As energy prices soar, supermarket shelves lie bare and inflation goes through the roof, the UK faces a wave of fresh problems going into winter.
This week, Boris Johnsoninsisted there would be no return to a 1970s style ‘three-day week’ amid fears that gas shortages could see the lights go out in thousands of homes.
The Prime Minister said the Government was “working flat out” with energy companies to guarantee supply, with wholesale prices for gas surging 250 per cent since January and 70 per cent since August alone.
The mass shortages have drawn grim comparisons to the 70s, when Downing Street imposed sweeping restrictions on businesses that slashed the amount of working days in a week to just three.
It marked the start of a dark decade that culminated in the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’, where industrial action left mountains of rubbish piled up in the streets and severe weather cut off access to entire towns.
With commentators now warning the Government faces a similar season of turmoil, here is how Britain was thrust into chaos – and risks being so once more.
Pubs shut and TV curbed in ‘three-day week’
Rising inflation troubled the economy throughout the 1970s and to tackle it, pay caps were imposed on major industries including coal mining.
By the end of 1973, workers’ average pay had fallen behind inflation and the National Union of Mineworkers held a national ballot on strikes.
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While the motion was not passed, an overtime ban was imposed that crippled the coal industry and forced prime minister Ted Heath to take drastic measures.
At midnight on December 31, the Tory leader took the unprecedented step of introducing a three-day working week – meaning businesses could only operate for a maximum of three consecutive days.
In scenes similar to lockdown, most pubs shut their doors, while even TV broadcasts were limited.
The BBC and ITV implemented a staggered shutdown, shutting off at 10.30pm in alternating nights.
As blackouts hit the country, it was even speculated that the Army could be called in to haul coal and work at power stations.
In January 1974, the NUM upped the stakes by going on strike and Heath responded by calling a general election.
Feeling Brits would side with the Government, the Conservatives ran with the campaign slogan ‘Who governs Britain?’
The move backfired, however, with Labour taking the most seats. Labour’s Harold Wilson returned to power in a minority government and cemented a majority in a second election that October.
The miners were granted a 35 per cent pay increase, but the wave of discontent spreading across Britain had just begun.
‘Winter of Discontent’ saw rubbish pile up in Leicester Square
In the winter of 1978–79 there were widespread strikes by public sector trade unions against the Government’s attempts to curb wage increases.
With Jim Callaghan now prime minister, the Labour leadership was once again battling rapid inflation, but faced internal disputes over the pay caps from members committed to the party’s socialist roots.
By the end of 1978, lorry drivers had gone on strike, driving the country to a halt just as temperatures plummeted.
In the coldest winter for 16 years, freezing weather cut off access to towns, with local authorities struggling to clear roads blaming staff shortages.
Even football was affected as an entire round of the FA Cup was postponed for the first time in its history.
With more than 2,000 strikes erupting around Britain, grim images of the consequences flooded newspaper front pages.
Refuse collectors refused to pick up bags of rubbish, which piled up in Leicester Square, while even gravediggers joined the walkout.
Their actions were demonised in headlines like “Now They Won’t Let Us Bury Our Dead!” and last year one union official promised the Mirror “never again” – though insisted low-paid workers were “treated like dogs”.
Returning from a Caribbean summit, Callaghan’s insistence that the situation did not amount to “mounting chaos” was met with derision.
The Sun ran a front page headlined ‘Crisis, what Crisis?’ and quoted Shakespeare’s opening line from Richard III, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ – a phrase that came to define the era.
As Tory leader Margaret Thatcher won a wave of support for denouncing the scenes, Callaghan faced a vote of no confidence.
Sweeping to victory, Thatcher set about clamping down on the unions, while Labour faced over a decade in the wilderness.
Boris faces rising tide of fresh crises
Today, the Tory government faces a mounting number of crises that have led to claims they risk a fresh ‘Winter of Disconent’.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, has insisted there is “no question of the lights going out” as struggling energy suppliers remain locked in emergency talked with the Government.
POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
“There will be no three-day working weeks or a throwback to the 1970s,” he said. “Such thinking is alarmist, unhelpful and completely misguided.”
In unwelcome parallels with the decade, however, inflation surged to 3 per cent in figures published last week, the highest since the beginning of 2012.
That will spark fears that rising prices will leave families behind as public sector wages are frozen and benefits are cut.
It could also squeeze Bank of England interest rates, which have been rock-bottom for so long that much of the mortgage market is dependent on them staying that way.
Meanwhile, a lorry driver shortage blamed on Brexit immigration rules has led the Government to slash legal requirements to become an HGV driver.
Industry chiefs fear the issues could affect the supply of toys, turkeys and more over the Christmas season.
Ian Wright, outgoing chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, has also warned supply issues that hit supermarkets, Nando’s and McDonald’s are “going to get worse” as the labour market changes after Covid.
Elsewhere, the end of furlough on September 30 is set to coincide with six million Brits being hit by a £20-a-week cut in Universal Credit.
With Boris Johnson currently away in New York for three days of meetings with world leaders, there will be plenty in his inbox upon his return.
As he touched down back in the UK, he might be wary of the phrase: “Crisis, what crisis?”