It was the end of a Cabinet meeting and Mrs Thatcher was cross. It was all so silly, so unnecessary. She was half-way through her second term as prime minister – a bad time for most governments, but hers was doing surprisingly well. Earlier in the year, the most dangerous of all the ‘enemies within’, the miners’ union, had been thoroughly beaten in a tough fight. The trade unions everywhere else were humbled and split. The Opposition was fighting itself, and was unconvincing. For a brief moment, almost incredibly, the Conservative Party had established a small lead in the polls.
Now, however, on 19 December 1985, the success and security of her government were banished from her mind by an infuriating, niggling little argument. Once again the Cabinet had been discussing what she described as ‘an insignificant little company in the South-West with a capitalisation of less than £30m’. More than half the meeting had been taken up with a wrangle over Westland Helicopters. It was all most unusual and most irregular: her Cabinet hardly ever discussed individual companies like this. Westlands was an ailing company and Margaret Thatcher’s attitude to ailing companies over the years had been simple and consistent. If companies ailed, if they couldn’t stand on their own two feet, then they would have to go to the wall. There was no room for lame ducks as there had been in the dark days of the Heath Administration of the early Seventies. That government’s slackness towards ailing companies had ushered in all sorts of horrors – strong trade unions, a Labour government. As she had said a thousand times, there would be no ‘U-turn’ for hers. Market forces, she had repeated, were the only real discipline in a capitalist world.
No matter that Westland made military equipment and was therefore not really subject to market forces at all. No matter that the main market in which Westlands dealt was the government market, and that some £750m worth of government orders had been its staple economic diet since the war. Defence industries, too, had to undergo the rigours of the market, and if Westlands was in trouble, it would have to find its own way out, as so many other companies had (or hadn’t). It was of course a pity that Westlands employed 7000 workers, but not such a pity when most of those voted in Yeovil and the Isle of Wight – which had had the effrontery to return Liberal MPs at the last election. If workers were to learn the lessons of unprofitability in a real world, there could hardly have been a more suitable place for them to do so.
These elementary lessons had been automatically applied by the Thatcher Government ever since Westlands first started getting into real trouble at the beginning of 1985. A mixture of old-fashioned British management and plain bad planning had left this famous helicopter company without any orders for a couple of years at least, and with a main new product – something called the W 30 – which no one, not even the Indian Government, wanted to buy. The usual remedies were tried without success. Sir Basil Blackwell departed as chairman with a handsome pay-off. Lord Aldington, a former Tory MP, resigned as president. The colourful Alan Bristow, a helicopter tycoon who had done very well out of flying people to and from the North Sea oil rigs (and by curbing trade unions), made a bid and then withdrew it. By the early summer it looked as though Westlands would go bust. Good riddance, as far as the Government was concerned. When Westland workers or management lobbied the Government – whether the Department of Trade and Industry or the Ministry of Defence – they were lectured about the laws of the marketplace. Good riddance, too, was the message for Westlands from the other big helicopter-makers of Europe. Fewer and fewer helicopters were needed, because fewer and fewer people (or countries) could afford them. There was what businessmen call ‘over-capacity’. Large firms like GEC in Britain, Aérospatiale in France and Messerschmitt in Germany, were licking their lips at the juicy technology and skilled workers waiting to be gobbled up from Yeovil. The prospect seemed familiar. The company would go into receivership. The banks would move in and flog off the assets to the highest bidder. A few thousand workers would join the vast dole queues of the South-West, and the other companies would be able to continue for a short while, making profits in a smaller market until one day the whole process would start again, and a new victim would go to the wall.