Chris Hallam: The long shadow of 1979





[Chris Hallam is a journalist specialising in current affairs.]

The year 1979 was the easily the most critical in Britain's 20th century peacetime political history. It is a landmark which polarises public opinion like no other and, 30 years on, the nation is still yet to fully recover from it.

For the left, it marks the point at which the nation took a fatal step in the wrong direction, turning against the warm certainties of the welfare state, towards the harsh realities of the Thatcherite market economy.

For the right, it is the year in which the nation saw the light, with the Conservative election victory in May 1979 heralding the beginning of a heroic and necessary onslaught against socialism and the trade unions. At the time, there were few signs that the general election result heralded a real sea change. True, Britain now had its first woman prime minister, but the Tory manifesto was not dramatically different from that of Ted Heath's short-lived government elected in 1970.

Thatcher's victory was also the sixth change of government in 35 years and with the Tories securing a middling majority of 43, there seemed little reason to think Labour, who had seemed sure of re-election only six months before, would not soon be back in office.

It was only later that 1979 would achieve its powerful historic resonance. The next three General Elections would see Tories evoking dramatic – frequently exaggerated - images of the 1979 "winter of discontent" (in reality, a series of strikes, barely worse than the Three-Day Week which had brought down Heath's Tories five years earlier) in a successful bid to demonstrate how far Britain had come.

To the right, 1979 marked the nadir of Britain's postwar fortunes, an image essential towards their campaign to transform the nation into a US-style market economy.
The success of New Labour in 1997, did at least, ensure that these images would never again be used to prop up a Tory election campaign. Yet New Labour was essentially a product of 1979 too, Blair recreating a party a world away from that led by Wilson and Callaghan 20 years before.

Thirty years on, the evidence of Britain's disastrous change in direction is only too apparent. The folly of the nation's over reliance on the markets and its neglect of public transport and the rights of the workforce are clear for all to see...




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