Sunday, 3 August 2008

Crisis and Discontent

The title of my book, Crisis? What Crisis?, comes from one of the most celebrated political misquotes of the 1970s (kind of a modern equivalent of ‘Let them eat cake’) as expressed in a Sun headline on 11 January 1979.

The context was the coldest January in Britain since 1963, and a strike by the drivers of oil tankers and lorries. The resultant fuel shortage was raising the forecourt price of petrol by up to 400%, panic buying was creating food shortages, and there were reports that two million workers could be laid off if the situation continued.

Meanwhile Jim Callaghan, the Labour prime minister, was out of the country on a six-day summit meeting on the agreeably warm Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

When he flew back, he told the reporters gathered to greet him that things weren’t as bad as they made out: ‘I don’t think that other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos,’ he said in the reassuring, emollient tones that had served him so well over the years.

And the Sun summed up his comments in that famous headline: Crisis? What Crisis?

He hadn’t actually said that, hadn’t even used the word ‘crisis’, but the expression attached itself to him instantly and came to symbolize the Labour government’s apparent dislocation from reality. And the main reason that it stuck was that it was already in common usage.

The phrase came originally from the 1973 film of Frederick Forsyth’s novel, The Day of the Jackal (though not from the book). By the winter of that year, during the oil crisis that helped bring down the Conservative government of Edward Heath, it was being used as a headline in the Daily Mail. It even turned up in the Sun itself in 1974, trailing a television programme in which David Dimbleby looked at American portrayals of contemporary Britain. And in 1975 the progressive-pop band Supertramp released a hit album with the title.

In short, the words were already in the air, waiting to be given the killer application.

The other great cliché of January 1979 was ‘the winter of discontent’. And again it wasn’t a new coinage for British politics in the ‘70s. A headline in London’s Evening Standard in February 1974 read: The Winter of Our Discontent. That was during the three-day week that Heath had called in response to industrial action by the miners.

In both cases, then, the phrases ‘crisis? what crisis?’ and ‘the winter of discontent’ were originally employed to refer to a Conservative administration, but went on to become primarily associated with a Labour government. As I point out in the book:

‘Thus did 1978-79 adopt the linguistic imagery – and eclipse the memory – of 1973-74, so that the Labour Party became associated with all the ills of 1970s Britain, as though the pre-Thatcher Tories had never really existed, or rather as though they had been closet socialists all along. In future years the phrase “the winter of discontent” would frequently prompt confused memories of the three-day week, alongside the genuine events of the Callaghan era.’

And the reason I’m prompted to write this blog-entry is that I just came across a page on the BBC website that includes these words:

‘Mrs Thatcher came to power during an especially creative period for UK music in the early aftermath of the punk rock movement which had experienced its first stirrings three years earlier.
‘Set against a backdrop of a three-day week and the winter of discontent, homegrown protest music began to flourish like never before, giving a voice to a young disenfranchised audience.’

You see what I mean? The three-day week was in January-February 1974; its imposition was an act of desperation by a Tory cabinet that included Margaret Thatcher. Nothing to do with what is meant here by the winter of discontent, which occurred five years later under Jim Callaghan.

But it all gets mixed up together. And it shouldn’t, you know, it really shouldn’t.

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