Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.
The election result on this day 50 years ago took everyone completely by surprise, except the victor himself. In his memoirs published nearly 30 years later, Edward Heath declared, with characteristic self-satisfaction: “ I daresay that some senior members of the party panicked at times, but I always remained confident.”
Every single day of the campaign brought alarming news about the Party’s prospects from the opinion polls, and it seems inconceivable that its leader was not sometimes assailed by doubts about the outcome, but he deserved great praise for maintaining an outward imperturbability, never appearing rattled or upset (which is more than can be said of Margaret Thatcher in the much less difficult electoral circumstances she was to face).
Those close to Heath during the campaign sought to assimilate some of his brave serenity. They failed. Douglas Hurd, who was at his side as head of his private office, was “inwardly gloomy” throughout, as he recalled in his memoirs. Not a single member of the Conservative Shadow Cabinet predicted success, though that did not stop some of them feigning a retrospective confidence in victory when it was all over. Faint hearts suddenly discovered that they had been undaunted all along.
The opinion polls were unrelentingly bad. The Tory despondency they created was all the greater because they followed more than three years of constant ascendancy in them, often by over 20 per cent, bringing by-election triumphs in the most unlikely places.
As Leader of the Opposition, Heath had won widespread respect. On 20 January 1970, Willie Whitelaw, the Conservative Chief Whip, told the sharp young journalist Hugo Young that Heath had “more support among Labour and Liberal voters than one might expect. He has made more tours than any other Tory leader, his audiences are the biggest since Winston: also, his manner has vastly improved.”
In mid-March 1970, the Tories were ahead in the polls by 7.5 per cent; two months later, Labour led by exactly the same margin, a sudden reversal of positions which few incumbent Prime Ministers in the latter stages of a Parliament would not have seen as an irresistible inducement for an election. A master tactician like Harold Wilson was bound to call one. He announced it on 18 May.
“In a way not experienced before”, wrote The Times in a post-election survey, “ the campaign was dominated by the polls.” On 12 June, with just six days to go before polling, NOP gave Labour a 12.4 per cent lead. “ It was the worst yet”, Hurd wrote later, recalling vividly “ the stony look” on Heath’s face when he heard the grim news after making an impressive speech in Manchester. Only one poll during the entire campaign suggested a Tory lead: on polling day itself, ORC put the Party just one point ahead.
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Though immigration, first raised in lurid terms by Tony Benn in an appalling attack on Enoch Powell (for having a flag over his Wolverhampton constituency that began “ to look like the one which flew over Dachau and Belsen”), aroused much strong feeling (and undoubtedly swayed votes), the campaign was fought chiefly on the economy.
Indeed it was the economy which precipitated the election by reviving Labour’s fortunes. The pall of deep gloom which had hung over it since the devaluation of the currency in 1967 suddenly lifted. Exports rose. The balance of payments, which was then regarded as the vital indicator of economic success or failure, moved from deficit into surplus to the tune of over £600 million. Wages rose, “exploded” said some – with the shocking and irresponsible encouragement of the Government, said the Tories – boosting average earnings by 13 per cent.
Cecil King, a controversial former press magnate with wide political contacts, recorded in his diary on 13 June that “ bulging pay-packets” had played a prominent part in giving Labour its new lead in the polls. Wilson “puffing clouds of pipe smoke into the glare of the television lights”, in the words of The Times, presented himself as “ the reliable man in charge who, in spite of all kinds of setbacks, had brought the nation through to the economic sunshine.” He toured the country exuding goodwill to everyone in the manner of Stanley Baldwin, and avoiding serious political debates.
The contrast with the Conservatives could not have been greater. In their manifesto, they set out the most detailed plans for government they had ever produced, with a striking emphasis on free market economic principles, so much so that some have been tempted to see it ( I think wrongly) as a dry run for Thatcherism.
Though little was heard during the campaign itself of the formidable array of Tory policies (which enhanced the reputation of the Conservative Research Department), they remained firm commitments (which did not always enhance Heath’s subsequent reputation when they were put into effect or, in some well-publicised cases, abandoned during the course of his government). The turmoil in Ulster, where the IRA had re-emerged to begin a long terrorist campaign with the aim of breaking up the United Kingdom, was barely mentioned. It would consume more of the Heath Government’s time than any other issue.
Subsequent difficulties and setbacks created by unforeseen events, however, should not detract from Heath’s ardent conviction in 1970 that Britain must have “ a new style of government”, as he put it, in order to end what he and so many Conservatives regarded as the tawdry conduct of public affairs by Harold Wilson. “ We shall re-establish our sound and honest British traditions”, he declared. “ Courage and intellectual honesty are essential qualities in politics.” Ted Heath embodied them.
Though much was heard during the campaign about the need to restore proper standards in public life, “our theme was always going to be the state of the economy”, as Heath put it subsequently in his memoirs. The emphasis was on the specific economic questions of the day, not on a bold new economic strategy to set the country on a fresh post-Butskellite course.
Could the Tories overturn Labour’s improved reputation by warning repeatedly of the price rises that would follow higher pay, by emphasising its bleak record on strikes and denouncing its tax increases? Heath worked tirelessly for success through a long series of set-piece speeches in major cities, some of which made a considerable mark, though without affecting the general belief, constantly reinforced by the opinion polls, that he would lose.
It was a belief which heartened Heath’s powerful and implacable foe within his Party, Enoch Powell, whom he had sacked from his Shadow Cabinet after the “ rivers of blood” speech two years earlier. The two men were poles apart in their conceptions of conservatism; nothing could ever reconcile them.
During the campaign Powell gained wide publicity for a set of speeches that expounded policies which were plainly at odds with Heath’s: a halt to all immigration( coupled with sensational claims that false figures were being put out by “an enemy within” government departments), total opposition to European Community membership (an issue on which the Party leaders, who all favoured entry, said little), and the application of free market ideas throughout the economy. All this could readily serve as the basis for a leadership bid if Heath lost the election.
Powell did nothing to allay that suspicion, while asserting his loyalty to the Party by exhorting the country to return a Conservative government. There was much inconclusive speculation after the election, encouraged by his supporters, about the extent to which Powell had swayed votes in vital Midlands seats.
The possibility of a post-election Powell leadership bid worried Heath’s senior colleagues. They hatched a plan to depose and replace him rapidly with someone of whom they could approve, immediately after the anticipated defeat. Whitelaw and Reggie Maudling agreed to join Alec Douglas-Home at the latter’s country estate, The Hirsel, in the Scottish borders the day after the nation had voted.
On the 18th itself, Lord Carrington, Conservative leader in the Lords, went down to Bexley, where after a gruelling national campaign Heath was battling in his marginal constituency, handicapped by the appearance of a candidate who had changed his name to E Heath( Tory placards were prominent outside polling stations to try to prevent a loss of votes, in which they were successful).
According to Heath’s account of this “unexpected visit”, Carrington told him with amazing insensitivity that “ should we lose, I would be expected immediately to stand down.” Recalling this extraordinary incident in his memoirs, Heath was as coolly dismissive as might have been expected in retrospect: “This advice was well-meant, but quite unnecessary…I would have stood aside without any prompting if the result had gone against us. It did not. From the declaration of the first result, David Howell’s victory in Guildford, I knew that my instincts had been a better guide to the results than the supposed science of the opinion pollsters.”
The remarkable bouleversement (experienced by everyone apart from Heath) which occurred on this day 50 years ago, the anniversary of the close-run Battle of Waterloo, emerges vividly in Cecil King’s diary. “ On Thursday evening we went to the Daily Telegraph party expecting a Labour majority of somewhere between 30 and 150. The first four results—Guildford, Cheltenham, Salford and Wolverhampton—showed that a Tory victory was almost certain. And it was.”
In Bexley, that worrying marginal, Heath’s majority soared to 8,000. He returned to London; “ the car radio persisted in telling us extraordinary good news”, a happy, though surprised, Douglas Hurd noted. “ The Conservatives were winning the election handsomely.”
They were to secure a majority of 30 as the result of a swing from Labour of 4.7 per cent, the biggest since Labour’s landslide victory in 1945. Seventy-seven seats won by other Parties in 1966 were gained by the Tories, mainly from Labour. Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, had predicted great things for his Party; their seats fell from 13 to five.
In this way, all the confident predictions of Tory failure were confounded. Rage overtook one ill-natured political opponent in Heath’s hour of unexpected victory. As he walked through a large crowd to Conservative Central Office without a policeman in sight (something inconceivable today), a lighted cigarette was crushed painfully into his neck. Not even this succeeded in diminishing the victor’s elation which he displayed until the early hours of the following day . When he was woken late in the morning by his housekeeper, he was told that someone called Nixon had telephoned a number of times. A few minutes later the man who would shortly become Prime Minister received the congratulations of the President of the United States.
On his arrival in Downing Street from the Palace in the evening of the 19th, Heath ended his remarks before going into Number Ten with Baldwin’s (not Disraeli’s) famous words, promising “ to create one nation”. The difficulties that would overtake his government in the years ahead meant that he would be unable to fulfil his promise, given at the outset with great sincerity.
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The 1970 election had no more conspicuous casualty than the opinion polls. Some said that they had been far adrift throughout the campaign; others emphasised a late swing to the Conservatives in the last few days. There was talk (not for the last time) of “shy Tories” who preferred not to reveal themselves to the pollsters. All over the country Conservative candidates in marginal seats spoke privately of their confidence, but saw themselves as exceptions as the national polls continued to point decisively to their Party’s defeat.
There seems little doubt that the Tories gained significantly in the final stages of the campaign. Heath’s attacks on Wilson’s economic record looked particularly convincing when, on 15 June, the monthly trade figures showed that the balance of payments, by which so many were mesmerised, had moved back into deficit by £ 31 million. Ken Baker, now Lord Baker of Dorking, was with Heath when he was given the figures.
“ He was a man transformed. He used them to flay the Government’s supposed economic recovery. It marked the turning point of the election.”
Heath capitalised too on growing public anxiety about rising prices which were beginning to become evident. He predicted that if Labour were returned, there would be a three-shilling loaf, a shilling minimum bus fare and shilling telephone calls—” and we would have to pay for them out of a ten shilling pound because that is all it would be worth.”
On 16 June, journalists were given a detailed critique by the Conservative Research Department of the prospects for the economy under Labour. “ A further devaluation” was described as “ a probability”. Wilson roused himself from his election torpor to denounce it. He struck journalists as a man who was becoming badly rattled. The ORC poll on 18 June putting the Tories one point ahead was an unduly modest indication of what was occurring.
The tribulations of the Heath government of 1970-74 have tended to overshadow the great Heath victory on 18 June 1970. As his biographer, John Campbell, has noted: “This was the supreme moment that he had been preparing for ever since he was a schoolboy.” No subsequent Tory leader has come close to matching the share of the vote – 46.4 per cent – that Heath secured (in this respect he even surpassed Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, won with 43.2 per cent). At no other time since 1945 has a working majority for one Party – Labour had one of nearly a hundred in 1966—been turned at a single election into a working majority for another.
On the 50th anniversary of this “supreme moment” in Heath’s career, it is appropriate to express deep sadness that the reputation of this stubborn, difficult, determined man should be tainted by allegations of child sex abuse, for which no evidence has emerged. Wiltshire Police, which behaved dishonourably during their investigations, left seven allegations open when they concluded their operation in 2017.
Some of the seven have now been discredited. The case for an independent review is overwhelming, and yet shockingly the Government refuses to establish one. Historians will continue to discuss Heath’s controversial career in all its aspects: the full facts about the allegations laid against him ten years after his death must be established.
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Further reflections on the Heath victory and government can be found in my lecture “ Edward Heath: A New Style of Prime Minister ?” delivered in the Lord Speaker’s lecture series on 20 June 2018 (link to piece to be inserted).
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BIBLIOGRAPHY – John Campbell, Edward Heath: A Biography (Jonathan Cape, 1993). Edward Heath, The Course of My Life ( Hodder and Stoughton, 1998). Simon Heffer, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998). Douglas Hurd, An End to Promises: Sketch of a Government 1970-74 ( Collins,1979) and Memoirs ( Abacus paperback edition, 2004). Cecil King, The Cecil King Diary 1965-70 ( Jonathan Cape, 1972). John Ramsden, The Winds of Change: Macmillan to Heath 1957-1975 ( Longman,1996). D.R.Thorpe, Alec Douglas-Home (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996). Brendon Sewill, “ Policy-Making for Heath” in Alistair Cooke(ed.), Tory Policy-Making: The Conservative Research Department 1929-2009 (2009).The Times Guide to the House of Commons 1970 ( Times Newspapers,1970). John Wood(ed.), Powell and the 1970 Election ( Eliot Right Way Books,1970). Hugo Young, The Hugo Young Papers: Fifty Years of British Politics -Off the Record, Edited by Ion Trewin ( Allen Lane, 2008).