Heaths Government


Heath as leader

When he became PM, he had a clear and detailed programme of policies for the modernisation of Britian. He was educated at state schools and therefore came from a different social background to the old Tory leaders. He was often known for being stiff and prickly to people. He was good at policies but not politics. Heath seemed well prepared for government as he had spent time in opposition developing detailed policies, especially on industrial relations and economic modernisation. He also knew the issues surrounding the EEC entry inside out, having been the chief negotiator in 1961-63.

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Political and economic policies

In January before the 1970 election, the Conservatives held a conference at Slesdon Park to approve a policy programme which would form the basis of the Conservative party's manifesto at the election: tax reform; better law and order; reforms for trade unions; immigration controls; cuts to public spending; and the end to public subsidy (money) of 'lame duck' industries. (one that is unable to compete and survive without support from the state). However, Heath still believed in 'One Nation Toryism' and the post-war consensus. During the Heath premiership there were a number of reforms:

  • The school leaving age was raised to 16
  • Local government was reorganised 
  • The British currency was decimalised (the British currency would have 100 pence, rather than 144 old pennies in the pound, bringing it more in line with other European countries)
  • Encouraged public spending cuts to try and encourage investment (Barber Boom, with a rapid rise in inflation. However it wasn't accompanied by economic growth. Unemployment grew and was named 'stagflation'.

This caused Heath to make is famous 'U-turn', where he had to intervene with indusrty, which they promised not to, to deal with the unemployment problem. Rolls Royce was also nationalised in 1971 and government money was poured in to prevent Upper Clyde Shipbuilders going bankrupt. But by 1973 the investment the government had made into modernising industry seemed to be working. Unemployment had halved to 500,000 but this changed due to the oil price crisis of 1973 and the energy crisis which followed.

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Oil crisis 1973

The trigger for the crisis in October 1973 was the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East. The was prompted OPEC (Organisation of Petrolium Exported Countries) to declare an oil embargo (official ban). Exports suddenly stopped. The price of oil rocketed to 4 times the usual levels. Long queues formed outside petrol stations. This caused the National Union of Miners to demand a huge new pay rise in November 1973.

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Industrial relations and the miners' strikes

From the start of Heath's premiership there were industrial disputes to deal with:

  • a dockers' strike
  • a large pay settlement for dustmen
  • a postal workers' strike 
  • 'go-slow' by power workers which led to power cuts

In response to the problems. the government introduced the Industrial Relations Act. This was very similar to Barbara Castle's proposals in her white paper, In Place of Strife. Heath also abolished the National Board for Prices and Incomes. The Industrial Relations Act set up the Industrial Relations Court and provided for strike ballots and a 'cooling off period' before official strikes could begin (time for things to improve). The policy did not work as expected. Both the TUC (Trade Union Congress) and CBI (Confederation of British Industry) were opposed to it. There were major strikes in 1972; by the miners, ambulence drivers, firefighters, civil servants, power workers, hospital staff, and engine drivers. 1972 saw the highest number of working days lost in strikes since the General Strike of 1923. Heath also returned to the policy of trying to manage wage demands with the passing of the Indusry Act of 1972 which aimed to involve the government, the TUC and the CBI in agreeing wages, prices, investment and benefits. This policy was heavily criticised by the right of the conservative party such as Enoch Powell. Despite this there were further industrial disputes with firefighters and power workers and in November 1973 the oil crisis led to another increased wage demand from the miners.

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Industrial relations and the miners' strikes

The miners introduced an overtime ban to strengthen their demands. Heath hoped that a compramise could be met and a strike avoided but he also announced that a three-day week would be re-introduced from the beginning of 1974. He moved Willie Whitehall (upper-class tory, similar to Harold Macmillan. He was an effective negotiator in Northern Irish Sunningdale negotiations.) from the Northern Ireland Office to be minister of employment as he was considered a skilled negotiator. This failed. In January 1974, the NUM called a national strike.

The three-day week was imposed by the Heath government to conserve electricity in response to a wave of industrial action by engineers, dockers and firefighters and the looming threat of a national coal strike in the middle of an energy crisis. During the three-day week, fuel was rationed and a speed limit of 50mph was imposed on all roads. Deep cuts were made to the heating and lighting of public buildings and TV closed down at 10.30pm. Productivity nor wages declined much. The shortage of coal, together with rising oil prices led to a balance of payments crisis.

Heath called a general election for 28th February 1974. For most of the campaign opinion polls favoured the Conservatives but the final result showed a small swing towards them. Labour won 5 more seats than the tories. Indirectly, the miners' strike had brought down the government. But the general election results of Feb 1974 was also inconclusive, leading to a hung parliament in which no party had an overall majority. Heath's attempt to make a deal with the Liberals failed. Labour as the largest party formed a minority government.

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The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Sunningdale Agre

The Heath government inherited huge problems in NI in 1970. There was an explosion of sectarian violence (relating to divisions in society which in NI were based on religion, protestant and catholic).  The British army was struggling to keep peace and the political situation in Belfast was close to complete breakdown. As the situation deteriorated (got worse) a number of parliamentry organisations sprang up on both sides:

  • IRA - Irish Republican Army - split between the official IRA and the Provisional IRA in 1970. (Republican)
  • INLA - Irish National Liberation Army - formed out of Official IRA in 1974 (Republican)
  • UDA - Ulster Defence Association (Loyalist)
  • UVF - Ulster Volunteer Force (Loyalist)

Heath's government made strenuous (great efforts) attempts to find a political solution. Since 1912, the Ulster Unionists had always been part of the Conservatice and Unionist Party and had tended to support them. At first, Heath backed Brian Faulkner, the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) leader who led the Belfast government, going along with the policies of imposing night-time curfews and the introduction of internment (locking up suspects without trial) in 1971. But these were ineffective as 95% of those interned between 1971 and 75 were catholics. These measures meant that the British Army came to be regarded as an enemy occupying power by Catholics and nationalists. The situation was made worse on 30th Jan 1972 where the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had organised a protest against internment. Attempts to control the march resulted to the British army firing live ammunition. This day became known as bloody sunday.

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The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Sunningdale Agre

Following Bloody Sunday, the British Embassy in Dublin was burned down. Support for the IRA grew and they were able to raise a lot of funds in the US. 1972 turned into the bloodiest year of the troubles, there were: 1382 explosions, 10,628 shooting incidents,480 people killed. Heath suspended the Stormont Parliament in March 1972 and brought in direct control (NI would be rulled from London rather than having its own seperate parliament), appointing Willie Whitewall as secretary of state. Heath's policy was not only to defeat the IRA, as the unionists and loyalists wanted, but to look for permanent political solution that would ensure peace. This led to negotiation with the main Northern Irish political parties.

Unionist and Loyalist Parties:

  • UUP: only major unionist party in NI unitl the troubles, ruled NI between 1921 and 7
  • DUP (Democratic Unionist Party): Formed in 1971
  • Alliance: formed in 1970 to be a moderate unionist party and aimed to gain support from both religions

Nationalists and Republicans

  • SDLP (Socialist Democratic Labour Party): formed in 1970 by nationalists such as John Hume to fight for civil rights for Catholics and a united Ireland but rejected violent methods.
  • Sinn Fein: Republican party dated back to 1905, split in 1970, the new Sinn Fien supported the Provisional IRA: it was excluded from negotiations
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The Troubles in Northern Ireland (Sunningdale Agre

In 1973, Heath and Whitewall negotiated the Sunningdale agreement, a complex plan for a power-sharing government with the support of the SDLP and the Alliance and the leadership of UUP. The Sunningdale agreement proposed:

  • A power-sharing Executive of both nationalists and unionists
  • A new Northern Ireland Assembly elected under a system of proportional representation
  • a Council of Ireland that would have some input from the Republic of Ireland

Extremists from both nationalists and unionists disliked the agreement. Both the UVF and UDA were opposed. The UUP then voted to pull out in January 1974 and Brian Faulkner was replaced as leader of thr UUP by Harry West who was opposed to the agreement. Concern about the Sunningdale agreement meant that the Tory party could not rely on the support of the UUP, preventing the Conservatives from continuing in government.

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