Last night I was watching Dominic Sandbrook’s one-sided look at the 1970s and was reminded how much the right are fond of bringing up the phrase “The Winter of Discontent” at every opportunity. Whenever 1979 is mentioned, archive footage of piles of uncollected rubbish accompanies the stentorian narration as if to say “Look, this is what happens when unions are too strong”.
The reality of life in the 70’s with its ethnic tensions, inflation, casual and overt racism and ideological polarization is barely touched upon nor is the fact that there were forces in this country that wanted to stage a coup against an elected government (to be fair, Sandbrook touched on it). The ideologically driven Heath government is painted, on the one hand, as being hamstrung by bolshie unions and on the other hand, as a victim of world events that spiralled out of control. There is no mention of its terminal incompetence save for Heath’s 1974 election slogan “Who governs Britain”?
Sandbrook had been building up to the ‘Thatcher’ moment since the start of the series. His ideologically-charged narrative pointed the accusatory finger at the unions and the Labour Party. He repeated the by now familiar canard that the nationalized industries were a failure and that they were costing the taxpayer (a word of power for the Tories) far too much money. But this was a time when Britain actually made things. It had a shipbuilding industry, forged its own steel, built cars and dug its own coal. It made things that it could sell. Now it’s all gone. The demise of these industries was blamed on the unions. The miners, who had been heroes during World War II, were cast as enemies of the state by Sandbrook (and the Tories), not as men who were fighting for better pay and conditions. Then there were the shipyard workers who were fighting to modernize an industry that was largely stuck in the 1920s, who were also cast in a similar role. Heath had proposed to close the Upper Clyde shipyards, not because they weren’t profitable or efficient but because he didn’t like the colour of the worker’s politics. The workers responded by holding a “work-in” rather than walk out. Their strategy worked and the shipyards remained.
Nowhere in Sandbrook’s narrative were Britain’s lazy and incompetent managers and directors to be found. Indeed the Right never mentions them. It is as if they were innocent of any blame for the state of the economy or the country’s poor performance abroad.
I can remember early in my working life watching directors roll up in their Jaguars or Daimlers at 4pm looking well-fed and watered. These ruddy-faced, gin-soaked men knew that no one could shift them from their positions – even if they performed badly. They were there for life if they wanted it and many of them were. They were more than content to deflect the blame for their failures and place it on the shoulders of those who helped to pay their inflated salaries.
This passage from an article from The Week puts the Winter of 1978/79 into perspective.
The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1979 – which ushered in Thatcherism – is also shrouded in myth. James Callaghan never said ‘Crisis, what crisis’ – that was an invention of The Sun. The strikes themselves only lasted for a comparatively short period and were largely over by February 1979.
As this passage shows us, much of what we see on our television screens about the 1970s has been constructed by the right-wing press – particularly the Murdoch press, who were responsible for constructing the majority of the myths that have been perpetuated by the Tories and their allies to this day. This image of ‘militant’ trade unions has been fed directly into the right’s architecture of mythology into which extreme right-wing groups like the Trade Union Reform Campaign have inserted themselves.
The Winter of Discontent myth has talismanic properties. Its invocation was designed to stop critics of the neoliberal project and defenders of trade union rights in their tracks. And for the better part of 30 years, it has worked well for the Right. Even Kinnock’s Labour Party ran scared of the horror show put on by the Tories.
Britain in the 1970’s may have been a politically polarized country but workers had a greater sense of class solidarity. There was also a greater sense of community. Many communities had formed around pitheads and steel mills. Once Thatcher sold off the steel industry and shut the mines, the communities around them died. By the 1980s, the managers and directors who had wreaked so much havoc through a combination of gross incompetence and crass self-interest had crawled off into the darkness. It was if they never existed and the Tories were happy for them never to be mentioned again.
But such things have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt governments. We now have a situation where Britain’s economy is over-reliant on financial services. Yet, the current government, for all their warm words, have little will or inclination to change things. The current situation where rentier capitalists and other parasites dominate the nation’s economy suits them just fine. They will continue to lie and create myths to fool people into thinking that their way is the only way.