Toward the Iceberg

The British general election of October, 1974, proved plain sailing for the Labour party, which gained a small majority of three members over the combined parliamentary strength—which will be difficult to muster—of the opposing parties. For a period of months they had governed without the benefit of a majority: now they are out of that hole. The Conservative party came to grief in the election, which must have been a dismal and grueling experience for its leader, Edward Heath. His yacht Morning Cloud was wrecked in a storm—by a freak wave, it is thought—just before the campaign began, and friends of his were drowned.

He and his party ran as if they expected the verdict forecast in the opinion polls, which was the verdict they received. Blamed for policies of confrontation and division in relation to the unions and to the miners in particular, they applied themselves to an unpromising plea for national unity which seems to have served only to deprive them of fight: Wilson waited till he had won before he played that tune. The Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe leaped over walls, and pranced from hovercraft and helicopter onto many a seashore and meadow. But the Liberals sustained a disappointment, and the recurrent “Liberal revival” of the years since the war will have to start all over again. The Scottish Nationalists increased their support at the expense of the Tories.

These are the impressions of someone outside politics who had no strong desire, this time, for any party to do well. They will not resemble the sort of “London Letter” which used to appear in American magazines, in the days when Americans were curious about the city, and about its cultural occasions. There is precious little “London” of that description to report. It is almost as if slump and slide and freeze have taken the heart out of literature and the theater, as if such activities have been shown to depend on the state of the economy. A numbness has descended on the passengers while the economy, dead on course, steams toward its iceberg.

Throughout the campaign, the faces of the Labour politicians beamed and blossomed like apricots as they grew more and more certain of success. From these faces issued talk of doom, of icebergs, of a determination to steer clear. Neither of the two main parties was willing to explain what it meant to do if it got back. Heath and Wilson were a pair of meaty, wary faces perched on a pair of small bodies, cartoons of managerial competence. Heath’s face displayed embarrassment and a consciousness of defeat. Now he has been beaten once too often by the man whose abilities he was presumed to match, and he will no doubt have to go, though there is no obvious successor. Res ipsa loquitur, as a certain type of Tory has already said.

Wilson has never fought a smarter campaign. He was in his element, a man for all seasons, including disaster. Labour was made…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.