Home Decades Events Three-Day Week (1973 – 1974)

Three-Day Week (1973 – 1974)

In 1973, the oil-producing nations of the world finally decided to flex their muscles, to use their resources as weapons, and to control for their own benefit the hitherto seemingly inexhaustible supply of inexpensive energy to the industrialised world.

In immediate practical terms, the decisions of the oil-producers meant dearer petrol and less petrol, speed restrictions, the issue of ration books (although these were never used) and the introduction of a new word into the language of the times – OPEC.

It meant – and means – the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and collectively they meant business.

Far away from the Middle East, Britain’s own producers of energy were setting about the Conservative government and its wages and incomes policies with a determination that was ultimately to prove completely effective.

On 12 November 1973, the country’s miners (all 300,000 of them) began an overtime ban. The next day the government declared a State of Emergency.

A week later the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Walker, announce that deliveries of petrol and fuel oil would be cut by 10% to help conserve supplies, and he asked motorists to keep to 50 mph or less and not make any unnecessary journeys.

A comparatively mild December arrived and Christmas approached, the 50 mph speed limit was enforced by law, a limit of 63° Fahrenheit was imposed on centrally heated offices and businesses, and train drivers began their own ban on overtime and Sunday working.

On 13 December the prime minister Mr Heath announced plans to reduce the consumption of electricity. Strict controls were imposed on business and industry, with the promise of more to come – including the introduction of a three-day working week.

Continuous-process users of electricity were restricted to 65% of a normal week’s consumption, and other commercial and industrial users had to keep their demands down to a total five days’ consumption during the fortnight until the end of the year.

Then came the three-day week.

Meanwhile, cinemas, theatres and people at home were expected to reduce consumption, and to ensure this happened television programmes came to an end at 10.30 pm each night. Floodlit football was affected, and life became a good deal gloomier – both literally and metaphorically.

1974 began as 1973 had ended, with a three-day working week and severe restrictions on the use of energy in all its forms, and with miners and other workers taking various industrial actions.

Edward Heath was forced to call a General Election and on 28 February the Conservatives received 296 votes while Labour received 301, Liberals 14 and Others 24.   Heath resigned on Monday 4 March, and Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street and Labour were back in power again.

The State of Emergency ended a week later with the miners accepting a settlement recommended by the Pay Board (which by and large endorsed their case).

Gradually the country began to return to normal and the government announced it would repeal the contentious Industrial Relations Act.