What can Sunak learn from Thatcher about taking on the unions?

The ‘Iron Lady’ only opposed striking workers from a position of strength with public support – unlike the current PM

Margaret Thatcher in 1990
Margaret Thatcher was an ideologue but could also be a pragmatist
(Image credit: In Pictures Ltd/Corbis via Getty Images)

The parallels between the 1970s and 2020s have been made so often it has almost become orthodoxy. Rampant inflation, a global energy crisis and a wave of strikes make it easy to see why.

As the UK enters a second “winter of discontent” the Tories are looking to history once again to see how they can turn the current series of crises to their advantage.

Rishi Sunak has sought to channel his inner Margaret Thatcher by vowing to get tough on striking public sector workers, threatening union bosses that if they fail to call off their Christmas strikes, he will introduce new laws that restrict their ability to take industrial action.

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What did the newspapers say?

What many people, including a large proportion of Conservatives, forget is that Thatcher did not initially take a hard line in response to union demands.

“Thatcher was an ideologue who claimed the backlash against the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-79 represented a ‘sea change’ in public opinion and a mandate to ‘clip the wings’ of trade unions,” said The Guardian. “But she was also a pragmatist who in 1979 gave public sector workers a 25% pay rise – roughly double the rate of inflation and more than the 19% received by private sector workers – to avert a second successive ‘winter of discontent’.”

It was not until she had won a huge second mandate from the British people in 1983 that she felt strong enough politically to take on the unions, coming to a head during the miners’ strike of 1984-85.

“Put simply, she had a plan and a theory: that the UK could stay coal-free longer than British miners could stay solvent,” said the Financial Times. The pay settlement she agreed in 1981 “was a much better deal for the miners than for her government, in part to be able to come back and have the fight on her own terms later”, said the FT, using the intervening time to build up the UK’s coal supplies.

The Spectator argued that “when Thatcher took on the unions, she did so with overwhelming public backing and only fought battles she had carefully prepared for”.

“Equally importantly,” said the FT, “she didn’t treat each and every strike as if it were one and the same. She settled on some disputes and fought on against others.”

“Sunak’s mooted legislation has inevitably invited comparisons to [Thatcher’s] implacable approach to industrial relations,” said The Spectator, but he has failed to learn these two fundamental lessons.

A third factor is time. “The really glaring difference between then and now is that, across all sectors, the unions in the Seventies had far more leeway,” wrote Phil Tinline for UnHerd. He compared a 1977 poll in The Sun, which suggested 80% of the public thought “union leaders have ‘a lot’ of power and influence in governing the country”, with one conducted last summer by Ipsos, which found only 9% of the British public thought workers had too much power.

“That long period of industrial calm, when for decades strikes became almost unknown in this country, seems to have left the Conservative government – already riven with political divisions – unable to think and act strategically against collective action by hundreds of thousands of determined public sector workers,” said James Meadway, director of the Progressive Economy Forum, on openDemocracy.

“The Tories, instead, have made a bad situation for themselves appreciably worse through thoughtless belligerence,” he added.

What next?

Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday said history teaches us that governments succeed against unions by being more “flexible” not less, and by making sure they carry the public with them in any stand-off.

Asking “what sort of government gets into a public brawl with people who are universally liked and respected?” he argued that “just as we pay the police generously in return for not striking, it’s plain that governments should do the same for nurses”. Sunak spent billions of pounds “madly pumping money into all our pockets to support the Great Shutdown and Panic. Now, when finding extra money would make sense, Prime Minister Sunak poses as Mr Prudent.”

The Guardian added: “Sunak’s tribute act prefers ideological posturing to practical solutions: proposing new anti-strike laws that the Lords won’t pass as he has no electoral mandate to enact them; and doubling down on pay restraint for key workers.” Instead, argued the paper, the PM “should emulate Thatcher’s realism and offer inflation-proof pay awards to bring industrial action to an end”.

In the 1980s strong unions protected workers for as long as they could in the face of deindustrialisation that saw factories and mines close and industries move overseas.

“Now the public sector faces a government not only unwilling to increase their pay, but unclear on where the money comes from,” said The New Statesman. “Margaret Thatcher staked her political life on being stronger than the unions and won. The winter will show whether Rishi Sunak can do the same.”

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