March 28th, 1979, was one of the most exciting evenings in postwar British politics. It was 40 years ago that a no confidence motion was debated, one that everyone knew would go down to the wire. The Labour government of James Callaghan was soldiering on, supported at times by Liberals and Scottish Nationalists. He’d been expected to call an election in the autumn of 1978, but had held on, hoping for ae economic upturn. Unfortunately for him, widespread industrial unrest shut down many services in the “winter of discontent,” and Labour’s popularity fell.
On March 1st, a Scottish referendum on devolution had failed to break the 40% threshold, and the SNP turned against the government when it declined to bring in devolution. Tory leader, Margaret Thatcher put down a motion of no confidence on March 26th, and frantic bargaining went on for 3 days as the government tried to cobble together a majority. It gained some Ulster Unionist and Plaid votes by promising extra funds for their areas, and it looked as though they might just make it when they persuaded Irish Independent Frank McGuire to come over for the debate.
The debate was covered live on the radio, and was broadcast in many pubs throughout Britain. Everyone held their breath as the division came. The Tory whip boomed out the result: “Ayes to the right 311, Noes to the left 310.” No confidence was carried. My friends reported that a great cheer went up in pubs across the country. Callaghan made a dignified response: “Mr Speaker, now that the House has declared itself, we shall take our case to the country.”
It was a hard-fought campaign until Polling Day on May 3rd, but Callaghan seemed resigned to defeat. After the polls closed, in a car with his adviser, Bernard Donoughue, he remarked: 'You know there are times, perhaps once every thirty years, when there is a sea-change in politics.” He was right. The sea-change swept in Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first woman Prime Minister.
She and her team turned Britain around. She broke the postwar consensus that had acquiesced in Keynesian economics and the postwar socialist measures that Atlee had introduced. She privatized most of the major nationalized industries, and brought the unions within the law to cut industrial unrest. She lowered taxes, raised incentives, and freed the economy from some of the arcane restrictions that had held it back. She allowed state tenants to buy their homes and become homeowners. And abroad she stood up to Soviet bullying and expansionism, a policy that ultimately led to their collapse.
Britain went from being among the poorest performers in Europe to one of the best, from an international laughing stock to a country respected once more. She saved Britain from what many thought must be an inevitable decline, and restored its confidence in itself. It was that crucial vote, 40 years ago, that set these great events in motion.