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.

Interviewed by the BBC, Frank Chapple was asked whether he wasn’t ashamed of the misery his workers were causing. Not a bit of it, he said: here was a government which had told everyone to stand on their own two feet, and that was what his members were doing. Governments which left everything to the free play of market forces could hardly turn round and complain that the workers weren’t paying attention to ‘the national interest’, whatever that might be. In his memoirs Jim Prior says of the power workers’ go-slow that most people thought the Government had ‘handled things firmly and well’: in fact, the Government had received a bloody nose. An important side-effect was that the power workers had incidentally half-frightened themselves to death by the discovery that they could do so much damage so quickly: ever since, they have been inhibited about doing it. But the speed with which the Government had to give in did nothing to encourage moderation among other union leaders.

Heath’s initial advocacy of ‘stand on your own two feet,’ and his subsequent retreat into incomes policies and large-scale government intervention in pay negotiations, was exactly the wrong strategy to pursue. It was a recipe for encouraging extremism in all directions; within the Cabinet itself, it set Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs Thatcher to dreaming of what might have been achieved but for weakness of will and a tendency to U-turns; in the country it made the most moderate union leaders wonder what they might get by flexing their muscles. The Government failed to get public opinion on its side, having told thoroughly contradictory stories about its economic intentions, nor did it have any weapons up its sleeve when battle was finally joined. It might have succeeded in winning the voters’ hearts and minds on the issue of ‘who governs Britain?’, and it might have won their confidence by keeping the industrial peace. It did neither.

Jim Prior’s account of all this is much kinder to Heath than the facts seem to warrant, but is otherwise sharp, shrewd, funny and convincing. Many winners – Ian MacGregor among them – have told the story of their triumphs less good-humouredly than Prior retails the record of his defeats, and if Prior is too kind to Heath’s prime ministerial record, his cautiously affectionate account of Heath’s private and political personality is among the many pleasures of A Balance of Power. Prior puts much of the blame for the industrial relations disasters of the Heath Government on Sir Geoffrey Howe rather than on Heath himself: it was Howe who insisted on trying to rebuild the entire edifice of industrial relations by imposing a legal framework which neither the employers nor the unions wished to touch with a bargepole. Indeed, Howe wanted to repeat the mistake in 1980 when Prior was at Employment and trying to edge forward as gently as possible.

It is true that the effect of Howe’s industrial relations legislation was catastrophic, but that was not so much the result of its being ‘legalistic’ as of its being widely recognised as unfair, hasty and misconceived. Moreover, it was the product of a government which was ideologically schizophrenic: half-heartedly intent on pulling the Government out of everyday economic management, half-heartedly hoping to operate by way of the consensual corporatism classically described by Keith Middlemas. The half-heartedness extended to the way the Government fought and lost the February 1974 Election. Where it might well have retained power if it had stuck to the issue of ‘who governs Britain?’ – which would have meant refusing to have anything to do with the NUM for the duration of the election campaign, and keeping well away from attempts to settle the strike – the Government maddened the electorate by producing the notorious report on relativities which suggested that the miners could have had more money all along without breaching the Government’s prices and incomes policy, and therefore, of course, suggested that the miners’ strike was not an illegitimate use of industrial muscle for political ends but a government bungle.

As many commentators have noticed, however – and as Prior himself more than half-accepts – what mainly enabled the Government and the Coal Board to defeat in 1984-5 the tactics which had given victory to the miners in 1972 was not the industrial relations and employment legislation put through by Prior and Tebbit. The NUM leadership, or perhaps Arthur Scargill in particular, had concluded from the famous battle of Saltley cokeworks in 1972 that mass picketing was an unbeatable weapon; its failure at the Grunwick works and at Eddie Shah’s Warrington printworks hadn’t made very much impact. Miners, after all, were even tougher and more determined than printworkers, let alone a lot of Asian film processors. Jim Prior recalls the moment the Cabinet were told about Saltley. Reggie Maudling had begun the meeting by assuring them that the Chief Constable of Birmingham was ready and able to keep the works open: half-way through came the bad news that the Police had been overrun and had withdrawn. A government which knew already that it was short of fuel to start the power stations lost its nerve and turned once more to Wilberforce – who gave the miners 22 per cent and broke the Government’s heart. Like the planners who built the Maginot Line, the miners fought the last war: they tried to win in 1984-5 by the mass picketing which had worked so well in 1972. They gave the Government too little credit for being able to learn from experience. The one thing that was clear in 1984 was that mass picketing was not going to be permitted to shut down anything – neither a steel plant, nor a coking plant, nor a power station, nor a pit where working miners wanted to work.

Power in the coal industry hung on a long-drawn-out scrum. Pickets pushed one way, the police pushed back. It was good fun for fit men, though God help anyone who fell underneath such a scrimmage, and it turned ugly when pickets who saw they were never going to win started to break the rules of the game and began to chuck rocks, to spread nails on the roads to injure horses, and to intimidate the families of working miners. The Police Federation bitterly resented its members being used in this way, but the decision to resist by weight of bodies rather than by jailing half the leadership of the NUM paid off handsomely.

The legislation introduced by Jim Prior in 1980 and by Norman Tebbit in 1982 later played a part, but it was – just as Howe’s earlier legislation had been – no use as a primary weapon. The legislation introduced by Prior, and added to by Norman Tebbit in 1982, has made secondary action harder – by curtailing picketing away from the workers’ own place of work, and by removing the protection which was previously enjoyed by strike action taken in sympathy with another, unconnected dispute. The miners engaged in secondary picketing in 1972 and 1974 and in 1984-5. In 1984-5, such action was for the first time vulnerable to injunctions taken out by affected businesses, the worst affected of which were British Rail, the Central Electricity Generating Board and the British Steel Corporation. The National Coal Board itself could plainly have secured any number of injunctions against the National Union of Miners for picketing away from the place of work: indeed, its first reaction to the strike was to go for just such an injunction to prevent Yorkshire miners picketing in Nottinghamshire.

But the Government had at last learned that legal action taken by nationalised industries was bound to be perceived as ‘the Government’ employing the courts to do down the unions. It had discovered that private employers could use the legislation most effectively, as Eddie Shah had used it the year before against the previously invulnerable National Graphical Association. Moreover, the evidence of 1983 was that the TUC neither could, nor much wanted to try to, deliver sympathetic action by unaffected unions, in support of their more militant colleagues. The Government therefore knew that their great aim must be to avoid providing the NUM with any issue on which other unions would be bound to support them. So the injunction which the NCB got from Mr Justice Nolan on 14 March 1984 was ignored by the Yorkshire miners at whom it was directed, and their breach was – after some more aggressive first thoughts – ignored by the NCB. Neither the British Steel Corporation nor the Central Electricity Generating Board reached for the weapon of injunctions or writs for contempt of court – which enabled the Government to get away with its splendidly implausible claim not to be involved. Later on, as small firms and working miners sought declarations that the strike was unlawful – did so ‘spontaneously’, says MacGregor, or orchestrated by MacGregor’s Svengali David Hart, as others say – the new legislation demoralised the union, complicated its affairs, made its leaders look shifty as they tried to evade the sequestrators. But the two main battles owed nothing to it. In the physical battle for control of pits, power stations and the rest, the pickets were defeated by organisation and by sheer push and shove; the psychological battle for public opinion had gone against the unions over many years. This was revealed most brutally by the lorry-drivers. When the leaders of the transport workers tried to stop their members delivering the coal the railways could not carry, they discovered to their surprise that the ideological sympathies of their rank and file lay with the Government rather than with their own leadership.

Public opinion was crucial throughout. If pits and power stations were to be kept working, they had to be kept working in the teeth of mass picketing, and union members had to be weaned away from sympathy with striking miners. MacGregor paints a vivid but pretty peculiar picture of his own role in regaining ‘the right to manage’. In writing The Enemies Within MacGregor has been assisted by Robert Tyler, late of the tabloid press, but my guess is that the strange mixture of Zane Grey Western and Harvard Business School management-speak which MacGregor’s ghost employs in place of English prose accurately reflects his employer’s mode of thought. At all events, Sir Ian seems unable to make up his mind whether he was a harmless industrialist confronted by madmen or an anti-revolutionary crusader whose time had come. The evidence of his career at Amax, at least as presented here, is inconclusive. One side of that career suggests that the NUM’s view that he had come to butcher the mining industry was just wrong. His natural instincts were all expansionist, and at Amax he had been a rip-roaring success precisely because he had pretty much gone round the world adding iron ore, bauxite and coal mines to the stack of copper, zinc, lead and potash mines he’d begun with at a time of high demand and buoyant commodity prices. On the other hand, his recollections of America also concentrate pretty heavily on his union-busting achievements. He gives a high-spirited account of how he made sure the Union of Mineworkers was driven out of his Wyoming mines with the aid of a ‘real red-blooded Western sheriff’ and ‘a nice orderly old American lawyer righteously concerned for the good name of Gillette County’. He complains of the way the British ‘seemed to accept the totalitarianism of the left’ and sighs for the presence of ‘some of my scruffy, sometimes ill-disciplined, sometimes loudmouthed American police by my side in this country and some of the curious ways of the law to back them up’.

As in all the best legends, he and his chief enemy seemed to be matched by fate. Scargill was, and remains, a revolutionary. From the moment he was elected President of the NUM he was looking for an issue on which to hang an essentially political strike, and in the nature of things, it was unlikely that he would always fail to find one. In the end he led his troops to destruction: he split the NUM, cost it 70 per cent of its assets, broke the Triple Alliance of coal, steel and rail unions, and failed to stop or slow down the contraction of the coal industry. After the strike, productivity is at last reaching the levels promised in the Plan for Coal, but as oil prices slump and demand for energy remains low, manpower is being shed relentlessly. Even in Kent, miners are voting in favour of closures. Scargill himself remains oddly unabashed, convinced that it was a glorious victory – but then Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Lawson believe they have done great things for the British economy, so he is hardly the only public figure to suffer such delusions.

MacGregor’s memoirs are persuasive in one crucial respect. They lend no support at all to the idea that the NUM was ‘set up’ for an unwinnable strike. It is true that Mrs Thatcher had been enraged by having to give way to the NUM in February 1981, when Sir Derek Ezra’s – reluctant – plans for pit closures provoked Joe Gormley into threatening a strike ballot which he could plainly have won. The Government thereafter took care to build up stocks of essential chemicals as well as coal at power stations, did its sums about the possibility of switching to oil if coal supplies were stopped, and got to the point where they thought that under favourable conditions a strike of three months might be coped with. The idea that ministers positively wanted a strike and appointed MacGregor to bring it on is, however, absurd: the policy of pit closures which MacGregor implemented had largely been decided on under Norman Siddall – and if he had not been too ill to continue as Chairman of the NCB, there would have been no question of appointing MacGregor at all. Given the constant threat of strike action issuing from the NUM, any government which had not thought hard about how to make sure that any strike was fought on favourable ground would have been guilty of gross dereliction of duty. On the other hand, everything we always thought about how nearly MacGregor came to handing victory to the miners by alienating the craftsmen of the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers turns out to be true. MacGregor’s retrospective account goes on at some length about how the pit deputies were encouraged to be bolshie by governmental nervousness, but ends by admitting that the diplomatic skills of Ned Smith were what saved his – MacGregor’s – bacon. It goes without saying that other participants in the event which led up to the threat of a NACODS strike in September 1984 have different recollections of whose feet were colder than whose.

It is so easy to get carried away by the moments when a protracted struggle breaks out into overt warfare that larger issues and longer-term shifts in public opinion, and the balance of social and political power, get ignored. The miners’ strike proved that there is little enthusiasm for insurrectionary politics in this country – but that was hardly news to anyone save Messrs Scargill and Benn. What it did not settle, and what is still the most important subject on the agenda, is what the pattern of industrial relations is to be for the rest of the century. That British managers have by no means plumped for rip-roaring capitalism is evident enough; paying wage rises of 7 ½ per cent against an inflation rate of 2½ per cent is very visibly a recipe for declining competitiveness, a declining exchange rate and another round of stagflation. Mrs Thatcher’s desire to rebuild the British future in the image of Reaganite capitalist America may have impressed Brian Walden, and it has certainly depressed the Trade Union movement no end: but its impact on managerial behaviour is harder to detect. Nor is there much reason to expect anything else: there are many more successful economies in the world than the British economy – some of them more nearly laissez-faire capitalist than it, some of them much more corporatist and consensualist. Foreign observers do not speak with one voice on the deficiencies which make Britain economically sluggish, inflation-prone, and balance-of-payments disaster-prone: some see the cause in a rigid class-structure, some in an ineffectual, unvocational education system, others in a national inability to get together and agree on how to divide the national cake. MacGregor is shocked by the unambitiousness of the British worker, but is so beset by paranoid fantasies of one sort and another that the only explanation he can find for it is the wickedness of British trade-union leaders. Jim Prior doesn’t like hard-faced men and would obviously like a world in which the NEDC set targets for output and wages, and employers and workers stuck to them like good children; being rather more sophisticated than MacGregor, he is not entirely surprised that Mrs Thatcher has won and he and his friends have not – but he hasn’t much to say about what the sociologists might describe as the structural determinants of the possibility of her success. There’s much to be said for the view that the Britain economy would thrive either as a clone of American capitalism, or as a clone of West German consensual capitalism: but a decisive turn in either direction is the last thing the British social, economic and political system seems likely to take. The national fate seems to be to suffer the costs of incomplete social experiments without reaping the benefits – not so much muddling through as muddling under.