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This wave of economic uncertainty and subsequent workers’ action has reminded many of the “winter of discontent,” an infamously volatile period in 1978-1979. That phrase, a reference to a line from William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” was popularized as a way to describe the moment by Larry Lamb, the editor of the popular right-leaning Sun tabloid. It came to summarize the mass disruption that ultimately led to a new government led by Margaret Thatcher — who brought with her radical laissez-faire economic policies that would shatter Britain’s postwar consensus politics.
There are major differences between the winter of discontent 43 years ago and the one Britain is experiencing today. Britain’s unions were still profoundly powerful beasts in the 1970s. Today, their membership has halved and fallen to below 10 percent in some key industries. They have little ability or even will to produce the widespread chaos caused by the original winter of discontent.
For some, this suggests that labor action is a futile exercise. In the Telegraph, historian Simon Heffer wrote that “strikes don’t work now,” adding that innovations such as telework naturally limited the disruptiveness of strikes. “The shrunken unions will find before too long that fighting 21st-century battles with 19th-century weapons simply won’t work,” Heffer wrote.
But that was far from the only thing to have changed. The 1978-1979 strikes, which saw widespread action in favor of higher salaries in the place of government-backed wage caps designed to avoid inflation, were a fatal problem for the union-backed Labour government of James Callaghan. They contributed to the landslide Conservative victory of Thatcher in the summer of 1979. Thatcher, now an icon of the right on both sides of the Atlantic, soon crushed the unions’ power.
This time, however, the Conservatives are already in charge. In fact, they have been for almost 13 years. The power of unions has already been rolled back; academics describe the laws governing British industrial action as already the strictest in Europe. The laissez-faire economic revolution already happened and Britain has been run by austerity budgets, on and off, for over a decade.
Britain’s government has so far tried to repeat Thatcher’s victory over the unions. Last summer, as strikes began to disrupt British life, Grant Shapps, Britain’s business secretary, wrote on Twitter: “We must make union barons think twice before wielding the strike weapon — and complete Margaret Thatcher’s unfinished business.” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak later introduced new “anti-strike” legislation designed to make it harder to take industrial action.
But in the original winter of discontent, as trash piled up on the streets and bodies lay unburied amid strikes, the public lost sympathy for workers. There’s little sign of that happening this time. A Sky News/YouGov poll released this week found that British support for unions had risen two percentage points to 37 percent, while the opposition was falling — 34 percent felt unions’ impact was negative in November; that dropped to 28 percent in January.
As Steven Fielding, emeritus professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, told my colleague Karla Adam, the prime minister appeared to have been caught by surprise. “He’s basically tried a retread of Margaret Thatcher, but that’s not working,” Fielding said.
The strikes aren’t just about wages, but bigger questions of economic fairness and political legitimacy. Another YouGov poll found that there was a “very strong relationship between support for strikes and whether a profession is seen as making a contribution to the country.” Many are particularly sympathetic to the plight of the nurses and ambulance staff who support Britain’s beloved National Health Service, where years of underfunding have left to a very visible crisis.
Union bosses were once condemned in Britain as greedy, unelected bureaucrats. But Sunak’s government suffers from its own democratic credibility problems and far more significant allegations of corruption. The British prime minister never won a national election to occupy that role and, despite the fact his political party is historically underwater in polls, there may not be a general election before 2025.
Sunak himself has enormous personal wealth, with an estimated fortune put at $830 million. That certainly makes it hard for him to argue that a nurse shouldn’t get a significant pay raise (nurses unions have said that due to years of below-inflation pay increases, their real salaries are now one-fifth lower than they were in 2010). And his colleagues make it worse.
On Sunday, Sunak fired the chairman of his Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, following an ethics investigation into Zahawi’s tax affairs. The chairman came under scrutiny for settling a multimillion-dollar tax bill, along with a penalty, while he was Britain’s finance minister.
Former prime minister Boris Johnson has faced yet another scandal recently, with reports that a former banker later appointed to head the BBC by his government had been involved in talks for a loan of up to $990,000 to Johnson. Despite the scandal, the high-profile leader was traveling to Kyiv and Washington this week — with the cost of his security in Ukraine borne by the taxpayer.
The original winter of discontent may be looked back upon fondly by Conservatives, but Sunak should fear this one.
Harvey Wiltshire, an expert on Shakespeare at Royal Holloway University of London, wrote recently for the Conversation that the original meaning has become muddied over time. Uttered by the titular Richard, then the Duke of Gloucester, it’s come to suggest the hard times before a “glorious summer.” But Richard is a tyrant, “hell-bent on securing power” who “increasingly jeopardizes the well-being of his country to serve his own ends,” Wiltshire writes.
The lesson is not of the dangers of a chaotic society, he adds — but of an irresponsible government.