Dominic Sandbrook recounts the history of a slightly different Britain: one where Margaret Thatcher lost to Jim Callaghan in 1978:
As historians now agree, Mrs Thatcher never really stood a chance: Britain was not ready for a woman prime minister. As she herself had remarked only eight years earlier: ‘There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime — the male population is too prejudiced.’
In her place, the Tories turned to the bumbling figure of Willie Whitelaw, an old-fashioned patrician Wet whom they decided would connect better with the British electorate.
In the meantime, the country was reeling from crisis to crisis. Scarcely had Callaghan returned to No 10 than his premiership was consumed in the notorious Winter of Discontent. As one group of workers after another — lorry drivers, railwaymen, bus drivers, ambulance drivers, caretakers, cleaners, even grave-diggers — walked out on strike for higher wages, the country ground to a halt.
Buoyed by his election victory, Callaghan was in no mood to compromise. Rather than break his declared 5 per cent national pay limit and risk higher inflation, he declared a State of Emergency and summoned the Army to drive Britain’s petrol tankers.
It was a catastrophic mistake. On February 12, 1979, a date that has gone down in history as Black Monday, fighting broke out between pickets and soldiers at one depot outside Hull.
In the chaos, one soldier — carrying live rounds, in contravention of orders — opened fire and killed five people. It was one of the most shocking moments in modern British history.
Callaghan resigned the next day, the last honourable act of a decent man overwhelmed by events. But contrary to his expectations, the Labour Party did not turn to his Chancellor, the bushy-browed Denis Healey.
Instead, they lurched to the Left and elected as their new Prime Minister Michael Foot, with his flowing white locks, walking stick and impassioned socialist rhetoric. The real power in the land, however, was Foot’s colleague Tony Benn, who replaced the disgruntled Healey as Chancellor. And in the next few years, it was Benn who presided over the most sweeping socialist measures any Western country had seen in living memory.
To the horror of many in industry, Benn insisted that Britain’s declining economy needed a dose of shock therapy. The top rate of income tax went up to 98 per cent, and the government announced a one-off 5 per cent ‘equality levy’ on households with income over £50,000 a year.
As frightened investors began to withdraw their money from the City of London, Benn introduced sweeping exchange controls. He also, in an attempt to shore up Britain’s crumbling manufacturing base, introduced the most stringent import tariffs in the Western world.
The reaction was pandemonium. As inflation shot over 25 per cent and unemployment went above two million, horrified European leaders insisted that Britain’s new policies were incompatible with membership of the Common Market.
But Benn was adamant. ‘You turn if you want to,’ he told his party conference in 1980. ‘Labour’s not for turning.’
The following year, as the economic picture continued to worsen, the Government introduced controls to stop people taking sterling out of the country. As a result, the foreign package holiday market collapsed — although landladies in Blackpool said they had never seen more business.
There were rumours that Foot was planning to move his turbulent Chancellor, but they were blown away when, in April 1982, Argentine forces landed in the Falklands.
H/T to Roger Henry for the link.