Wartime

Alan Ryan

  • The Enemies Within: The Story of the Miners’ Strike 1984-5 by Ian MacGregor and Rodney Tyler
    Collins, 384 pp, £15.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 00 217706 4
  • A Balance of Power by Jim Prior
    Hamish Hamilton, 278 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 241 11957 X

Mrs Thatcher’s two governments have each managed one unequivocal triumph. Her first administration saw off General Galtieri and his miscalculated assault on the Falklands, while her second saw off Arthur Scargill and his equally miscalculated assault on the National Coal Board. The triumphs were, of course, triumphs only in terms of the Government’s immediate aims – to throw out the occupying forces in the one case, and to avoid any concessions about the way the coal industry was to be restructured in the other. Moreover, the electorate was much more impressed by the Falklands campaign than by the coal strike: for all the talk of ‘the enemy within’, the citizenry distinguishes fairly accurately between Argentine soldiers and British mineworkers. Moreover, the electorate takes a much closer and more sustained interest in prices and employment than it does in foreign policy. We can all see that the economy grows no faster and that unemployment is as bad as it was before the NUM was reduced to impotence: but most of us hardly care that the expulsion of the Argentine forces from the Falklands leaves us with Fortress Albatross and unresolved diplomatic problems all over Latin America.

As with most wars, it is easy to think with hindsight of ways in which conflict could have been avoided, much less easy to see how those trapped in the situation could have taken those other ways out. War with Argentina is self-evidently a ludicrous way of making the simple point that a transfer of sovereignty ought to take place only with the consent of the Falklanders; thirteen months of hardship, picket-line battles, lost production and the huge expenses of generating electricity from oil are self-evidently a ludicrous way of deciding how large a coal industry Britain needs – or even of deciding who is to decide. But just as the Falklands War was an indictment of a diplomacy which had never moved fast and flexibly enough, so the miners’ strike of 1984-5 was an indictment of an industrial and political system which had been unable to respond coherently to changed conditions.

Ian MacGregor’s Boy’s Own Paper account of how he single-handedly felled Arthur Scargill in spite of back-stabbing, bad-mouthing and betrayal by colleagues, politicians, civil servants and journalists is a richly fantastic piece of work: none the less, it’s firmly anchored in an accurate appreciation of the absurdity of the British industrial scene and its sclerotic incapacity to adapt to technical and economic change. Jim Prior’s memoirs range widely – he was, however reluctantly, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for three years, and he discusses the province’s horror at length – but if the theme of the book is ‘how decency lost out to Thatcherism’, he, too, sees that Thatcherism only got its chance because so many of the electorate had become convinced that something drastic had to be done about the British economy’s reluctance to change. In 1979, the electorate and Mrs Thatcher concurred in the view that this ‘something’ must mean weakening the bargaining power of the unions. Changes in the law would doubtless be involved, but everyone knew or half-knew that making such changes stick was likely to mean that at some point the battles Edward Heath had lost in 1972 and 1974 would have to be fought again and won. Jim Prior had been a ‘hawk’ in early 1974 and had wanted Heath to call a general election for the beginning of February; the delayed call and the half-hearted way the election was fought made him doubt the possibility of taking on the union movement head-on – rightly enough. But, as he candidly admits, it also made him doubt the possibility of taking on the unions piecemeal, and it made him wildly overestimate union solidarity. That Norman Tebbit could take over as Secretary of State for Employment, let alone put through legislation to expose union funds to sequestration, without provoking a general strike, came as a great surprise.

It is nowadays unfashionable to blame Edward Heath for all our troubles: the benign advocate of ‘one-nation’ Conservatism, with his music and his concern for the plight of the underdeveloped world, has slipped into the same avuncular role as Jim Callaghan. But the avuncular role the two of them played a decade and a half ago was that of the British economy’s wicked uncles. The British are a forgiving – or a forgetful – lot, and it’s felt to be unkind and ill-mannered to dwell on the extent to which the industrial disasters which wrecked Heath’s political career were brought on by his own folly and obstinacy. But nobody who tries to play recording angel to the Tory governments of 1979 to the present can afford to ignore the damage done in 1969 by Callaghan’s destruction of the then government’s plans for trade-union reform and the damage piled on top by Heath’s misguided attempt to take on the union movement under exactly the wrong circumstances. The colourful part of that story was the two miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, but the more significant episode occurred in the winter of 1970-71 when the power workers’ go-slow instantly hit electricity supplies and drove the Government to send for Lord Wilberforce to make peace for them.

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