Do you remember the general election of 1979?
- Credit: PA
Delving into the past with Chris Hallam
If you are now sixty-one or over, you may well have voted in it.
The election was a memorable one, partly because it resulted in the election of Britain’s first female prime minister. Many had not expected Margaret Thatcher, who was then aged 53 to make it to Downing Street.
Some felt the nation was not yet ready for a woman leader. Some noticed she was then consistently less popular than her Labour opposite number, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan or even her predecessor, the former PM, Edward Heath who she had ousted as Tory leader in 1975. However, in the end, the Conservatives won handsomely, securing a majority of 43.
In Devon, Sir Peter Emery won the Honiton seat for the fifth time. In North Devon, Tory Tony Speller won for the first time, defeating the sitting Liberal MP, the former party leader, Jeremy Thorpe who was then on trial for attempted murder.
Thorpe (who died in 2014) would controversially be found “not guilty” the following month, but the high-profile trial marked the end of his once promising political career.
Thatcher’s eventual successor, John Major was amongst the crop of new MPs.
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Then aged 22, the woman who would later become Britain’s second woman PM, Theresa Brasier (later Theresa May) was still many years away from entering parliament.
Many had expected “Sunny Jim” Callaghan to call an election in the autumn of 1978, when opinion polls indicated Labour might win.
But, for whatever reason, Callaghan held back. Though he was probably right to be cautious, this proved to be a disastrous decision for his party. Over the winter, the fragile truce the government had achieved with the trade unions broke down, resulting in a series of damaging industrial disputes which became known as the “Winter of Discontent.” Images of uncollected rubbish and a few isolated cases of delays leading to the dead being temporarily left unburied would haunt Labour for decades.
Matters weren’t helped by Callaghan attending an economic conference in Guadeloupe just as the crisis was taking off. Confronted by the press at the airport on his return, the tanned PM seemed dangerously out of touch.
"I don't think other people in the world would share the view [that] there is mounting chaos," he said. Although Callaghan never uttered the phrase, The Sun newspaper summarised in a three-words what they perceived to be his complacent attitude: “Crisis? What crisis?” was the pro-Tory newspaper’s headline.
In February, the strikes ended. But the damage was done. The Tories were now 20% ahead in the polls.
Callaghan’s personal popularity counted for little in such circumstances and even this was starting to ebb away anyway. At the end of March, the government was brought down by a vote of no confidence. A General Election was fixed for May 3rd 1979.
One of the most memorable images of the campaign was the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster, depicting a seemingly endless dole queue. In fact, the people queuing in the picture were Young Conservatives and the poster was created with the help of the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising firm
which the Tories had hired at great expense. Unemployment was a real concern in 1979. It had risen to 1.3 million under Labour which was then seen as unacceptably high. Under the Tories, it would rise to two million in 1980, three million by 1982 and an all-time post-war high of 3.6 million by 1986.
The Tories would hold power for eighteen years. Overall taxes and the rate of inflation would generally fall, there would be fewer strikes and many would get rich through privatisation and the new spirit of free enterprise.
On the other hand, the gap between rich and poor would worsen, rates of crime and homelessness would rise dramatically and the nation’s hospitals and schools would suffer acutely.
It was a divisive time. This period would only end with the massive New Labour landslide in May 1997.