The so-called ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-1979 which brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government marked a low point in Britain’s postwar industrial relations. When Callaghan took over as prime minister from Harold Wilson in 1976 he inherited an unenviable catalogue of national woes. Chief among these was Britain’s poor economic health. The country was already struggling to adapt to the new realities of international trade and accept the terminal decline of its traditional manufacturing base, so it was ill-equipped to withstand the huge inflationary pressures generated by the OPEC countries’ dramatic hike in oil prices after 1973.
In the same year that Callaghan took office, the Labour government, in order to stem a potentially catastrophic fall in the value of the pound, had to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a £4 billion loan. There were of course conditions to the loan, the chief one being that Britain must make savage cuts in public expenditure. The Callaghan government managed to reduce its public spending by £1 billion, but such draconian measures were achieved at the cost of a massive increase in unemployment (1.6 million in 1978) and, most significantly, of the alienation of its traditional allies in the trades union movement.
As 1978 drew to a close, the public service unions, whose members bore the brunt of the cuts, rejected the government’s attempts to impose a cap on wage rises and organized a series of strikes and walk-outs, causing serious disruption around the country. While the tales of uncollected refuse, understaffed hospitals and even unburied bodies at cemeteries were fuelled by media exaggerations, the ‘winter of discontent’ nevertheless demonstrated to the electorate that the government was no longer up to the job, and the resulting general election in May 1979 saw a decisive victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.
When: Winter of 1978-1979
Toll: The Labour Party lost the confidence of the working classes.
You should know: A popular and widely respected parliamentarian, Jim Callaghan was nevertheless criticized for a certain complacency in his handling of the winter of discontent. ‘Crisis? What crisis?’, trumpeted a famous headline in The Sun newspaper at the time.