Ross McKibbin on the summer of discontent
It was difficult over the last fortnight of July not to think about the Thatcher Miracle and what had become of it. The EEC reported that in the next two years Britain would have the lowest growth rate, highest inflation and biggest payments deficit of any of its member nations. The National Union of Railwaymen struck for the fourth week running; there was a national dock strike; the Local Government Officers (NALGO) struck for three days; the lightning strikes at the BBC continued. The (then) Education Secretary persistently refused to guarantee that every child in a state school would actually be taught next year; the (then) Environment Secretary could not explain even the most elementary details of one of the most important pieces of legislation of this Parliament, and wondered aloud, why, if his backbenchers so disliked it, they ever voted for it in the first place. Then, with a characteristic touch, Mrs Thatcher announced that as a result of the new health legislation the NHS would be so good that no one would ever wish to go private again. Finally, there was the utter fiasco of the reshuffle.
This sequence of events has not been all that unusual in the history of the present government. What is unusual is the apparent reaction of the ‘public’, that long-suffering British institution which the Conservatives have (with much success) claimed to represent. It may be, of course, and not for the first time, that the NUR executive could still alienate those whose good will they need, but they do not seem to have done so thus far. And I would be surprised if many people even knew there was a dock strike. The Labour lead in the opinion polls had – when I last saw them – increased rather than diminished, and evidence of the ‘public’s’ hostility to the Government has been easier to find than at any time since 1981.
It is clear that the Government has been taken aback by this. There is no doubt that it chose to end the Dock Labour Scheme, and so to provoke a strike, at a time when the doctors’ opposition to the NHS changes was doing it obvious damage and when its prospects in the European elections were looking bleak. As we know, things did not work out quite like this. The T and GWU was more cautious in its response than the Government expected and, in any case, the number of docks included in the scheme is now so small that the strike, when it came, could never have been represented as a national crisis. In these circumstances, the rail strikes were probably not unwelcome to the Government. The original response of the Prime Minister and the Employment Secretary was, as expected and designed, to exploit possibilities they had missed on the docks. That strategy also failed and Channon paid the price with his job. The workforce overwhelmingly supported its leadership; the courts (an unexpected blow to the Government?) dealt briskly with the grievances of those supported by the commission for the rights of trade-unionists; the reaction of the public was to blame the Government – or, at least, not blame the unions. The behaviour of ministers has thus been very uncertain. At the beginning, there was talk of changing the law yet again and of banning public sector strikes outright. Mrs Thatcher and Mr Fowler have since fallen silent, or become less noisy. While we have certainly not heard the end of this, the Government has obviously felt it prudent not to make too much of it.
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