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.

Why the public has not responded in the way the Government clearly hoped it would is something of a puzzle, as is the Government’s sudden loss of popularity a few months ago. In the case of the strikes, there are probably a number of immediate reasons. The first is the apparent inconsistency in the Government’s attitudes. I doubt whether anyone seriously believes now (if they ever did) that it is ‘non-interventionist’. It is plain even to the most naive that the dock ‘employers’ did not act on their own, and it is now known or widely assumed that BR’s first offer was in effect dictated by the Treasury. The Government’s claim, therefore, that it is entirely neutral, has no policy, leaves things to the market, is simply contradicted by the evidence. And despite the reluctance to disclose such evidence on the part of the papers the public normally reads, it does seem to have leaked out.

Another reason is the state of the railways and of public services generally. The public is now more likely to be discommoded by cancelled services or breaking-down trains than they are by strikes. With a strike you know where you are: you are not usually dumped in a halt half-way between where you left and where you want to go. This means, I suspect, that people have a different view from what they had ten years ago. It was then widely held – in part, correctly – that the railways were oversubsidised and overmanned, and that strikes were engineered by people who were already paid more than they deserved. It is now more likely to be held that they are undersubsidised and undermanned, and that strikers are not the enemy but fellow victims. The well-advertised unreliability and increasing dereliction of our public services has for the moment deflected hostility from the Unions towards the Government. This is a powerful weapon in the hands of the Unions, though it is one they should use with care.

There was a time, within the living memory of much of the public, when abroad was vacated with relief and home was where things worked, not least the sanitation. Nowadays, however, abroad must induce very different reflections. Anyone with half an eye can see what a mean and run-down little country Britain has become: what do the Daily Mail readers who set out at Victoria and alight at the Gare du Nord think of the miracle as they pass from one public sector to another? Presumably, for many people, the Continent is now a place where the phones work and where you can eat the food and drink the water.

There is another way in which the Government has been confounded by its own rhetoric. It is now virtually impossible for it to appeal to ideals of service or to the professional ethic. No government has been more contemptuous of these ideals than the present one, and a party which is, in Kenneth Baker’s words, the party of ‘acquisitive individualism’ is in no position to tell railwaymen that they are there not to strike for more money but to serve the public. That was the high tone adopted by the Prime Minister early on, but she cannot have been surprised when many dismissed this as self-serving hypocrisy. And it is not just the unemployed who believe that ministers are now ‘out of touch’, or who think that the closest Mrs Thatcher gets to the problems of public transport is when her Jaguar gets stuck in a traffic jam.

Why should someone who has so often promoted herself as tribune of the public so obviously risk alienating it? If we assume for the moment that the idea of the public is in some senses the same as the idea of the middle classes the answer is simple. Mrs Thatcher and those who think like her have fundamentally misconceived the relationship between the middle classes and the state. The rather primitive Ratepayer Conservatism she herself represents entails such a contorted view of the state that those who subscribe to it are incapable of understanding the extent to which an effective and adequately funded public sector is necessary to British middle-class life. The middle classes not only use the public transport system disproportionately: they also have access to a huge ‘middle-class’ welfare state. To Mrs Thatcher the welfare state is exclusively for the working classes (or what she thinks is left of them), a means whereby they batten upon the public. Attacks on the welfare state are thus thought doubly efficacious: they are a harmless way of cutting public expenditure – its beneficiaries being a helpless, dependent minority – and they are a useful technique of electoral mobilisation. But since 1945 the middle classes have also battened pretty voraciously on the welfare state, and of this the present government seems almost completely unaware. The Attlee Government was very careful not to means-test much of the welfare system created after the Second World War, and it is the very access to the welfare state which was permitted to the middle classes which makes the Government’s decision to freeze child benefit for the third year running, for example, so unpopular – even with some Conservative MPs. Above all, the NHS is an essential element of the middle-class welfare system, as popular with them as it is with anyone else. The burden of private health insurance weighed heavily on the inter-war middle classes and was a permanent grievance. That the Daily Mail in 1919 could define the middle classes as those who come below the peerage but who do not have national insurance cards suggests just what a grievance it was. The NHS was the great middle-class gain of the Forties and to hint, as the Mail did (and also the Express), that private insurance would once again be intruded into the system involved a colossal miscalculation. The belief, clearly held in the Government and in the Tory press, that the NHS (‘the last stronghold of socialism’) could be subjected to the same kind of ideological attack as the Trade Unions or loonie left-wing councils emphasises how little Mrs Thatcher and her supporters know about the lives of their own constituency. Doctors and nurses are widely admired in this country, much more admired than Conservative politicians, as these politicians are now finding out.

The middle-class welfare system is, of course, not merely a national affair: there is a local government equivalent. Just as the middle classes disproportionately use public transport and the great museums, so they disproportionately exploit the facilities of local government. But it is a fixed Ratepayer view (passionately held) that, even more than the welfare state, local government is a paradise of scroungers and profligates, a paradise made possible by the iniquities of the rates. Most Conservative Associations are not much more than foyers where affronted ratepayers meet to exchange grievances and hard-luck stories – and it is from this subterranean world the poll tax emerged. The Government, assisted by a number of Labour councils and an unscrupulous press, has done quite well hitherto by exploiting this view. But is is a notorious fact that public libraries, swimming-pools, public parks, cultural amenities like the National Gallery or the V and A, are more important for the middle than for the working classes – and the middle classes have been the first to complain about their obvious deterioration over the last ten years. I would not be surprised if the large Green vote in the European elections were not, in part, a consequence of this.

It is possible, however, that there is a more fundamental reason why the Government has misjudged the reaction of the public to the NUR strike, as to its non-spending policies: and that is the ‘winter of discontent’, the public sector strikes of 1978-79. Those strikes, and the memory that many of us think we have of them, were essential in the construction of an ideological Thatcherism. Those were the strikes which filled the Fleet Street intelligentsia with panic; it was then that the ‘siege economy’, the ‘East European state’, and James Callaghan as the Janos Kadar of the West, emerged as incontestable facts. It was then that we discovered that Britain was ungovernable – or worse, that Britain was being governed, but by the Trade Unions. Furthermore, the Unions were not (so the argument goes) simply trying to protect their members’ wages at a time when everyone else was doing the same thing as best they could: they were making unconstitutional political claims, were suborning the Government, and demanding powers for which they could have no electoral mandate. Trade-union activity (or ‘militancy’, as both its admirers and opponents called it) thus threatened both state and society – if you like, the public.

The Fleet Street view was not entirely without truth. There were many in the Labour Movement, particularly on what became the Bennite wing, who hoped it would be true and there were a number of trade-union leaders who misunderstood events and irresponsibly acted as if it did not matter what happened to the Labour Party or to the national economy as a result. This interpretation of me ‘winter of discontent’ provided powerful ideological legitimacy to Mrs Thatcher’s government. Many supported her and continue to support her – most readers of this journal will know otherwise sensible persons whose trump card is ‘well, at least we are not being run by the trade unions’ – because they believe the Fleet Street view. Ten years on it has the same capacity to evoke panic: on 11 July the Independent, the true voice of bien-pensant upper-middle-class opinion, spoke of that ‘nightmarish era’ in condemning the behaviour today of the NUR.

It was also instrumental in determining the future behaviour of the Government. It convinced ministers (if they had ever thought anything else) that all you would need to do to ‘transform’ the economy was to attack the Trade Unions and reduce government expenditure. Its policies have therefore been largely irrelevant to the needs of the economy, or actually harmful, and such gains as have been made have been either accidental or the result of international circumstances. It also established the typical pattern of the Government’s electoral technique – one of repeated mobilisation of the public against its supposed enemies, who are usually trade unions, but can also be teachers, dons, local government workers or officials, or, a more recent invention, the Marxists in Brussels. Legislation has an important function here. It is not really about what it claims to be about: education acts which are not about education; endless local government acts which are not about local government; industrial relations acts whose aim is not to establish a settled system of industrial relations. Legislation, on the contrary, has become a kind of punitive running commentary on what Mrs Thatcher imagines to be the electoral needs of the Conservative Party. Even now, unless an amendment from the House of Lords is accepted, tens of thousands of our fellow citizens will be deprived of their most elementary political rights simply because they work for local government. Thus Mrs Thatcher’s first reaction to the NUR strike was characteristic – change the law, despite the fact that the law has been changed countless times since 1979.

If the public has not reacted in the expected way, Mrs Thatcher might understandably be surprised. The modern Conservative Party has always been an anti-trade union coalition and has consistently posed as a defender of the public interest. Nonetheless, the winter of discontent might be a bad guide, because the received interpretation is in part wrong. There is, first of all, the danger of over-reaction: the events of the last few weeks in no way approximate to that ‘nightmarish era’, and people who use blunderbusses to shoot butterflies usually have their faces blown off. There is also the danger of exaggeration: though the strikes of 78-79 were real enough, the extent to which the public was inconvenienced was at the time greatly inflated by the press. The experience of each individual was probably less horrendous than collective representations suggest. And as a further complication it should be noted that many of the strikers, particularly in the West Midlands, voted Conservative in 1979 for the very reasons they struck in the first place. Above all, if the strikes were a response to ‘objective’ economic conditions and not a challenge to the existing order, then the attitude of the public to the strikers is likely to have been more ambiguous than Mrs Thatcher supposes. The main internal cause of the strikes was the monetary policy of the Heath Government of which Mrs Thatcher was an uncomplaining member, and that suggests a different sort of public reaction. In 1974, Mr Heath made the same kind of appeal as Mrs Thatcher has been making today, and it is pretty clear that the public was not much impressed: largely, one might think, because it held Mr Heath ultimately responsible for the miners’ strike. Mrs Thatcher has convinced herself that the absence of strikes in the last ten years has been effected by a political and moral revolution. More likely it has been due to the long-term effects of the recession of 1979 and to low rates of international inflation: ‘objective’ economic conditions, that is to say. But if these economic conditions change, then we are back where we started: the political and moral revolution is seen to be non-existent. In this case, the public’s reaction is by no means predictable: at the moment it seems to be behaving as it did in 1974 rather than as it is supposed to have done in 1978-79.

Thatcherism as an ideological and economic system will almost certainly fail. The hopeless confusion of ends and means, the destructive tensions between its different strategies and the utterly utopian nature of the whole venture will see to that. But it will not fade away: in its deliquescence it may be as formidable as in its salad days. It has many weapons it can yet deploy – not least, the suicidal tendencies of the Labour Party. But it will be deluding itself if it believes that the ‘public’, as whose champion Mrs Thatcher has presented herself, can always be rallied as it has been in the recent past. The evidence suggests that it is as unstable as the government which covets its support.