Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

It was 7 February 2014; a cold, blustery day, but the plane from Frankfurt landed with no problems at Maplin Airport (shortly due to be renamed Sir Edward Heath International as Britain’s contribution to an EU-sponsored Great European Statesmen cultural awareness programme). There was only a minimum of hassle reclaiming the baggage; a new agreement had just been reached between the British Airports Corporation and the Transport and General Workers’ Union about staffing levels and automation. Most of the passengers made their way to the HoverTrain station and paid their 10 Euros for the fast ride into London past the coal-fired power stations of south Essex, but if you were driving, Robert Schuman Avenue looped out of the airport zone and connected with the M13 motorway to Thames City and Central London. Few noticed that day that it was the anniversary of the Conservative victory in the 1974 election; there was a small note in the Times-Telegraph newspaper celebrating forty years in the Commons for MPs such as Robert Kilroy-Silk (National Party) and Sir George Young (Progressive Conservative), and a column on the ProgConHome website wondering what might have happened if Harold Wilson had, improbably, won in 1974…

My alternative history has probably by now scared my readership, and it is only a flight of fancy. But the February 1974 election (which actually took place on 28 February) is an intriguing jumping-off point for wondering what might have happened, and what the fundamental trends in British politics have been over the last 40 years.

The February 1974 election was a dramatic one. It was called early, and took place against a highly unstable background. The Conservative government elected in June 1970 had encountered some rough economic times – frequent strikes, the ‘floating’ (more like sinking) of the pound from its fixed rate, a million unemployed in 1972 and a runaway credit-driven boom and house-price spike in 1973. The Heath government was trying to limit wage rises by an incomes policy – a mixture of statutory regulation and negotiation with ‘both sides of industry’ – but it was sandbagged by the war in the Middle East and the oil price rises from October 1973. The coal miners started an overtime ban and threatened a strike, inflation was surging, banks were starting to fail, and the balance of trade and the Government’s budget were plunging rapidly into deficit. There was a panicky, doom-laden atmosphere. Cabinet Minister Geoffrey Rippon (according to Cecil King’s diaries), thought in December 1973:

“We were on the same course as the Weimar Government, with runaway inflation and ultra-high unemployment at the end.”

As 1974 began, a Three Day Week was imposed to conserve coal supplies while the Government, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), were locked in complex negotiations to reconcile the miners’ pay claim (and the industrial muscle and economic logic in oil-crisis Britain behind it) and the incomes policy that was intended to control inflation.

Edward Heath nearly did call the election for 7 February 1974. There was a flurry of election speculation the month before that there would be an election, but Heath in the end decided that he should give the talks with the TUC a bit more time – but only a few weeks later the election was called anyway. Many Conservatives were disappointed, including Alan Clark (18 January 1974):

“In tremendous form yesterday morning at prospect of election (!) on anti-union platform – v good for Sutton [constituency] prospects. Now total reversal; Heath lost his nerve at the last moment that afternoon, morale shattered.”

In reality, Heath had no intention of running a union-bashing campaign. His view of the rationale for an election was more elevated, if perhaps less easily understood – that the Government needed a new mandate to deal with the unprecedented economic situation caused by the oil shock, inflation and global turmoil. The majority he had won on a rather different prospectus in 1970 had been worn thin through by-elections and defections. But Heath and his government were tired and confused, and succumbing to ‘groupthink’ as the options seemed to close down one after the other.

The phantom election of 7 February 1974 was a missed opportunity, though not quite on the scale of the elections that never were in 1978 and 2007. The Conservatives would have done better with an early election in a more acute atmosphere of crisis. They would have benefited from having a poll before the new electoral register came into force, because there would have been fewer young voters on the rolls. They might also have been able to avert or delay the start of the miners’ strike, which went to a ballot on 24 January. Had the election been called before this stage, it would have been easy for the Conservatives to portray the strike as an interference with the democratic process.  As Nigel Lawson commented to historian Dennis Kavanagh: “The big mistake was to allow the NUM to call their ballot first.”

The Conservatives would also have avoided some of the mishaps of the campaign, including bad trade figures and confusing reports from the Pay Board that undercut the Government’s argument against the NUM. The ‘events, dear boy’ of 7-28 February nearly all went against Heath. An early election might even have come too soon for the intrigue between Enoch Powell and Harold Wilson to bear fruit. Powell’s manipulation of the election campaign was masterful – first announcing that he could not seek re-election as a Conservative because the election was a fraud, and then at the end – with devastating effect – revealing that he had cast a postal vote for Labour.

The result on 28 February was close, and strange. The Liberal vote had been rising steadily throughout the election campaign and the party achieved a breakthrough, with nearly 20 per cent of the British vote and 24 per cent in the seats they contested. But the party won a cruelly disproportionate 14 seats, for all its national popularity. The balance between the two main parties was neck and neck nearly to the end of the counting, with a few late Conservative losses to the SNP helping Labour eke out a lead of 301 seats to 297, despite the Conservatives winning the popular vote by nearly one per cent. Turnout was extremely high – 79 per cent, despite the low esteem in which the parties, and the familiar duo of Heath and Wilson, were held by the public.

As in the other hung parliament election, of 2010, the formation of a government hung in the balance. Heath tried and failed to reach agreement with the Liberals, but could not give them what they wanted on electoral reform, and indeed even a combination of Conservatives and Liberals would not have been enough for a majority. The balance of power would still have been with the Nationalists in Scotland and Wales, and the Unionist alliance opposed to the Heath Government’s Northern Ireland policy commanded 11 of the 12 seats from the province. Heath bowed to the inevitable, and Wilson formed a government on 4 March.

What would the Conservatives have done with a – probably narrow – overall majority if they had won on 7 February? The Tories themselves were not entirely clear about what an election victory would solve and what they would do with a new mandate. Some settlement would have had to be reached with the miners – buying them off was more or less inevitable in the circumstances, and the Conservative manifesto promised huge new investment in coal – and the TUC would have been more helpful if the possibility of getting a better deal from a Labour government was taken off the table. Heath’s second term would have had to wrestle with the same frightening stagflation as Wilson and Callaghan did, and it is hard to imagine him not trying to come to a long-term agreement with the TUC, perhaps something like the November 1972 deal that the trade unions foolishly rejected. He might even have succeeded, and won a third term in October 1978…

The February 1974 election led to the 1975 referendum in which Britain chose to remain in Europe; one of the fruits of Wilson’s renegotiation was the postponement of the single currency project that had originally been intended to be in place by 1980. A re-elected Heath government would certainly not have had a referendum, and have moved faster towards European integration, accelerating the re-alignment of right of centre politics. In this alternate universe, perhaps Peter Shore’s Labour would have won the 1983 election on a platform of Keynesian Euro-scepticism, and Chris Patten’s premiership in the 1990s could have reformed the electoral system and split the Conservative Party. I suspect that many of my Conservative Home readers feel by now that February 1974 was a very good election to lose.

Further reading

David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh The British General Election of February 1974 (Macmillan, 1974)

Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball (eds) The Heath Government 1970-74 (Longman, 1996), particularly the chapter by Dennis Kavanagh on the coming of the election.