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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Calais Jungle: What will happen to child refugees when they leave?

Hundreds of unaccompanied child asylum seekers are being taken to Britain where they face an uncertain future.

Hundreds of unaccompanied child asylum seekers are being taken to Britain, moved from a camp in Calais, northern France, as its closure begins. There were 387 unaccompanied minors in the French refugee camp known as “the Jungle” with links to the UK and they are arriving in England in groups of 70.

Upon arrival, the children are taken to a secure unit for 72 hours, before being reunited with families already living in the UK. They are from a group of more than 1,000 children who have been living in the camp in recent weeks. And now, some of those without links to Britain, but who are regarded as particularly vulnerable, are now also being taken across the English Channel.

The youngsters were granted asylum under the Dublin Regulation. The children’s move to Britain has stalled twice already, over delays in accommodation and establishing proof of age. Migrant children have been subjected to intense media scrutiny upon arrival in recent weeks. Calls for dental checks to verify the true ages of youngsters who looked older were called for, but the UK government branded such a practice as “unethical”.

For a long time, the minors living in the camp faced an uncertain future, but the move to take some children to the UK signals a change of tack by the British and French governments. Britain has been criticised for its lack of humanity, but it now seems that the pleas of these children at least have been heard.

Impact of war

While the youngsters may have escaped serious physical injury, the conflicts in the Middle East will have taken a psychological toll on them. Living in the midst of war, many have witnessed unspeakable horror, losing family members in brutal circumstances. Consequently these youngsters are now incredibly vulnerable to mental illness, with research indicating that more than 80 per cent are likely to develop issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It is important to remember a child’s trauma extends far beyond the experiences that resulted in them fleeing their homes. The children going to the UK now endured prolonged exposure to stress-inducing conditions in the Calais camp, and will now need to adjust to their new cultural surroundings.

War directly affects millions of children everyday. Exposure to conflict and acts of terrorism can lead to the development of acute or chronic stress reactions. Research also indicates that the psychological impact of war on children is likely to have long-term effects – they don’t simply “grow out” of their stress-related symptoms. Continued exposure to traumatic events, as these children have experienced, carries a cumulative impact too, that can worsen the severity of post-traumatic symptoms.

Funding challenge

The children going to Britain will need the right sort of trauma-based therapeutic support so they can successfully move forward before chronic conditions take hold. However, mental health services in the UK are desperately underfunded. More than 850,000 children and young people have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14. But just seven per cent of the total mental health budget is allocated to child and adolescent mental health services, with one in five young people refused treatment because they do not meet the criteria for care.

A recent poll of specialist nurses found 70 per cent thought child and adolescent mental health services in England were inadequate due to historic under-investment. The government is under growing pressure to invest more, and it is hoped that the arrival of these children will see additional money allocated to the services. When, or even if, this will happen, remains unclear.

Post-traumatic growth

While many of these children are likely to suffer form long-lasting psychological symptoms, there is a possibility that some may emerge stronger than they are now, benefiting in some way from the experience resulting in positive post-traumatic growth, or PTG. PTG is possible in children who have been affected by war trauma, particularly if they are young, as they are more open to learning and change. Interestingly, research has revealed that even the negative aspects of PTSD do not “block” growth when children are placed in a supportive environment – found to be the most conducive thing for PTG.

Receiving the proper social support will play an important role in helping these children deal with the psychological effects of war trauma. The complex situation that the young and unaccompanied migrants have faced calls for help that addresses both the trauma and grief, and will secure continuity in their new lives in the UK.

Losing loved ones is just one of many extremely traumatic experiences these children may have faced, and it could prove quite difficult to disentangle the effect of the loss from other stresses and changes. Time does not simply heal the long lasting scars of prolonged stress that they have experienced. However, it is vital that society does not write these children off as ill or broken. With the right support they can lead full lives and make strong contributions in their new homes.

Leanne K Simpson, PhD Candidate, School of Psychology | Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.