“Crisis” Election – 50 years on!

March 02, 2024

There will be a UK General Election in 2024, and it is predicted this could be in the Spring or October. 50 years ago, in 1974, I was a pupil at Bembridge School ( see below) and there were two elections in February and October of that year. The first election was held on the 28th February 1974 and Isle of Wight elected its first Liberal MP since 1924 when Jack Seely, Liberal Party and relative of Bob (current Conservative MP) had lost his seat. Stephen Ross (Liberal Party) overturned a Conservative majority of 17,000 and turned it into a 7000 Liberal Party (later Liberal Democrat) majority. He defended the seat 3 times and was never defeated until he retired in 1987 and subsequently went into the House of Lords. He died in 1993. I met him in that February 1974, aged 16. This is my memory and reflections of this meeting, the 1974 election and its relevance today from my personal perspective.

There was in 1974 and up until now, only one Parliamentary seat on Isle of Wight. In the 2024 General Election there will be now 2 seats and one of them will be East Wight.

Bembridge School (1919-1996)

Bembridge School had been founded in 1919 by John Howard Whitehouse who was the first Warden/Headmaster of Bembridge School (1919-1955). John was a former radical liberal MP (1910-1919) and supporter of women’s suffrage and votes for women. He was a personal friend of William Beveridge, a fellow Liberal and founder of the modern Welfare State and National Health Service. Beveridge was President of Bembridge School from 1954-1963. The school philosophy was based on the Arts and Craft Movement, humanitarian liberalism and the works of the social reformer, John Ruskin.

The curriculum encouraged political discussion especially from the 5th year onwards (I was a 5th year pupil) and this was my political awakening as a 16 year old in 1973/74. The school held a school election to coincide with the General Election and invited all the real candidates to be quizzed by the pupils including the sitting Conservative MP for Isle of Wight, Mark Woodnutt and Cllr Stephen Ross, Liberal Leader of Isle of Wight County Council and Liberal Party Candidate.

1974 “Crisis Election”

Newspapers at the time named the election the “crisis election” due to the severe economic circumstances in which the election was held in 1974. The miners were on strike, there was a three-day week, and prices had risen by 20%. The 1974 February election was ironically the first election after the UK had joined the European Union (Common Market) and 2024 will be the first election after the UK had officially left in January 2021.

The School Election, Hustings and my meeting with Stephen Ross

I stood in the school election for Labour, partly as no-else did and because I had a deep feeling of social injustice I saw with my teenage eyes. I was an “angry young” man. I was particularly angry about the sitting Tory MP, Mark Woodnutt. Parents of friends in Bembridge and Ryde were deeply angry with him. There was graffiti making accusations about his conduct around the area (although I had nothing to do with this).

I asked Mr Woodnutt directly about his part in the alleged corruption involved in the purchase of Bembridge Harbour from British Rail. He was very insulted and stated that if I did not immediately apologise, he would leave and take legal action against the school. I was swiftly removed from the school library where the “hustings” were taking place and taken outside by the headmaster. I was told I had to go back in and apologise unreservedly to Mr Woodnutt immediately or I would be severely punished. I went back in and apologised. Later, I was called to the Headmaster’s office and there was Stephen Ross. I thought I was in big trouble, but Stephen said he wanted me to know he agreed what I had said but I needed to learn when to say “the truth“. His kindness has always remained with me to this day.

I discovered we had three things in common, our birthdays were the 5th July (mine) and his on the 6th July, he had gone to Bedford School and I was born in Bedford and he and I had a love for the Brittan Norman Islander and the Hovercraft. He had a strong interest in social housing and homelessness. He later showed as an MP that you don’t need to be part of a party in power to get legislation through as he used the Private Member’s bill route to get the 1977 Homelessness Act on the statue books which is still relevant today. He suggested that I consider the Liberal Party as oppose to Labour (I only got 4 votes in school election). The headmaster suggested I had a career in community development and public service instead of politics. I was adamant at 16 that I was going to be a chef and hotel manager. I had already signed up with Trust Houses Forte and left school in the July 1974 to start work. It is ironic that by the age of 20, I was working in community development and later in mental health services. Now at age 66 I am a Liberal Democrat politician back on the Isle of Wight. You never know where life’s journey takes you.

Stephen was an incredibly nice man and a real community champion and showed that the Tories could be defeated. I wished him luck and even gave a hand distributing his leaflets. He won in February 1974 and defeated Mark Woodnutt.  This defeat was attributed to his alleged involvement in a financial scandal involving Bembridge Harbour. Others attributed thousands of disillusioned Tory Island voters having enough of the Conservative government and putting their face in a likeable and listening local Liberal champion

50 years on an another “Crisis” General Election on its way in 2024

50 years on, there is still controversy of perceived overdevelopment around Bembridge harbour and the building of housing on greenfield sites in the village, so not much has changed there.

Interestingly, Mark Woodnutt had been an IW County Councillor representing Bembridge prior to being elected in 1959 as Isle of Wight’s MP for 15 years. The Conservative Party candidate for the new East Wight constituency is Cllr Joe Robertson, who represents Bembridge. I think any other similarity stops there. As a potential Lib Dem candidate for the parliamentary seat I like Cllr Stephen Ross, am a Liberal IW Councillor.

Similar, to 1974, in 2023/24 the Conservative Party/Government is in disarray. In 1973/74, I do remember the three day working week and power cuts. I remember doing my homework with a candle at Bembridge School. There is some resemblance of the current cost-of-living crisis and I am sure the past President of Bembridge School, William Beveridge would be turning in his grave regarding the decline of the welfare state and NHS.

I do know as a Liberal Democrat and a local Councillor, we should celebrate Stephen’s historic victory in 1974 and perhaps the IW Liberal Democrats could win in the new East Wight Constituency. We will have to see.

Michael Lilley at Owl Exhibition September 2023

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