Brian Reading

How a cow won the 1970 election

How a cow won the 1970 election
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The conspiracy theory of history is rarely right; the bungle theory is rarely wrong. So it was at the 1970 British general election. I bungled. The polls gave Labour a 3 percent lead; instead the Tories won. Historians disagree on why this was so. Some blame the margin of error in opinion polls. Others say there was a late swing. If so, I was to blame.

It was the Sunday before the Thursday polling. We were panicking. Our Tory backroom boys gathered together three or four future cabinet ministers. I asked how were we to deal with inflation – more important in those days than the budget deficit. We agreed that I would write a speech for Edward Heath saying that selective employment tax would be abolished, cutting the rise in prices ‘at a stroke’ - rather like reducing value added tax.

I presented my draft speech to Heath at an early morning meeting before his daily press conference. He asked whether his shadow chancellor, Iain Macleod, had approved it. He had not but did that day. So on Tuesday, I presented it again for his morning press conference. That was when things unravelled. He said “I won’t say this, but to keep you happy Brian you can put it out as background briefing.”

In those days, 40 years ago, there were no photocopiers. Central Office had stencils cut for Roneo machines and I gave the go ahead to hand it out but failed to say it was a background briefing. It was distributed at the end of the press conference as ‘Speech by the Rt. Hon Edward Heath, leader of the opposition’. It was the most famous speech Heath never made.

Like Gordon Brown, Harold Wilson wanted a doctor’s mandate. He claimed to have the best poop-scoop to clear up the mess the dog had made – the international dog, not his. I started the speech by blaming him for the mess – he had devalued before and would devalue again.

Wilson was dead against devaluation and blamed it on the gnomes of Zurich. He saw red when the midday news carried this story: ‘Heath says Wilson will devalue again’. Unfortunately it was second to the news that Britain’s trade balance was back in the red, thanks to buying three new 747s. Wilson won the 1964 election by lambasting the Tories over the £800 million balance of payments deficit. He claimed to have put that right. The news of a renewed trade deficit was the last thing he wanted.

Wilson was on a walk-about campaign in a country seat. Seeing the news he called an impromptu press conference with a field of cows in the background. He lambasted Heath for ‘spitting on the flag’ and for his ‘unpatriotic’ suggestions about devaluation. When he finished, a cow in the background went ‘Moo’. Such are the hazards of electioneering. The picture was carried on TV news for the rest of that day and into the next.  Some say it won Heath the election with a late swing. Personally I doubt it. But anything can decide an election result.

The ‘at a stroke’ speech became famous. Iain Macleod died and the plan was fatally delayed. Wilson cheated: he claimed Heath had said he would cut prices at ‘a stroke’ when I had written that the measure would cut the rise in prices. Oddly, Heath never admitted he had never made that speech.

I wait to see if this campaign has a final SNAFU to offer.