This month sees the 40th anniversary of the 1974 General Election, which resulted in the first hung parliament since 1929, when only four seats separated the Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, and the Labour Party.
On the previous day, 23 February 1974, the veteran MP Enoch Powell had announced his resignation from the Conservative Party, in protest against Heath’s decision to take Britain into the EEC. Britain had formally entered the EEC in 1973, and Heath had signed up to economic and monetary union by 1980 with its European partners, but he had done so without electoral or parliamentary authority, scarcely mentioning the issue in the Conservative manifesto. In his resignation speech, Powell sent a torpedo right through his own party (already in deep trouble over the economy), making it clear that on this issue above all, he considered it his duty to put his country ahead of his party’s interests. Though he didn’t actually quite say the words “Vote Labour” (as this speech is generally known), he was certainly telling his supporters that they should do so.
While this one speech (quoted below) is unlikely to have lost the election for the Conservatives, it certainly didn’t help, as Powell was an extremely influential figure. It was of course the end of Powell’s relations with the party, and seriously damaged his relations with his supporters, many of whom were shocked by what they saw as his disloyalty to the Conservatives. For himself, he had been deeply at odds with Heath for years anyway, and shortly afterwards joined the Ulster Unionists, becoming MP for Down South later in the year, and telling his friend Ralph Harris that he was “happier and more at peace with myself now than for two or three years”.
POLL 4/1/9, speech of 23 February 1974.
“Mr Heath gives us to understand that Europe is not a subject he wants to talk about; he hopes that, as in 1970, it will not be an issue – then it was only a “commitment to negotiate”, now it is to be a fait accompli – and just to avoid any awkward questions, he omits all reference to “economic and monetary union by 1980” from his manifesto.
“… It is understandable that Mr Heath does not want the electors to take this issue with them into the polling booths. He does not want the British people to decide at the ballot-box the most momentous transformation in their history. He does not think they are to be trusted with anything so important. After all, they might reach the opposite conclusion to himself; and that would never do.
… the elector “…must decide what it is that most matters to him, and then he must help to give a majority to that party which has that thing to offer. … the large element of the electorate … which finds it impossible, as I do, to accept that Britain can be embodied in a European superstate without her people’s willing assent openly given, or than any advantage can compensate for accepting Community membership on terms which deprive this country of its free self-governing institutions.
“If that for us is the overriding issue – and how it could be less, I do not understand – then we have a clear national duty to help to decide it in the only way of which parliamentary representation admits.”