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The Winter of Discontent

Myth, Memory, and History


Tara Martin López


Studies in Labour History, vol. 4.

Liverpool: University Press, 2014

Hardcover. xii+239 p. ISBN 978-1781380291. £70


Reviewed by Stephen Brooke

York University, Toronto (Ontario)




The Winter of Discontent is often summed up in images of piles of uncollected rubbish and stories of the dead remaining unburied, acts of apparent social violation that prompted revulsion at the power that trade unions had acquired in the 1960s and 1970s. This revulsion partly underpinned the abandonment of the postwar social democratic consensus after 1979. In the first chapter of her important new study of the Winter of Discontent, Tania Martin López quotes two of the architects of the political settlement that emerged out of the ruins of the postwar consensus. The first is Margaret Thatcher, who remarked during the 1979 election:

We have just had a devastating winter of industrial strife – perhaps the worst in living memory, certainly the worst in mine. We saw the sick refused admission to hospital. We saw people unable to bury their dead. We saw children virtually locked out of their schools. We saw the country virtually at the mercy of secondary pickets and strike committees and we saw a government apparently hapless to do anything about it. [20]

The second is Peter Mandelson, the éminence non dissimulée of the ‘Blair Revolution’. Mandelson remarked in 2001 that critical to New Labour’s success was that:


The public’s memories of crisis-ridden Labour governments have been almost entirely banished. Gone is the winter of discontent, replaced by low inflation, low mortgage rates and social security bills under control. Gone is the International Monetary Fund crisis, replaced by record sums available for investment….The dropping of policy and ideological baggage pre-1997 was vital to this. [23]

In both cases, the event central to the ascension of a different political path, whether for the Left and Right, was the Winter of Discontent. As Martin López shows, this was a “crucial moment” of postwar British history [17]. Not least, it was a critical moment of myth-making, a myth that animated both Thatcherite Conservatism and New Labour. “[B]y the end of the twentieth century”, Martin López writes, “the myth of the Winter of Discontent became fully entrenched in both Conservative and New Labour rhetoric as a poignant symbol of socialism and trade union excess” [186].

But myths demand demythologisation. To this end, Martin López offers an important revisionist account, building upon previous work by Colin Hay, James Thomas, James Cronin and Nick Tiratsoo. She uses a wide array of contemporary archival and printed sources, as well as oral history. The book also includes a Foreword of characteristic acuity by Sheila Rowbotham.

As Martin López shows, the Winter of Discontent was not one event, but a series of events, all with different contexts and outcomes. Martin López demonstrates that the strikes that are collectively referred to as the Winter of Discontent had their roots in legitimate attempts to address declining real wages and the weak position of particular groups of workers, not least those at the bottom of the economic ladder, such as ancillary health workers. In this way, the Winter of Discontent was less about the trade union movement wielding power over the nation, but rather the “cleavages” of the labour movement becoming painfully apparent. [206]. The Winter of Discontent also generated a counter-myth, a moment, not of national paralysis or degeneration, but of agency and empowerment.

The book’s coverage includes useful discussions of the ideas of myth and counter-myth and how these have shaped our understanding of the Winter of Discontent and detailed examinations of the prelude to the strikes and the strikes themselves, including the Ford’s strike of the autumn of 1978, the road haulage strikes, the Liverpool gravediggers’ strikes, and strikes affecting local authority services and the National Health Service. Her discussion of the context of this period of strikes is particularly welcome as it stresses, first of all, the changes in unionisation that strengthened the position of women and ethnic minority workers and, secondly, the external factors, particularly the global oil crisis and the inflation triggered by the Vietnam war, that pushed unions towards demanding higher wages. The breaking point came in 1976 and 1977 when, in the wake of the IMF loan, the Callaghan Labour government sought the limitation of wage increase to 5%. The Grunwick strike of 1976 was an early sign of the difficulty of policing this demand. Callaghan’s major mistake was not to call an election in November 1978. This weakened the unions’ political loyalty. The strike at Ford “did indeed open the floodgates” [63], with a settlement of 17%. It was followed by strikes in road haulage that affected fuel supplies and strikes in the public sector, at the local and national level, that affected the provision of health, education and other services.

This is the first in-depth exploration of the Winter of Discontent. Particularly welcome is its focus on placing the moment in the context of labour history and its sensitivity to the uneven contours of class identity within the union movement. Most strikingly, the book pays attention to gender and race. Martin López brings out very compellingly how the strikes were important to women and ethnic minority workers making their presence felt within the union movement. The NHS strikes of 1979 particularly foregrounded the position of women from the West Indies, white working-class women and men who came to health service jobs after de-industrialisation. This was, as Martin López shows, a “unique combination of working-class people” fighting for better conditions and pay [157]. In this way, as she shows, the Winter of Discontent should be seen as a moment of political and economic agency, particularly for women.

Martin López does not argue that these triumphs displaced other tragedies. The questionable judgements of political figures such as James Callaghan and union leaders such as Larry Whitty haunted the Labour Party and the trade union movement for years to come, particularly as the position of labour was corroded by the experience of Thatcherism. The media, as Martin López makes clear, was deeply implicated in treating the strikes of 1978 and 1979 in a hyperbolic fashion. The myths of the Winter of Discontent unfortunately cut much deeper in reshaping British politics than the realities of the strikes of 1978-1979.

The Winter of Discontent will undoubtedly remain a shorthand for the failures of the postwar consensus. But Tania Martin López has done an invaluable service in recovering an alternative history of that moment and the voices and actions of those who shaped it.


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