4 May 1979. Let that roll around your mouth for a few moments. The. Fourth. Of. May. Nineteen. Seventy. Nine.
There have been momentous days in British history and this one would rank up there. Whilst it might not be the most momentous, its impact upon British culture and way of life, the very fabric of the nation, cannot be underestimated.
For the uninitiated, the date might not mean anything. After all, it’s 40 plus years ago. However, if you were alive then and older than 5 or 6, then you should at least be able to make an educated guess at its significance.
Of course, the events leading up to 4 May 1979 began on 13 October 1925 in the town of Grantham, Lincolnshire with the birth of one Margaret Hilda Roberts. She was born to Beatrice Ethel Roberts (née Stephenson), wife of grocer, Alfred Roberts; a shiny new sister to Muriel.
By the time we arrived in May 1979, Margaret Hilda was 53 years old, leader of the Conservative Party and married to businessman Denis Thatcher. Your author was 9 years old, snotty-nosed and scabby of knee. She had two children, 25-year-old twins, Carol and Mark; your author, two siblings (not twins).
At number 1 in the UK singles chart was Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel, taken from the soundtrack of the animated adventure film Watership Down. Those commentators without a crystal ball wouldn’t have grasped the likelihood, but the Labour Party was to be out of power in the UK for nigh on 18 years from this date. A “light that burned so brightly, suddenly burn[ed] so pale.”
Following Harold Macmillan’s famous “people have never had it so good” speech, delivered in 1957, Britain’s economy of the 1960s didn’t really live up to the decade’s subsequent reputation for exuberance and radicalism.
In the early part of the decade, the Conservatives had struggled to prevent inflation from getting out of control. At the same time, growth struggled at about only half the rate of that of West Germany or France. Mitigating this, British industry had remained relatively strong in the nearly 20 years following the end of WWII. Extensive house-building and construction of new commercial developments and public buildings had seen unemployment stay low throughout this time.
In essence though, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Britain’s economic prosperity was in steady decline from seventh place in the world in 1950, to twelfth in 1965 and to twentieth by 1975.
There were various explanations given: The so-called early-start theory said that Britain’s earlier Industrial Revolution meant that her rivals were doing better because of the benefits of the progression from a more agrarian economy to an urbanised model, such as had already happened in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A second theory stressed the beneficial effect of defeat on (West) Germany and Japan. They had been forced to rethink, restructure and re-equip their economic bases. Was Britain complacent due to being (having been?) a global power.
There was certainly a lack of investment in public sector infrastructure. Although burdened by high post-war debt, the UK was a major recipient under the US Marshall Plan yet struggled to invest in new transport and technologies. For example, the UK was still relying on steam trains until the mid-1960s – later than many other countries that had switched to cheaper and more efficient engines and fuels.
What had happened to Britain’s share of Marshall Plan funds? Had it been wasted? Had it added to her complacency or had it perhaps been used towards other uses than rebuilding? For example, immediately after the war, Britain still had her imperial distractions.
This was a third theory – that Britain’s responsibilities to its large empire handicapped the home economy, especially through defence spending, and economic aid. This must be considered in the light of the deconstruction of the British Empire in much of the immediate post-war period.
Finally, and perhaps most relevantly, the theory of institutionalised failure stressed the negative roles of discontinuity, unpredictability, class envy and a lack of willingness to innovate. This theory blamed trade unions, public schools, and universities perpetuating an elitist anti-industrial attitude.
Drilling down on this theory, what about plain old poor industrial relations? A growing number of days were being lost to strike action. There was often a breakdown between owners and managers and increasingly militant trade unions – fuelled by inflation and the need to protect their members’ pay.
What part did Britain’s class system play? At the start of their working day, Japanese workers would sing company songs with enthusiasm. British workers would more likely be working to rule or considering strike action. Or were British workers just not equipped with the skills required by a modern economy?
Obviously, there was no single reason, but as the world moved into the 1970s, a mounting series of economic shocks, marked especially by strikes, saw the British economy slipping further and further behind European and World growth. Inflation during the early 1970s was never once below 5%, peaking at just below 25% in 1975.
Two things lead to this – worldwide food shortages and rapid increases in fuel costs due to the 1973 oil crisis which was in turn due to the Yom Kippur War. Ted Heath’s Conservative government lost its majority in the first of 1974’s elections, with Harold Wilson’s Labour Party only just securing a majority in the year’s second election in October.
By 1976 things were so bad for the UK economy that the country required a loan from the IMF – the International Monetary Fund. There were two reasons, namely a) too high a budget deficit, the difference between the government’s revenue and expenditure; and b) belief in the markets that the British currency was valued too highly leading to pressure on the pound, causing it to depreciate.
Running alongside the IMF loan, Chancellor Denis Healey and Prime Minister James Callaghan had implemented a form of monetarism. They had adopted deflationary policies and reduced public spending. Initially enjoying some success – inflation was below 10% by the summer of 1978, although unemployment had climbed to one and a half million.
Obviously, this did not go down well with the unions and coupled with the breakdown of wage restraint, lead to the Winter of Discontent in 1978–79 during which there were widespread strikes by public-sector unions that seriously inconvenienced and really did anger the public.
The scene was set for a vote of no confidence in the government on 28 March 1979. The government lost by 311 votes to 310 and the die was cast. Parliament was dissolved on 7 April and 3 May set as the date of the general election.
The rest, as they say, is history.