This was an unprecedented event in UK history. It evoked memories of wartime privation and there were fears that rationing would return. It put households under considerable additional strain while being praised for showing us a better way to live by some commentators. Some people said that they liked the lack of traffic and sense of life slowing down. Businesses developed significant cashflow problems as a result. It left a political legacy, part of which cost the prime minister of the time his job. I am of course talking about the three-day week of 1974.
On 13 December 1973, the UK Prime Minister Edward Heath made a special broadcast, telling us that we were facing a grave emergency. A couple of weeks later, at midnight on New Years Eve, the three-day week began. The idea was to manage the low oil stocks and dwindling coal stocks through the winter by reducing energy usage.
As Andy Beckett details in his excellent When The Lights Went Out, it was a hugely complex process with many restrictions, both important and petty, to observe. All businesses, except shops and those deemed essential to the life of the country, would receive electricity either between Monday and Wednesday or Thursday to Saturday. Television broadcasts stopped at 10.30pm each night. Speed limits were reduced to 50 mph and floodlighting for sports events was banned. People reported each other for infringements on a daily basis. Patrick Jenkin, the Minister for Energy, suggested people clean their teeth in the dark before the Observer did a piece on his own electricity consumption.
Heath and his Government had a strategy underlying the three-day week, which was not voiced in public: rely on the public to respond well to a national emergency if the government looked like it was in charge. Cabinet papers spoke of the need to “appeal to moderate opinion by seeking to enlist help in the national interest” and that the “best way to bring pressure to bear…[on the miners]…was to shock them.”
Therefore, when he called an election on 7 February to ask the public “Who governs Britain?”, two days after the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had voted 81% in favour of a national strike in support of their pay demand of 43%, he did not expect to lose his majority at the subsequent election. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. The dispute with the NUM was settled on 6 March with a 35% increase awarded. The three-day week ended on 7 March.
The experts weighed in on the social aspects of the three-day week. Dr Anthony Allbeury, a leisure expert at the University of Oxford, spoke of the value of “re-reading an old book or digging a garden…not spending money…finding ourselves back in that almost peasant state.” Dr Richard Fox, a consultant psychiatrist, wrote that he “approves of the three-day week…to get together, be more spontaneous, to experiment more in…sex lives while the children are doing a five-day week at school”.
However the three-day week was not popular. People had had to move to longer shifts on the days they were working and seeing friends and family on those days became difficult. However fishing tackle sales increased and golf courses were busier, often lit up by car headlights at night.
Several companies reported improved productivity and began negotiations for a permanent four-day week, most of which came to nothing. My memories of the three-day week (I was 11 at the time) are mainly confined to the 50 mph speed limit, which was much commented on, and games of ludo by candlelight in the evenings, but I think there was a sense of a folk memory being created even at the time which we would draw upon later.
And draw upon it we did when the pandemic hit. In my view it explains some of the crazier employer-driven news stories: from how we need to get back to the office to save Pret to the whole quiet-quitting debate. These only make sense when you realise that the last time we had enforced days off for a (much shorter) period, the one and only priority was maintaining as much industrial output as possible (it fell by around 20% over the three-day week period).
Our way of working is changing because technology allows us to work in ways which better fit our lives than the 1970s-designed envelope we have been struggling with for a while now. It took a pandemic to force the employer-driven envelope apart and it is no use captains of industry trying to stick the bits of torn paper back into place and demanding we jump back into it. It is not all bad for employers: for instance, the four-day week certainly looks more likely to happen now.
The balance of power has changed. Unions may not have it, but employers have less of it too. And the Government apparently wants to play politics with the disputes in the background while insisting in public that it is nothing to do with them. We have seen how these kinds of games end for governments.