Skip to content
Skip to main content

Thirty-seven winters of discontent

Updated Thursday, 14 December 2017
Since the original 1978/79 Winter Of Discontent, any setback at any time between late summer and Easter has been garlanded with the same grim title.

This page was published over 6 years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

A queue of traffic limps slowly past a branch heavy with snow Are we having trouble moving on from "winter of discontent"? Sometimes, it might seem like we're living in a sort of ultra-depressing Narnia, where it's always a winter of discontent, and never Christmas of contentment.

In 1978/79, the adaptation of Shakespeare's phrase to throw a new angle on the privations the UK was experiencing might have seemed like a fresh idea. But much as the way the worst part of any political scandal since 1974 has been the clunky appending of '-gate' to create a popular term for the event, the slapping of 'winter of discontent' on disruption around the turn of the year (or even on whole years) has become part of the routine as wearing as the original dispute or disappointment.

In fact, a quick scan of newspaper cuttings from the last 35 years shows that there hasn't been a winter without someone, somewhere being discontented since the 1970s. But don't take our word for it - here's a quick run through the decades with just a sample of the discontents:


Margaret Thatcher's speech to the 1980 Tory Party Conference warns that "the prospect of another winter of discontent" could thwart the remaking of a "great nation", but hopes for "an autumn of understanding" followed by a "winter of common sense".


In Canada, The Globe And Mail extrapolated from low polling support for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that the nation was enduring its winter of discontent. To be fair, it was also having a harsh winter even by normal Canadian meteorological standards.


Back in the UK, the costs of mending fences and hedges damaged by council snowploughs was being raised by the Country Landowner's Association. This was enough for the Financial Times to diagnose a "farmers' winter of discontent".


The FT predicted doom for herbivores this time round - 50% increases in the prices of some fruit and vegetables. Jonathan Choat, chief executive of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Information Bureau, did his best to explain that 1982 had been a great year, and the prices this year were just "realistic". That wasn't enough to prevent the paper warning of a "winter of discontent for vegetarians".


Across the Atlantic, a survey of managers by Industry Week magazine found recession-battered stalwarts of major firms low on morale and gloomy about the future. This, concluded the magazine, was very much a winter of discontent.


The BBC had a go at refreshing the cliche, trying to paint a soggy late summer bank holiday as a "summer of discontent" (with Ian McCaskill apparently afraid to even tell people of his weather-forecasting career so grim were the skies), but miserable winters always trump even the gloomiest summer. So it was that the Canadian arts world faced their winter of discontent, called by the Financial Post as funding crises loomed for the National Endowment For The Arts.


Writing in The Times, Gavin Bell sounded a warning about what might follow from a winter of discontent in Northern Ireland: "The militant 'loyalists' of Ulster are emerging from a winter of discontent and preparing for a summer of murderous political violence."


In Spain, a ban on political demonstrations attempted to keep a lid on simmering social tensions. Would it work? The Sunday Times didn't think so and, naturally, warned that the country was about to have a winter of discontent.


Obviously, nations in the Southern Hemisphere experience their winter of discontents at the other end of the year to those in the Northern. Hence, it was still summer in the UK when the FT was describing New Zealand's job losses across all key industries, rising racial tensions and a low but rising crime rate - as delivering a winter of discontent for PM David Lange.


Introducing an article by Henry Kissinger offering helpful advice to the Soviet leader, Newsweek declared 1989 to be Mikhail Gorbachev's winter of discontent. The reasons? Perestroika stuttering; nations demanding autonomy; consumer goods shortages and problems with entrenched government bureaucracies.


Winters of discontent are no respecters of political ideology, so the next year they were breaking out in America. House Democrat Victor Fazio was in no way delighted to observe that "it would seem that Republicans are entering their winter of discontent.''


A fire - suspected arson - in a signal box outside London and failing overhead cables on the West Coast line? Sounds like a winter of discontent for rail passengers, suggested The Guardian.


By now, winters of discontent were coming so thick and fast that The Herald's Colin Mcseveny was warning of a potential winter of winters of discontent, taking time out of a litany of Conservative woes to warn that "unfortunately, The Herald cannot offer its readers any prizes for spotting the first "Winter of Discontent" press headline spotted in the New Year."


The Guardian's man in Paris though strikes on French railways and air traffic control meant a winter of discontent in France. The Scotsman, though, thought this not ambitious enough, and used unemployment and recession to declare the winter of discontent as taking hold through the entire European Union.


A number of high-profile members of the team leaving at the same time? The Times knew it could only mean a winter of discontent at the Serious Fraud Office.


Rugby League was supposed to be enjoying a landmark year - its centenary, no less. But countless injuries to top players and bad weather making the fixture list incredibly complex, the Daily Mirror's Jonathan Davies could see what was happening: a winter of discontent, and a season that should be scrapped.


As John Major's government edged towards an election year, William Rees-Mogg took to his pulpit in the Times to bemoan the cabinet's position. He remained upbeat, though: "Perhaps" he wrote "the winter of their discontent will now be made glorious summer by the sun of economic expansion. It has happened before." Tony Blair had other ideas.


Switzerland, you might think, would be able to cope with winters, whether discontented or otherwise. Maybe not: following the merger of two banks to create UBS, the unions were unhappy and The Times reported the Swiss were preparing for a Winter Of Discontent.


Sports teams - especially those who play on muddy pitches as the sun sets early - attract the label at the drop of a point, never mind a hat. In 1998, it was poor Crewe whose relegation struggles had the Stoke Sentinel reaching for the "winter of discontent" stamp.


Not all winters of discontent are created equal. The original and best, in 1978-9, saw huge numbers of public sector workers across the country, with bodies unburied and garbage in the streets. Were three one-day strikes over a parking fee dispute at a single city Council really of the same order? For the Gloucester Citizen, it was - a "winter of discontent at the docks", no less.


A new millennium could only mean one thing: "it is not difficult to imagine a 21st-century winter of discontent just around the corner." Daring to dream this dream was Tony Parsons, inspired by a mix of Railtrack failure and fuel protests.


As the people of Newcastle prepared for Christmas, the Evening Chronicle did its best to capture the mood. 3,000 jobs lost in the region in three months; 10,000 more at risk. Unemployment at double the national rate. Never mind the season of goodwill; for the Chronicle, it was unquestionably a winter of discontent.


In the summer, high street tills had jingled as shoppers scooped up "gypsy fashions". But price-conscious consumers and uninspiring winter collections, reported the Daily Mail, meant "this could be a winter of discontent for clothes retailers."


The winter of discontent can touch us all, whether our culture is low, or the highest of the high. No surprise, then, that the Observer's Pendennis column found its reach at the Opera: although "not a hotbed of Trotskyism", Glyndebourne's cut in wages for staff on fixed-term contracts could bring a winter of discontent behind the scenes.


Road improvements in the North East of Scotland are good news, surely? Potholes patched, highways upgraded. Sunny times ahead? Not so fast. The Aberdeen Press & Journal turned a hard shoulder. All this works means delays, and for the motorist, that heralds a winter of discontent.


Wirral councillor Simon Mountney looked at rising council tax and heating bills, a shortage of flu vaccine and even "harsh temperatures." A quick letter to the Liverpool Echo sounded his alert: "I fear that we in Wirral are facing a modern-day winter of discontent."


A court battle over the rights to A Whiter Shade of Pale ended in defeat for Gary Brooker. But not just defeat - for the Daily Telegraph, it meant "a winter of discontent for the rock star who insisted that he alone had written the music for it - with a little help from Bach."


The London Evening Standard, reporting comments of Tower Hamlets head teacher Alasdair Macdonald, predicted that "also face a winter of discontent as teacher unions threaten industrial action unless the Government increases its two per cent pay offer."


Winters of discontent were being spotted everywhere as the global financial collapse smashed its way through no end of well-ordered plans. But even away from the economy, there were gathering winters. Drug shortages were inevitable this Christmas, warned Chemist & Druggist, as "currency fluctuations, manufacturer quotas and the impending reduction in prices of branded drugs are all conspiring to create a winter of discontent."


The government, conceded Communities Secretary John Denham, had no contingency plans in place should firefighters go out on strike. Caroline Spelman, his shadow on the Conservative benches, sounded a warning as clear as any fire alarm: Britain faces a "winter of discontent".


Writing in City AM, DLA Piper LLA's David Bradley was wise enough to know that winters of discontent are often upon us: "The annual reference to a winter of discontent is being rolled out again, but this year it appears to be gaining some traction. " Fuelling his concerns were the student protests in London, and some Trades Unionists suggesting they could provide a model for wider actions.


Not normally known for overstatement, The Times Educational Supplement looked at the teaching sector and declared that not just the winter of 2011, but the whole of the year had been a winter of discontent. But, surely, things could only get better? No. "Any hopes that 2012 is likely to be warmer should be extinguished: the forecast is bleak" warned the paper, pulling its jacket closer around its shoulders.


Spurred by the London games, Paralympic sports had enjoyed a year like no other in 2012. And yet, by the end of the year, The Independent was warning they were entering their own winter of discontent. The reason? New Year Honours given unequally when Paralympians were compared with Olympians -suggesting equality might still be a stretch away.


The Plymouth Herald's Sam Blackledge detailed groups planning industrial action - "firefighters, teachers, lecturers, probation staff, ambulance workers, train cleaners and postal workers", asking is this our winter of discontent? (No, "it's not quite", he concluded.)


Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico, is struggling to deliver the modernisation he promised during the election campaign. The odds are stacked against him. For the FT, "this Shakespearean tragedy unfolds amid Mexico's winter of discontent."


It's still early in the year (at time of writing) but winters of discontent are already presenting themselves - not least for dairy men. The Ashbourne New Telegraph told its readers earlier this month that the falling price of a pint of milk meant, once again, farmers are facing a winter of discontent.

Thirty-five years after Jim Callaghan faced the first winter of discontent (note to Shakespearean pedants: you know what we mean) the cliche shows no sign of thawing away. Perhaps its time to find a phrase which is a little warmer?


Since compiling this article, the winters of discontent continue to descend upon us all:


Mark Duell, reporter for MailOnline, found himself so alarmed by the possibility of a Christmas without Argos deliveries he took that most modern of reporter's beats, refreshing Twitter. There, he found Clayton McCranor: "'So, Southern Trains, Post Office, Argos drivers and no doubt others striking... When can we start mentioning a "Winter of Discontent"?'"


Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital sent the Middle East into turmoil, and the United Arab Emirates' Khaleej Times reaching for Shakespeare. With this move, considered the paper, "The United States cannot make peace in the Middle East however hard it tries during this winter of discontent."


Become an OU student

Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

Skip Rate and Review

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?