‘winter of discontent’ (as applied to the winter of 1978-79 in Britain)

Creative Commons License
This post by word histories is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Licence.

__________

Of Shakespearean origin [cf. footnote], the phrase winter of discontent is used in British English to denote the winter of 1978-79 in the United Kingdom, during which widespread strikes took place in protest against the then Labour government’s wage limits; these strikes are widely seen as contributing to a change of government the following spring.
—Cf. also the phrase summer of discontent, used in British English to denote the summer of 2022 in the United Kingdom, during which numerous strikes took place.

I have discovered that, in the sense of the winter of 1978-79 in the United Kingdom, the phrase winter of discontent was used ahead of that winter—the earliest occurrences that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the Evening Standard (London, England) of Friday 8th September 1978:

Angry Maggie declares NOW FOR A BIGGER VICTORY
By Robert Carvel

TORY leader Margaret Thatcher donned her armour today and angrily announced that the party would now go for a bigger victory at the next election—whenever that comes.
[…]
New TUC chief Tom Jackson lost no time after his election to the post before criticising Premier Callaghan.
He complained that by postponing the election the Prime Minister has put enormous responsibility on the unions, who might now be involved in a “winter of discontent” over wages.
And this could damage Labour chances in a spring election, he added.

2-: From the Sandwell Evening Mail (West Bromwich, West Midlands, England) of Friday 8th September 1978:

UNIONS FUME OVER THE ELECTION ‘CON’

A WINTER of discontent today loomed large for Britain as Mr. Callaghan was accused of “conning” the unions over his shock decision to struggle on and not call an immediate General Election.
As Mr. Callaghan was today trying desperately to shore up support to continue in office there was a hard-hitting attack on him from a top union leader.
Mr. Ken Thomas, leader of the Civil Service union, said at the TUC conference in Brighton: “The whole TUC was organised towards an autumn election.
“This decision has made nonsense of what the unions tried to do for him.
“I think he has made Congress look foolish.”
Mr. Callaghan was warned that his determination to enforce the tough five per cent pay policy could lead to a winter of industrial trouble and an election defeat next Spring.

3-: From the caption to the following photograph, illustrating Robert Carvel’s column The week in politics, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Monday 11th September 1978:

The real reason that Callaghan cried off

MY OWN inquest on Mr Callaghan’s “no election now” announcement was brief.
He did not go for an October poll because at the last minute he funked it. He turned and ran away and lives to fight another day. Simple as that. Forget all the more sophisticated explanations.
The Government can probably now survives a winter of political uncertainty and industrial discontent. It is too soon to say what will happen when the 1979 day of reckoning comes for Labour.
[…]


JAMES CALLAGHAN . . .
a winter of discontent.

4-: From The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, West Midlands, England) of Tuesday 12th September 1978:

In comes the winter of our discontent

Can Mr. Callaghan rely on the trade unions limiting wage increases during the autumn and winter? ALEXANDER McDONALD, the Post’s London Industrial Correspondent, reports that whatever the harm to Labour’s delayed electoral hopes, large wage claims are on the way.
[…]
The Opposition spokesman on employment, Jim Prior, […] challenged trade union leaders to spell out what they meant by “responsible” when talking about their intentions of returning to free collective bargaining.
Well, for the 63,000 Ford workers, whose negotiators led by TGWU officials, have already lodged their Phase IV pay claim, the five per cent becomes a responsible 30 per cent.
The National Union of Mine Workers also wants around the 30 per cent mark, plus a four-day week. A local government manual workers’ claim which follows hard on the heels of the Ford negotiation this month, seeks among other things a lift in the basic minimum wage from £42.50 to £60 a week. And in the early part of next year, the Civil Service unions can be expected to demand rises of between 25 per cent and 30 per cent.
These are just a few of the claims. And already in Coventry, we have an industrial dispute over a plant-level demand which exceeds the five per cent.
It is true that a moderate supporter of the incomes policy Mr. Tom Jackson, general secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers, is this year’s general council chairman and this gives him influence. But even this stalwart champion of incomes policy now thinks there is a need for greater flexibility to avoid a “winter of discontent.”

5-: From the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Friday 15th September 1978:

Guideline breakers will lose out on 5 pc
By Gordon Jackson

A SHOCK plan to deny the full five pc pay rises to workers, who bust the Government’s wage guidelines last time, and got more than their entitlement, was revealed today.
The claw-back plan underlines the determination of Mr. Callaghan and the Cabinet to stop inflation from rising again.
They are determined to hold the pay ring, even if it means a winter of discontent and head-on clashes with the miners, power workers and other groups wielding industrial muscle.
The plan has been revealed in a secret letter from a top official of Mr. Peter Shore’s Environment Department and covers more than two million town hall workers, both white-collar and manual, and other public sector employees.
It was revealed as the latest retail price index figures were announced by Employment Secretary, Mr Albert Booth.
It means that if workers got more than 10 pc last time, then the extra must be deducted from the five pc increase allowed under the latest phase of the Government’s pay policy.
Chancellor Denis Healey warned on Wednesday that the Government will step up the backlisting [sic] of firms if there are widespread breaches of the five pc limit.

6-: From The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 17th September 1978:

Council men seek new deal
By ROBERT TAYLOR
Labour Correspondent

UNION leaders are to press the Government for an independent inquiry into the pay and conditions of Britain’s 1,200,000 local government manual workers, threatening that otherwise there will be a damaging confrontation this winter.
The unions want a deal—similar to the one given to the firemen—which would push up local government manual workers’ basic rates to around two-thirds of average industrial earnings. That might be acceptable in stages, with part this year and the rest in November of next year.
The three unions who represent these workers—the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and the General and Municipal Workers Union—will meet on Friday to finalise their claim.
It is expected to be for a new basic weekly wage of £60, with a 35-hour week and fringe benefits.
At present the basic wage averages £42 a week, so the cost of the probable claim would be well over 50 per cent. Dustmen, at least, appear to be in a militant mood to back such a claim.
Yesterday, Mr Alan Fisher, general secretary of the 710,000-strong NUPE, warned the Government that its 5 per cent pay policy came ‘nowhere near’ the objective of a £60 a week minimum. Speaking to a rally against low pay at Newcastle upon Tyne, Mr Fisher said: ‘If the Government fail to understand the problems of the low paid and to act to overcome their problems, they are in for a serious winter of discontent.’

Note: The phrase winter of discontent, which more generally denotes a period of adversity or unrest, originated in the opening line of The Tragedy of King Richard the third (London: Printed by Valentine Sims, for Andrew Wise, 1597), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616):
—Richard, Duke of Gloucester, evokes the re-accession to the throne of his brother, Edward IV, eldest son of the late Richard, Duke of York:

Enter Richard Duke of Glocester solus.

Now is the winter of our discontent,
Made glorious summer by this sonne of Yorke:
And all the cloudes that lowrd vpon our house,
In the deepe bosome of the Ocean buried.
Now are our browes bound with victorious wreathes,
Our bruised armes hung vp for monuments,
Our sterne alarmes changd to merry meetings,
Our dreadfull marches to delightfull measures.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.