The Britain that Margaret Thatcher inherited

With remembrances of the late prime minister dominating the press, it is easy to forget the economic woes and issues of identity that gripped Britain in the years preceding her rule.

Gerald Penny/AP/File
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reviews the honor guard at the White House in Washington, as President Jimmy Carter follows, in December 1979.

“BRITAIN AT THE CROSSROADS,” blared a Monitor headline in July 1978, less than a year before Margaret Thatcher became the country’s prime minister. “Are law and order wilting?”

“Political, labor storms grow louder in Britain,” warned another, in January 1979.

“Britons’ patience … wears thin,” read a third.

As both tributes to Mrs. Thatcher and attacks on her leadership have poured in since her death, it is easy to forget the near-crisis that gripped Britain in the years preceding her rule, as the economy sagged under the weight of rampant inflation and broad unemployment. During the winter of 1978-79, just before the Tories swept to power, strikes rippled across the public sector – the infamous British “Winter of Discontent” –  ­in response to a government wage cap.

Meanwhile, as nationalist rumblings rose in Scotland and parliament debated stricter limits on immigration, England seemed to be descending into a crisis of confidence about its very Englishness.

As a look through Monitor archives show, this was the deeply divided Britain that Thatcher and her Conservative Party took control of in May 1979 – beleaguered and world-weary, its patience for government tanking and its economy on shaky ground.  

As the Monitor’s Takashi Oka reported,  

In London’s Golden Square, behind fashionable Regent Street, a gardener lovingly tends his neatly trimmed rosebushes surrounding an Everest-high pile of black plastic rubbish bags. A cleaner from one of the smart offices surrounding the square drags over a roll of carpeting to add to the base of the towering pyramid.

Two weeks’ worth of uncollected garbage is the most visible sign of the labor discontent that grips strike-weary Britain this winter.… With hundreds of schools closed, more than a thousand hospitals reduced to emergency operations only, and wage demands spreading on numerous fronts, the hard-pressed Labour government, with traditionally close ties to the unions, is facing an increasingly embittered public.

What is the government doing about all this? Why must it mollycoddle the trade unions so? Why doesn’t it show some firmness for a change?

These questions, in essence, sum up the opposition Conservative Party’s challenge to Prime Minister James Callaghan and his Labour Cabinet. (“Britons’ patience with strikes wears thin,” Feb. 8, 1979)

The strikes were just the last spasm of the economic malaise of 1970s Britain, which featured high unemployment and double-digit inflation. In Sept. 1976, Mr. Oka noted that nearly 1.5 million Britons – 6.2 percent of the working population – were unemployed (“Soaring joblessness challenges Britain,” Sept. 22, 1976), a number that held roughly as national elections approached (“more than 1.5 million” in “Sunny Jim and Iron Lady about to face off in Britain,” Sept. 7 1978). Inflation averaged around 13 percent throughout the ‘70s, peaking at 25 percent.

Meanwhile, as the parties debated across the aisle in Parliament, Britain also revisited its own place in Europe.

Hamilton, Scotland – The integrity of the United Kingdom is being challenged.

It is under attack from within by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists and, in a somewhat different context, by the Northern Ireland Unionists.

It is also under attack from without, as the sovereignty of the traditional nation-state is eroded in small – but not insignificant – chunks by membership in the nine-nation European Community (EC). …

Is this old continent, where the modern nation-state was born and where it fought some of mankind’s most disastrous wars, to see its gradual transformation into something neither fish nor fowl, a kind of hybrid in which the trappings of sovereignty remain but much of the content is gone.

And if such a transformation does take place, what will this do to the Britishness of Britain, the Englishness of England? (“Britain at the Crossroads: Nationalist pressure,” July 10, 1978)

If those were the looming questions that faced Thatcher as she took office, however, she had also already earned some of the fierce loyalty that still characterizes her supporters. As Oka reported shortly after Thatcher became head of the Conservative Party in 1975,

The constituency chairman’s voice range out across the hall filled to bursting with Conservative Party faithful.

"Paraphrasing William Blake," as he put it, he began with familiar words, "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.… “

Then, swelling to a climax, “till Margaret Thatcher is in power,” he thundered, “in England’s green and pleasant land.”

Cheers, laughter, and applause. All eyes were riveted on the blue-eyed, golden-haired woman in turquoise-blue dress standing beside the chairman.…

“It has been said that we are a middle-class party,” she said … “We’re not, you know … We’re the party of all the people who believe in independence and freedom, who believe in living up to the best of Britain and not the worst.”

“More cheers and applause,” Oka went on. “It was a rousing partisan speech, as it was meant to be.” 

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