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2009 unlikely to be another Winter of Discontent

PUBLISHED: 14:23 07 January 2009 | UPDATED: 10:21 23 August 2010

HELL: The rubbish piles up in the streets of London in January 1979.

HELL: The rubbish piles up in the streets of London in January 1979.

If you think the immediate future looks grim as we head towards a recession and mounting debts, cast your thoughts back (if you are old enough) to January 1979 when the Bromley and Bexley boroughs found themselves buried in the Winter of Discontent.

If you think the immediate future looks grim as we head towards a recession and mounting debts, cast your thoughts back (if you are old enough) to January 1979 when the Bromley and Bexley boroughs found themselves buried in the Winter of Discontent.

Our streets were piled with rubbish and dustbins overflowed. Bromley, Orpington and Farnborough Hospitals turned patients away and there were food shortages. Powers cuts, rationing and hardship were accompanied by raging blizzards.

De-icing trains battled all night to clear the main railway lines and people in some parts of Kent were found dead in snow drifts. Sports fixtures were cancelled and hundreds of workers laid off. For many, memories of the bitter winter of 1947 were being dramatically revived.

In January, newspapers launched an urgent appeal for blankets as the temperatures slipped below zero and hypothermia threatened the lives of old people. The conditions worsened as the weeks dragged on.

Commuters were without trains, schools closed down, the ambulancemen answered emergency calls only. Taxis stopped running, panic buying set in with queues outside all grocery shops. Bus services were thrown into turmoil.

Much of Britain was in the same state. There were isolated cases of cemetery workers refusing to dig graves and calls for the Government to call a state of emergency.

The Cabinet backed away from that because it feared a union backlash. But it appealed to 'dirty job' public service workers to desist from more unofficial strikes.

The strikes were a result of the attempted enforcement by Jim Callaghan's Labour Government of the rule that pay rises were to be kept below five per cent. They began in private industry before spreading to the public sector. There was serious disruption to everyday life with widespread power cuts.

As every student of William Shakespeare will know, the phrase Winter of Discontent derived from the opening line of Richard III: "Now is the Winter of our Discontent/Made Glorious summer by this son of York...." It was applied to the events of January 1979 by the then editor of the Sun, Larry Lamb in an editorial.

A five per cent Labour lead in November 1978 was transformed into a Conservative lead of 20 per cent by early February 1979 and a general election campaign which made use of the Sun headline -

"Crisis, What Crisis", a reference to Callaghan's comments on his return home from a summit in Guadeloupe.

Margaret Thatcher romped home in April and immediately carried out her promise to slash public spending, recommending that heating be drastically rationed in offices and schools.

This led to a remarkable revolt in Westerham in October 1979 when rebel children from Churchill School, led by senior pupils, burned their text books and walked out in protest against the cold.

When headmaster John Coatman went into the playing field to remonstrate, many returned. but 50 to 60 stayed outside until a caretaker confirmed that the boilers were on.

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