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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.