There'll never be another winter like that

If you think it is bad now, it was worse then. In October 1978, Jim Callaghan, the Prime Minister, having tantalised the country with the prospect of a general election, then stunned it by announcing that he planned to soldier on.

Since 1974, the Government and the Trades Union Congress had been locked into the "social contract" - four years of pay policy that had come increasingly under strain as union activists demanded a return to "free collective bargaining". That same October - and without the TUC's support - Callaghan fixed a 5 per cent pay norm, when inflation was running at almost 8 per cent.

Car workers at Ford demanded a 15 per cent increase. Ford, to the Government's horror, agreed. An attempt to impose sanctions on the company failed when five left-wing members of the minority Labour administration abstained. The pay dam broke. The "winter of discontent" resulted.

On 3 January, first lorry drivers and then tanker drivers went on strike nationwide over a 25 per cent claim, a strike marked by flying pickets, secondary picketing and considerable violence. Food supplies were hit. A helpless government negotiated with an almost equally helpless Moss Evans, the new general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, to keep shops supplied, as wild rumours of shortages emptied shelves - on one day of bread, on the next of salt.

When the lorry drivers settled, the public sector unions joined the dispute. On 22 January, 1.5 million public service workers began a 24-hour stoppage which escalated into regional and national strikes involving water workers, ambulance drivers, sewage staff, dustmen, hospital porters and some nurses. Rubbish piled high in the streets. Rats proliferated. In Liverpool and Manchester grave-diggers briefly refused to bury the dead.

Pickets turned cancer patients away from hospitals and blocked goods delivery entrances with vehicles with slashed tyres. David Ennals, the Secretary of State for Social Services, while negotiating with the unions, was taken to hospital with a leg thrombosis and promptly declared "a legitimate target for action" by a local Nupe official.

Jim Callaghan left a frozen Britain for a sun-drenched summit in Guadaloupe. On his return to Heathrow, he contested reporters' suggestions that the country was in chaos, producing the famous Sun headline: "Crisis? What crisis?"

Before the winter was over, more than 12 million working days were lost between September and April. In January alone, the total was almost 3 million - in one month more than 10 times the total for the whole of last year. Those scenes helped propel Mrs Thatcher to power that June, armed with a mandate for trade union legislation that aimed to wipe out such action for good.

Nicholas Timmins

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