Losers

Ross McKibbin

  • The Politics of the UCS Work-In: Class Alliances and the Right to Work by John Foster and Charles Woolfson
    Lawrence and Wishart, 446 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 85315 663 8
  • A Lost Left: Three Studies in Socialism and Nationalism by David Howell
    Manchester, 351 pp, £29.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 7190 1959 1
  • The Miners’ Strike 1984-5: Loss without Limit by Martin Adeney and John Lloyd
    Routledge, 319 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 7102 0694 1
  • Red Hill: A Mining Community by Tony Parker
    Heinemann, 196 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 434 57771 5
  • Strike Free: New Industrial Relations in Britain by Philip Bassett
    Macmillan, 197 pp, £10.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 333 41800 X

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971-72 has been so overlaid by industrial disaster that it is probably no longer even part of the folk memory. It is hard now to associate Jimmy Reid the benign television guide to the inhabited ruins of industrial Glasgow with the compelling CP shop-steward of 1971. Yet as Foster and Woolfson argue, the work-in was a definite moment in Scottish history and not just a symbol. The strength of their book lies in its structural analysis: the fate of the Clyde shipyards is placed firmly in the context of the Scottish and international economy.

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was created by the first Wilson government – the book has a treacherous preface by Tony Benn – out of the wreckage of the old Fairfields yard. In 1971 it was allowed to go ‘bankrupt’ by the Heath Government. The work-force responded with unexpected spirit, occupied the yards as a ‘work-in’, and mobilised much support throughout Scotland. The Government, taken aback, in due course negotiated a sort of settlement, partly with the American company, Marathon Oil, which created Govan Shipbuilders. That arrangement lasted until the 1974 Labour Government nationalised almost all the shipbuilding industry.

The debacle of British shipbuilding is one of the grimmest aspects of our fall, but Foster and Woolfson give it a specifically Scottish context. They argue that the collapse of Clydeside shipbuilding is a consequence of the actions of Scottish capital, and point out that the Scottish shipbuilders had always seen a semi-depressed Scotland as in their interest. They resented competition for scarce raw materials and found it more profitable either to close idle yards or invest their profits abroad. They disliked Lloyd George and Keynes; opposed heavy re-armament and favoured non-competition and cartelisation, which they associated with Neville Chamberlain and appeasement. But their ‘privileged access’ to the British state was largely closed to them in May 1940 with ‘the final collapse of Chamberlain’s efforts to end the war’, as the authors inaccurately put it. Churchill disliked Scottish Conservatism, and the corporative-regionalist policies followed both by wartime and postwar governments had no place for them. They were further isolated by the remarkable invasion of American capital after 1945. Scotland had a higher penetration of US capital than any other area of Europe, and the attitudes and wages of American companies undermined Scottish-owned engineering. The response was to bleed the shipyards even more of profits and investment and hand them over to the Scottish investment trusts and finance houses, whose power in the Scottish economy was proportionately increased. The result was the neglect and final redundancy of Scottish shipbuilding. This, together with a last defensive action from an intensely tradition and status-conscious work-force, produced the UCS work-in, and some of the most interesting material concerns the work-in itself. The analysis is Leninist rather than Marxist, though the neo-Stalinism is largely confined to the footnotes. Not altogether confined, however: one of the authors’ principal categories is ‘monopoly’ and that includes Labour governments as well as American multinationals. It normally signifies non-Scottish, multinational or English-based finance, but is also synonymous with ‘corporative’. The theoretical underpinning for it is provided on p.78, fn 76, an explanation I found almost meaningless. This rather heavy-handed concept is not actually necessary to the argument though some more refined adjacent concept may be.

This is a powerful analysis of the Scottish economy and much of what they say is undeniable: but as an account of the decline of Scottish shipbuilding it is only one among a number of other plausible accounts. It would be possible, for example, to provide an alternative sectoral analysis of British shipbuilding which simply sees the fate of the Clyde yards as part of a general failure. Foster and Woolfson’s explanation for Scotland might, of course, be true of Britain as a whole – profits bled from industry passing into finance houses – but this is unlikely. British shipbuilding has been technically ‘bankrupt’ for about thirty years and has been propped up only by open or concealed public hand-outs. All of it has now gone the way of Scotland, except in Northern Ireland, where it is politically inexpedient to let it do so. Shipbuilding is just the most extreme instance of what has happened in manufacturing industry generally: poor management and marketing; a financial system which makes long-term financing difficult to procure; a hunt for quick profits; and a government which can never make up its mind. This would not, in fact, deny the truth of much of what the authors argue, nor that Scottish capital had marked peculiarities: but it helps to explain the awkward fact that the Tyne and the Furness are now as derelict as the Clyde.

But Foster and Woolfson are concerned with the work-force as well as the capitalists. They see the work-in as a spontaneous manifestation of working-class political capacity, a rebellion against a timid trade-union bureaucracy as much as against the bosses. Certainly the work-in was initially conducted with élan and discipline; thereafter it inevitably degenerated, not least because of inter-union rivalries. But they do imply that in this spontaneity lay some sort of ‘alternative’. Yet the only alternative to bankruptcy was ‘corporative’ policies and the most reliable instrument of these was a Labour government. In practice, that is the alternative Scotland has chosen: the success of the Labour Party there in riding the crisis of the last few years marks Scotland off from both England and Wales. It may, however, be true that the 1983 Election temporarily concealed a similar development in those two countries. One of the noticeable features of the 1979 Election was the way in which the openly state-dependent areas of the British economy remained loyal to Labour despite everything. The more tacitly state-dependent parts of the economy, like the West Midlands motor industry, were not prepared to pay the price: in consequence they paid a higher one. UCS, like all British shipbuilding, was on the skids anyway: how far it slid depended on the electoral success of the Labour Party. This is not a view that Foster and Woolfson would take.

David Howell is concerned with a similar theme: how can we reconcile nationality and socialism? Howell, prompted by the Falklands War (and understandably made more depressed by ‘the sodden summer of 1985’), has tried to answer the question by an examination of the careers of three men whom history has marginalised: James Connolly, Irish socialist executed for his part in the Easter Rebellion, John Maclean, idiosyncratic Scottish revolutionary socialist, and John Wheatley, an ILP’er from Glasgow and Minister of Health in the first Labour government. Like Foster and Woolfson, Howell is concerned with historical potentiality never realised, and is anxious to argue that the losers need not necessarily have lost. He is the author of two important books on the Labour movement, one of them very distinguished. This study is not, however, in the same class. The essay on Wheatley is perfunctory while Maclean is simply too insubstantial a figure to bear the weight of the problem Howell has imposed on him. Half the book is devoted to Connolly. This is itself defensible, though probably not as it has been done, as history of ideas. Connolly was a brave and generous figure but no thinker, and many of the difficulties he got himself into were the result of muddleheadedness. Howell rightly asks why the most important result of the Dublin strikes was Connolly’s alliance with Pearse. But no socialist or trade-unionist should have got mixed up with Pearse. We might argue that Connolly’s involvement in the 1916 uprising was the result of an understandable desperation – anything to get Ireland out of the war – but it is hard to see what general conclusions we can draw from it. It is possible that Wheatley, at least, represented a ‘suppressed alternative’ in Scotland, but the alternative Connolly represented to Ireland was so suppressed as to be historically impossible.

It is one of the many merits of Martin Adeney and John Lloyd’s excellent The Miners’ Strike that it, too, has a strong sense of history. As it needs to, since so many of the actors in the 1984-85 miners’ strike were all too conscious of their historical role: Mrs Thatcher and the Government almost obsessed with the fate of the Heath ministry; Mr Scargill constantly preoccupied with 1926 and A. J. Cook; the TUC likewise; and everyone with the Nottinghamshire Miners’ first secession from the national union in the 1920s. Adeney and Lloyd have written a most satisfying account, not simply of the strike itself, but of its broad social and political context. They have had access to the diaries of some leading participants, and have skilfully used oral evidence. The only participants, they note, who refused to talk to them were the two prima donnas, Scargill and MacGregor. Furthermore, their evidence is fairly distributed: everyone comes out better than one remembered him/her, with the exception perhaps of some of the pickets. There is much inside information and a number of curious individuals come to light: among them, David Hart, a libertarian millionaire who saw the dispute in apocalyptic terms, played an important part in organising and (apparently) financing the working miners’ litigation, exercised a strong ideological influence on Mr MacGregor and, astonishingly, ‘issued orders in MacGregor’s name’ when the NCB Chairman was abroad. They make a bold attempt at understanding the puzzling figure of Scargill. Though in terms of the strike’s immediate aims his leadership was clearly a failure, they are probably right in arguing that to him the ‘fight’ and a politicised work-force were as important as whether pits were closed or not. It is a strong picture they paint of a kind of industrial Bonapartist, endlessly watching videotapes of himself but unable to risk a legitimating plebiscite. They are right also to say that the Government was more adept than the NUM. Indeed, Mr Walker and Mrs Thatcher among the principals seem the only ones with any political sensitivity – neither Scargill nor MacGregor had it. How successfully the Government camouflaged its directing role is, however, debatable. The appointment of MacGregor was a public act and he was to do rather maladroitly what his predecessor, Sir Norman Siddall, was doing by stealth – and he was to do it very publicly, as he was expected to. The hand of the Government was brutally clear, for example, in the DHSS’s decision to ‘deem’ that the miners were receiving £15-a-week strike pay – they were receiving nothing – and reduce social security payments to their families accordingly. My impression is that for most people the NCB and the Government were the same thing.

There are only two areas in which Adeney and Lloyd might have gone further. They still find it hard to explain why so many miners supported Scargill (and still do) and were prepared to go so far to confirm their support. And, though they note it, they do not emphasise enough how crucial to government policy is a slow-growing, semi-depressed economy. If Scargill boxed himself in, so has the Prime Minister.

Tony Parker’s Red Hill is an absorbing collective memoir of the miners’ strike. ‘Red Hill’ is a Durham mining village, whose mine has since closed, and Parker has brought together a representative array of reminiscences: of miners for the strike; their wives; a couple against; a Coal Board official; and members of the community. They appear to be edited tapes, though as with others of his books, like Soldier, Soldier, the author discloses no principle of editing. The unedited tapes (if, indeed, they are edited) might read differently. Furthermore, a similarly representative collection from Nottinghamshire, say, would lead the reader in the opposite direction. Still, this is a remarkable book which all should read who wish to understand why so many miners gave Arthur Scargill such strong support – particularly those who, like me, think Scargill’s behaviour was almost completely mistaken. The book is prefaced by two of Mrs Thatcher’s and Mr MacGregor’s more deplorable remarks, and they prepare the ground.

What is clear from Parker’s tapes is the way in which the movement of events seemed to the miners to confirm Scargill’s predictions. Whether he ever had the famous ‘secret list’ of closures I do not know, but the manner in which the NCB denied closures, then leaked names, then retracted leaks, then issued assurances and then closed mines (like ‘Red Hill’) simply entrenched the position of the President. ‘Red Hill’ was a mine for which until five years ago the NCB was actually recruiting; miners were being encouraged or coerced into buying their houses; and the redundancy payments were always linked to length of service. Thus the Government was actually encouraging miners to stay where they were while simultaneously preparing to close their mine. And they were so deflating the economy that alternative employment for younger men was disappearing by the month. Parker’s tapes powerfully evoke the miners’ outrage, the more so because they and their wives understate it. Most bitter are those women who compare their children’s life-chances with those of the offspring of moralising Conservative ministers. What would the Prime Minister’s twins be doing if they had been born in ‘Red Hill’? Parker’s book should be prescribed for the Cabinet Office, though of course it won’t be.

Philip Bassett’s Strike Free is also a product of the miners’ strike. Bassett, Labour Editor of the Financial Times, sees it, together with the rapid decline in manufacturing employment, as emblematic of Britain’s problems. His book has a couple of good chapters on the political and industrial implications of this decline. The heart of it is the unions’ reaction to this – in particular, the electricians’ union (EETPU) and its secretary, Eric Hammond. The EETPU has adapted to circumstances with notorious speed, whether at Wapping or in South Wales, and Bassett has much interesting material on the strike-free packages which the EETPU offers and which Japanese industrialists want. At the moment only a very small part of British industry is covered by such agreements, but as Japanese capital becomes more preponderant they are likely to multiply, the more so as Japanese industry, unlike some American, is prepared to recognise unions. This is a useful book which helps familiarise the reader with a terminology that will probably become pretty common. Bassett is rightly cautious about the prospects for no-strike agreements, but he will no doubt have noticed that the AEU, which had already signed such an agreement with Nissan, has now signed another no-strike, single-union, pendulum-arbitration agreement with Komatsu. The employers hold the whip hand at present and for unions who get in quick there could be rich pickings.

Possibly, as Bassett believes, traditional collective bargaining is played out, but we should not rush to its funeral. It takes two sides to abandon it. As he points out, Mrs Thatcher greeted the unions’ ‘new realism’ with the GCHQ coup which set back harmonious relations several light-years, and the new agreements have been signed almost exclusively with Japanese and American industry. Whether British employers want single status is more doubtful: a battery of discriminatory perks has always been regarded by British management as its due.

The other problem is political. An assertive trade union movement has always been part of that free pluralism which has given Britain exceptional political stability. Docile trade unions might be good for industry but they are not good at resisting authoritarian systems, and in a country with almost no institutional or judicial restraints on authority, rendering the unions docile is something we should undertake only with great care. The countries we now look to for a new model of industrial relations have had calamitous political histories. The defeat of the miners might have achieved economic wonders but politically it was almost certainly not worthwhile.