Winter of discontent

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The "Winter of Discontent" was the British winter of 197879, during which there were widespread strikes. The phrase is derived from the opening line of William Shakespeare's Richard III.

These strikes led to a vote of no confidence in the then Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and ultimately to a defeat of the Labour Party in the 1979 general election by the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher.

Many public sector workers went on strike, including refuse collectors, leading to piles of rubbish bags piling up in the streets of the UK. These stark images of a country torn apart were important in persuading the British public that the government was in crisis (or so it felt at the time).

The use of the term 'winter of discontent' in an industrial relations context was first used by Robin Chater (now Secretary-General of the Federation of European Employers) as a headline in an issue of Incomes Data Report (1977). It was later taken up by the speech writers for the Prime Minister who popularised it.

The industrial unrest was, overall, less threatening to the national economy than it had been under the Conservative Government of Edward Heath, but in the words of the political journalist Peter Jenkins:

In the Winter of Discontent television did for the class war what it had done for the war in Vietnam.

He added:

Only in parts of Lancashire did the dead go unburied, for during that winter, some gravediggers went on strike.

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