Dominic Sandbrook has a new book out soon called Seasons in the Sun: The Battle For Britain, 1974-79. It’s his fourth on Britain between 1956 and 1979, and the Daily Mail has excerpted a section on the Winter of Discontent, the months of strikes by local authority workers in response to Prime Minister James Callaghan’s cap on wage increases in late 1978. Sandbrook notes on Twitter that the excerpt has been “heavily abridged and slightly Mailified,” but presumably it doesn’t distort his argument too much. I like Sandbrook’s work; he’s usually even-handed and his broad approach to political and cultural history is just my kind of thing. State of Emergency, the last volume in his series, is excellent, and his book on American right-wing populism in the post-Watergate years is a decent starting point for understanding the cultural influences on the conservative movement in the 1970s. One criticism I do have of Sandbrook is that the voices of ordinary Britons and Americans rarely make it into his analysis. His narratives of the 1960s and ’70s are mainly told through the actions of political players and cultural figures, or with polling and analyses which tend towards painting the public with broad strokes. You can only tell so much about the average working Briton from the headlines of The Sun, or indeed, the Daily Mail.
The Mail’s excerpt of Seasons in the Sun follows the same pattern. There are details on James Callaghan’s mental state throughout the winter of 1978-79, cribbed from his personal diaries, and the views of Michael Palin and Philip Larkin are given plenty of space here, both heavily critical of the work stoppages. But Sandbrook doesn’t let any of the striking workers explain their actions. Perhaps this is the “Mailified” aspect Sandbrook referred to in his tweet, and not reflective of his larger manuscript. I’d hope that his book attempts to give some kind of voice to those on strike in 1978. The one quote from a named source outside of government or union leadership here is from Peter Ellis, a lavatory attendant, used to illustrate the inflationary effect of the strikers’ demands for significant wage increases on non-union workers’ purchasing power. Otherwise, there are only anonymous workers making vague threats such as, ‘It’s not whether the country can afford to pay us, [...] [i]t’s whether they can afford not to.’
This is strange, as Sandbrook’s argument here is that the strikes during the Winter of Discontent were led by the rank and file union membership, who had seized control from their weak leadership:
The trades unions scuppered this strategy [to control inflation] — not the leaders, as is commonly assumed, but the rank and file. They were not politically motivated. Most young workers dreamed of new cars, colour televisions and foreign holidays, not the inevitable triumph of socialism.
They were tired of being told to wait for jam tomorrow; they wanted it today, tomorrow and the day after.
If you’re going to make the case that the strikes were about “the pursuit of material security,” as Sandbrook does here, then you need to offer some evidence to back that up. But the strikers are almost entirely absent from this narrative, except as a singular mass of pickets besieging the city of Hull, or battling police outside Berkshire factories. Where does Sandbrook get the impression that striking bin-men just wanted a Thomas Cook package holiday to the Canary Islands? Is it wrong to assume that Sandbrook and/or the Daily Mail have an agenda in portraying the typical union member of the late 1970s as being motivated by personal gain rather than any carefully thought-through political belief? I had thought Sandbrook was more sympathetic and understanding to the working class than this.
The Winter of Discontent may well have been the “dreadful nadir in modern British history” that Sandbrook emphatically sums it up as, depending on your political persuasion. It’s surely an exercise in futility to look to the Daily Mail for sympathy towards any striking workers; but I think this piece is illustrative of the dominant narrative of working class power in the 1970s, in both the UK and the United States. This is the narrative of an “irresponsible” rank and file, who had gained too much power and were motivated simply by greed for more, as Sandbrook illustrates with the image of Downing Street adviser Bernard Donoughue “horrified to be told by pickets outside a hospital: ‘Our purpose is to get more than you offer and whatever you offer it won’t be enough.’” According to the author of the piece, this encounter “was a perfect summary of the Winter of Discontent.”
This narrative deliberately excludes the voices of individuals within the larger group of striking workers that might explain why a local authority employee would choose to strike in late 1978. By creating such a “frenzy of greed” explanation, working class political and economic power, through the vehicle of organized labour, is therefore discredited and ultimately de-legitimized. There is no space for working class solidarity, as each striking worker is purely looking out for his own material interests. This has almost become the accepted narrative of the labour struggles of the late 1970s, and the obvious point behind it is to imply that workers held too much power and were fundamentally unequipped to handle it. Sandbrook’s argument, similar to many others from both the political right and the centre-ground, suggests that the working class misunderstood economics, failing to account for the inflationary effects of wage increases, and therefore proved their inability to handle the political power they had gained through the labour movement. The implications of this narrative are, firstly, that working class power and representation in the political system needs to be urgently restrained, with limits placed on the right to strike and on the ability to organize in the first place, and secondly, that the rightful political power of the elite be restored for the sake of the smooth running of the country. The Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher, of course, pitched itself to Britain on exactly those two principles in the year following the Winter of Discontent.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the same political and economic struggle was playing out at roughly the same time. The idea behind the “Lordstown Syndrome” that this blog is named for was essentially that American workers had gained too much power to disrupt the economy, and that any further coddling of the rank and file would likely lead to similar scenes as those occurring in Britain’s cities in 1978-’79. “Syndrome,” of course, implies a sickness or disease at the heart of American labour. I’ll explore how the “frenzy of greed” narrative was applied to America’s unionised coal miners in a second part of this post tomorrow, but this seems a good place for a break.