[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Aftermath of Defeat

The period after 1985 was an extremely difficult one. The tragedy of the miners’ defeat had a profound effect on the working class. “If the miners can’t win, what chance do we have?” became a familiar refrain. The feeling of despair and betrayal served to undermine the confidence of important layers of the working class. The defeat constituted a terrific blow, which took the wind out of the trade union activists, causing a layer to drift into inactivity or even abandon the movement in demoralisation. Some, even on the left, started to look to their own careers, and slid over to the position of the right-wing bureaucracy. This in turn reinforced the shift to the right in the trade unions that had begun in 1982, and was expressed in the ideology of “New Realism”, or class collaboration to give it its correct name.

The miners’ strike had taken place against the beginnings of a general shift to the right within the movement. The swing to the left in the 1970s and early 1980s had reached its limits. Britain’s victory in the Falklands’ war under Thatcher, culminating in the Tory election victory in 1983, served to push the situation (underpinned by the economic revival) to the right. Scargill, whose name was identified in the popular imagination with the idea of militant class struggle, was vilified in the capitalist press. Labour leader Neil Kinnock joined in the chorus, describing Arthur Scargill as “the Labour movement’s nearest equivalent to a first world war general.” The old tune that “militancy never pays” became the constant refrain of the capitalists and their shadows in the Labour movement.

This situation had a dampening effect on the class struggle, exacerbated by high unemployment that made workers fearful of their jobs. By the end of 1985 unemployment stood officially at almost 3.2 million, or 13.2 per cent, but the real figure was well over 4 million. This economic climate, combined with the miners’ defeat and the attitude of the trade union leaders served to generate a general feeling of despondency in the unions. By contrast the capitalists and their Tory representatives were jubilant. “Britain is enjoying its most strike-free year for nearly fifty years,” boasted Tory Employment Minister, Kenneth Clarke.

Ever since the victory of Eddy Shah at Warrington, the TUC had capitulated in face of the Tory anti-union laws. They imagined that their moderation would make the bosses more amenable, but the opposite was the case. As the old adage states, weakness invites aggression. Buoyed up by the backsliding of the union leaders, the employers rushed to use the law courts whenever they felt threatened. Injunctions were issued against strikers at Shell and then against the National Union of Journalists in a dispute with T. Bailey Foreman, the printers of Dimbleby’s newspapers.

In the latter case, the courts proclaimed that the union was in breach of the law. It said the dispute was with Foreman, which refused to employ NUJ members, and not with TBF Ltd, despite the fact that the company controlled both, with exactly the same directors and shareholders. In late 1984, the TGWU ignored an injunction for failing to call a secret ballot at Austin Rover and was fined £200,000. A survey found a total of 70 cases had been brought before the courts by August 1985, the vast majority under the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts. By 1985, a third of the cases emanated from employers in printing and publishing. The courts were issuing injunctions at the drop of a hat, usually within 24-hours, in some cases without union representatives being present. Astonishingly, between 1979 and 1987, 29 trade unions, comprising more than 80 per cent of the TUC’s affiliated membership, had appeared before the courts for breaking the Tories’ anti-union laws.[1]

The Thatcher government was determined to claw back all the reforms conquered in the past by the working class. The Tories were determined to restore the rate of profitability of British capitalism, and part of this plan was their attack on local government and local authority spending. New rate-capping legislation was introduced to squeeze local authority spending, resulting in massive cuts. In 1984, these attacks resulted in Labour councils collectively adopting a policy of “non compliance” with the Tories’ legislation, a policy whole-heartedly endorsed by Labour party conference. However, in practice this defiance remained largely verbal. As an aside, it is ironic that John Prescott is today threatening councils with “rate-capping”, in face of a 60 per cent rise in council tax since Labour came to power.

Within twelve months, only two councils remained true to the original policy: Liverpool and Lambeth. Kinnock, the Labour leader and former Left, came forward with a policy of capitulation: the so-called “dented shield”, which instead of openly defying the Tory government, urged Labour councils to try to soften the impact of Tory cuts. The only thing this policy shielded however was the failure of the leadership to defend its supporters. At the 1985 party conference, under the pressure of the capitalist media, Kinnock launched a vitriolic attack on Liverpool city council and its Militant leadership. This episode marked a further shift to the right, the abandonment of previous left policies, and an acceleration of the witch-hunt within the Labour party. The following year saw the expulsion of Derek Hatton and the Liverpool Militant city councillors. Although these comrades had retained overwhelming support from the Liverpool working class, and won every democratic election they stood for, they were later surcharged and subsequently removed from public office, not by the electorate, but by unelected Tory judges.

On the trade union front, the retreat of the TUC leadership continued with its failure to sustain the boycott of Tory government funds for union ballots. By February 1986, a TUC Special conference voted to drop the boycott, as well as any further thoughts of defiance. The right-wing leadership was still hoping against all the odds to engage the Tories in dialogue. But no amount of fawning would get them anywhere with those who simply regarded them with contempt. The Tories had the upper hand and were in no mood to invite the TUC leaders for tea and biscuits.

The Defeats

In 1981, Thatcher allowed the media baron Rupert Murdoch, an ardent admirer of hers, as she was of him, to buy The Times and the Sunday Times without any reference to the Monopolies Commission. Murdoch also bought a half-interest and control of Britain’s only satellite television service, despite the fact that Thatcher’s own Home Secretary found the deal “not technically legal”, a far cry from the treatment dished out to the Liverpool councillors.

In 1985, in a bid to build his media empire, Murdoch staged a pre-planned showdown with the print unions. The millionaire tycoon had invested more than £100 million in Wapping and another satellite plant at Kinning Park, Glasgow, but both lay idle as a result of the objections of the print unions. “That’s where we came in”, stated Eric Hammond, leader of the electricians’ union, in his memoirs. Hammond explained that his secret talks between the EETPU and Murdoch were set up through extreme right-winger Woodrow Wyatt:

“Having set out the scenario, Murdoch, whose American newspaper empire had shed thousands of staff as new technology had been introduced, made it clear he wanted to do the same in the UK. What could we do to help, Murdoch asked impassively. Could our members set up the machinery? ‘Not only that,’ I told him, ‘but they could operate it as well.’ There was an almost audible click as Rupert suddenly realised that here was an opportunity to end print union power once and for all. He turned to me and said, “Eric, I think we might be able to do a deal.’”[2]

With these immortal words, Hammond went on to explain his treacherous union-busting strategy of recruiting electricians to work at the Wapping newspaper plant.

“The ‘sparks’ would become printers on computer. We had broken the mould. By the time details leaked out in July, it was too late for the print unions to do anything about it. My confidence had increased with my experience as general secretary. I had a growing conviction in the correctness of my union’s commonsense policies and its right to achieve its own destiny, unimpeded by the Luddites who inhabited certain trade union headquarters.”[3]

Murdoch demanded a legally binding agreement from the SOGAT and the NGA demanding that employees would undertake work “with complete flexibility. There will be no demarcation lines… The starting and finishing times of an employee may be changed upon… a day’s notice… manning levels will be determined by the employer…New technology may be adopted at any time … There will be no closed shop…” Industrial action would also be forbidden. Basically Murdoch was asking the unions to sign away their rights.

When the time came, he deliberately provoked a dispute at Wapping to break the power of the print unions. For months he had been secretly moving non-union staff into Wapping and was discussing with his senior executives about how they could sack thousands of workers who had been given “assurances” that their jobs were safe. Management had told the unions that Wapping was to be used only to print the new London evening paper The London Post, but the plan was to switch all titles to the new plant. In January 1986 – a day before the move to the new plant at Wapping – some 6,000 printworkers at News International received dismissal notices. Not only had a deal been agreed with the EETPU leaders, but also a contract had also been signed with Thorns National Transport (TNT) to distribute the papers without union labour.

When the showdown came it was an extremely bitter confrontation that would last for over twelve months. It was a fight to the death at Wapping. The unions were demanding nothing less than full reinstatement of their members. Following the defeat of the miners, thousands of workers and youth came to express their solidarity in late night and weekend pickets and demonstrations at Wellclose Square. Mass picketing attempted to close down News International at Wapping, but as with the miners, they were faced with the full might of the state. To assist their friend Murdoch, the Tories employed the Metropolitan police, reinforced by police from outside London, to attack and arrest pickets, using the most violent and provocative means.

Labour MP Tony Benn described what he saw in a Parliamentary debate over the issue:

“The mounted police advanced out of the plant exactly as the tactical options manual says that they should. They ran into the crowd. They were covered by riot police who did several things. First they ran indiscriminately into the crowd and battered people who had had nothing whatsoever to do with any stones that might have been thrown. . . They surrounded the bus that was acting as an ambulance. One man had a heart attack and I appealed over the loudspeaker for the police to withdraw to allow an ambulance to come. None was allowed for 30 minutes. When the man was put on a trestle a police horse jostled it and the man nearly fell off as he was carried out to the ambulance. The police surrounded the park where the meeting took place. They surrounded the area so that people could not escape”.[4]

In the first two weeks of the dispute there were 310 police officers present at Wapping each night. On the night of 15 February 1986 the numbers of police climbed dramatically to 1,029. By May, the numbers had further increased to 1,800. No effort was spared to defeat the print unions. By the end of December, the estimated policing costs were an additional £5.3 million. Police horses were first used indiscriminately at Wapping on 22 February. They ploughed into the crowds of pickets, clearing the plant entrance for the scab delivery lorries. It should be remembered that the combined weight of horse and rider was almost a ton. Of the 1,370 pickets arrested by the end of the dispute, some 1,058 had been convicted on various charges by February 1987, twelve months after the start of the dispute. Tragedy struck on 10 January 1987, when a picket, Michael Delaney, was struck and killed by a scab TNT lorry outside the plant.

Once again the TUC leaders played a lamentable role. Instead of throwing their full weight behind the 6,000 sacked at Wapping, on 26 November the TUC General Council voted not to discipline the EEPTU for its role in assisting Murdoch. The failure of the TUC to rally to the printworkers’ cause eventually doomed the dispute. In early February 1987 the printworkers went down to heavy defeat. Union organisation was broken at Wapping, a demoralising blow to workers everywhere. The EEPTU was shown the door, in much the same fashion as a once-faithful dog, after it had fulfilled its strike-breaking role. In its place Murdock set up his own company union, the News International Staff Association, which was granted a monopoly at the Wapping plant.

In 2002, for his services to capitalism, Murdoch was recognised as Britain’s greatest living businessman. Richard Desmond, the notorious owner of Express newspapers as well as a string of pornographic titles, said: “I would not have the business I have today unless he [Murdoch] had done what he did to make Britain a fairer place.”

The failure of the TUC resulted not only in the tragic defeat of printers at Wapping, but also the victimisation of seafarers on the P&O shipping line. During the P&O dispute, the shipping bosses acted to break the union and impose harsh conditions on the seafarers. They derecognised the National Union of Seamen, sacked the workforce, and brazenly advertised for scab labour to replace union members’ jobs. The ensuing battle, as with the NUM, resulted in the union’s funds being sequestrated.

Once again, this onslaught was a direct challenge to the fundamental rights of trade unionism. Either the NUS would have to either call a national strike or capitulate to the employers. There was no middle road. But the leadership of the NUS lacked the necessary determination, despite the courage shown by its members. They gave in without a fight. The NUS leader Sam McClusky, as a justification for his personal capitulation, announced he “had little choice but to lead from the head.” This was euphemism for no leadership at all. The retreat and capitulation of the union leaders allowed the ferry companies to slash the workforce, adding hundreds of seafarers’ jobs to the scrap heap.

These tragic defeats added to the general lack of confidence felt at the time, and were grist to the mill of the trade union bureaucracy. For the latter, retreat and surrender became a normal way of life. The downward spiral of capitulation, together with the right-wing stranglehold at the top of the movement, became a self-fulfilling process, one element feeding upon the other. However, in 1987, under mounting pressure from below, the TUC was forced to order the EETPU to withdraw from three single-union deals at Yuasa, the Japanese battery firm, at Thorn-EMI and at Orion, another Japanese-owned electronics operation, on the grounds that it was infringing the rights of other TUC affiliates.

Despite attempts to establish a Code of Practice, single-union no-strike deals remained an open sore that would eventually split the TUC. Finally, when a split with the electricians became inevitable, the TUC vacillated, hoping to placate Hammond. But they were forced to suspend and then expel the EETPU as a result of the groundswell of pressure from the union ranks, disgusted by the strikebreaking role of Hammond and his right-wing clique. The expulsion of the 225,000-strong EETPU represented the most serious split in the history of the TUC.

The EETPU’s expulsion then provoked a split within the union itself. A sizeable left grouping, the Flashlight group, under the influence of the Communist Party, split away to form the tiny EPIU. This split-away was a grave mistake. Their argument to split from the EETPU was based on the spurious notion of needing to remain members of a TUC-based union. This was a phoney argument. Much as one may sympathise with the sentiments of the Flashlight group, they were leading trade unions up the proverbial garden path. To break away from the EETPU only left the union, and the vast bulk of the members, even more firmly under the grip of the right-wing clique around Hammond. The whole episode simply played into Hammond’s hands.

Similarly, it was also a major mistake for a section of the 1,200-strong London Press branch of the EETPU, again under the influence of the CP, to propose leaving the EETPU to join the print union SOGAT. Had the Bridlington Agreement not been invoked, this would have led to a disaster. The split would have enabled the bosses to play one section off against the other. Of course, the Hammonds of this world all crowed they had defeated the Left’s splitting tactics.

“The Communists had been beaten and prevented from stealing our branch”, wrote Hammond. “Their hostility to the EETPU increased and, for our part, we still had a score to settle with the print unions.”[5]

Had the Left remained in the EETPU, fighting every inch of the way, they would have been in a far stronger position in 1992 at the time of the merger to form the AEEU, and speeded up the eventual demise of the right wing. Rather than organising a new union, they should have been redoubling their efforts to challenge Hammond. Unfortunately, guided by impatience, they decided to look for a short-cut where none existed. At bottom this action reflected a lack of faith in the workers to change their unions. The 4,000-strong EPIU, which remained impotent in face of the 225,000-strong EETPU, later ended up disappearing in a merger with the TGWU. Once again, the experience of breakaway unions ended in a blind alley.

1987 General election

The 1987 general election witnessed a third election victory for the Tories. They managed to take 43 per cent of the vote compared to Labour’s humiliating 32 per cent. The shift to the right of the Labour Party under Kinnock had ended in electoral failure. While the continuing economic boom assisted Thatcher, Labour’s right-wing stance sealed its fate. Given this situation, pundits again pontificated over whether Labour could ever win another general election. The empirical Peter Kellner, the political editor of the New Statesman, stated: “The Party would have to abandon all hope of ever governing again… is that not merely an abrupt way of saying what many of us feel in our bones to be true, but are reluctant to admit?”

As always, the conclusions drawn by the trade union and Labour leaders were that Labour was not right-wing enough! Accordingly, the Labour Party had to move even further to the right and fully embrace the “market economy”. The TUC had shifted so far to the right that Arthur Scargill lost his seat on the General Council. For the first time since their affiliation to the TUC more than a hundred years ago, the mineworkers had no representative on the leading body of British trade unionism. It was a sign of the times.

From November 1987, the Tory government turned its attention to the problem of the docks, a continuing bastion of trade unionism. With the miners defeated and the opportunity of a Triple Alliance lost for the time being, the Tory offensive could begin in earnest against this outpost of union militancy. On 7 April 1989, the Tories announced a Bill to abolish the Dock Labour Scheme. Both Tilbury and Liverpool docks struck work in protest. The TGWU national docks committee voted to ballot its members for a strike, but to the utter dismay and disgust of the rank and file, the national executive committee of the union overturned this decision. Unfortunately, they had learned nothing from the debacle of 1984.

With the full backing of the government, the port employers bared their teeth. They threatened legal action against the union if it dared launch a dock strike. The assets of the TGWU were in danger of being sequestrated unless they capitulated. They were being forced into a corner. The question was whether or not they would come out fighting. As the deadline for the abolition of the scheme approached, the union leaders prevaricated and looked for a legal loophole out of their dilemma. In the meantime, the port employers had categorically refused the union’s demand for a new national agreement.

With their backs to the wall, the TGWU executive committee eventually called a strike ballot of the 9,000 registered dockers. But unfortunately once again they left the unregistered workforce out of the fight. In face of this attack by the Tories, the dockers decisively answered the challenge. With no perspective being offered by the leadership, the dockers voted 74.3 per cent for industrial action in defence of the Dock Labour Scheme. It was an overwhelming display of defiance.

After a pantomime at the High Court, the Appeal Judges, in collusion with government and bosses, granted an injunction restraining the TGWU from taking action. In response to this blatant class judgement, the National Port Shop Stewards Committee called for an immediate strike. Dockers in Liverpool, Tilbury, Bristol, Newport and Lowestoft answered the call to action. Now was the time for action! But Ron Todd, the general secretary of the union, called for an immediate return to work pending a legal appeal in the House of Lords. This broke the momentum of the strike and undermined the resolve of the men and there was, as was to be expected, a drift back to work. Once the workers were on the move, the dispute could have spread throughout the industry. But the leadership acted as firefighters dowsing the flames of militancy.

The TGWU’s legal appeal at the High Court was belatedly upheld. But the wind had been taken out of the struggle. The national committee then organised a further ballot for strike action. Astonishingly, even under these conditions the result was a three to one majority in favour of strike action – but crucially – the decision came after the Dock Scheme had already been abolished. The union leadership had decided to fight under the most unfavourable conditions possible.

As the strike took place, the employers put in the boot, threatening to sack all strikers. With the balance of forces tilting in their favour, the bosses decided to sack the leading shop stewards in the Tilbury docks. These sackings constituted a blatant attack on all dockers, and a challenge to the whole union, but the TGWU leadership steadfastly avoided “secondary action” that would mean the sequestration of the union’s assets. But what was at stake was not assets, but the functioning of the TGWU as a union.

In the face of confusion and vacillation at the top, the strike began to crumble and was eventually called off three weeks later. “I basically agree that we should remain on strike but I have no confidence that the union will support us”, said a Tilbury docker. “Why should we expect any different treatment than that meted out to the miners, printers and seafarers? They were all sold down the river.”[6]

If ever there was a union that could defeat the government, it was the TGWU. But the leadership refused to use its strength. The collapse of the strike was a demoralising setback. The Broad Left formally controlled the union, but it had no clear strategy of how to take on the government and build the necessary solidarity. They stumbled into a strike without the necessary foresight or planning. As a consequence, the dockers suffered the same tragic isolation and defeat as the miners had done five years earlier.

The Tories had succeeded in isolating and defeating one section of workers after another. It was a clear case of salami tactics. In fact, nothing could be clearer. This should have been recognised by the trade union leaders and the appropriate action taken on the time-honoured principle “an injury to one is an injury to all.” But this was not done. As a result, the sixteen sacked Tilbury shop stewards never got their jobs back, the union was derecognised and redundancies were brought in across the board. With the abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme casual labour returned to the docks with a vengeance, in an industry that by this time had shrunk to only 12,000 workers. By 1993, there were less than 500 dockworkers left on Merseyside alone – down from 17,000 just after the war.

The failure to fight had catastrophic consequences. Dockers were now on call round the clock. As a dockers’ wife described it, “They call it work to finish the job, but it became ‘work to finish’ our men – 12 or 14 hour shifts, constant phone calls changing their shifts, no social life.” As another docker explained when casualisation was reintroduced,

“After I became full-time my wages were £170 top line with pension, no sick pay, no work clothing. They’d call us out to work at any time for up to 80 hours a week. You can go in at 7.45 am and if there’s no work in they send you home at 12 o’clock, tell you to get eight hours’ sleep and come back and do the night shift.”

These heavy defeats served to further strengthen the grip of the right-wing union bureaucracy. Strike figures fell to an all-time low by the end of the decade, as the union leadership acted even more as a barrier to struggle. The employers took advantage of mass unemployment and the compliance of the union leaders to relentlessly push through drastic changes in working practices, terms and conditions. Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced into local authorities, forcing down established conditions and wage levels. Personal contracts, part-time working and short-term contracts were also brought in across the board. Thus, the economic boom from 1982 onwards, was a boom at the expense of the working class. Under these conditions, workers had their heads down, hoping to survive, many hoping to see the election of a Labour government as a solution to their problems.

The earlier Tory anti-union laws of 1980 and 1982 introduced a battery of changes to industrial relations. It limited picketing, banned secondary action, effectively outlawed the closed shop, watered down unfair dismissal procedures, repealed the 1975 Employment Protection Act, provided money for union postal ballots, and removed the legal immunity covering unions. The Tories introduced further anti-union legislation in 1984, 1988, 1989, 1990, and then later in 1993. These forced unions to hold regular secret ballots for union posts, ballots for political funds, secret ballots for strikes, abolished the post-entry closed shop, union officials were forced to repudiate unofficial strikes, the check-off system was undermined, the Bridlington Agreement was effectively scraped as workers were allowed to join a union of their choice, rules governing pre-strike ballots were further tightened, wages councils were abolished, and employers were allowed to offer workers financial inducements to leave their trade unions.

Over a fifteen-year period from 1980, seven separate pieces of Tory legislation were introduced to break the back of the trade unions and undermine collective bargaining. The restrictions governing strikes were so strict that the effective right to strike, with the necessary solidarity (“secondary action”), was largely undermined. As with much of the nineteenth century, after the repeal of the Combination Acts, legal trade unions existed but with either one or both hands tied behind their backs. These laws all added up to a “counter-revolution” against the trade union movement. They constituted the most important challenge to trade unionism for more than a century.

Despite this, the TUC leaders refused to break the law, preferring a cosy chat and deal with the Tories. They were terrified of losing their trade union funds through sequestration, and with them their nice cars, their plush offices and their comfortable lifestyles. This they could not afford to jeopardise! At the same time, they would have the gall to pay tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the early pioneers of trade unionism. Whereas these pioneers fought uncompromisingly against unjust laws, regardless of personal cost, the union leaders, with some notable exceptions, acquiesced to the anti-union laws.

There were astonishing similarities between the current Tory legislation and the clauses of the Trades Disputes Act of 1927. This onslaught against the unions arose not from a desire for revenge (although this played a part) but from the needs of the ruling class to reduce costs – just as in 1926. The defeat of the General Strike was, however, on an altogether greater scale. It was a catastrophic bludgeoning that, combined with the economic depression, knocked the guts out of the British working class for a whole period. It took decades for the workers to recover. The defeat of the miners in 1985 created wounds and scars – but not nearly as severe and deep as the ones inflicted after the defeat in 1926. Thus, in the years following the miners’ strike there were important industrial battles, which were entirely absent in the 1930s.

Driven out

By 1990, Thatcher had been in power continuously for eleven years. She had earned the undying hatred of the working class, for whom she personified the viciousness of the employers. Her resignation in 1990 was brought about, not by the Labour “opposition” but by the mass revolt against the hated poll tax, in which the Marxists played a decisive role. The event drew were scenes of great jubilation in all working-class areas. It was literally the talk of the town, in the clubs, pubs and bars. The “Iron Lady” had finally been driven out.

Thatcherism was largely discredited, so the strategy of the Tory leaders was to refurbish the image of the Tory party, or re-invent itself, for the general election. For this purpose, they chose John Major to head the Party. Despite the fact that the Tories were unpopular and Britain was in the grip of a new economic recession, Kinnock and the right-wing Labour leadership succeeded in losing another election. For the fourth time in a row, the Tories were victorious in the general election of May 1992. They could not believe their luck. But it was luck that could not last.

The Labour leadership proved incapable of offering a real alternative to the Tories. Neil Kinnock was forced to resign the Party leadership, and as a consolation was given a plum job, approved by the Tory Cabinet, as European Commissioner on a handsome salary of £103,534 per annum. This was the man who used to denounce the EEC in the most fiery terms as “the robber” of the people. But Kinnock’s resignation did not halt the continual shift to the right by the leadership. The new Labour leader John Smith was a barrister and traditional Old Labour right-winger.

A few months after the Tories were re-elected, Michael Heseltine announced a massive attack on the mining industry involving the closure of some thirty pits. The response was massive and instantaneous. In October, a giant mid-week demonstration of 50,000 miners and their supporters marched through the streets of London. The switchboards at TUC’s Congress House were jammed as workers from every town and city phoned to demand action.

Within a few weeks, the TUC were forced to call a national demonstration in support of the NUM. They were shocked by the response. Something like 250,000 turned out in the pouring rain to express their solidarity. These demonstrations and the incredible response from workers gave a glimpse of the potential power that exists in the working class. If that power had been properly harnessed and organised the pits could have been saved and the fortunes of the trade union movement turned around. It was not excluded that the government could have been toppled.

Unfortunately, so steeped in their “moderation” the TUC leaders allowed the mood dissipate. They acted like the Grand Old Duke of York who led his troops a merry dance up and down a hill. Having used the demonstrations as a safety valve, the TUC refused to call any further actions. The result was predictable. The government recovered its nerve and resorted to the well-known ploy of setting up a Royal Commission to “look into” the pit closure programme. Instead of denouncing this obvious ruse to buy time, the TUC went along with these proposals. Despite one-day strikes of the RMT in the New Year, the miners were once again left to fight alone against the attacks of the Tories. The TUC strategy ended ruins six months later, when even more pits were designated for closure than those originally named in October 1992.

The lack of a fight-back gave the green light to the Tories to press on with their anti-working class policies. They continued with their privatisation programme, targeting those areas of the public sector that were potentially profitable, and running down the rest. Gas, water and electricity were privatised and the rail network was also split up into 100 different operating companies and privatised. It was Thatcherism without Thatcher. Their policies represented a serious attack on local government, the health service, civil service and public services generally. The ruling class and its political representatives had abandoned all pretence at consensus politics. In place of “managed capitalism” we had the untrammelled domination of the “free market”. In face of the deepening crisis of British capitalism, the working class was being squeezed to the limit.

In October 1992 the country was in the grip of a deep economic crisis. The Tories had taken Britain into the European exchange rate mechanism. However, with sterling over-valued and a budget deficit at unsustainable levels, the currency was subjected to a barrage of speculation. In the end Britain was forced humiliatingly out of the ERM, and the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, was forced to resign on this “Black Wednesday”. Fears of economic turmoil increased as interests rose to 15 per cent, to the dismay of the Tories.

The Tory government, which in the past had a reputation for financial competence, was shaken to its very foundations. From then on, everything started to unravel. Support for the Tories in the opinion polls collapsed, and they would continue to trail behind Labour for the following four-and-a-half years. It signalled the beginning of the end for the Major government, which staggered on from one crisis to another.


[1] See John Mcllroy, Trade Unions in Britain Today, London, 1990

[2] Hammond, Maverick, Life of a union rebel, p.76-77, London 1992

[3] Ibid, p.81-82

[4] Hansard, 8 May 1986

[5] Hammond, op. cit, p.75-6

[6] Quoted by Hunter, They Knew Why They Fought, pp.111-2, London