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‘Take Power – Vote Liberal’: Jeremy Thorpe, the 1974 Liberal revival, and the politics of 1970s Britain

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The Liberal Party’s 1972-4 revival under Jeremy Thorpe placed it at the heart of political debate in 1970s Britain – a period marked by inflation, strikes, and recurrent talk of political ‘crisis’. This article explores the evolution of Liberal policy, strategy, and support between 1970 and 1979, and argues that Thorpe and his colleagues were agents as well as beneficiaries of electoral dealignment. As longstanding critics of class politics, Liberals were well placed to exploit voters’ frustrations with Edward Heath and Harold Wilson and to articulate demands for a more collaborative, responsive, and participatory style of government. Thorpe’s populist critique of the two-party system was backed up by a distinctive plan for economic and political renewal, in which electoral reform would give governments the legitimacy to make incomes policies work. These ideas resonated strongly in the two 1974 general elections, but the Liberals’ new-found support was relatively shallow, and Thorpe’s appeal was waning even before the Norman Scott affair became public in January 1976. David Steel’s election as leader signalled a turn from the crisis rhetoric of the mid-1970s to a more emollient, consensus-building tone, which would come to define the Liberal appeal in the face of Thatcherism.



4303 Historical Studies, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology

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The English Historical Review

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Oxford University Press (OUP)