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We begin a new series of blog posts on ‘Inside the Act Room’ exploring the significant years in modern British history that were like no other. To start things off, we’re heading back half a century to 1974 when politics was very much at the core of the national conversation.

Focusing on six major events that defined this most turbulent of twelve months, we’ll see how Parliament had to learn to roll with the punches to find solutions. This blog will feature numerous political heavyweights from across the board, who fifty years on, still fascinate us and encourage further appraisal.


Panoramic black and white photo showing a large crowd outside the Palace of Westminster. Police Officers can be seen in the foreground.
Miners lobbying Parliament Photograph, 1972, Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/7/4/24



Here we go again was the familiar feeling as New Year 1974 began with the start of another ‘Three Day Week’ to help ration the nation’s electricity usage. Implemented by a Conservative Government forced into submission because of the combination of a worldwide oil supply crisis and a continuing National Union of Miners wage-disputed overtime ban. Consequentially, schooling, working practices and leisure activities were greatly affected. For example, at the vast Millbank Tower, civil servants had to carry on with administrative duties in freezing cold offices as the heating system, coupled with the lifts, was switched off for the interim.

Though candle manufacturers rejoiced at the massive increase in product demand a frustrated public heaped blame on Prime Minister Edward Heath. He’d taken a hardball approach in negotiations with Trade Union leaders such as Joe Gormley whose constant media presence saw him become an unlikely household name. The miners played the all-out strike card at the end of January in the knowledge that a springtime seasonal change potentially weaken their overall bargaining position. Heath, with options limited, was resigned to calling a surprise General Election as he asked an exasperated electorate to decide once and for all ‘Who Governs Britain?’.

(Read Edward Heath’s statement on the Three Day Week – ENERGY SUPPLIES (Hansard, 13 December 1973) (


black and white photograph of a man in a suit at a lectern
Edward Heath MP, June 1970, PUD/18/66, Parliamentary Archives


black and white photograph of a man in a suit holding a smoking pipe.
Harold Wilson MP, 1972, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/775,



Time was of the essence in a frantic electoral campaign period restricted to three weeks. On polling night, the BBC’s all-important computer predicted a Conservative win and betting expert Julian Wilson compared Edward Heath to the all-conquering horse Nijinsky. Alternatively, astrologer ‘Katrina’ told viewers there would be a Labour upset due to the presence of Uranus in Harold Wilson’s astrological chart. Adding star quality to proceedings was actor Vanessa Redgrave representing the Workers Revolutionary Party. She proved unsuccessful in her bid to claim the Newham Northeast seat. As dawn approached it became increasingly clear that there was a deadlock looming.

Unexpectedly finding themselves down the pecking order the Conservatives turned to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals in the hope of forming a coalition alliance to remain in power. However, talks broke down leaving Labour holding the slimmest of majorities to precariously preside within a hung Parliament. With little room to manoeuvre, Harold Wilson knew his party were in no position to solve the problems of rising inflation and unemployment. Thus, it was inevitable that a repeat election was imminent to allow for a workable mandate. In the meantime, the striking miners agreed a pay settlement with Wilson’s government and returned to work.


Front cover
Report of the Inquiry into the Red Lion Square Disorders of 15 June 1974 by the Right Honourable Lord Justice Scarman, Order of the British Empire, 27 Feb 1975, Parliamentary Archives. HL/PO/JO/10/11/1857/1136



Despite the passing of race relations legislation in the 1960s immigration remained a divisive issue. This was highlighted by the number of National Front candidates standing in the February election. Four months on they announced a march to take place in London on the inflammatory topic of repatriation. The pressure group Liberation, opposed to the movement’s stance, organised a counter protest leading to a stand-off at Red Lion Square. During the melee Kevin Gately, a Warwick University student was struck on the head suffering a fatal haemorrhage. He was the first person to die at a political demonstration since 1919.

Lord Scarman was appointed to chair an inquiry into the disorder. The findings published in early 1975 couldn’t provide any fresh evidence on how Gately died. Yet it did raise many prevalent points about the problem of maintaining the peace in these fractious situations. Briefed by activist Lord Brockway he recommended that fringe organisations on opposite sides of the ideological divide shouldn’t be allowed to demonstrate in the same location. Scarman dismissed accusations levelled at the Metropolitan Police concerning overzealous policing, noting that ‘policemen are only human, we’re asking a lot of them, that they exercise restraint at all times’.

(Read Parliament’s statement on the Red Lion Square Disorder – DISTURBANCES (RED LION SQUARE) (Hansard, 17 June 1974) (

black and white photograph of Westminster Hall
Celebration of the Seventh Centenary of the Parliament of Simon de Montfort, January 1265.  The Presentation of Addresses to Queen Elizabeth II by both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, June 1965, Parliamentary Archives, PIC/P/96



Westminster Hall had seen it all, coronation banquets, tally stick fires and the blitz. On the morning of a normal sitting day in June 1974 an IRA bomb exploded at its north end striking a gas main destroying an office annex area. Thankfully only eleven people suffered injuries and the 14TH century hammerbeam roof survived intact. Parliament dusted itself down and both chambers sat that afternoon with statements on the incident delivered by the respective Leaders of the House. The consensus was that estate security was not at the level required to deal with this threat and needed amping up.

As the troubles in Northern Ireland intensified the IRA initiated a bombing spree directed on mainland Britain. The casualty toll and devastation caused by the Guildford and Birmingham pub attacks shocked the nation. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins faced growing calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty in relation to the recent terrorist atrocities, receiving over a thousand letters on the subject. Eventually in the winter of 1974 a House of Commons motion was tabled to debate the highly emotive matter. Individuals were conflicted on the correct course of action and the amendment to reinstate was beaten by 152 votes.

(Read Parliament debate the reinstatement of the death penalty – CAPITAL PUNISHMENT (Hansard, 11 December 1974) (


typed page
The Complete Peerage Volume VIII, Lucan Peerage



Several hereditary peers developed into active Parliamentarians becoming involved in daily business and contributing to committees. The 7th Earl of Lucan, John Bingham wasn’t one for frequenting the Upper House preferring instead to spend his evenings at West End gambling clubs playing backgammon. He mysteriously disappeared in the aftermath of a murder at his estranged wife’s home causing a global press frenzy. Meanwhile, in Australia, the Victoria State Police were keeping tabs on a distinguished looking gentleman newly resident in Melbourne possessing dual aliases. On arrest they found him not to be Lucan but the absconded Labour MP, John Stonehouse.

A former Postmaster General, Stonehouse was presumed dead at sea after a pile of his clothes was left on a Miami beach in November 1974. It was known that his finances were in disarray with criminal charges pending hence the bogus taking of his own life. Extradition red tape meant he didn’t return to face the music until the following July. Bullishly refusing to resign as an MP he addressed the House refuting allegations that he was also a spy for Czechoslovakia. In the resulting fraud trial, he was given a seven-year sentence. He ultimately served half the prison term.

(Read John Stonehouse’s Personal Statement to the House  – PERSONAL STATEMENT (Hansard, 20 October 1975) (


Britain in Europe Pamphlet, 1975, Parliamentary Archives, PWG/33/26b



Labour’s victory in the October 1974 General Election was a somewhat low-key triumph. Amongst the usual elective pledges was an intriguing promise to stage a national referendum on staying in the European Common Market. Harold Wilson kept his word, and a date was set for the 5th June 1975 aka Independence Day. The Yes-camp was named Britain in Europe (BIE) while the No advocates came together under the banner of the National Referendum Campaign (NRC). Fronting the BIE ranks was marketeer-in-chief Edward Heath in stark opposition to the odd pairing of Tony Benn and Enoch Powell spearheading the NRC’s offensive.

Financially supported by industry bigwigs ranging from IBM to McAlpine gave the BIE campaign an unprecedented £1.5m fund pot. This bankrolled a 140 strong staff pool and the mass distribution of fetching lilac-coloured rosettes. Additionally, BIE encouraged the input of influential women’s groups and various immigrant community representatives. Tony Benn hindered the NRC’s progress by falsely stating that entry to the Common Market in 1973 had indirectly led to 500,000 job losses. Considering the previous year’s double election, the referendum encountered a degree of apathy on all fronts. Nonetheless the turnout was reasonably respectable and 67% voted to stay put.

(Read Harold Wilson’s statement to the House on European Community negotiations - EUROPEAN COMMUNITY (Hansard, 18 March 1975) (



Britain In Europe Papers, Parliamentary Archives (

1974: Scenes from a Year in Crisis by Nick Rennison

State of Emergency 1970-1974 by Dominic Sandbrook

Seasons in the Sun 1974-1979 by Dominic Sandbrook

When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett

Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the Seventies by Alwyn Turner

Yes to Europe; The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain by Robert Saunders

Hansard Parliamentary Debates

BBC General Election February 1974 (

BBC General Election October 1974 (

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