How a football defeat ‘did for Wilson’. Or did it?…
The British public are now firmly entrenched in the stinking bog that is a general election run up. Political pundits for the major news channels keep telling us that we, the voters are turned off politics. Indeed we are, so why, pray tell, are you torturing the nation with five months of vacuous statistics that mean nothing to Messrs’ Smith, Singh and Wroblewski?
It wasn’t like this in the old days. In 1970 it was a straight fight between reigning champion Harold Wilson in the red corner and contender Ted Heath in the blue with Jeremy Thorpe holding the spit bucket. There were no third, fourth or fifth party meddler’s to spoil the status quo so could it be possible that the election was won and lost on a game of footie? There were some in the Labour party who thought so.
The reigning FIFA World Champions in 1970 were of course, England. Four years earlier the country was a sea of bunting as the boys in red beat the old enemy 4-2. Manager Alf Ramsey was kept on as manager for the defence of the cup in the fierce heat of a Mexican summer and the overwhelming presumption was that this team was better than the ’66 version. They were wrong. On the 14th of June England were drawn once again against West Germany, but this time in the quarter finals. The game, full of incident and tension lacked one major component for England, Gordon Banks. Possibly England’s greatest ever goalkeeper a bout of sickness stopped him from playing and his incredible save against the Brazilian Pele earlier in the tournament would prove his lasting legacy. His replacement, Peter Bonetti provided his own legacy with an abject performance which saw England lose 3-2 after extra-time. Revenge was sweet for the Germans.
Back in England, Wilson and Heath were four days away from the election. The general consensus was an easy win for Wilson with senior Tories already busy making plans for Heath’s immediate replacement in Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a safe pair of hands to fend off the rise of Enoch Powell. Some journalists began to feel sorry for Heath, such was the battering he had taken in the weeks leading up to the day. But in the final week Heath, the sailor boy at heart found an extra wind in his sail and won the most unexpected election victory in the modern age.
Dissenting voices in the Labour Party such as Grimsby Town fan, Tony Crosland, the then Minister for Local Government, looked to England’s World Cup exit as a reason for a dissatisfied nation, indeed Wilson had discussed the effects of an England defeat with the cabinet as early as the Spring. So was it really down to the gaffes of Peter Bonetti which lost Wilson the premiership? No. Whilst opinion is divided (as it always is) on Labour’s record during the late Sixties it was clear to most that the poor trade figures coupled with Wilson’s lack of direction and the devaluation of the pound had cost them dearly, particularly amongst the working class. But despite Wilson’s unpopularity he had kept unemployment below three per cent, distanced himself from involvement in Vietnam (current leaders take note) and inflation remained relatively low.
So whilst his defeat was as big a shock as the football result it wasn’t Bonetti who was guilty of the biggest howler that summer. It was the pollsters who had completely misread the public and their desire for change.