The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

strike action trade unions

2022 has proven to be the year when the trade union movement rose from a long slumber. Days lost due to strikes and lock outs in the public and private sectors have climbed with commentators comparing it to the so-called Winter of Discontent in 1979. But before we all get carried away, this isn’t the 1970s…yet.

Patterns of strike action in the 20th century

But it’s certainly starting to feel that way. What would it take to have us back in 1979?

If we look at the tally of days lost now compared to forty or fifty years ago – how does it compare? Well, the government’s own figures from the Office for National Statistics show we’ve just been through a period of unprecedented trade union inactivity. Little wonder that since the 1980s, sociologists and others have predicted the death of both the working class and organised labour.

Go back to even the Victorian 1890s and days lost to industrial action were way higher than today. Even during the First World War, with millions of Britons enlisted and fighting in the trenches, the strikes for better pay and conditions went on regardless.The Roaring Twenties, a century ago, may be more famous for Flappers today but that decade saw workers downing tools in their millions culminating in the 1926 General Strike. Only the Great Depression of the 1930s calmed workplace militancy as unemployment soared. Then throughout the post-war boom of the 1950s, millions of working days were lost every year with a significant surge in 1957.

Inflation and strike action

Inflation moved towards 5% in the early 1960s and that was viewed as such a serious development that the government set up the National Board for Prices and Incomes to try and regulate wages and prices and thereby solve inflation. Business resented allegations of price fixing and profiteering. The unions opposed attempts to cap their members’ pay when inflation was rising and it as an attack on their right to negotiate freely with private employers and the state.

Combined with the radical spirit of revolt in 1968 across Europe and the US and strikes very definitely rose in frequency as the 1960s ended. Setting the tone for the industrial militancy of the 1970s. But the 70s were a mixed affair. Some years recorded a dip in activity whereas 1974, for example, saw the miners bring down the Conservative government of Edward Heath and days lost consequently rose. That year also saw two general elections giving the Labour Party a thin majority to govern.

FIND OUT MORE: Inflation in the 1970s and 1980s

The Winter of Discontent – strike action brings down Labour

Relations between Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan and his Chancellor Dennis Healey with the trade unions could not be described as harmonious between 1974 and 1979. Callaghan and Healey wanted to impose pay restraint but, as with today, inflation was climbing. In 1975, it was nearly 25%. It remained above 10% until 1982. The ultra-low inflation that any Millennial today must have thought was a permanent feature of the British economy only dates back to 1993.

The first two months of 1979 saw the high point for the Winter of Discontent, which undoubtedly helped to bring down the Labour government. After Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives came to power at the May general election in 1979, there seems to have been a brief period when I would surmise the unions were stunned by this unwelcome political development. Thatcher had made her strident anti-union position very clear.

But by September, industrial action way surpassed January and February 1979. And as recession hit hard through 1980, that Spring saw a lot of picket lines. However, as companies collapsed in the economic downturn and communities were decimated, the industrial action dropped significantly. The real jobless rate hit four million and that served to cow the unions into a degree of submission. That would end in early 1984.

DISCOVER: When Thatcher caved in to the miners

The Miners Strike of 1984/85

Because for a year through most of 1984 and well into 1985, the National Union of Mineworkers came out on strike. In the early 1980s, there were still about 200,000 miners in the UK. We still had a significant manufacturing base despite industrial decline already setting in. I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog about the cultural impact of the miners’ strike. It wasn’t just industrial action. For workers, students, unemployed and activists on the left it became a political cause. And for Thatcher, this was undoubtedly payback for the miners bringing down the Conservative government of Edward Heath in 1974 but more existentially, it was about destroying the vanguard of organised labour.

Year after year, Thatcher had introduced anti-union statutory measures and beefed up policing declaring what can realistically be described as war on the trade unions. In the 1980s, I was on picket lines that descended into scenes of conflict that I think young people today would scarcely believe could have happened in this country. Bloodshed and violence between riot police and striking workers.

Whether those scenes come to be repeated in our own time is a moot point. But the Thatcher shackling of the unions combined with the closure of industries where unionisation had been strong and I’d argue a subjective factor – a crash in confidence among what was left of the trade union movement – led to the number of strikes declining in the 1990s.

The last few years had seen the lowest level of activity for a century. But suddenly – we seem to be looking at a whole new paradigm. Is it back to the future?

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