Tom Robinson’s song “The Winter of ’79” isn’t about The Winter of Discontent of that year because it was written and recorded before that actually happened. In the song Tom is reading his tea leaves and looking into the future, imagining events in England a year down the road (written from the point of view of someone looking back at 1979) and it’s not a pretty picture: civil unrest, violence, fascism, repressive Government and police brutality — but with cheap beer, so it wasn’t all grim.
Let’s see how his predictions worked out.
All you kids that just sit and whine
You should have been there back in ’79
You say we’re giving you a real hard time
You boys are really breaking my heart
Spurs beat Arsenal, what a game
I’d been working on and off
A pint of beer was still ten bob
I can’t remember how much a pint of beer was in 1979. Ten bob (50p to you kids) does sound a bit cheap for even then, but my wages from my Saturday job at WH Smith that year were a whopping £6.60 which was enough for me to get shitfaced in the pub after work (which usually took about 6 pints back then), have a kebab on the way home, and still have enough money left over to buy records and cigarettes. These days £6 would get you a couple of pints at most but you wouldn’t have much change left for a kebab.
They stopped the Social in the spring
And quite a few communists got run in
And National Service come back in
In the winter of ’79
When Marco’s caff went up in flames
The Vambo boys took the blame
The SAS come and took our names
In the winter of ’79
These verses might all sound like typical lefty paranoia about the fascist state clamping down on political dissent, but by the mid-70s the country seemed headed for social breakdown and political anarchy and some elements of the British secret services, convinced that the government and the unions (and the BBC) were in the hands of radicals and revolutionaries, actually planned a military coup against the Labour government of Harold Wilson that would have installed Lord Mountbatten as the new Premier. So it’s not paranoia if it’s true, though no one knew about this at the time. And you have to remind yourself that he wrote this when “Sunny” Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister. If he thought England was a violent, politically oppressive place when he wrote the song in 1977 then God knows what he would have written if he’d waited a while and seen Maggie Thatcher in power, a woman who openly referred to striking workers — fellow British citizens — as “the enemy.”
It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top people still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club got petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong
Well, some things never change. The top people still come out on top and are far richer and even more on top than they were in 1979 (and mostly got that way under a Labour government), the Government is clinging to power despite being mortally wounded by scandal and an economic crisis, and if you change “The National Front” to “The BNP” these verses could be from a song called “The Winter of ’09”
So it turned out that Tom was right about the winter of 1979 being an important point in English history, he was just wrong about a lot of the facts — even the football results. But it didn’t take much imagination to look at England in 1977 and imagine the worst.