At present, the government’s plans are in turmoil. George Osborne’s most recent Budget suffered several adjustments from the Opposition and was passed by the House of Commons only after a £4.4 billion cut to Personal Independence Payments was withdrawn, something that was achieved after the resignation of a former Conservative leader from the cabinet. More Conservative MPs wish to defy their Prime Minister and leave the European Union than support their government in the forthcoming referendum. The British Medical Association has orchestrated strikes in every month of this year so far; now, for the first time in the history of the National Health Service, emergency care will be unstaffed because of striking junior doctors. The Guardian reports that almost half of the country’s teachers are thinking of resigning over their outrageous workload and stress and, in response to the government’s push for all schools to become academies, the National Union of Teachers is thinking about industrial action.
Industrial action is hardly a phenomenon for a government of this decade. Public sector workers’ strikes occurred during the tenure of the Coalition government. At the end of November 2011, 60% of England’s schools were closed due to strikes; at the end of October 2013, university staff struck over their pay. But the Coalition government got away with things without much surrender, appealing to those negatively affected by the strikes as they brand the strikers immature and irresponsible. When teachers went on strike in every year of the Coalition government of 2010 – 2015, the government called them irresponsible. The wry ‘strikers-are-letting-everyone-else-down’ attitude prevails today: following the fracas over his new contract for junior doctors, the Secretary of State for Health calmly maintained that the British Medical Association was being dishonest to its members, and that strikes would only hurt the people who go to the hospital to be treated.
The Conservatives of today are staying the course, unswayed by the storm into which they seem to be sailing. These Conservatives are the descendants of Margaret Thatcher, who famously took on the striking miners of the 1980s and won. The power of the trade unions has never been the same since Margaret Thatcher lay down the gauntlet; who would dare disgrace the legacy of the Iron Lady by waving the white flag to the strikers of today?
In the 1970s, however, serious industrial action was a mortal threat to the state, toppling not one but two governments. At the start of the decade, Edward Heath entered Downing Street on a mission to deregulate the national economy and tame disruptive trade unions. But the unions fought back with crippling strikes. Miners’ and builders’ strikes of 1972 and a second miners’ strike in 1974 damaged the capacity of Heath’s government; when the 1974 miners’ strike limited the generation of electricity, Heath introduced a three-day working week to conserve supplies. Heath called an election that year, looking for a mandate to respond to the strikers, but the Conservatives could not form a majority government.
James Callaghan’s Labour government suffered a similar fate in the renowned ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978/1979. Trying to decrease inflation, Callaghan’s government put strict limits on public sector pay rises. When the Prime Minister would not back down to their requests for change, the trade unions called strikes against the government. The consequences of striking Liverpool gravediggers and uncollected waste contributed to Callaghan’s defeat in the 1979 election.
The 1970s are remembered as an era of industrial unrest, in which Labour and Conservative governments were brought down by the might of boisterous trade unions. Many of today’s historians have examined the period and concluded that the reputation that the period has been given is not entirely accurate. Yes, 23.9 million working days were lost to strike action in 1972, but sickness and workplace accidents caused more; yes, the British economy was revealed to be in decline, but several other European countries were suffering the same economic problems. The grey, dismal memory of a period of industrial unrest, unemployment and inflation might be thus littered with exaggeration.
Nonetheless, the public still recalls the 1970s as a time of gloom, and only a “blinkered and extreme socialist” would think otherwise. Sometimes, even if it is not representative of the truth, the understanding of the public holds more sway than the reality of things. Labour, the public believed, wasn’t working, and into No. 10 Downing Street stepped another Conservative, who would go on to gladly take the strikers to pieces.
Edward Heath called an election in 1974 hoping that the public would agree with his intention to discipline the trade unions, but he was not returned to office; James Callaghan hoped that the trade unions would play ball for one more year, but his decision to delay an election to 1979 contributed to his defeat. Like her predecessors, Margaret Thatcher would not give in; but, unlike Heath and Callaghan, she remained in power after two further elections, defeating the very miners’ union in 1985 that had brought down Heath. Her governments could push through with their policies while the unions crashed, humiliated and weakened.
The Conservatives today are advancing the much-discussed ‘long-term economic plan’ that was started in 2010, now without the interference of a coalition partner and regardless of the industrial action against it. After all, no respectable Conservative would dream of conceding to the insistent demands of disenchanted trade unions. The government’s ministers merrily put their fingers in their ears when met with criticism and read out the same old statistics and facts in response to whatever question is put to them.
But the strikers aren’t backing down either. The striking teachers said they had “no choice,” as do the junior doctors of today. The BMA’s escalation of the strikes to include emergency care makes history. This time, the public is on the side of the striking junior doctors. With the level of industrial action escalating in strength and numbers, will history repeat itself? If so, will we see the unions or the government defeated?
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