The late Margaret Thatcher is an extremely polarising figure in the United Kingdom.
One huge factor in this is the way the “Iron Lady” crushed the UK’s trade unions during her reign.
To many British people, especially those who worked in the U.K.’s heavy industry, this was obviously a devastating move.
However, when you look back at 1970s United Kingdom, it’s easy to see why many felt the unions were too powerful and that something had to change.
For much of the 1970s the U.K. appeared to be in a battle between the government and the Unions.
For example, during Conservative Edward Heath’s government in the early 1970s the country was facing a high inflation problem. One government measure intended to fight this, was a cap on public-sector pay. This increased tensions with the U.K.’s miners’ unions, who argued that wage rises were not keeping pace with price rises. The National Union of Mineworkers encouraged their workers to “work-to-rule” — to do no more than the basic requirement of their jobs — which in turn led to the U.K.’s fuel supplies dwindling.
In response, the British government imposed a 3-day week for commercial users of electricity. From 1 January until 7 March these users were only allowed to use electricity for 3 consecutive days and could not work late on the days they had electricity.
Heath called an early election that would be fought on the question: “Who governs Britain?” Heath’s gamble failed, however — the left-wing, union-backed Labour party won the election.
However, by the time the next general election rolled around in 1979, the Labour government had faced its own backlash from the unions. The winter of 1978-1979 became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, with many of the country’s unions striking over plans to limit pay rises due to inflation.
The strikes had a dramatic effect in the UK, with trash piling on street corners during one of the coldest winters in years. Things turned macabre in Liverpool, where even grave-diggers went on strike.
Labour’s own difficulty with UK’s unions led to an opportunity for the Conservative government, and their new, virulently anti-union leader: Margaret Thatcher.
One advertising campaign from the Conservatives in 1978 — created by the young Saatchi and Saatchi brothers — soon became iconic:
When the election was delayed from 1978 to 1979, the Saatchi brothers came up with another slogan: “Labour Still Isn’t Working”. Lord Thorneycroft, Conservative party treasurer during the election, claimed that the poster had “won the election for the Conservatives”.
Thatcher decisively won the 1979 election, and the Conservatives would stay in power for the next 18 years. In that time, Thatcher’s battle with the unions would continue, most notably during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike.
For Thatcher, it was clearly a moral fight, which she framed in light of the recent war with Argentina:
“We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
Looking back today it’s clear that British unions lost a huge amount of power during Thatcher’s time in office. By beating the miners’ strike in 1985, her government further demoralized millions of union members. Additionally, economic policies stripped unions of its major strength — numbers.
According to the BBC, Union membership fell from a peak of 12 million in the late 70s to almost half that by the late 80s. They’ve never recovered.
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