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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser