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Harold Wilsons Minority Queens Speech

28 Jun

…and its dodgy advice.


There never seems to be a situation in British Politics that we haven’t been in before. In 1974 Harold Wilson was given the opportunity to lead a minority Government. Of course Wilson had been in opposition in February 1974, however like Teresa May Harold Wilson was confident of passing a Queens speech. Wilson did not seek agreements with any of the minor parties, and it is likely none would have been keen to do so. The Queens speech was set for 12 March. Wilson understood that his tenure leading a minority administration was likely to be short, and that much of the manifesto commitments wouldn’t be enacted. However, he also didn’t want to table a mini queen’s speech. Indeed, Wilson wanted to act big and put much of the legislation down even of it wasn’t going to get passed into law. The electoral cycle continued! (and Teresa May seems to be following by tabling a 2 year Queens Speech). Most of the Cabinet expected another election by the end of the year.

Heath as leader of the opposition warned that they would seek to defeat the government on the speech and force Wilson out of office. Wilson was adamant that he would seek a dissolution if this occurred.

The Civil Service though gave Wilson quite a lot of duff advice. Robert Armstrong advised that if Wilson lost a confidence vote the Queen might send for a senior figure to form a Government ( Jenkins/Whitelaw) . Armstrong and Crowther Hunt (his Minister at the Cabinet Office) argued against resigning in the event of defeat. Indeed, Crowther Hunt wrote the first draft of a note to the PM on the train into work on the morning of 15 March.

Crowther Hunt saw 2 alternate courses of action if a Conservative amendment was carried. Alternative A was to simply ignore the vote and Alternative B was to call a confidence vote. If defeated in the confidence cote Crowther Hunt advised Wilson stay put and ask for a dissolution. He then uses some fairly dated commonwealth examples of the risk the Queen would have in saying no. Namely that if Heath couldn’t form a Government (which he couldn’t) there would need to be a dissolution anyway. Crowther Hunt thought the Queen would be acting constitutionally improper to call for say Whitelaw or Jenkins to try and form a Government, given the accepted practice of electing party leaders. Crowther Hunt thinks the only way the Queen could refuse would be to call a Round Table Conference to seek all-party agreement, but even then he sees it as a precursor to dissolution.

Crowther Hunts memo then gets the Armstrong tinkering and is slightly expanded for Wilson. Armstrong adds 2 other alternatives as a subset of the defeat on a vote of confidence, namely forming a “broad based” Government and advising the Queen to appoint Heath as PM. These are then instantly dismissed as not being what Wilson is interested in. Armstrong though doesn’t give up, he adds a paragraph that says the Queen would be looking to avoid another election and that she might take soundings amongst good Tories. She would be reluctant to so so with Labour as it “would be hazardous in the extreme”. Crowther Hunt notes his view that the Queen wouldn’t call someone else to form a Government but Armstrong is less certain. Perhaps he’s hoping rather than being rational? There’s even a suggestion that the Queen might then enter into a complex game with Wilson testing his nerve around the dissolution versus a Whitelaw style Government. Wilson would need to consider his position in relation to the “Government of National Unity” a favourite idea for many in the early 70s.


4 days later Armstrong came back with a confession. After being pressed by Crowther Hunt on the precedents Armstrong realised he had cocked up. His understanding ( i.e. advice) to not resign after losing a vote on an address was based on a misunderstanding. He was using the precedent of Peel being defeated on an amendment in 1834, who didn’t resign on that but on a later defeat on an appropriation resolution (supply in modern DUP terms). Defeat on the amendment have been seen as confidence after all. His draft note on this claims both he and Crowther Hunt believe this doesn’t change the earlier advice. The final note only relies on Armstrong being confident on this manner.


The actual speech featured a youthful Neil Kinnock as one of the 2 star opening turns, Nigel Lawson wondered if Zetland might declare UDI and the ever popular Dennis Skinner wondered of the Liberals had gone off streaking.


In the end Heath didn’t call for a division on the speech but instead the amendment to the vote was defeated by 295 to 21 with the Conservatives abstaining. On 18 March.







The Time of His Life , Dennis Healey, Silly Billies and Molly Sugden

30 Oct

I am an avid consumer of British politics in the seventies, and so can’t believe I have only just read Dennis healey’s autobiography. Healey goes by the title of the best Prime Minister we never had, which is of course a meaningless phrase. How do you test such a thing. How do we know that he or Rab Butler or Roy Jenkins or any of the others who share his title would have been any good. Its a best losers prize really. I incidentally think I am the best Prime Minister we never had, and also the best opening batsmen that never was.

Healey is rather contemptuous of his rivals. Jenkins, Foot,Callaghan and Wilson were all busted flushes. Tony Benn though gets most of his disdain, and the little bit left over gets doled out, rather unceremoniously to Stafford Cripps.

Healey is famous for being a bit of a bruser. He was a plain talking chancellor in the 70s , tabling a budget every couple of months, dealing with the IMF, shouting at Trade Unions. So much of this fails to come across in his book. He seemed more interested in being Defence Secretary than Chancellor. Doing it because no one else could. He had the same approach to breeding his goldfish !

Of course he isn’t really famous , and isn’t famous at all for being a bruser. Its sort of made up. Like Silly Billy. He never said it, Mike Yarwood did. Then he stole it. Imagine stealing Mike Yarwoods material. Silly billy was a parliamentary joke well before Healey though. There was a bit of a scrap about in in 1887. In 1976 the Prime Minister was asked if Healey was a silly-billy . He didn’t answer. Edward Garner called himself one in 1998. Healey also never wanted to make peoples pips squeak. Again I think I would have preferred it if he did.

He decided to drop the Punk Monetarism insult because his kids told him it was insulting to Punks.

He was a light entertainment politician, despite his real interest being in the classical sphere. I remember him turning up on any old guff in the 80s, some memorable, most not.

Oh and he went to the same school as Molly Sugden.

Benn and the Referendum

13 Apr

I have written before about Tony Benns Diaries, which are a wonderful read. He was of course a key player in the 1975 EU Referendum.

In November 1970, Benn wrote to his constituents suggesting the idea of a Common Market ( remember that ) referendum. Harold Wilson told him he couldn’t do it( suggest it ), but when it came to shadow cabinet Callaghan famously calls it ” a little rubber liferaft which we will all be glad of in a years time”. By January 1971 he is trying to convince Roy Jenkins of the merits of a referendum, but Roy fears it will split the party ( argh what foresight ). On the 29th of March 1972, the shadow cabinet votes 8 to 6 to support the idea of a referendum. A week later Benn”phoned Rupert Murdoch about the referendum, thinking it was about time I got some press support.”On the 7th of April he meets Murdoch, who is opposed to the idea “because he is in favour of entering Europe”. Oh how times changed.

Then Roy Jenkins resigns and blames the referendum idea.By 1975 back in Government Harold Wilson announces the referendum and the idea that Ministers will be able to speak and vote as they choose fit. Cabinet on the 18 March though voted to accept the renegotiate terms by 16 to 7.Two days later Wilson is furious at those anti-marketeers. He had assumed they would have a spokesman but instead they have used the ability to speak to , well , speak.

The referendum itself was held on the 5th of June. Benn sends the morning shouting “No to the Common Market” through a loudspeaker, being driven around Bristol. The following Monday Wilson offers Benn the role of energy ( from Industry) a demotion at best. Unsure of whether to accept Benn tries to contact his wife who is in a meeting, her”first thought was that I had been assassinated, which in a way I had”. The next day he accepts but the anti-marketeers are routed in the reshuffle. “Wilson gives Benn’s head to the City” runs the Guardian.

That Option No Longer Exists – Review

10 Apr

Theres a lazy narrative that lives amongst us and will no doubt be cast around by many over the coming weeks as the UK gets ready for its Referendum on being in the European Union. Its something more than nostalgia for the 70’s, it’s that we in essence own, or are sold, a very narrow view of the 70’s. The European Union referendum will become nothing more than a rerun of an event that happened to Harold Wilson. A Prime Minister with a whiff of scandal, whose got limited time left in office, a slender majority, presenting a negotiation that is really pretty weak, it’s a short-term distraction for the underlying issues, which go on to rip the party apart, repeat to fade.

Last years UK Election threw up similar patterns. There was going to be chaos and uncertainty, it was all going to be 1974 again. Despite legislative changes we were certainly going to see another election in months, Milliband was Wilson or Heath The SNP were the SNP, it’s all chaos , no one wanted to be Jeremy Thorpe but ah well. Then the result came in and we quickly had to get al 1992 again. It was of course just like 2015, but we love to own the definition of our recent past.

The established 70’s narrative runs as Heath as Mr Punch, Wilson as Judy ( Then Callaghan ), Thatcher’s the policeman, the Unions are crocodiles, flash up some pictures of striking bin men and Punks then we can get onto the 80s when we were all saved.

Medhurst addresses some of this gloss in his excellent short book on 1974-76. Socialism was still a viable vehicle for the Labour party, Unions and a myriad of other groups and people as well. What stands out isn’t that thousands of workers stopped work to demand a shipbuilder remain open, but that the Government ploughed on, missing the vision that was contained in some of the alternative economic strategies and the workers carried on. These weren’t groups trying to sustain lame ducks but trying to sustain industry. This all gets airbrushed out with pictures of Tony Benn as a swivel eyed loon( whatever one of those is). Jimmy Reid comes across more of a Gandhi than Lenin figure, but you’d never get that from most accounts.

Like other European countries, Italy in particular, the secret state was trying to establish itself. MI5 were acting as lone agents during Britain’s own years of lead. Civil society comes under immense pressure from a sinister right-wing cabal. As in many other times Northern Ireland showed how the British secret state chose to operate with subversion, terror, complicity and underhand behaviour.

The attempts to establish alternative ownership and industrial models were a key challenge not only between the Government and the Civil service/Industrialist/the media but also within the Labour movement and party. The power of the Treasury was aimed to achieve one thing – right-wing economic liberalism. Benn and Foot were tarnished by the right wing media through this process, by claims they wanted to establish something like Allende’s Chile in Britain. Allende it is often forgotten was democratically elected. While the Conservative party supported and continue(d) to support Pinochet whose Coup was clearly an affront to Democracy, seemed to be unremarkably controversial to the media( and remains so to this day ). Even more confusing the story quoted by Medhurst was written in the Daily Express by Walter Terry who was the lover of Harold Wilsons political secretary Marcia Williams.

Of course this about much more than the Alternative Economic Strategy. Medhurst provides excellent context to the period but not by quoting old episodes of the good life. Many of the socio-political ideas that were developing then did find some form of survival, even if it was in a different form.

Medhurst shows the juxtaposition between 2016 and 1975 on the Referendum, one missing from contemporary narrative. The pro EEC campaign was favoured by all corporate interests, funded by the banks and gushed over by the media. You can do your own compare and contrast. The EEC referendum did provide Wilson with one last wind in his sails, he in effect sacked Benn and let Healey carry monetarism forward. When the IMF crises came, his wonky Treasury numbers brought us Austerity and things have been cyclical around austerity and sugar ever since.

What can contemporary left leaders learn from this , perhaps its the need for hegemonic revolution, perhaps not. I personally still have a desire to write my own book on the 70s though this book has made my task a little harder !

Harold Wilson

21 Mar

Everyone it seems will be going a bit wild for Harold Wilson this year. 100 years just passed since his birth, 40 years will soon pass since his “mysterious’ resignation and the EU Referendum puts Wilsons 1975 affair on everyones list of things to quote.  Harold Wilson will always hold a special part in my affections. Growing up he seemed like a mythical creature, a Labour party leader who won elections, 4 of them no doubt. A leader who was funny ( not as funny or witty as I imagined when I later looked into it but compared to the 80s ), a Leader who walked away from it all and may or may not have been spied on by his own state. Wilson got me interested in politics, what it is,what it could be and how crushingly depressing it can be.

You have to realise that growing up in the 80s as someone with something resembling left wing tendencies, watching the spy catcher affair unfold, just made me want to understand who this Harold Wilson guy was. I have to say my initial readings probably came through the lens of Tony Benn who on balance would be classed as a lesser fan. And spy catcher ? I boiled that down to two possibilities. Firstly the secret state were bonkers or secondly Wilson was a danger. The two I admit some years later could have been possible at the same time. I also admit there are more questions than answers with the Wilson plot. Personally I see the secret state has having had the same sort of emotional tizzy that the right wing press has been having ever since. That they ran these “black ops’ against him because the more mundane truth was hardly frightening. I also struggled to understand why anyone would like HP sauce. Was this Harold or Harold the image? Some rumours suggest he didn’t really smoke a pipe as much as he portrayed, joe Haines suggests otherwise. He understood image before spin doctors.

When I finally read an objective book about Wilson I also found more questions than answers. What was his relationship with Marcia about ? Why did he resign when he did ? What was his mental deterioration really like ? Was he really a right wing boy scout trapped in a slightly leftish political party. By this time I had left the political spectrum somewhat and found Wilson still as fascinating as ever. Pimlots biography(it was this I bought at University and read straight through in a cold January in Birmingham)  points to plots and semi scandals, mishandling and more poignantly missed chances. The failure to make Labour the party of Government. Was Wilson to blame ? Hardly. For all the professed advantages of any other rival they were all stuck in a factional war that led to the SDP.

I am sad enough to own a copy of “Final Term” an awful book but one I never fear from looking at. Unlike Gordon Browns “Beyond the Crash”- a fearful book which is awful to look at. A book with 13 appendices.The first lists the Governments achievements in the 74-78 term, its quite impressive when you read through. Theres no grand theme and certainly no revolution, but basic stuff that made peoples lives just a bit easier. Thats quite an epitaph.


Political Gold from Wales

13 Mar

Just pure gold , how all Party Broadcasts should be …

Northern Ireland 1974

14 Jan

The two Elections of 1974 saw the establishment of a pattern within Northern Irleand that was to dominate for the next 20 years. It was clear as Britain went to the polls in 1974 that Northern Ireland elections were now to be considered an anomaly, something different. Unionism the creed from the 19th century was dead and gone as a unifying party policy. There was a willingness from the Conserrvatives to put a clear line between them and the Unionists.

Feb 74 saw Harry Wests UUP stand in 7 seats and win them all. The dominant force in Unionism. However Mr Paisley and his DUP stood in 2 seats and won 1. Vanguard, a new Unionist grouping stood in 3 seats and won them all. The SDLP the only main voice for Nationalism ( not Republicanism !) won 1 seat, a gain. Faulkners pro assembly Unionists were routed.
In terms of the vote Unionist won 11 of the 12 seats or 91 % of the seats on 365,000 votes out of 525,000 cast or 69% of the votes cast. And there rests a great problem brewing in the wings. The SDLP needed 160,000 votes to get 1 MP the UUP got 1 MP for every 33,000 votes !

October 74 it all got very strange in Northern Ireland . Enoch Powell came and marginally delivered, he brought nothing like the personal support his party had hoped for ( see Heffer ) . On the back of the Ulster Workers strike , a kind of Edwardian reposnse to Westminster moves,the UUP lost a seat to an Independent Republican. Harry West who 8 months earlier was offered a deal to support Heaths defeated Government was now out of Parliament. The UUP increased its vote share mainly at Vanguards expense who oddly were the main winners of the count retaining their 3 seats but dropping to just 62,000 votes.

Within 3 years Vanguard had gone , its MPs all became UUP.2 were re-elected in 1979, though one was killed by the IRA in 1981 ( Robert Bradford )

Election night coverage is worth watching here because Enoch clearly fumbles his words and says Arse when supposedly talking about his Arsenal. The two ronnies do Enoch Powell. Its at about 6 minutes 20 seconds …

By 1979 Vanguard had gone and the DUP moved firmly into the harder Unionist position. The UUP vote stayed similar but again they lost a seat , then down to 5. The DUP picked up 2 to sit at 3 and increased the vote from 59,000 to 70,000. A range of independent more unionist than a unionist unionist party(parties ) picked up 2 seats. Again Nationalist/Republicans held 2 of the 12 seats  whilst securing 27% of the vote. Republicans weren’t turning up to vote ..interestingly in the 2015 election Nationalist/Republicans secured 48% of the vote and 38% of the seats.

A lot has happened since then.


Callaghan and the Queen

9 Dec

According to Kenneth Morgan, when Jim Callaghan decided not to call the 1978 election he wrote a letter to the Queen.

He did this before informing Cabinet and indeed while the rest of the Country thought he was bonkers after his Gangster wrap at the TUC conference

but I digress. He wrote in his own hand , which means without a typist. Apparently the Queen couldn’t quite decipher it. In particular the threat of a “hung ” Parliament. Now we have all been there, an elderly relative sends a xmas card wishing “pots of lure “. So what did she think he was warning of

A long Parliament – that would be a real threat.

A honey Parliament – bees everywhere, maybe some improvement

hurry, huge ? Wong, worry ? Who knows ..

But that song , the most cryptic message ever. Apparently most people thought he was saying game on , when it was game off. Bernard Donoghue claimed to have warned him it wasn’t a Marie Lloyd song ( having sourced it from Joe Haines ) but would he listen ?