Thatcher’s greatest legacy: the rewriting of the seventies

Several months of strikes in 1978 and 1979 have come to stand for a whole decade. Britain was not a "failed state".

Since the death of Margaret Thatcher last week, it has been hard to find much agreement. Countless articles and hours of footage from the last few days reveal only two real areas of consensus: she was a divisive figure who would have enjoyed her dominance of a week’s newscycle and, regardless of your political persuasions, everyone knew Britain needed to change from the mire of the 1970s. The first belief is irrefutable; the second far less so. 

According to almost all reports, the 1970s can be condensed into one single event: the "winter of discontent." Several months of strikes in 1978 and 1979 have become the symbol of a whole decade of British politics and a clear representation of the gloomy years of the greys; Heath, Wilson Mark II and Callaghan. Politicians, journalists and citizens all recall, with various anecdotes, how awful those years were. Simon Jenkins succinctly summed up the consensus opinion:

"Britain in the 1960s and 70s was, in European terms, a failed state. Ted Heath felt the country had become ungovernable. The word ‘strike’ was in every page of every newspaper almost every day. Public services really were collapsing. This country really was a mess."

The 1970s is rarely visited in detail in discussions of Thatcher. Graham Stewart did briefly in the Sunday Telegraph under the banner, "Never Forget The Chaos Of Life Before Thatcher." Stewart admits it is wrong to focus solely on the winter of 1978 to summarise the decade, but he still concludes that there was an "overriding sense...of living in a country that had lost its way." His evidence? A quote from a newspaper in 1977 and a lyric from the Sex Pistols.

Stewart, like the rest of us, is a victim to one of Thatcher’s greatest legacies: a rewriting of the nation’s memory that makes the 1970s appear so monumentally dire that if Thatcher hadn’t have come along, Britain would have been the Greece of the 1980s. As the historian Nick Tiratsoo puts it: "We have come to see the decade in a way which magnifies the bad and neglects the good."

Re-examining the 1970s entails looking at three key areas: Thatcher’s popularity compared to Callaghan’s, the state of the economy and the actual effect strikes and the unions had on the country.

James Callaghan, the only individual to ever hold the four Great Offices of State, may have claimed he would probably be remembered as the worst Prime Minister in 200 years, but he was consistently viewed as more popular than Thatcher. Throughout the late 1970s, Thatcher regularly trailed Callaghan in the polls and a certain number still felt the party would fare better electorally if they had Edward Heath back in charge. While the Conservatives were polling above Labour by around 18 points at the end of 1976, by the end of 1978, before the "winter of discontent,” Labour had a slim lead of around two to three points. Labour held the Berwick and East Lothian constituency with an increased majority on 26 October1978, a feat difficult for any government nearly five years into its administration.

Furthermore, it would be wrong to suggest Thatcher’s election in 1979 represented a dramatic shift; the Conservative manifesto of that year was incredibly cautious. Her privatisation ideas were limited, and the proposals outlined to sell back shares in aerospace, shipbuilding and national freight operations were merely a continuation of trademark Conservative policy. Furthermore, Callaghan himself knew that there needed to be changes to the pervading consensus: his 1976 speech at the Labour party conference signaled an end to the government attempting to spend its way out of unemployment. Callaghan, as ever, is a figure who deserves his own rewriting.

Callaghan is often seen as a mess when it came to the economy: he was moved to the Home Office in 1967 after the devaluation of the pound and his tenure as prime minister is seen as similarly calamitous. Still, the 1970s was not necessarily a complete failure in economic terms. While the $3.9bn loan from the IMF in 1976 was the largest amount ever requested, it did calm the British economy and allow Denis Healy to reduce public expenditure from 44.9 per cent of GDP in 1974 to 42.8 per cent in 1979, a level it remained at until the 1990s. With the economic outlook helped by new revenue from North Sea oil, the UK didn’t need all of the IMF fund and inflation, so often argued to be ridiculously high throughout the decade, slumped from 24 per cent in 1975 to just 8 per cent in 1978.

Furthermore, while the economy throughout the decade may have not been booming, it is wrong to lay the blame at the feet of the Conservative and Labour governments of the 1970s. The economic downturn was a global one and beyond the control of successive prime ministers. US unemployment continued to rise throughout the period and Japan’s growth shrunk from an annual average of 10.6 per cent in the 1960s to a lowly 4.7 per cent in the 1970s. Britain was not the sick man of Europe or even the world, but simply another economy, once dominant, struggling. 

Finally, the trade unions, so long vilified as selfish, controlling and debilitating, are perhaps the greatest victims of Thatcherite revisionism. Historians of the 1970s have forgotten that in a strike, there are two sides: the unions and the employers. Hugh Parker, a former director at McKinsey’s during the 1970s in London, said, "Too many managers identify themselves with the interests of the managed. They stay aloof – at arm’s length from the workers.”

In most situations, the trade unions, in the face of difficult and unrelenting managers, attempted to avoid strikes. The facts back this theory up. During the 1970s, accidents and certified illnesses accounted for roughly 320 million lost days a year, thirty times more than those caused by industrial disputes. Between 1971 and 1973, according once again to historian Nick Tiratsoo, "as many as 98% of manufacturing establishments were without disputes at all." Tiratsoo continues, "Britain, it seems, had several troubled industries – coal, the docks and cars – rather than an all-embracing industrial relations pathology."

In 1979, when James Callaghan handed the keys over to Thatcher, inflation was lower, unemployment was falling and the balance of payments was strong. Wilson and Callaghan maneouvered the country through a difficult period – worldwide – of higher inflation and slower growth. That is what should be remembered. Unfortunately, the "winter of discontent" has created a fog over our collective memory of the 1970s, aided and abetted by Thatcherite propaganda that continues today from journalists and politicians who find it easier to reach for a generalisation than a history book. 

A portrait of Margaret Thatcher is pictured in the 'Margaret Thatcher Room' at the Conservative Party headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kiran Moodley is a freelance journalist at CNBC who has written for GQ, the Atlantic, PBS NewsHour and The Daily Beast.

Photo: Getty Images
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The hidden crisis in the National Health Service

Hospitals are no longer safe places for their staff, warns Simon Danczuk.

It feels as though not a week can pass without the media warning of a fresh “crisis in the NHS”.

But while funding shortages and the impending junior doctor strike are rightly cause for concern, another major crisis is going largely unnoticed.

Figures show that 43 per cent of A&E staff have been physically assaulted at work. Every eight minutes there is some sort of violent incident in a UK hospital.

This is unacceptable, but unfortunately cases of violence against NHS workers seem to be on the increase while the government turns a blind eye to this problem of its own making.

Plotting a graph would show a startling correlation between insufficient NHS funding and the number of doctors and nurses being attacked. As NHS budgets reach breaking point, so too do many patients.

The issue, which will be highlighted in the documentary A&E: When Patients Attack, which airs tonight on Channel 5 at 10pm, is a national scandal.

Health experts suggest that the problem can be directly linked to longer waiting times and staff cutbacks, leading to growing frustration and tension in A&E and other departments. With winter fast approaching, and the notoriously busy festive season to come, incidents of violence look set to get worse. Nobody, least of all our overworked NHS doctors and nurses, should face the prospect of going to work to be attacked, spat at or insulted.

Based at the Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham, one of the country’s biggest hospitals, When Patients Attack follows a security team which uses uniformed guards and a bank of CCTV monitors to keep hospital staff safe.

The sight of a uniformed private security team in an NHS hospital is visually jarring, it would look more at home in a high-security prison than in a place of care and compassion. But the sad reality is, guards like this are a necessary part of the NHS under a Tory Government.

A&E centres across the UK, including the one in Rochdale, are being closed or consolidated creating extra journey times for patients and more pressure on those that remain.

But there is a gaping logical flaw here. NHS trusts are spending money, which should be on patient care, on employing security staff to deal with the fallout from cuts in care.

Seeing the level of physical, verbal and racial abuse that doctors and nurses have to endure makes When Patients Attack hard to watch at times. What is clear is that many of the patients featured are not lashing out for some malicious reason, they are vulnerable and bewildered people in need of care.

Many have learning difficulties or mental health problems, others are disorientated or in pain, there are those under the influence of drink or drugs and some just have nowhere else to go. A significant amount on the security team’s time seems to be spent convincing patients who have been discharged to leave the premises.

Here we see a less obvious example of how Conservative cuts are impacting on our NHS. Hospitals are always open and always welcoming. The duty of care means that no one is turned away. As a result, they are filling the void left by homelessness shelters and local government social services.

David Cameron has made much of the Government’s plan to put mental and physical health on an “equal footing”. But this will remain little more than empty rhetoric as long as those suffering from serious and complex mental health issues continue to seek help at A&E because of a lack of any alternative.

It is not just cuts to councils and the health service that have created this epidemic of NHS violence. In my constituency of Rochdale alone, Greater Manchester Police has been forced to withdraw 150 officers from the beat because of budget cuts. Business owners and members of the public have told me that Police response times have increased dramatically since 2010. It is important that violent incidents are diffused as quickly as possible and while an in-house security team is helpful, the additional support of trained Police officers is vital. Each additional minute that NHS staff have to wait for the Police increases the risk that a situation will escalate and become more serious.

Jeremy Hunt speaks of a seven-day-a-week NHS. But these grand plans ring hollow when we see the reality on the ground in the NHS today. This government cannot even guarantee that staff can work without the fear of physical harm. Our doctors and nurses are among the hardest working people in any community. The very least they can expect is to be able to care for us in a comfortable, supportive, and above all safe, environment.


Simon Danczuk is Labour MP for Rochdale