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Blackout: The Three-Day Week - the UK's original energy crisis
We are increasingly living in a world where the unthinkable and the unimaginable are becoming reality. Not long ago the thought of organised blackouts in the UK was confined to the history books or episodes of The Crown. However, that is exactly what the government is reportedly planning for in its latest ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ for this coming winter.
With the country battling soaring inflation, economic uncertainty, and political turmoil, cold weather this winter combined with gas shortages caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, could create the perfect storm for a catastrophic energy crisis.
The last energy crisis
The last time the UK faced such a situation was back in the 1970s, a decade defined by conflict and turmoil between the government and various trade unions.
Nowadays, Britain’s electricity comes from a combination of sources, but coal was the primary provider back in the 1970s. It was also a time when trade union membership was at its highest with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) boasting hundreds of thousands of members. This gave the union a great deal of clout and by the early part of the decade, NUM was becoming more militant.
Strike action begins
Since the end of WWII, the pay for miners had remained relatively unchanged and failed to keep pace with those of other industrial workers. NUM wished to rectify that with a proposed 43% pay increase for its members.
When negotiations with Edward Heath’s Conservative government broke down, a strike was called by NUM at the start of 1972. Although an unofficial strike had occurred in 1969, this was the first official one in the UK since the 1920s. It plunged Britain into darkness and the government declared a state of emergency. Planned blackouts attempted to conserve the remaining energy reserves as Britons learned to live by candlelight.
Eventually, a deal was struck in February 1972 and the miners went back to work after six weeks of disruption. However, things got far worse before they got better as tens of thousands of people had been thrown into unemployment by the strike. Rising inflation gripped the UK economy.
Conflict looms once more
It wasn’t long before high rates of inflation wiped out any real-term gains the miners had made through their recent salary increase, bringing NUM to blows with the government once more. This time the union demanded a 35% increase in salaries, but Edward Heath had just brought in a policy capping public sector pay rises to combat the ever-increasing inflation rates.
In response to the government’s rejection of their proposal, NUM asked its members to vote on a strike. In November 1973, 143,000 members voted against strike action whilst 83,000 voted for it. Although a strike was not to be called, an overtime ban was implemented, effectively halving coal production.
The following month, the Conservative government began bringing in measures to conserve coal stocks to prevent the country from descending into a total shutdown. One such measure was the Three-Day Work Order that started on New Year’s Eve 1973.
Three-Day Week commences
The Three-Day Week, as it became known, limited commercial consumption of electricity to just three consecutive days every week with severely restricted hours within those days. Essential businesses and services such as hospitals and supermarkets were exempt from the new regulations.
Cities descended into darkness as factories and schools closed, while TV stations were banned from broadcasting after 10.30pm every night. Candles had barely gathered dust from the blackout of the previous year before they found themselves illuminating workplaces up and down the country. People became accustomed once more to working by candlelight, head-torch, and lantern, often wrapped in blankets to stay warm during the cold winter days.
Most pubs closed and those that remained open served under candlelight. At home, British people were ordered to keep non-essential lights turned off whilst heating was limited to just one room. Most people began boiling water to wash in.
Hardship sets in
Although the government had brought in the Three-Day Week to prevent an economic meltdown, it was soon clear that the opposite was coming true. Many businesses could not survive under the new conditions and the financial strain on the country was becoming unbearable.
In scenes reminiscent of the recent COVID pandemic, panic-buying set in as people stockpiled tin goods, toilet paper, and other essentials. By mid-January, shops throughout the country began reporting diminishing stocks. With the UK balancing on a knife edge, something desperately needed to be done.
A general election is called
After a 16.5% pay increase was rejected by NUM, its members voted again on strike action. This time it was an overwhelming majority in favour of a strike to begin on 5th February. In response, Edward Heath called a general election believing the public sided with the government on the issue of the miners’ strike.
This proved to be a miscalculation as the result of the election led to a hung parliament. The Tories lost their parliamentary majority and were unable to form a coalition government with the support of the Liberals or Ulster Unionists.
A Labour minority government under Harold Wilson claimed power and immediately increased miners' wages by 35%. On 8th March 1973, a normal working week was restored and the power crisis finally ended with miners returning to work.
In October 1973, a second general election led to a Labour majority and the following year the new government increased wages for miners once more. However, disputes between trade unions and the government were far from over and the Three-Day Week proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
The winter of 1978/79 became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’ as widespread strikes across multiple trade unions brought Britain once more to a standstill. The Conservatives returned to power via a landslide victory in the 1979 election. It took the Labour party nearly two decades to recover from the political fallout of that winter.