the historian Tim Bale has argued, the Heath government brought “derision and despair” by exercising “a series of screeching U-turns” on everything from public spending to nationalisation, pay policy, and immigration.

Just as today, there were many within the Conservative ranks wondering what it actually stood for. “It is fatal.” Enoch Powell argued in one stormy Commons debate, “for any government, party or person to seek to govern in direct opposition to the principles with which they were entrusted with the right to govern.”

Even the most famous Conservative supporter had turned against the party in the face of the U-turns. Alf Garnett was the Marxist-hating, immigrant-bashing, Tory patriot in the hit sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. The show was rooted in the politics of the age with each episode set against heated debates between Alf and his socialist son-in-law about the future of Britain.

When Series 4 aired in 1972, Garnett was delighted with Heath and the rapid rise in house prices, which meant that his “slum” had risen in value from £600 to £20,000. “They’ve only been in office two years!” But by the time the series returned, during the 1974 election campaign, he had lost faith in the Tories. The docks, where he worked, had been ruined by the militants. The BBC had been taken over by Left-wingers (which meant he refused to pay the TV licence) and Heath had gone “barmy” by giving in too easily. Alf longed for the return of Winston Churchill to sort the country out: “He’s worth 50 of that rubbish we’ve got in the Houses of Parliament now!”.

Yet Till Death Us Do Part merely tapped into broader contempt for the way that politicians had failed to deliver on their promises. “Parliament is an increasingly irrelevant charade,” the former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt wrote at the time, a “repository of illusions and a graveyard of talents that is culpably out of touch with the complex needs of modern society”.

As the “who governs?” campaign played out over the course of February 1974, it was clear that the public had little faith in either party’s leadership. Louis Harris, the US pollster, reported that 88% of voters “thought things are going very badly for Britain in the way it is being run”. Yet polling also showed that 60% of voters felt unable to “make their voices heard by leaders”. Election gurus David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh concluded that there was “a realisation that the country faced serious problems but that the parties hardly seemed to match the challenge”.

Most Labour MPs believed there would be no “silver bullet” to turn the economy around. Anthony Crosland, the optimistic author of The Future of Socialism in the Fifties, was now talking about the need for austerity measures to respond to the oil shock. “Domestic living standards must be ruthlessly held back,” he said in a London speech. “Many expectations will be sharply disappointed”. The Shadow Chancellor Denis Healey warned party members that they too would have to pay more taxes. And when Jim Callaghan unveiled Labour’s manifesto in early 1974, he admitted that voters “would not get something for nothing”: “We are all going to have a pretty tough time”.

Critics, such as the veteran political commentator James Margach, couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Labour’s idealism. “In 40 years’ experience,” he wrote in The Sunday Times, “I have never known such an impotent opposition.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the votes were cast on election day, there was no clear mandate for either Heath or Wilson. The Tories received the most votes but Labour won more seats. Neither could put together a majority and when Heath failed to strike a deal with the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Labour were back in power by the barest of margins.

Half a century later, the political atmosphere feels eerily similar. The public is unhappy about the way that successive governments have managed Brexit and its failure to deliver on the economic promise to “level up” Britain. But the discontent is part of a broader, long-term disenchantment with the way Westminster works. In his study Britain since the turn of the century, All in This Together, Alwyn Turner paints a picture of steady erosion in public institutions, from the Iraq War to the financial crash, to the expenses and phone-hacking scandals. Among many others, we can add the Windrush and Post Office affairs to the list, both of which have left the public confused about who is accountable for mistakes that were made.

“The discontent is part of a broader, long-term disenchantment with the way Westminster works.”

All of which brings the question of “who governs?” back to the centre of the national debate. Since becoming Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has alienated Conservative voters by struggling to meet their demands on issues such as immigration. Faith in policies such as the Rwanda Bill are low, with just 1% of voters reportedly believing it will “stop the boats” as he has promised.

Failure to deliver while in office has already forced Conservative figures to think about the question of who governs Britain. Last week, Liz Truss went to America and implied that a “deep state” of “quangos and bureaucrats and lawyers” had brought her down. Closer to home, the former Conservative deputy chairman Lee Anderson controversially claimed that Mayor Sadiq Khan has given control of London to his Islamist “mates”.

All of this points to a government that has lost control of events, just as Heath did 50 years ago. Across the aisle, meanwhile, Starmer’s poll lead means that people are already speculating on how he will govern. The crisis sparked by Covid-19 was “a call to arms” like 1945, he argued in 2020. “I believe people are now looking for more from their government — like they were after the Second World War.” Yet just a few weeks ago, he talked about creating a politics that “treads a little lighter on all of our lives”. Likewise, the appointment of Sue Gray as Starmer’s chief of staff appeared to signal that Labour were preparing for government by looking at how decisions are actually made. But there are already fears that the party is engaging in “expectation management” as they U-turn on a series of pledges, from the bankers’ bonus tax to the £28-billion green prosperity fund. And with each reversal, the chorus of internal critics only gets louder.

Back in 1974, Harold Wilson asked the voters to put faith in him to “bring about a dramatic change for the better in industrial relations”. In a speech in Nottingham, he talked about “thrashing out problems round a table, conciliation, consensus, not this endless conflict and confrontation”. But without a plan for economic reform, his government was unable to achieve those aims. After the Winter of Discontent in 1979, Labour were cast into the wilderness for 18 years. With the party likely to lose its seat in Rochdale this week, and a general election on the horizon, the question of “who governs?” could soon come to haunt its leadership. And while Starmer commands a significant poll lead, it is far from a guarantee of longevity. To achieve that, he’ll have to provide the answer that Wilson and Heath could not.


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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
4 months ago

I’m coming to the depressing conclusion that democracy itself is broken and the only thing that keeps it hanging on is that it’s the least bad of all systems we have.

Everywhere I look there are vested interest groups which make reform impossible. Pensions, social care, housing, welfare, civil service reform, education, immigration, birth rates, the NHS, all have significant voting blocks which are increasingly difficult to form a government or run the country without but make any sort of reform next to impossible. We’re like a car that has lost its breaks and has its accelerator jammed to the floor. The only way to stop is to crash.

As someone whose formative political years were spent railing against the ideological graveyard which the end of history seemed to have inaugurated, I’ve always been opposed to technocratic governance but the system seems to lost all ability to self correct. As one of my least favourite people, Jean-Claude Juncker candidly said “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” I fear now he may have been right. We have accumulated rights far beyond the merits of our responsibilities but this does not matter when we can vote out anyone who would have the temerity to point this out to us.

I dislike the notion of rule by treasury spread sheet and mathematical formula determining our worth but I don’t see how we can continue with a system where we continually vote to take out more than we put in but are enabled to do so by an electoral system which incentivises us to demand precisely that. We are far poorer than we believe but this revelation will only become apparent once our debts become un-payable, likely to those who played very little role in accumulating them. Our political parties are designed only to win elections, not to competently govern.

I once laughed when my mother in law suggested the best course of action to secure yourself against the future was to buy gold and bury it in the garden. Now I might just go get my shovel.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
4 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

“We are all going to have a pretty tough time”.

Can you imagine any politician in Europe today being this honest with the population, never mind the population being adult enough to realise that some serious decisions had to be made ?

We’ve all become like ‘Les Froggies’ who invariably vote for radical change and then go on the rampage to stop any of it happening.

The only thing people want to hear is more and more, faster and faster, while half the population in fact gets poorer and less secure anyway.

I think you’re right; the whole system will have to crash for anybody to take any of the difficult decisions that would be required.

It’s like an end-of-life patient that’s constantly kept alive for just that bit longer to no great purpose, guzzling more and more of the dwindling resources. MAID, anyone ?

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
4 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Bitcoin doing better than gold. Detectorist gangs will dig up your garden

Karen Arnold
Karen Arnold
4 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

That’s exactly what will happen and we will be back in 1979 by the end of their term. I was 15 when Margaret Thatcher was elected and from the perspective of a teenager her message of change looked better than any other option, who will be the new Thatcher and from which party?

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
4 months ago
Reply to  Karen Arnold

I was a bit behind you but thought the same (horrors of the miners strikes aside). My Dad was put out of work by endless strikes and secondary picketing in the 1970’s and had to do a career change to get away from it. I think the UK is on a path to severe failure that will maybe be worse than the 1970’s, and this time we have nothing to privatise in order to pretend to still be wealthy. Whether there will be a Thatcher type of revolution who knows. I’ve this month been contemplating that with the income to house prices ratio I might have to change my pension plans and work to 70 to help the children out. Times like these I stick the middle finger up or laugh when I hear the MOD Walt’s in the media wittering on about conscription lately. The country is a basket case that nobody is going to stand up and fight for. You could fit the Mississippi in the gap between the government/state and the average citizen.

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
4 months ago

This is not that hard. Check my ukpublicspending.co.uk. Britain spent 45 percent of GDP on government last year. Public Pensions: 8% GDP; NHS: 9% GDP; Social Services: 6% GDP.
I say that the modern state is Jobs for Educated Gentry, and neo-slavery for everyone else.
Here in Yankland we have a saying from Apollo 13: Houston, we have a problem.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago

I believe you yanks spend over double that on healthcare (17%), sounds like the Brits are trying to do it on the cheap

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
4 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I rather think that in the U.K. a State monopoly is rationing healthcare through a broken NHS. One might call it levelling down. Just for example compare U.K. cancer survival rates with other OECD nations .

Paul Ten
Paul Ten
4 months ago

‘Post-Brexit malaise.’ Oh dear. I nearly stopped reading there, though to be fair there are a few passing references to other issues near the end of the article. Brexit was itself the biggest decision about who governs Britain since 1974. Time to stop tying all our current problems implicitly or explicitly to Brexit. It’s just boring now.

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

Quite right! Whatever your views on Brexit, Britain is out, and it is not going back anytime soon! Best to come to terms with that!

mike otter
mike otter
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Britain was never truly in IMO. The disparity between our somewhat vague pay to play legal system and mainstream Europe’s more one law for all set up caused friction. The very visible difference is our need to allow the wealthy and powerful to remain unaccountable to laws that apply to the general population, but the details at the sharp end are ofetn unseen and unreported. EG – Horsemeat with meds found in food chain: EU response – big jail time and uncapped fines for culprits. Blair response – passports for horses. There are 1000s of such examples from car parts to food produce. Often serialised in tabloids as “Rip-Off Britain”. Posher commentators harp on about Roman v Common Law – but UKs common law looks a lot like the Kanun i Lec from tribal Albania – meaning its very old, often not written down and when it is its largely gibberish!

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

The failure of our political system to firstly enact the democratically expressed will of the people and then, when it finally did, to look to exploit the benefits rather than find ways to say “we told you so” has had and still has a profound effect on why the wider population is so disenchanted with all parties and the system as a whole.
Since Brexit the EU has shown time and again what a rotten institution it is and how it has no real interest in delivering the best outcomes for the people of Europe. Whilst Britain’s post Brexit malaise is real and responsible in many ways for the way things are here now, the EU’s malaise was there well before Brexit and the downward trend continues. The problem for the people of Europe is it is really hard to see a way out for them, thank god we never joined the Euro.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul Ten

Not just boring. By affirming that Brexit is the most decisive event in the past 30 years, the author betrays a Remainer’s habitual (sad) obsession – and blindness to the true reasons for our current protracted decline and poor governance. The Blair Revolution from 97 – alligned carefully with the emergence of a new Federal EU Big Daddy – recast everything in the 90s. We are witnessing the fruits of the New Progressive State which the (sad) Fake Tories gleefully signed up too. A dismantled enfeebled Executive has been usurped by a vast permanent Regulatory Technocracy (NMIs like Bank of England and OBR), and a new Higher Caste of European and Human Rights obssessed (and Supreme) Lawyers and the chaos of devolution. A Windfalling interventionist Anti Risk high tax State indifferent to the needs of enterprise and whose crass regulators have shattered both the savings and pension industry and the health of the City. Then comes their love of the heroin of mass uncontrolled immigration which has twisted social cohesion and crashed the public sector/NHS . Add in the recent Lockdown insanity (way bigger than Brexit) and their imbibing the EU’s climate and Net Zero hysteria and we find that it is this grim collective of deeply rooted 20 and 30 year old structural problems – in housing energy labour markets – that has sped the good ship Britannia onto the rocks. By 2016 the collision was already set. You cannot fix 30 year problems in a Parliament. Hence the paralysis in both political parties and the same public despair as was felt in 1974.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
4 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Blair was merely a continuation of Thatcher

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
4 months ago

This photo of Keir Starmer keeps popping up on UnHerd articles – it reminds me of something/someone and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think it might be Weed from Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
4 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Flobberpop.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
4 months ago

Who governs? The WEF.
The government, whoever it is, cannot do anything without investment, so it is beholden to the billionaires. The next government, economically, will look like this government.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

Yes and Liz Truss’s ousting by market forces proved this.
If we want true sovereignty we need to take back control of our currency and our capital. Limit the free movement of capital and bring monetary decisions back within the remit of government.
People do not know it yet but it’s not the EU, human rights, woke academic institutions, the BBC etc. that they dislike but rather the post-war economic liberal era shaped to America’s interests.
If you don’t agree with this it is only because you are scared to truly have control. And if you think this is all too high a price to pay for sovereignty then you are just as bad as any globalist liberal who is willing to sacrifice freedom and power for easy weak comfort.

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

Can we stop pretending elected politicians run the United Kingdom? Your average High Court judge or senior civil servant has more political power than half of the cabinet combined.

N Satori
N Satori
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

You cannot avoid the fact that a powerful administrative class is needed to run any sizeable modern nation. American right-wing journalist James Burnham explored the subject in detail decades ago in his influential book The Managerial Revolution. Burnham believed that ‘managerialism’ rather than socialism was the new post WW2 world order.

William Cameron
William Cameron
4 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

We used to run the colonies including India with a staff about the size of Rutland County Council.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
4 months ago

And now there ars as many civil servants in the MoD as soldiers in the army.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago

That’s true, but the colonial state then essentially did very little.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
4 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Correct! But now we can see the downsides of the supposedly modern neutral technocrat Mangerialist system. A now stale closed and detached state funded bureaucracy is easily infected by first corporate lobbying, then by new statist progressive ideological groupthink (DEI anti meritocracy and now degrowth Net Zero Pol Potism) which spread chaos. As with the CCP in Soviet Union and modern day China, the Managerialist grow to realise they are a Higher Caste, a new Class, impervious and now hostile to the grubby people (who threaten their property wealth with ideas like Brexit). The Managerialist Revolution has failed.

N Satori
N Satori
4 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

If only it had failed.
Instead it has grown into a monstrous entity and the real source of power in the world. If you are not part of the degree educated managerial class you’re just little people.
In order to join the system there is now a whole Woke creed to which one must, at the very least, pay lip-service. With soul-searching moral demands (confess to your unconscious bias, check your privilege) it looks more like the pre-reformation Catholic Church than the Soviet Union.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
4 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

We agree about the clerisy. It has failed US as it prospers. It has failed the nation state and people. The fact that its power is permanent and growinv means our suffering will be protracted.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

You can argue that once Ministers refused to resign (or stay resigned) for failures ‘on their watch’ then the responsibility of our elected representatives has been cast aside.

N Satori
N Satori
4 months ago

Broxton quotes the former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt:

Parliament is an increasingly irrelevant charade, a repository of illusions and a graveyard of talents that is culpably out of touch with the complex needs of modern society.

All very grand but some of us who lived through the dismal mid-1970s actually remember that dubious and hypocritical MP (and journalist) Woodrow Wyatt – the original “champagne socialist” fond of hobnobbing with the gentry.

On the subject of Till Death Us Do Part:

…rooted in the politics of the age with each episode set against heated debates between Alf and his socialist son-in-law about the future of Britain.

let’s not forget that the actor chappy playing the son-in-law was Cherrie Blair’s dad.

William Cameron
William Cameron
4 months ago

Labour get elected. ” Gosh we didnt know things were this bad” – “so we cannot do what we promised”.

John Tyler
John Tyler
4 months ago

So true! They’re all the same!

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago

Economically Britain is at the mercy of forces it cannot control and no other country can either. That will however not stop the political parties from lying and claiming they do have the answer. Both will make promises in their manifestos to spend more on certain things based on an assumed level of growth. When that growth does not materialise, both will renege on those promises because they have to.
It is therefore the differences in approach to cultural issues that should be the real discerning factor, as that is what will have made the most difference to our lives by 2029 when we come to do it all again. The Tory record is one of cowardice and being asleep at the wheel, but what Starmer promises is truly frightening. He has his own strange beliefs, which he will look to impose on us all, but more frighteningly his party is so in thrall to all the dark forces of woke that as soon as Labour gains power, most likely with a significant majority, the radical social justice ideologues will run amok.

A D Kent
A D Kent
4 months ago

 Heath’s curtailing of the power of trade unions and handing some of ours to Brussels essentially amounted to the same thing and the upshot of both were a transfer of wealth upwards. It was around this time that the link between rising productivity and wages was broken. It was about this time that the percentage of GDP that went to wages started to decline – from around 60% to now less than 50%.

The government stepped back from any kind of mediating role between the interests of Capital and Labour and essentially took a side. They did so on the basis of economic fairytales of rational actors and free-markets, everything buttressed by clever curves, playschool analogies and a fundamental misunderstanding of money and its creation. From this everything else has followed because markets..

It is now true that There Is No Alternative – because our Establishment mediates against anyone with the courage to prove otherwise. Until everyone who has ever even applied for a PPE degree or an MBA is removed from government (and ideally public life entirely) nothing will change. Governments and states are not shops, their not households, their not PLCs.

Truss’s childish laisse-faire holiday was just a step too far for our Neoliberal Establishment.  

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
4 months ago

Alf Garnett’s son in-law was played by Tony Booth, father to one Cherrie Blair.
Now call me a conspiracy theorist but……..