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Duration 00:42:49

1974: forty years on

Mark Dunton looks back at UK National events in 1974 in this illustrated podcast. Drawing on the public records he highlights some unusual or little known aspects about the events of that year.  1974 was a difficult year in modern British history – the two general elections, the economic situation, the collapse of the Court Line air travel business for package holidays, the disaster at the Flixborough chemical plant, and IRA bombings – but some popular culture references remind us of lighter moments.

Mark Dunton specialises in researching the records of post-1945 Britain, including political, social and economic history and the policies of the Heath government in the early 1970s.



So, on to the topic of todays’ talk, the year 1974. Francis Wheen, in his book ‘Strange Days Indeed’, wrote about the 1970s: ‘to those of us who lived through that era of polyester, platform shoes and power cuts, one thing seemed certain: no one would ever wish to revisit it’ (Strange Days Indeed, Francis Wheen, Fourth Estate, London, 2009, p1). But from the turn of the century onwards, the Seventies started being re-evaluated and re-appraised, a trend that Wheen himself points out, citing the huge success of the ‘Life on Mars’ drama series, and the stage show Mamma Mia! (Strange Days Indeed, p.3)

But there’s no getting round it – as I shall demonstrate – 1974 was a difficult and grim year for Britain; the 70s wasn’t all sequins and Abba hits. But the talk that lies ahead of you isn’t a total ‘gloomfest’, I promise you. I’ve attempted to make the story of the year 1974 as interesting as possible by drawing on a rich selection of documents from the archives, to give you some interesting perspectives on the various events that unfolded that year. There were some bright spots as well. And I’ve thrown in a good deal of pop culture, particularly towards the end, in order to lighten things up. Now I guess you could say that any year is eventful…but 1974 was particularly packed with incidents. I’m generally taking a chronological canter through the year…occasionally I have to ‘zig-zag’ a bit but I’ve tried to maintain a chronological drive to keep things moving. Hopefully I’ll have time to take questions at the end, perhaps we can have a bit of a discussion.

1974 began on day 1 – the first time that New Year’s Day had been a bank holiday – with the three day week, a measure to conserve electricity introduced by Edward Heath’s conservative government. Factories and businesses were limited to just three days of electricity, while shops – with the exception of those considered essential – were limited to either mornings or afternoons. How had Britain got to this parlous state of affairs?

The background to the crisis was bound up with the Heath Government’s prices and incomes policy, which attempted to limit wage increases. This policy began to unravel in the autumn of 1973. Following the ‘Yom Kippur War’ (October 1973), the price of crude oil rocketed, due to an embargo imposed by OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The oil crisis boosted the bargaining power of the National Union of Mineworkers, who decided on 12th November to implement a ban on overtime in support of a huge pay claim – and so fears began to rise about the possibility of coal supplies running out. The next day the Government proclaimed a state of emergency. Petrol shortages followed, and there were reports of government planning for petrol rationing. By 12 December 1973, the situation had deteriorated sharply. The government began planning for a three day week. Chancellor Anthony Barber slammed the brakes on public expenditure and proposed major reductions which were approved by Cabinet.

I’ve mentioned that, from 1 January 1974 electricity was only to be provided to industry on three specified days per week. In fact there was a whole package of tough measures, including a 50 mph speed limit on all roads, and television was required to close down at 10.30 every evening.

There was a minor baby boom!

Heath and his ministers engaged in a struggle to find a solution regarding the miners’ pay claim, but no workable compromise could be found. On 4 February the miners voted in favour of a strike, which would begin at midnight on 9 February. On 7 February Heath asked the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament and an election three weeks hence (it took place on 28 February).

Heath asked for a renewed mandate from the British people – appealing to them to return a ‘strong government, able to take firm measures in the national interest’, to quote from the Conservative manifesto. Heath had gone to the country during an all-out miners’ strike, and despite the fact that Heath did not set out to make the election a showdown between the government and the miners, the election campaign became focused on the question of ‘Who Governs? – the Unions or the Government?’ (the response was, ‘Not you mate’, as the saying goes)

The result of the election was very close, and the Prime Minister’s disappointment – and a degree of bewilderment – is captured in the Confidential Annex to a Cabinet Meeting on Friday 1 March.

It was the first ‘hung parliament’ since 1929. Although Labour won fewer votes than the Conservatives, Labour won more seats, 301 as opposed to 297. The Liberals won 14 seats but secured 19% of the national vote. The mere fact that a Cabinet meeting, for the incumbent government ministers, was taking place at all on the day after an election was highly unusual. What was going on?

Heath, asked the Cabinet to consider the option of attempting to form a right-centre coalition with the Liberal Party – Heath saw it as his patriotic duty to attempt to form such a coalition. He duly secured the Cabinet’s agreement that he should consult with the leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, about the possibility of a coalition or an agreed programme for the short-term. Thorpe was later to become the subject of a scandal.

The National Archives holds a fascinating document (PREM 16/231) which chronicles the story of Heath’s attempt to form a coalition with the Liberal Party. Compiled by Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong, his ‘note for the record’ is entitled ‘events leading up to the resignation of Mr Heath’s administration on 4 March 1974’. There are some surprising and colourful details within this document. For example, it refers to the difficulties that Edward Heath encountered in trying to get in contact with Jeremy Thorpe – on the Friday he was leading a triumphant torchlight procession around Barnstaple. Then there was a fault with Mr Thorpe’s telephone (some would say ‘how very 1970s!’) which meant that the two leaders did not get to speak until gone midnight. Thorpe accepted Heath’s invitation to come to Downing Street at 4 pm on Saturday (2 March).

Thorpe was determined to get away from his home in North Devon without attracting press attention. As the Armstrong memorandum reveals, Thorpe later told the Prime Minister of the plans he had made: ‘he had sent his car, with a bag, to a neighbouring farm to await him. Then he had donned a country coat and wellington boots over his town suit, walked across three wet fields to the farm, and driven from there to Taunton. He had thus managed to avoid the waiting journalists. Even so, he found one waiting for him when he arrived at Taunton station’. These colourful details add a different dimension to the story!

From 1-4 March the nation waited for the outcome of the negotiations, but the talks foundered. The key issue was that the Liberals demanded a commitment to electoral reform from the Conservatives, but at most the Conservatives would only offer an inquiry into the subject, and this did not satisfy the Liberals.There are some poignant details in Armstrong’s ‘note for the record’ about Heath’s last hours as Prime Minister.

The evening of 4 March 1974 saw Harold Wilson back at No10 as Prime Minister. At this point I’d like to read you an extract from ‘When the Lights went out’ by Andy Beckett, as I think it’s a brilliantly descriptive piece of writing about this event:

‘On the evening of 4 March 1974, Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street as prime minister. As he emerged from his official car, there were cheers and boos from the crowd waiting in the cold…Wilson walked slowly – almost trudged – the few yards to the front door of No.10, with his shoulders slack and his back to the crowd. On the doorstep he turned and waved, a little woodenly, without any apparent joy. He gave the briefest flicker of a smile.’

‘Mr Wilson’ said a reporter ‘can we ask you, sir, what it feels like to be back here?’. The prime minister began to open his mouth. Then he stopped and glanced twice at his wife, Mary, pinned next to him by the flashbulbs and television lights. There was a long pause. The crowd quietened. Wilson opened his mouth and shut it again. He swallowed twice. And then he spoke, flatly and with deliberation: ‘We’ve got a job to do. We can only do that job as one people. And I’m going right in to do that job now’.

When the lights went out, Andy Beckett (Faber and Faber, London, 2009, p157)

Almost ten years before this, in October 1964, Wilson had entered Downing Street as Prime Minister surrounded by much excitement and optimism, with his promise to harness the ‘white heat’ of the technological revolution to thoroughly modernise Britain. The contrast with March 1974 could not be greater.

At the start of what was to be his final term, Wilson acted swiftly. In early March the miner’s strike was settled – the miners were given a 32% increase – and the three-day week and the state of emergency came to an end. There was a great deal of relief about this at the time, but there was also disquiet in some quarters. Bernard Donoughue, head of the No10 Policy Unit from 1974 to 1979, later commented: ‘it was really a capitulation on the miners’ own terms, and solved little in the long-term. Final confrontation between the miners and the elected government was merely delayed a decade.’ (Cited by Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun, The Battle for Britain 1974-1979, Allen Lane, London, 2012, p40)

Wilson’s final period as Prime Minister, from March 1974 (and renewed after the second election of that year in October) through to his resignation in March 1976 has been described by several historians as a most unhappy and fraught period. This has been documented by Bernard Donoughue, already mentioned, and Joe Haines, Wilson’s Press Secretary. These sources refer to the recurring dreadful rows between Wilson and Marcia Williams (who became Lady Falkender), Wilson’s reported dependance on drink, and also comment on Wilson’s perceived ‘lack of grip’ regarding the problems facing the nation. However, I do not want to get drawn into exploring these aspects, I’m going to stick to what is documented in the public records – and one of the chief problems facing the nation was the growing threat posed by inflation.

Just look at those formidable bushy eyebrows! Denis Healey, appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a great character. He had a distinguished record as an army officer in the Second World War, and had a pugnacious, fighting style in the political arena, but he was also a very cultured man.

Healey was immediately confronted by the perilous state of the economy. Look at this quote from the minutes of a Cabinet meeting on 14 March [read extract]. This was obviously a very gloomy litany. The Chancellor went on to tell his colleagues at this cabinet meeting on 14th March: ‘it was clear that there would be no scope for any increase in living standards this year.’

Given all this, it was surprising that in his first budget, instead of cutting spending, Healey implemented Labour’s expenditure plans and increased borrowing. He also put up taxes significantly – the higher rate was raised to 83% in his second budget. (Cited by Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun, The Battle for Britain 1974-1979, Allen Lane, London, 2012, p.50)

Later on, Healey regretted several features of his first budget – which was intended to be neutral, but was actually inflationary in effect. Public finances turned out to be in an even worse state than had been predicted by the Treasury. Healey said: ‘I was too inexperienced to appreciate the full horror of the situation.’ (Seasons in the Sun, Dominic Sandbrook, p50)…and the horror of the situation, referring to inflation – the prices that people were paying for goods in the shops – became increasingly apparent.

At this point I’m going to jump out of the chronological narrative, to a document from October. The Central Policy Review Staff produced these worrying predictions of inflationary trends. Inflation was to continue advancing until it peaked at a staggering 26.9% in August 1975.

A key part of the Labour government’s response to this problem was to implement a social contract with the Trade Unions – a programme of voluntary wage restraint in order to hold the line against wage inflation.

Concerns about rising prices even found their way into a Top 20 hit by Wings!

Back to the political scene, and there are two figures who are particularly significant in ’74 who I’ve just got to mention. One is Tony Benn, who Wilson appointed Secretary of State for Industry on 5 March 1974, a post he held until 10 June 1975. Wilson resisted Benn’s efforts to introduce socialist measures by means of the National Enterprise Board. Benn was keen on state ownership, nationalisation and cooperatives, but Wilson did not share his vision. Tony Benn became a bête noire for the press at this time.

By way of contrast, the other figure that I should mention is Sir Keith Joseph, former Secretary of State for Social Services. He underwent a revolution in his thinking in the mid-70s. He made some significant speeches in 1974. As Andrew Marr has written, ‘Joseph’s conversion to free-market, small-state economics had the force of a religious experience’ A History of Modern Britain, Andrew Marr, Macmillan, London, 2007, p355). This new thinking laid the basis for the Thatcher revolution, which started five years later.

One of his speeches in October 1974, given in Birmingham, was highly controversial. It was claimed that he had argued that ‘socio-economic classes three and four’…’ should resist the temptation to have more than two children per family.’

Back to the main narrative, and we’ve reached March ’74, and a highly dramatic event. Princess Anne and her husband Captain Mark Phillips were being driven to Buckingham Palace having attended a charity event. As they drove down the Mall in their limousine, a Ford escort swerved in front of it forcing the chauffeur, Alexander Callender, to stop suddenly. The Escort’s driver, Ian Ball, went over to the royal car. Princess Anne’s personal police officer, Inspector James Beaton, got out and was shot by Mr Ball – in fact he was shot three times in total. He used his own body to shield Princes Anne and Captain Mark Phillips from Ian Ball’s bullets. Several people were involved in the subsequent struggle, including a journalist and a passing motorist, before Ball was knocked to the ground by PC Peter Edmonds, and disarmed. Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips showed a great deal of bravery and presence of mind during the incident.

All of the victims recovered from their wounds, and Ball was detained under the Mental Health Act after pleading guilty to attempted murder and kidnapping. In July, the men who thwarted the kidnapping attempt (there were seven in total, including Chauffeur Glenmore Martin) received gallantry medals from the Queen. Both the Princess and Captain Mark Phillips were also honoured, by being admitted to the Royal Victorian Order – she as a Dame Grand Cross and he as a Commander.

Back to some grim news in June. On the 1 June is the Flixborough disaster occurred, which was a massive explosion at a chemical plant sited on the banks of the River Trent in Lincolnshire. It was the biggest explosion to ever occur in Britain (during peacetime), until the fire at the Hertfordshire oil storage terminal (Buncefield) in December 2005. At Flixborough, 28 workers were killed and 36 others on site suffered injuries. Outside the works, injuries and damage occurred on a widespread scale but there were no fatalities. It was recognised that the number of casualties would have been even higher had the incident occurred on a weekday.

The explosion was estimated to be equivalent to 16 tonnes of TNT and the subsequent fires raged for ten days. A considerable amount of property was destroyed in Flixborough and the surrounding villages, and the explosion was heard over 30 miles away in Grimsby. The Atomic Weapons and Research Establishment at Aldermaston produced a report on the infrasonic and seismic waves which resulted. Following the disaster there was a huge public debate about the safety of industrial plants and regulations regarding industrial processes were made considerably more rigorous – the newly formed Heath and Safety Commission took a close interest in these developments.

The precise causes of the disaster were complex, and although there was an official enquiry concerning it, the debate about the causes continues to this day.

On August 9 1974 , following the Watergate Affair and accusations of a cover-up by the White House, Richard Nixon became the first US President to resign the office. He was replaced by the Vice-President Gerald Ford.

Our holiday habits changed significantly in the ‘70s, with the huge expansion of package tourism, particularly for destinations such as Torremolinos and Benidorm in Spain. How many of you remember that song ‘Y Viva España’? It was a massive hit for (the Swedish) Sylvia Vrethammar, reaching number four in the UK Singles Chart in September 1974. As Dominic Sandbrook has written, this song ‘captured the excitement, the hedonism and the sheer awfulness of package tourism in its early years’ (State of Emergency, The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974, Allen Lane, London, 2010, p141).

However, in the prior month, a darker side to the package tourism industry was revealed when the Court Line suddenly went into liquidation at the height of the holiday season.

Court Line Aviation was an important British holiday charter airline, which had helped to pioneer package tours to Spain and other destinations in the Mediterranean. Its subsidiary tour operators were Clarksons Travel Group and Horizon Travel. The oil crisis of October 1973 onwards, which saw a quadrupling in the cost of oil, plus the three day week meant that package holiday bookings slumped in 1974. These factors, plus poor financial controls within the business, caused the company significant difficulties. Their financial position deteriorated and by 13 August, James Callaghan, the Foreign Secretary, was warning British embassies across the world of the Court Line’s imminent collapse. Court Line’s position was not public knowledge at this stage. By the 14 August the die was cast – Callaghan warns that the company is expected to go in to liquidation early tomorrow…which is exactly what happened, leaving some 40,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad. The story generated masses of headline coverage in British newspapers.

The Daily Mail spoke about ‘a massive airlift’ to bring the stranded holidaymakers home. The reality was not as dramatic as that suggested, however – the majority of those stranded were able to complete the holidays which they had booked before they were flown home, though there was some hard bargaining around the issue of compensation for Spanish hoteliers – the Association of British Travel Agents was very busy at this time.

The Guildford pub bombings occurred on 5 October 1974. I’ll say some more about this tragic event in a moment, but first I need to backtrack a little to give some more context. Conflict in Northern Ireland, known as ‘The Troubles’ continued at this time and in the words of Dominic Sandbrook: ‘the slaughter in Northern Ireland cast a dark shadow over life in Britain in the mid-1970s’ ’ (Seasons in the Sun, p106). In the spring of 1973 the Provisional IRA had launched a bombing campaign in Britain and in 1974 this campaign significantly increased in intensity. This is demonstrated by this dreadful litany of events.

The M62 coach bombing happened on 4 February 1974 on the M62 motorway in northern England, when a Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb exploded in a coach carrying off-duty British Armed Forces personnel and their family members.

No organisation claimed to have planted the bomb at the Tower of London which killed one and injured 41, but the IRA was widely suspected to have carried out the attack.

The Guildford pub bombings occurred on 5 October 1974. The pubs were the Horse and Groom and the Seven Stars. I don’t think these pubs are in operation any more. These pubs were targeted because they were popular with British Army personnel stationed at the barracks in Purbright. Five people were killed, whilst a further sixty-eight were wounded. These bombings caused shock and outrage throughout Britain. And then a miscarriage of justice followed, with the guilty verdict and subsequent 15-year imprisonment of the Guildford Four, until their sentences were overturned.

21 people were killed in the Birmingham pub bombings, and 182 were injured. Again, there was another major miscarriage of justice for the ‘Birmingham Six’.

Some believe that the perpertrators of most of these bombings was the ‘Balcombe Street gang’, an IRA unit that was involved in a siege in London in late 1975.

1974 was the remarkable year of two general elections. I‘ve already referred to the Hung Parliament which was the result of the 28 February election. Harold Wilson called a general election for 10 October – he was aiming for a working majority in the House of Commons. Commentators have said that this election campaign was a low key affair. It was difficult to strike an optimistic note when the country was suffering from so many problems.

Labour did win a majority – albeit a majority of only three seats. Labour still managed to stay in power until 28 March 1979, thanks to some very efficient labour whips.

Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan commonly known as Lord Lucan, disappeared without trace following the murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett on 7 November and an assault on his wife, Veronica (who identified Lucan as the assailant). Despite a huge manhunt, Lucan has never been found.

The National Archives holds a file which shows that contempt of court charges considered were following the publication of an article (‘My Night of Terror’) written by Lady Lucan in the Daily Express of 20 January 1975. A solicitor representing Lord Lucan complained that ‘this sort of publicity makes virtually impossible any fair trial of Lord Lucan should he be found’. The file shows that the Attorney General decided not to institute proceedings for contempt of Court in respect of the articles

On 20 November 1974, John Stonehouse MP, a former British cabinet minister, disappeared. A pile of his clothes was found on Miami beach. The presumption was that he had gone swimming and drowned, or that it could have been a case of suicide. He had got into financial difficulties, and there were questions about his financial dealings. In fact, Stonehouse had faked his own death – he had absconded to establish a new life in Australia with his mistress. However, he was tracked down in Australia and arrested on Christmas Eve 1974.

This was the message that John Stonehouse relayed to Prime Minister Harold Wilson after his arrest in Australia [read extract]. He went on to state: ‘I suppose this can be summed up as a brainstorm, or a mental breakdown’, and apologised to the PM ‘and all the others who have been troubled by this business’.

Australian Police initially thought he might be the fugitive Lord Lucan. Stonehouse was deported to the UK and remanded to Brixton Prison until August 1975. In August 1976 he was convicted and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment on 18 counts of theft, fraud and deception.

In the Authorised History of MI5, Christopher Andrew reveals that Stonehouse had been an agent for Czechoslovak State Security, going back to the 60s (The Defence of the Realm, The Authorised History of MI5, Christopher Andrew, Allen Lane, London, 2009, pp707-708). Stonehouse’s method of disappreance gave inspiration to David Nobbs for the popular tv series ‘The rise and fall of Reginald Perrin’.

Mud’s Lonely this Christmas reached No 1 on 17 December. How many of these do you remember? Mud had had a very good year, with two No. 1s – they also reached the top spot in January with ‘Tiger Feet’.

There was a Kung Fu craze that year. Abba achieved great success, wining the Eurovision Song Contest, which was held at Brighton that year, with ‘Waterloo’. The Bay City Rollers spent many weeks in the charts in 1974.

But speaking as someone who loves pop music, in my opinion , even pop went ‘off the boil’ somewhat that year. The glam rock bubble of the early ‘70s, dominated by T Rex, Slade, and The Sweet, had burst. David Bowie and Roxy Music were still going strong, but there was a bit of a vacuum in the world of pop music. I agree with the points made about this by Alwyn Turner in his book ‘Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s’. He writes: ‘as the moment passed, and the leading artists departed for fresh territory, what remained was little more than a pale pastiche of the past, with groups such as Showaddywaddy, the Rubettes and Mud dominating the single charts with recreations of American high school pop from the Kennedy years’ ’ (Crisis What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s, Alwyn W Turner, Aurum, London, p149). Showaddywaddy burst on the scene with ‘Hey rock n’ roll’.

But as Alwyn Turner points out, even these pastiches of 50s and early 60s pop were significant in the sense that they showed the public demand for nostalgia, a yearning for things past – also reflected in the success of TV series such as Upstairs Downstairs, Laura Ashley’s clothing range and the The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (Turner, p150). In tough times, people sought refuge in escapism and comforting visions of the past.

By the way, there were some exciting new acts who made a breakthrough that year. 1974 saw the rise of the Wombles, steered by Mike Batt, singer, songwriter, and producer. Another group who made a big impact that year, Sparks, with ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’.

Russell Mael with his manical movements and his brother keyboardist Ron, rooted at the keyboards with very sinister looks to camera!

The tv viewing public could always distract themselves with their favourite sit-coms

So, how to sum up 1974? As we’ve seen, a lot of things went wrong that year. Britain suffered from industrial strife, soaring inflation, rising unemployment, and IRA bombing. Any residual optomism from the 60s was crushed. I remember as a teenager trying to make sense of it all – my analysis may not have been very sophisticated, but to me, even the electoral stalemate of the February election was an indication that nothing seem to be working as it should. But there were some bright spots and people happily distracted themsleves from the nations’ problems in many ways, through pop music, television, and even kung Fu!

I want to end on an upbeat note. Despite inflation, British living standards rose during the 1970s, (if you take the decade as a whole). A Daily Mail article of May 1972 highlighted the rise in living standards using figures from market research. For example, in order to earn the price of a 19-inch black and white television set, the average British worker would have had to work 208 hours in 1961. By 1971 this figure had fallen to 85 hours (Daily Mail: ‘This is what ten years of rising wages and prices have meant to you’, 16 May 1972). Consumerism rose during the 1970s, reflected in the widespread acquisition of electrical or ‘white’ goods. More and more families acquired washing machines and fridges. This was a paradoxical aspect – despite the recurring economic crises, strikes and power cuts, most people enjoyed greater affluence than ever before, as the real costs of electrical goods were falling. Material comforts for the home helped to ‘take the edge off’ the nation’s economic difficulties.

Thank you

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