Up until the 1970s, Trades Unions exercised considerable power: they contributed to the downfall of Sailor Heath’s Government, and there was a widespread perception that they were more powerful even than elected politicians. One cover of Private Eye from the 70s shows the late Clive Jenkins being asked when the next General Election is going to be. Jenkins replies “I haven’t decided yet”.
The Unique Selling Point of Labour Governments at this time was that they alone could work together with the Unions. That is, until the “Winter of Discontent”, when the Union movement shot itself in the foot with some style: there were widespread strikes on the watch of Jim Callaghan, and Margaret Thatcher profited enough from the fallout to get a comfortable Commons majority in 1979.
Thatcher had been in Heath’s cabinet when the miners and power workers had gone on strike, resulting in a General Election being called in the midst of power blackouts and a three day working week. Here was another example of her vindictive streak: this lot were going to have their noses rubbed in it. Union reform, unlike the all-at-once approach which had proved the undoing of the Heath administration, was enacted one step at a time, to make it look less threatening and keep opposition to a minimum. And any confrontation was avoided until the time was right.
So when the miners threatened a strike in 1981 over proposed pit closures, more money was found for the industry, despite spending cuts elsewhere. Some said that this showed Thatcher respected miners’ leader Joe Gormley. They were talking out of the backs of their necks. She hated Gormley as much as the rest of them. The problem in 1981 was that she was not yet strong enough to carry public opinion, there wasn’t enough coal at the power stations to withstand a long strike, and legislation on picketing wasn’t yet in place.
Gormley was later succeeded by Arthur Scargill, giving Thatcher allies in the media a convenient hate figure. And after the “Falklands Election” of 1983, the Tories were stronger. Coal stocks at power stations were piled up, more Union legislation was put on the statute book, and then the provocation was engineered: Ian MacGregor was appointed head of the National Coal Board (NCB) and pit closures started.
The ensuing strike lasted almost a year, and the miners lost. Many got into debt as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) did not have the resources to make payments to them, and entitlement to state benefits had been cut. Mining communities became islands of chronic unemployment; many moved out to find work elsewhere. Margaret Thatcher didn’t care: she had her victory. The Unions were effectively, from this point on, a busted flush.
And there were many more without jobs in the 1980s. I’ll look at the economics next.