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Tuesday, 12 September, 2000, 17:12 GMT 18:12 UK
'Crisis? What crisis?'
1979: Rubbish piles up in London's Leicester Square
1979: Rubbish piles up in London's Leicester Square
"Crisis? What crisis?"

Three words that helped bring down the last Labour government in 1979, even though the man generally thought to have uttered them - Jim Callaghan - did not in fact do so.


I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos

Jim Callaghan's actual words
But the Sun journalist who fashioned that headline caught the popular impression of a government unaware of a very serious state of affairs which had sneaked up on it.

Faced with the current fuel blockades, Education Secretary David Blunkett has admitted that people in general - and probably Labour politicians in particular - still remember the Winter of Discontent with a shiver up their spine.

"We are all bound in by history and we all remember the `Crisis? What crisis?'," he said.

But are the situations similar? Or are they different apart from a few surface details?

Callaghan on a tightrope

The Labour government of 1974-79 was certainly not as well off in parliamentary terms as the current administration.

Then...
Narrow Labour majority
Opposition ahead in the polls
Strong unions
Weak pound
High inflation
...And now
Big Labour majority
Government ahead in the polls
Weak unions
Strong pound
Low inflation
Prime Minister Harold Wilson had only a tiny majority after the general election of October 1974 - 319 of the of the 635 MPs.

Mr Wilson himself resigned unexpectedly in 1976, leaving Mr Callaghan to take over. After by-election defeats, he was forced to enter into a pact with the 13 Liberals the following March.

Even that arrangement had collapsed by autumn 1978, but Mr Callaghan surprised everyone by not going to the country.

Instead, he opted to carry on into 1979, governing with the doubtful support of minority parties and hoping to claw back the Tories' 10-point poll lead.

Callaghan campaigning
"Sunny Jim" campaigned hard but lost in 1979
He was eventually defeated over devolution and forced to call an election after losing a confidence motion. The Tories under Margaret Thatcher romped to victory.

That situation could hardly be more different compared with Tony Blair's parliamentary majority of more than 170.

And although the polls have given the Tories some cause for hope, they generally suggest a big lead for a mid-term government.

In addition, the Labour party of the 1970s, with its factionalism and bitter in-fighting, was a very different creature to the sleek election-winning machine of today - reports of modern-day cabinet backbiting and rivalry notwithstanding.

Mr Callaghan also had a much weaker economy and much stronger unions - it was the era of 'beer and sandwiches' - to contend with.

Economy healthier

There had been a run on the pound in 1975 and again in 1976. Chancellor Denis Healey was forced to go, cap in hand, to the International Monetary Fund for a rescue loan.

Striking health workers
Health workers also went on strike
The IMF coughed up, but at the price of public spending cuts.

Again, the current economic context is much brighter.

The pound has been strong against the euro - though that strength has been blamed for job losses in manufacturing - and has generally tracked the rise of the mighty dollar against most world currencies, despite a recent fall against the US currency.

Another key indicator, inflation, was around 10% over the winter of 1978-79 compared with the record low of 1.9% last month.

In an attempt to reduce inflation, the Wilson and Callaghan governments introduced policies which placed limits on pay rises. In 1978-79, the limit was meant to be 5%, but workers were in no mood to agree and several unions went on strike in support of double-digit claims.

Crisis set off by drivers

Lorry picket
Transport was the catalyst
In one clear parallel with the past, it was action by lorry drivers which proved the turning point. They were joined by colleagues working for oil companies.

The tanker drivers settled for 13% and a chain reaction was set off. Ambulance workers, health service staff, rubbish collectors and grave diggers were among those who took action.

The lasting images from the time are of rubbish in the streets and reports of bodies lying unburied in mortuaries.

As all this was just starting to escalate, the prime minister had gone to an economic conference in Guadeloupe in the West Indies.

Looking tanned, Mr Callaghan returned to be asked how he was going to deal with the problem.

"I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos," was what he actually said.

"PM plays down problems" might have been a more accurate headline, but "Crisis? What crisis?" suited the mood of the nation and has since become part of political folklore.


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12 Sep 00 | UK Politics
16 Aug 00 | Business
12 Sep 00 | Business
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