IT was Larry Lamb who first used Shakespeare’s phrase to convey the sense of economic and political stagnation in 1970s Britain.
The legendary Sun editor declared a “winter of discontent” — a headline that came to define an era.
Fast-forward 40 years and there are clear signs we’re heading once again towards a 1970s-style moment of economic and political reckoning.
As inflation spirals and government debt escalates, society is becoming more fractious.
Shoppers and businesses regularly complain of shortages — a throwback to my youth.
Increasingly stroppy trade unions demand higher wages, just as during the 1970s
There are geopolitical echoes too, as Britain recasts relations with Europe and America stages a humiliating retreat — from Afghanistan, rather than Vietnam.
The big difference is that today we have a Prime Minister on a winning streak having won an election, delivered Brexit and led the country through a pandemic.
Back in the 1970s, weak leadership culminated in a moment of deep public unease, amid widespread strike action, mounting economic chaos and a breakdown of vital public services.
Voter outrage peaked in the winter of 1978/79, captured by Lamb as he wielded Shakespeare’s great phrase.
While Labour was in power then, and we’ve just seen a once-in-a-century pandemic, today’s parallels are stark.
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Just as the 1970s were marred by sky-high inflation, price pressures are once again stirring. In August, the Consumer Price Index was 3.2 per cent higher than a year ago, as inflation hit a nine-year high.
Food prices rose 1.1 per cent in August, the highest monthly rise since 2008.
Petrol averaged 134.6 pence per litre last month, an eight-year high.
The Bank of England now admits inflation could hit four per cent over the coming months.
Many independent forecasters predict at least five per cent by year-end.
Once inflation is at such levels, spiralling prices can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as in the 1970s.
When firms’ input costs start rising, they jack up consumer prices in anticipation, so they don’t lose out.
Such “supply chain” inflation is now rife, with input prices up ten per cent in July compared to a year ago and 11 per cent higher in August.
As inflation rises this autumn, if wages don’t keep up — and for many they won’t — workers will get angry.
High inflation can rattle firms too, so they stop investing, which hits jobs and growth.
That results in “stagflation” (inflation plus stagnation), another phrase evoking the 1970s.
Today’s inflation in part reflects lockdown, as previously shuttered producers get back up to speed.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t persist. Global shipping problems, and shortages of semi-conductors and other components, are generating sustained price pressures.
Inflation is also being driven by wage increases, which won’t be reversed.
Average pay soared no less than 8.3 per cent from May to July, but wage rises are a double-edged sword.
One person’s pay increase is another’s higher wage bill, which firms pass on to consumers. That drives up inflation and a higher cost of living.
The UK now has more than a million job vacancies, which also points to future inflation, as firms struggle to recruit workers, particularly across manufacturing, hospitality and transport.
In the 1970s, unions were often militant and covered more than half the work- force, compared to less than a quarter now.
In lockdown, though, medical and teaching unions have become increasingly strident.
Over the past year, millions of patients have been denied in-person appointments — leaving countless life-threatening conditions undiagnosed.
Now, as the full horror of the record five million-plus NHS waiting list becomes apparent, doctors’ unions are still resisting a return to face-to-face normality.
Some teaching unions, hooked on zero-Covid zealotry and determined to shame the Government, may yet upend a third successive school year.
If that happens, today’s white-collar trade union militants could cause every bit as much public outrage as their 1970s blue-collared counterparts.
As the nights draw in, two big questions loom over the UK economy.
While headline unemployment remains low, many of the 1.5million workers still on furlough could lose their jobs when the scheme ends this month.
Unemployment could yet spike this winter. Another 1970s throwback.
Then there’s the question of broader economic stability, as this Tory government oversees mass-scale money-printing while racking up budget deficits that make Labour ministers of yesteryear look like paragons of virtue.
It was late-1970s public outrage that sparked a radical political reset, embodied by Margaret Thatcher.
Boris Johnson is clearly more popular than “Sunny” Jim Callaghan ever was.
And there are encouraging signs this is a government that will take necessary steps to mitigate the harsh winter ahead.
The Prime Minister’s reshuffle has freshened up the Cabinet with new energy and ideas to face the tough challenges.
If any PM has what it takes to clear these hurdles, it’s BoJo.
But he should remember how suddenly the economic tide can turn and the electorate’s patience snap.
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