Eric Heffer - Ministerial Office

Ministerial Office

In March 1974, Harold Wilson invited Heffer to be Minister of State at the Department of Industry under Tony Benn. Heffer accepted the offer, while remaining concerned that he would be cocooned in his office and lose his links with the wider Labour movement outside. He had some difficulties coping with the concept of 'collective responsibility' - denouncing the government's decision to continue a contract to build warships with the right-wing government of Chile on 10 April. Wilson, reluctant to cause trouble with the left-wing, decided not to sack him on the grounds that he was inexperienced. Heffer received many minutes from Wilson asking him to follow government policy in speeches, such that he minuted Wilson to tell him not to send them.

Heffer worked together with Benn to try to establish the National Enterprise Board, which would provide industry with investment funding and have the ability to take failing firms into public ownership. On 15 August 1974 the plans were unveiled in a White paper and preparations began for the Industry Bill which would enact it. While this policy had been agreed by Wilson in opposition and then appeared in the Labour manifesto, in government he began to think more critically. Drafting of the Bill was delayed over the winter and it was not introduced until January 1975.

In the meantime, the government prepared for the referendum on the European Communities through which Wilson hoped to settle the differences over the issue in the country and the party. The Cabinet decided on 18 March to endorse a vote to stay in the EEC, but Wilson decided to allow individual Ministers to make speeches against membership in the country. Ministers were not, however, allowed to speak against the decision in the House of Commons. Heffer was angry at this rule and wanted to resign. Eventually, he engineered a dismissal on a question of principle by making a speech against EEC membership in the House of Commons on 9 April. During the referendum, Heffer was one of the best speakers for the No campaign, although he had a tendency to speculate about the issue - claiming that the EEC would reintroduce conscription.

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