1976 and all that

Posted On: 
23rd November 2016

At first glance, there appear to be lot of parallels between Westminster today and the ‘state of permanent crisis’ of 1976, the year The House magazine launched. But, Robert Orchard attests, parliamentary culture has changed a lot in 40 years…

Margaret Thatcher, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson in 1976, the year The House magazine launched
Credit: 
PA

The year The House magazine first appeared, 1976, was one of the most tempestuous, and memorable, in modern politics. The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, only recently re-elected with a majority of just three, had stunned Westminster by resigning unexpectedly in March – the only one of 13 postwar premiers who left office at a time wholly of their own choosing, not defeated at the polls, or by ill-health, party pressure or political humiliation. 

James Callaghan replaced Wilson in April and, almost immediately, Labour lost that wafer-thin majority to by-election defeats and defections. The government staggered on, losing some crucial divisions, winning others by just a single vote. With inflation above 20% and the UK teetering on bankruptcy, the men from the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, were called in to bail out a humiliated Britain with a $4bn loan, but only in return for promises of deep cuts in public spending. It took Callaghan nine marathon Cabinet meetings over three weeks in November and December to get approval for the deal from some of his more truculent left-leaning colleagues like Peter Shore and Tony Benn, but no-one resigned. 

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So what was Parliament itself like 40 years ago? And do the challenges that faced an embattled minority Labour government then have any parallels or lessons for us today? The Treasury’s new Permanent Secretary, Tom Scholar, told a conference examining the 1976 IMF crisis recently: “I am slightly troubled by the number of people who have said to me in recent days: ‘Aren’t there a lot of parallels between today’s world and the world of 1976?’ ”

Really? Some parallels, certainly: the pound has again been plummeting in value, a prime minister has again resigned unexpectedly, indeed all three main UK parties have once again changed their leaders in just 18 months, and now – as then – the government’s majority is slim and some of its troops are restive. But talking to parliamentary veterans of 1976 – politicians and those who served them – a very different picture emerges of those times and what it was like to practice politics 40 years ago. So step into our parliamentary time machine, please, and join me for a whistle-stop tour of 1976 And All That.  

It’s a year I for one won’t forget – starting my first job on a newspaper in a summer that saw the fiercest drought for decades, with water rationing and standpipes in the streets. At Westminster, things were hotting-up too. Ann Taylor, now a Labour peer, was a junior government whip in 1976: “We had two and a half years with no majority. It was hard... every day we could have been defeated. We had to keep track of all our members, all their problems both personal and political. I had to go out to people’s homes to persuade the member and their partner that they should be here.”

Callaghan’s political secretary at the time – Tom, now Lord, McNally – says: “It was precarious – like trying to stay upright on a pitching ship! A state of permanent crisis but government went on in a very orderly way.” 

That very tight parliamentary arithmetic meant the Commons was an exciting place to be, as the Conservative former minister for almost everything, Ken Clarke, recalls: “Bliss to be alive if you were an MP then. I was a front bench spokesman. It was fun because you never knew who was going to win a vote!” 

And some votes may occasionally have been won by what Tony Blair would characterise years later in his valedictory PMQs as “low skulduggery”. One such disputed result in 1976 was a surprise one-vote victory over the government’s plans to nationalise the shipbuilding industry. It led to what Ken Clarke describes as “the worst disorder in the Chamber that I have ever seen in my parliamentary career”. 

In his recent political memoir, Kind of Blue, Clarke describes enjoying the spectacle of “a melee… involving physical fights between several pairs of MPs”. Michael Heseltine, who had been leading for the Tories in the debate, then rose to his feet and, in Clarke’s words, “seized the Mace, the symbol of… the Speaker’s authority. He then swirled it about, hugging it in his arms, almost as though he was dancing with it”.

That version was broadly confirmed to me by Sir Gerald Kaufman, the Father of the House, but Lord Heseltine – rather less excitable these days, at 83 – remembers it all rather differently, telling me that Labour broke an agreed pair to ensure victory in the crucial vote:

“When Labour MPs heard the result they got onto the government benches and sang The Red Flag. They had cheated, and this was the vibrant Left of the Labour Party at its worst. I picked up the Mace in a very controlled way, offered it to them, and said: ‘You have destroyed the authority of the Commons… you had better have the symbol of it as well,’ and then put it back down.” 

That hothouse, pressure cooker atmosphere is also vividly recalled by the former Clerk of the Commons, Robert Rogers. Now the crossbench peer, Lord Lisvane, he started working in Parliament in the early 1970s and remembers the years that followed as being “febrile and very unpredictable, especially when the Labour government began to lose its majority. There were very late sittings...you got used to seeing the sun come up over the Thames. There was the classic breakfast of scrambled eggs and a glass of brandy on the Terrace...it was a very, very different world.”

Dafydd Elis-Thomas was one of three Plaid Cymru MPs in the 1974-79 Parliament, who were courted assiduously by the Labour whips at a time when one or two votes could turn victory into defeat. Now a crossbench peer, he too has vivid memories: “Being kissed on the mouth by the Labour Chief Whip, Bob Mellish, was quite an experience...all because we agreed to support the government in a particular vote.”  

David, now Lord, Steel was the newly-installed Liberal leader in 1976, and the following year led his 13 MPs into the Liberals’ first serious flirtation in decades with another part – the Lib-Lab Pact – which infuriated the Tories by staving off certain defeat for Jim Callaghan in a ‘No Confidence’ vote. Steel is unrepentant: “I took the view that we should do everything to help the government get control of the economic disaster that was facing them. Inflation was running at 21% at the start of the Lib-Lab Pact. We got it down over 18 months to 8% and provided the parliamentary stability which enabled the government to do what it wanted to. It was much more of a true Parliament then...more lively, more relevant. It tends to be a bit more of a rubber stamp when a government has a safe majority.”

That’s a view supported by the new Lord Speaker, Norman (now Lord) Fowler. This former Tory Cabinet minister is uneasy at the effect any massive government majority might have for democracy – even, presumably, a Tory rout of a Corbyn-led Labour party.

“Francis Pym got into terrible trouble in Mrs Thatcher’s day for suggesting majorities can be too high. Of course, he was right! Democracy is at its sharpest and most valuable when there is a certain amount of independent judgement on the part of MPs and Peers. There is no question that this certainly happens now in the House of Lords, now most of the hereditary peers are gone. You only have to look at how many times the government gets defeated here. We are in a position where no party is ever likely ever to have an absolute majority in the Lords.” 

The former Cabinet Secretary, Robin (now Lord) Butler, observed the Commons from the other end of the telescope – in 10 Downing Street – for more than two decades from the 1970s to the early Blair years. He argues, as does Ken Clarke, that what went on in Parliament 40 years ago could have a more important bearing on government than it does today. “If the Prime Minister had a bad time at PMQs he or she would come out saying ‘I don’t think we can defend this policy and we have really got to change it’. But now I think Parliament has a very much smaller effect on the government. If you look at recent politicians’ autobiographies, Parliament hardly features in them at all, whereas the media feature in them a great deal.”

Lord Butler attributes part of the change to a trend which several people I interviewed also pinpointed: what is seen as the increasing role of MPs as some kind of turbo-charged social worker for their constituents, with more of their energies now focused on trying to help resolve local problems than on scrutinising what the government is doing.

The former Clerk of the Commons, Lord Lisvane – co-author of How Parliament Works – agrees. “There is now a sort of disconnect between MPs and Parliament, because of the huge increase in the importance of the constituency. Now there are much greater expectations of what MPs can do for individuals, especially those society has let down. When I came here, there were 25 Members’ researchers; now there are around 1,800, though many are in the constituencies.”

And then there’s the correspondence MPs have to deal with…vastly increased by the advent of email and social media. Lord Lisvane recalls a colleague going to see a senior MP in the 1970s but finding nowhere to sit in his cramped office. “There was a chair with a great pile of post on it. The MP said ‘Throw that in the bin. Don’t worry – if it’s important, they’ll write again!”

And Ann Taylor – who later became the first woman government chief whip – warns that the public now unrealistically expects simplistic results. “They are told by a campaign group: ‘Protest about that’ so they contact their MP. They vote on a Saturday night for Ed Balls or somebody else on Strictly and there’s a result. So they think politics can be done quickly, like clicking your fingers.”

And former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler – now a politician himself as an active independent peer – believes the weakening of Parliament’s influence on government, due in part to that increased constituency workload, will continue: “There is a steady process going back 250 years of the executive neutering Parliament – mainly by patronage, and through whipping, and all that. The reaction of the executive is to devise more means of keeping their flock in order... ministerial appointment, membership of select committees, nice trips abroad if you behave yourself, all those traditional means.”

And, crucially, he thinks the change to more family-friendly sitting hours and the use of timetabling or guillotines has removed the opposition’s main lever against the government: power over the use of parliamentary time. “The removal of that weapon has diminished the effectiveness of Parliament,” he says – a point emphasised by the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, too.

Butler does highlight the growth of departmental select committees as a positive development, but suggests their reports carry little political clout: “I don’ think governments quail at a critical select committee report.”

Lord Steel echoes the views of many parliamentary veterans on the changing makeup of the Commons since the 1970s: “Then, there were MPs who had spent their lives working down the mines or in steelworks, major officers in the armed forces, chairmen of banks, owners of large estates... people who had operated in the real world before coming to Parliament. Now all the parties tend to recruit people who have been political assistants so we have ‘professional’ politicians.”

Lord Lisvane, the former Commons Clerk, stresses another significant change: “Now the craziness of late-night sittings has gone, MPs spend much less time together so they don’t understand each other so well. And the friendships across the house – these were easier to develop in the past. Now MPs work more in isolation in their own offices.”

The arrival of radio in 1978 and televising of proceedings in 1989 seems now accepted as inevitable, though many bemoan an alleged coarsening of PMQs since the cameras arrived:
“What used to be an opportunity to question the government is now more a question of trading insults, mere point-scoring,” harumphs one former party leader.

Another major change has been the exponential growth in the proportion of women MPs in this period – from just 26 in 1970 and even fewer by the end of the decade, to the 191 women elected last year – a huge improvement though still well below the actual proportion of women in the British population, at just over 50%.

The centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech 40 years ago this month was the doomed Devolution Bill: the failure to deliver following the referendums in Scotland and Wales in March 1979 led the SNP to withdraw its support and, with Labour severely damaged by the Winter of Discontent, the Conservatives put down a motion of No Confidence which both sides knew could come down to a single vote either way. Pork barrel politics, votes in return for pet projects, seemed the order of the day if the government was to survive. Roy Hattersley was a relatively new Cabinet minister at the time and recalls one extraordinary approach he received.

“The day before the vote of censure, John Smith and Ann Taylor were having a drink in my room when we were startled by Enoch Powell coming in and offering us six Ulster Unionist votes in return for some sign that we were sympathetic to Unionism. He suggested this sign should be a gas pipeline, linking Ulster to the rest of Britain. We were unanimous we could do this and save the government but Jim Callaghan wouldn’t have it, saying ‘The government is not for sale.’ ”

Finally, the only hope of saving Callaghan’s administration seemed to be if every sick Labour MP was summoned to Westminster to vote. It had become a distressing but regular sight in these years, the sickest MPs being ‘nodded through’ the voting lobbies while actually lying in ambulances outside. 

The hardest decision was whether to summon the Labour member, Sir Alfred Broughton, a doctor, who was mortally ill but determined to vote. Eventually, it was decided the journey would be too risky for a dying man. ‘Doc’ Broughton duly stayed at home, the government lost by one vote, triggering an election which would bring Margaret Thatcher to power. Forty years later, former whip Ann Taylor still thinks it was the wrong decision: “I thought then, and I still think to this day, that we should have let him come. He died five days later... he wanted to come and if he had died on the way back home I think he would have died happy that he had saved the Labour government.”

And there is one final twist to the story of that one-vote defeat. The future Commons Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, was the Tory deputy chief whip then, and developed a close working relationship with his Labour opposite number, Walter Harrison. The author of the hit political drama, This House, James Graham, says he took the story of the fascinating, enduring friendship between these two very different men deep inside the parliamentary boiler room as the spine of his 2012 play, now revived and running in the West End.

On the evening of the No Confidence vote, when all seemed lost for Labour, Harrison suddenly appealed to Weatherill to honour the Whips’ convention of offering a pair – arranging for an opposition MP to abstain to compensate for this one very sick, absent, Labour MP missing the vote. 

Speaking years later, in 2004, Weatherill explained what happened next: “I said, ‘Walter, I haven’t got a pair on a motion of No Confidence.’ He said, ‘Nevertheless, I am formally asking you to honour your word.’ I said, ‘I agree that we have always had this gentleman’s agreement but I haven’t got a pair... But I will keep my word and I shall stand down tonight and won’t vote.’ ‘Well,’ Walter then said to me, ‘I am not going to put you in that position.’ “   

Had Labour accepted Weatherill’s extraordinary offer, his political career would almost certainly have been over: Margaret Thatcher would have ensured he never became Speaker. So the government fell on a No Confidence motion for the first time since 1924, and it all hinged on an agreement between two gentlemen over that one crucial vote. Hard to see that happening today. 

Robert Orchard was a BBC political and parliamentary correspondent from 1986 to 2013