Christmas at Chequers: James Callaghan and The Winter of Discontent

Published by Scott Challinor on December 23rd 2021, 11:11am

Labour politician James Callaghan served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from April 1976 to May 1979. It is a known fact that he would regularly spend his Christmas celebrations at the prime ministerial estate of Chequers, but it was the last of his holiday seasons at the country retreat which came during a time of political significance.

December 25, 1978 arrived in the midst of what became known as the “Winter of Discontent”, a period which brought an abrupt end to Callaghan’s premiership five months later and began an 18-year hiatus from power for the Labour Party.

The Callaghan ministry had established a method of dealing with economic hardship by enforcing caps on pay rises in order to stave off inflation. These limits had been in operation for four years, and after inflation more than halved by 1978, Callaghan persisted with the policy, imposing a new limit of five per cent on pay rises in the July of that year.

This policy was met with fierce opposition from the Trade Union Congress, who had expected the caps to be abolished. Callaghan believed that the policy's continuation would enable the economy to stabilise, announcing in the September of 1978 that he would not call an expected general election, but rather hold one the following year.

Callaghan’s undoing came from the fact that some employees' unions had already made negotiations within mutually agreed limits above the proposed five per cent limit with employers, because they had all expected the caps to be lifted prior to Callaghan's announcement.

The public sector trade unions rejected the prolongation of pay restraint and announced a string of strikes over the winter stretching into 1979, demanding larger pay rises. This so-called “Winter of Discontent” saw individuals from various professions join the picket line, from Ford Motors workers to gravediggers and NHS staff.

It can be said, therefore, that it was not the happiest of last Christmases at Chequers for a bemused Callaghan, who will likely have been regretting his decision not to call an election earlier that year and scratching his head over how to solve the problem over his Christmas turkey.

It took until February 1979 for the majority of the strikes to end, but by then a total of 29,474,000 working days were lost. The trade unions were successful in securing higher pay for workers, but the weeks and months of disruption not only made the Callaghan ministry extremely unpopular in the polls, but also shone a light upon its failure to quell the strikes and keep the trade unions in tow.

An election was called after the House of Commons passed a Motion of No Confidence in Callaghan in early 1979, with Britain taking to the polls on May 3. The failings of the Callaghan Labour government paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative victory, where in her spell as prime minister she ensured legislation was passed to restrict the power of trade unions and prevent her term suffering a similar fate. The Iron Lady would remain in power until 1990.

Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons

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Authored By

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
December 23rd 2021, 11:11am

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