From 1978 to 79, public sector workers in the UK engaged in nationally coordinated strike action. The news was full of stories of limited services at hospitals because domestic cleaners were striking and streets were strewn with rubbish because of striking binmen.
It was deemed such chaos by then editor of The Sun newspaper, Larry Lamb, that he dubbed it the “winter of discontent”. Lamb borrowed this line, which has become common in political coverage, from the opening of William Shakespeare’s Richard III(1592-4).
As the UK faces a similar winter this year, that line is once again peppering news coverage, making it clear that Shakespeare’s powerful image continues to hold the British political imagination in its icy grip.
Exactly how similar the UK’s current economic and social situation really is to the winter of 1978 is debatable. But the country is facing high inflation and seemingly endless waves of strike action, just as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government struggled with in the late 1970s. And the phrase “winter of discontent” is being used in 2023 to capture a sense of entrenched dissatisfaction and hardship in a similar way to how Lamb used it.
However, the phrase in this context is potentially misunderstood. Its Shakespearean roots highlight how it might actually be used to make an even more powerful statement than is commonly thought.
Tyranny and crisis
At the beginning of Richard III (Shakespeare’s last play to tackle the wars of the roses), Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, describes England emerging from “the winter of our discontent” into a “glorious summer”. It’s easy to mistake his feelings towards this newfound peace as upbeat.
However, far from feeling optimistic, Richard asserts that as a man only suited for war he will do anything and everything he can to plunge England back into chaos.
Richard’s willingness to claim and hold on to power at any cost does send England back into war. So, while initially claiming to be the spokesperson for more summery times, Richard engineers political and personal conflicts to suit his authoritarian aspirations.
While it’s unlikely today’s government wants the strikes to continue, opposition politicians have accused it of sabotaging the UK by failing to negotiate with unions. Similarly, a common refrain on the left is that the Conservative party is purposefully running down the National Health Service to make it politically easier to privatise.
Shakespeare’s original use of “winter of discontent” signals the dangers of political tyranny as a ruler, hell-bent on securing power, increasingly jeopardises the wellbeing of his country to serve his own ends. Regardless of the truth of the accusations levelled at the Conservatives, those who believe them could see the government’s intent as similar to Richard’s desire for a prolonged “winter of discontent”.
Winter is at hand
Later in the play, three ordinary citizens meet on a London street to discuss the declining state of the nation. “I fear, I fear,” one citizen says, “‘twill prove a troublous world”, another suggesting that “winter is at hand”.
While Richard never returns to his own image of winter in the play, it’s telling that an ordinary citizen of England does. Richard’s determination to drive England back into turmoil is powerfully registered through Shakespeare’s decision for a commoner to acknowledge that winter has arrived. Richard engineers the political winter to serve his ambitions and the citizens of England suffer for it.
The UK government continues to be criticised for the financial challenges it arguably had a direct hand in creating and the crises in the health sector that austerity hastened. Meanwhile, its response to the strikes has not been to negotiate but rather to pursue legislation that restricts the right to industrial action.
In this light, the politicians and journalists who employ Shakespeare’s “winter of discontent” should be mindful of its origin in a play that places authoritarian rule and the erosion of civic value front and centre.
The government might also take heed of King Richard’s meteoric demise. For James Callaghan in 1979, and the Conservative Ted Heath before him in 1974, winters of discontent have proven to be terminal for the party in power.