In it Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government

Colin Kidd writes:

Common sense in British politics tends to be aligned with the wisdom of party managers: that the electorate abhors uncertainty, and is incapable of understanding either internal party divisions or Continental-style coalitions. Only very occasionally, when the whips are thwarted by force of circumstance, do the voters – and indeed a frustrated cadre of pragmatic and independent-minded politicians – escape the iron cage of partisan constraint. In early 1974 Britain seemed divided and ungovernable, with Ted Heath’s Conservative government blown off course by the miners’ strike. In the February election the voters returned an uncertain decision: Harold Wilson’s Labour Party took 301 seats on 11.7 million votes, Heath’s Tories got 297 seats on 11.9 million votes, and the Liberals led by Jeremy Thorpe found that their six million votes translated into 14 seats. The Liberals’ mini-revival suggested a solution to Heath’s predicament, and led him to enter into negotiations with Thorpe. The discussions failed, and Wilson took office at the head of a precarious single-party minority government, which seemed unlikely to endure. One electoral campaign seeped into the next, and in the high summer of 1974 holidaymakers were treated to the surreal sight of Thorpe’s tour of South-West England’s beaches in a hovercraft, from whose running board, wearing a trilby and a three-piece suit, he would address the trunked and bikinied masses.

(LRB 6 March 2014)