What are the ingredients for a political crisis?
A government in shambles? A prime minister with no authority? Turbulent economic weather or even a foreign war gone horribly wrong.
Since the end of the Second World War Britain has had its fair share of political crises. Some, such as the Profumo Affair and the downfall of Thatcher have been relatively mild and only had a lasting effect on the political class itself by bringing down the government. The Suez Crisis on the other hand was a diplomatic disaster and a source of permanent international embarrassment, that also brought down the government. The “three-day week” crisis of 1973-74 has been considered perhaps the greatest threat British democracy has faced after the War as not only was Ted Heath’s administration rendered effectively powerless, but the economy and public sphere were also crippled for weeks on end as electricity was rationed, fuel was scarce and public services were barely functioning.
Despite confirming the fears of many that Britain had become the “sick man of Europe”, the Political Establishment who had governed the country in much the same way since 1945 managed to stagger on for a few more disastrous years.
There are some moments however where a perfect storm of administrative, economic and institutional failure conspire to not just bring down the government of the day, but tear up the political rulebook. The Winter of 1978/79 was such a moment. In isolation, the Winter of Discontent doesn’t appear to be a source of national trauma. I was in many respects just another episode in a series of industrial disputes that periodically interrupted the flow of British life. But the events of 1978 should not be looked at in isolation, but rather the last piece to fall in a line of dominos.
The Dispute had arisen in the middle of 1978 as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government had attempted to place a 5% ceiling on public sector pay increases to tackle runaway inflation. When the Ford motor company was only able to negotiate a much higher price hike for their staff, it triggered a tidal wave of strikes that brought the country to a standstill. In London, rubbish went uncollected, in Manchester, water fossetts ran dry and in Liverpool the dead went unburied.
The seeds of the crisis however had been sown decades earlier, and the mechanics that drove it were remarkably similar to those that currently beset our current political class; factionalism in the ruling party of government, rampant ideologism, and new economic forces pulling the strings of the British economy.
From the end of the Second World War onwards, both major political parties in Britain were in agreement that the government, through high taxation, was obligated to provide a generous welfare state and ensure that nationalised and heavily regulated major industries enjoyed a close relationship with trade unions. The Cold War logic of the arrangement, aimed at curbing the appeal of soviet-style communism, was simple and seemed to satisfy all the political actors involved. Private enterprise would constitute the majority of business activity but the economy itself would be mixed. The Unions would be the custodian’s of working interests. No one was too rich, no one was too poor. For a quarter of a century, the arrangement seemed to be working handsomely.
But the “post-war consensus” was doomed to fail. The generous social democratic outlook the UK enjoyed in the 50’s and 60’s was tied inextricably to the availability of cheap american credit, which itself only made sense as long as the Bretton Woods system, which guaranteed the stability of global currency exchange remained in place. Another caveat of the system was that it effectively left several governments at the mercy of immensely powerful, and immensely erratic unions.
The British union movement had always been skilled at strong-arming governments, but the institutional power they enjoyed after 1945, and their almost symbiotic relationship with the Labour Party, made their activism increasingly divisive. In the late 1960’s, as inflation began to heap pressure on the economy, successive industrial wage disputes tore at the fabric of the post-war consensus. In 1969, Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife, a white paper aimed at alleviating industrial conflict and end Labour’s internecine warfare, was flatly rejected by a militant TUC and his leadership rival Jim Callaghan, a move that condemned Britain to successive waves of crippling strikes in the 1970’s after the Bretton Woods system had collapsed.
The roll call of pitched battles on the picket line that followed did little to endear voters to the existing political system. From the violent confrontations at the Saltley Gate depot to the catastrophic strikes two year later that plunged the country into darkness, ordinary britons were aghast at the toothless response of their elected representatives. Throughout the 1970’s, everytime union officials mobilised, the government threw in the towel. Labour was too in thrall to the unions to directly confront them, and Ted Heath’s conservatives lacked the tact or authority to make a stand. There was just enough public goodwill for the system to survive in 1974, but it couldn’t survive 1979.
Looking back, the Winter of Discontent was the straw that broke the camel’s back not just for the unions but for the keynesian political system. A toxic combination of cold weather and hot politics were sending a clear signal that the country was grinding to a halt and no public service went unaffected. Even the NHS couldn’t escape unscathed as picketing ancillary workers forced some hospitals to treat emergency patients only. As the factionalism-ridden Labour Government lost control of the country, voters turned to Thatcher, and the rest is history.
The 40 year anniversary of the Winter of Discontent will likely pass by unheralded for most people, but voters and politicians of all stripes would do well to learn the right lessons from what happened. The political dysfunction and turmoil created in 1978 may have been the worst seen in modern British history, but 2018 was the next worst. Just as the Labour Party was riven by divisions over the union movement in the 60s and 70s, The Conservative Party, who have been the dominant force in UK politics for most of the last 40 years, has been riddled with divisions over Europe. The Brexit process has not just left Theresa May’s government at the mercy of competing Tory camps, its complete mishandling by the government has put at risk the modern political settlement.
As the March 2019 deadline to avoid a devastating no deal draws ever closer, our leaders and MP’s could do worse than to look back at the Winter of Discontent, a sobering reminder of what can happen when the British political system allows itself to be gripped by deadlock and zero-sum ideologism.