232. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Ford1
- The British Elections
The British electorate returns to the polls on Thursday, October 10. Prime Minister Wilson, who has led a minority Labor government since early March, called the election on September 18 with the hope of receiving a majority mandate for a full five-year term. Labor is leading in the polls and is the likely victor, but it is not certain whether Wilson can win a majority. This memorandum assesses the election issues, the likely outcome, and the consequences of alternative results.
The state of the British economy has been the issue in this election. Inflation, the cost of living and industrial relations preoccupy the voters. Foreign policy issues have not played an important role.
Labor has tried to persuade the electorate that its “Social Contract”, in which the unions restrain wage demands in exchange for social legislation, will guarantee industrial peace. Labor has portrayed itself as the party concerned with people’s needs, and has cited as examples its efforts to keep pensions abreast of the cost of living and to provide food subsidies. The party also has run against the EC, arguing that the organization is a shambles and pledging a referendum on British membership.
The Conservatives have sought to project a new image of moderation and non-confrontation with the unions, although they have done little to allay fears of renewed government-union struggle if they win. The Tories have emphasized their readiness to form a coalition government of national unity, presumably with the Liberals. They have also tried to stir the electorate on the EC issue, but, as with most other issues, have failed to arouse voter interest or passion.[Typeset Page 746]
Who Will Win?
Wilson’s Labor Party has held a consistent edge in the public opinion polls throughout the campaign, ranging from 4–14%. While the wide range of the polls reflects voter volatility and indecision, Labor’s steady lead makes it the likely victor in the election. The key uncertainty, therefore, appears to be whether Labor can win a majority or must settle for a plurality. With 301 seats in Commons, Labor needs to win an additional 17 for a majority.
An important factor will be voter turnout. A large turnout would benefit Labor, but voter apathy—combined with Labor’s steady lead in the polls—has Wilson and his political lieutenants concerned about getting out the vote. Another Labor worry is the resurgence of the Scottish nationalists. Labor has been strong in Scotland, and if the nationalist splinter party—which now has seven seats in Parliament—doubles or trebles its representation, it would badly hurt Labor’s chances for a majority. On the other hand, Labor is apparently running strong in England, especially around London.
The question of a Labor majority thus is just too close to call. That very uncertainty poses the possibility that the UK will have a rerun of last February’s election—no party with a mandate and another minority government for the country.
Summary: Kissinger discussed the forthcoming general election in the UK, set for October 10.
Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for Europe and Canada, Box 15, UK (3). Confidential. Sent for information. Kissinger did not initial the memorandum. Scowcroft wrote at the top of the memorandum, “Pres. has seen.” Wilson’s Labour Party emerged from the October 10 general election with a slim majority government. On December 2, Kissinger sent Ford a memorandum, prepared at Ford’s request, on the prospects for Heath and the Conservative Party. (Ibid.)↩