Parliamentary psychodrama, knife edge votes, dependent on Northern Irish Unionist votes…

Sound familiar.

I’m not describing the current tense parliamentary situation.

Forty years ago tonight, at 10pm, a vote of no confidence in Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government was called.

It was always going to be a knife edge.

This evening, BBC Parliament broadcast a programme, A Parliamentary Coup, describing the events surrounding that vote, the referendum which led to it (the Scottish devolution referendum) and the very human stories behind it.

One particular story brought to mind the dishonourable breaking of Jo Swinson’s pair by Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis. It was an opportunistic breaking of an agreement.

Compare and contrast with a conversation between the Labour and Conservative whips Walter Harrison and Bernard Wetherill, who would later become Commons Speaker.

They had a gentleman’s agreement that they would always pair sick MPs. On this occasion, Wetherill said that he couldn’t offer a pair for the gravely ill Labour MP Doc Broughton, but to honour the agreement, he wouldn’t vote himself. Harrison wouldn’t let him take that career-ending step.

I hope that the programme will appear on iPlayer soon. 

David Steel was the Liberal Leader at that time. You can read his whole speech in which he explained why he would be voting against the Government here.

In doing so he made the case for fixed term Parliaments, which were, of course, introduced the the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government.

I have never made any secret of the fact, either privately or publicly, that it was our view that an election should have been held last autumn when Parliament had completed four years of its life and when it was shown that there was no long-term common ground to enable us to continue the Lib-Lab agreement. I believed, therefore, that from October onwards the Government would inevitably be lacking in political stability. I argued then that that was our opportunity to take our different views to the electorate.

Everything that has happened since October adds weight to the case for fixed Parliaments, as in most of the other developed democracies. General election date speculation is one of the few growth occupations in Britain today, absorbing politicians, journalists and bookmakers, but, far more seriously, disrupting industry and commerce. That process is damaging, and the case has been increasingly made out for moving to a fixed-term Parliament rather than leaving the decision in the hands of one individual.

He also talked about the Lib Lab Pact and the benefits it had brought to the country, from mortgage and getting inflation under control to something that will sound a bit familiar:

And a bit of liberal influence:

First, during that period we had a Labour Government in office, but Left-wing Socialism had to be abandoned for that period; therefore there was a degree of political stability and a process of government of this country from the centre. That in itself was beneficial.

It’s interesting that he’s talking about Government of the centre. As we will show in the next few weeks, our manifesto from 1979 had some pretty radical stuff in it. It would be wildly lefty in today’s terms. If only we could be so bold nowadays.

He went on to talk about specific Liberal policies:

I mention the specific issue of the legislation last April on profit sharing. It has taken a year for this to come into effect, but already 48 companies have adopted the profit-sharing proposals of last year’s Finance Act. Recently the City editor of The Observer wrote: Such schemes will help to bring about a closer harmony between employees and management. That will be to the whole community’s advantage. In fact, even at this early stage, companies with such schemes report a greater profit consciousness among employees. That was a very modest start in the direction in which the House ought to be travelling. It is absolutely essential that we link future pay policy in the private sector to actual profits and productivity, because that is the only way in which we shall succeed in creating a healthy and successful private sector with which to sustain the public sector.

The 1979 election was the first I can properly remember. I have memories of walking to the church on Dell Road in Inverness for one of the 1974 elections so that my parents could vote but this was the awakening of my interest in politics. My passion for liberalism and social justice would not be ignited for another couple of years, though.

I know that many of our readers will have memories of this debate and the events leading up to it. Do tell us in the comments or send 500 word articles to [email protected].



* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 28th Mar '19 - 10:10pm
  • Roland Postle 28th Mar '19 - 10:21pm

    Jacob Rees-Mogg also made a strong case for fixed term parliaments this morning [ITV, It’s Cameron’s fault that May could not bully me], although he phrased it like it was a bad thing the PM couldn’t blackmail him and other backbenchers, and of course gave the LD side of the coalition no credit for it.

    It’s curious that the FTPA weakens government’s hold over parliament, but at the same time makes fragile governments more enduring. When this Brexit chaos is finally over it’ll have generated a remarkably rigorous test of the act in a very short time.

  • The important issue was an remains what the people believe, or can be persuaded to believe. In the present chaos more people are getting worried about what the future holds, so some are changing their minds about the problems of leaving the European Union. A rational approach is to spread the story of the reality of the European Union and build up an enthusiasm for the project.
    Most people in the U.K. would support democracy if it were introduced into their own country.

  • The day after the confidence vote found most Liberals tramping the streets of Edge Hill, it being polling day.
    We won hands down, and probably helped save most of our seats in the following general election.

  • David Evans 29th Mar '19 - 9:35am

    Very True Andy, and a thing that Lib Dem activists across the country should remember when they have to decide what to do today.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 29th Mar '19 - 10:21am

    Tom Harney said “Most people in the U.K. would support democracy if it were introduced into their own country.”

    What a pity our two major parties are so opposed to this idea.

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