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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".

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

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.