It’s 12 January 1979, and we’re standing on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield heading away from the Hunter’s Bar roundabout on the main road in from the Peak District to the city. It’s an unwelcome cold snap following some severe snow the previous November, and ushers in several weeks of snow, ice and general misery.
To be fair, much of the lack of New Year’s cheer isn’t down to what was falling from the skies, but what’s happening in the news and all around. Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government is facing immense difficulties as it loses the fight to contain inflation by attempting to control union-agreed wage rises. As union after union calls its workers out, and public services breakdown in the midst of what’s subsequently recorded as the third coldest winter of the 20th century, it feels like the bitterest of New Years.
Inflation had been a constant battle for the Government since it was elected in 1974 and, for a brief period in the autumn of 1978, it looked like ‘Sunny Jim’s’ Labour Government had managed to turn things round. His personal popularity was high, the economy was growing and inflation was beginning to fall following the UK’s humiliating bailout at the hands of the International Monetary Fund and as the North Sea oil supplies started coming on stream.
But the veneer of prosperity was tissue thin, and workers were increasingly struggling in the world of 10% inflation and a policy that limited pay rises to 5%. First to break ranks was Ford of Britain, which agreed to give a 17% pay rise to its workers following a particularly damaging strike. Vauxhall followed with 8.5%, as did numerous other companies and soon the Government, which had no working majority in the House of Commons, struggled to sanction those who broke the 5% pay cap.
The house of cards fell as this point, with the main unions led by the TGWU, calling for for up to 40% for its members. With the worst of the winter weather closing in, the Road Hauliers were called out, with the inevitable effects on diminishing stocks of food across the country. Petrol, which had already been rising in price thanks to the Second Energy Crisis, became difficult to get hold of amidst panic buying. With the weather becoming increasingly Arctic, it began to feel like the wheels were coming off the UK.
As we look towards the former toll bar to the south of Sheffield, the Winter of Discontent is really beginning to make itself felt. We’re in the eye of the storm, with the number of people on strike rising daily, and the debilitating effects are starting to bite. Callaghan has only just returned to the UK following a summit of European leaders in the Caribbean, and denied to the waiting press that the country was falling into chaos. And today’s 72-point Sun headline says it all – ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ it screams.
Days later, he’s considering declaring a State of Emergency…
So, tell us about the cars
We all know what happened next. Public workers went out on strike across the country, many bullied into action by their union leaders. Hospitals and schools were blockaded by ancilliary workers, the actions of whom ended up turning the embattled public against the unions’ cause. And this ultimately brought down the Labour Government following a vote of no confidence in March 1979. As one seasoned political journalist said of the unions’ actions, ‘it’s a case of turkeys voting to bring forward Christmas’. Indeed…
It’s hard to believe how unhappy a place the UK was when looking at the winter wonderland above. Driving towards the city is a Mini Mk2, with its owner braving the cold by leaving the rear windows cracked open to stop it misting up no doubt. Ahead we have a lovely Volkswagen Golf Mk1 and Fiat 500 with a Datsun Cherry ahead of that. The Mini Pickup conversion looks fascinating while a gas-guzzling Volvo 245DL is parked up on the other side.
All looks calm, although we’re sad to report that the branches of Boots and Yorkshire Bank, those bastions of UK High Street life back then, are are no longer there. Maybe that’s as a distant consequence of those troubles we lived through between November 1978 and February 1979, and ‘Sunny Jim’s’ well intentioned, but ultimately futile attempt to appease the unions into seeing sense.
If you enjoyed this, let us know in the comments and, if you have any pictures you’d like featuring, drop me a line via any of the links below.