So in the last few days I’ve been asked this question a lot, and asked myself the same even more. Today saw the largest strike action in the UK since 1979, when, like today, workers complained about changes to their pay and working conditions. Thirty two years later, as council workers set up picket lines, hospital appointments and operations were cancelled, and two thirds of schools closed across the country, the mood amongst the population was a mixture of sympathy, stress and scathing attacks on the “selfish” servants of the public sector (can’t beat a good bit of alliteration!).
But will it make a difference? First of all, let’s compare it to that “Winter of Discontent”.
- Like now, the “winter of discontent” was a long time in the making- you can trace its history back 4 years prior, to 1975. When did our “credit crunch” (as it was simply seen then) begin? Four years ago, in 2007.
- Similarly, the focus on the public sector was all about trying to bring the numbers down- not the structural deficit, but inflation, which in 1975 reached the dizzy heights of 26.9%!
- The rise in inflation was down to a number of reasons- an increase in government spending, increased oil prices – largely due to Cold War conflict- and higher pay deals prior to 1975.
Fast forward to 2011 and it was both the first and final reason which caused our problems to start with, and as the increased oil prices were out of our hands in the seventies, so has the “Eurozone crisis” been beyond the coalition’s control.
- However, in contrast, trade unions initially supported the then Labour government and its Prime Minister James Callaghan. To avoid mass redundancies, they agreed a cap on pay increases at limits set by the government.
- Where as today saw strikes amongst council workers, members of the civil service, border control officers, teachers and hospital workers (amongst others), the strikes of 1979 involved even more professions- lorry drivers (including those transporting petrol), dustbin men, even gravediggers!
- And finally, whilst frustrated at the government (perhaps an understatement), we know that our current leaders are not to blame for the cause of these issues- you only need to look back at previous posts here to realise my thoughts on this! Instead, the anger expressed during the “Winter of Discontent” was aimed solely at the Labour government (note a similarity)- and led to the election of a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher.
- And to brighten the mood further, it took eight years to sort out these problems- inflation wasn’t under control until 1983. By that time, shopping costing £25 in 1970 had leapt to £115.
Ultimately, it may be too early to make a comparison- the “Winter of Discontent” began in September and lasted for five months, and although unlikely, today’s strike could be the beginning of long-term action (also too early to say just how bad our winter will be this year!)
Interesting, but relevant? Perhaps- my parents were married in 1976, and as my mother was a nurse, it suggests that their early married life, like my own, began in challenging financial circumstances. Since then, they’ve seen their fair share of booms and busts!
However, I think there are two key differences between the strikes of 1978-79 and those today. Firstly, the strikes of 2011 have split opinion amongst the British public, not united them like before. Secondly, the difference is down to timing. The “Winter of Discontent” was the result of four years of cost-cutting policies. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The government do need to reduce the structural deficit. It is proving harder than expected. Where as the “Winter of Discontent” protested at a government continuing to push on with policies to rein in inflation, the coalition government have, sadly, only just begun…