Socialist Worker

Documents reveal Labour government was prepared to crush discontent

Thirty years ago James Callaghan’s Labour government was prepared to use troops to break strikes over pay, writes Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2134

In 1978 a Labour government was on the verge of declaring a state of emergency. It drew up plans to use thousands of troops in an attempt to undermine strikes as its policy of holding down wages fell apart.

The deep sense of crisis in the cabinet was revealed in Whitehall papers released at the end of last month.

Under the 30-year rule the government makes public previously sensitive documents through the National Archives.

The documents chart the beginning of the end for Labour prime minister James Callaghan in the winter of 1978-9.

At the time rampant inflation was undermining the value of wages. The government struck a deal with unions – known as the “social contract” – to curb rising wage demands.

But the Labour government’s attempt to impose a 5 percent limit on pay had received a serious blow when Ford workers won a 17 percent increase that year.

Council workers, water workers, health workers and others also struck against the pay limits.

The result was what became known as the “Winter of Discontent” – an outburst of anger following four years of betrayal and disappointment by a government that was elected on a wave of optimism.

The anger became so strong that union leaders could no longer hold back their members.

A memo by Callaghan’s private secretary, Ken Stowe, on 15 December 1978 warned that a strike by 8,500 tanker drivers at Esso, Texaco, BP and Shell, set to begin in January, would bring the country to a grinding halt.

The drivers wanted £65 for a 40-hour week, an increase of 25 percent. These workers received such small allowances for overnight stops that they were forced to sleep three to a room in dirty hostels.

In response to the upcoming strike, a secret emergency plan codenamed Operation Drumstick was drawn up for the mobilisation of 9,000 soldiers who were to be put on 72-hour standby.

The troops were to be used to drive 4,000 requisitioned petrol tankers to break the strike.

Ministers insisted on secrecy because they were worried that the threat to involve troops would escalate the dispute.

Callaghan was warned by the cabinet secretary, Sir John Hunt, that he would have to declare a state of emergency before the strike started.

The cabinet papers relased to the National Archive show that the detailed contingency plan was just days away from being put into operation.

The papers show that Tony Benn, who as the energy secretary was responsible for the dispute, had urged Callaghan to adopt a “no confrontation’’ policy with the unions.

Benn was told he faced two options – either mobilise the troops before Christmas so that the operation would be in place for the start of the strike or delay mobilisation until after Christmas and risk running out of petrol.

On 15 December Stowe told Callaghan that Benn had “at last cottoned on to the fact that he is now in the hot seat when the petrol supplies dry up”.

Benn proposed that the union, in this case the T&G, should be asked to guarantee the 30 percent of deliveries needed for priority users.

This suggestion was dismissed by senior civil servants as putting essential petrol supplies into the “hands of a few hundred shop stewards without getting the guarantees needed to stand the troops down”.

In effect this was true – the leader of the T&G, Moss Evans, had put the proposal to workers at mass meetings. But it was rejected.

Benn responded by saying that he would have no choice but to put Operation Drumstick into effect. However, the plan was not implemented.

Within hours of the strikes starting the employers caved in and awarded the drivers pay deals of around 15 percent.

The government did, though, use troops against striking tanker drivers in Northern Ireland.

Soldiers occupied the Syndenham depot in east Belfast and took over 60 petrol stations to break the strike by predominantly Protestant workers.

One striking driver told Socialist Worker at the time, “I’m not worried about troops being brought in. There aren’t enough troops to do our job.”

Many Labour governments have called in troops to break strikes. But a Labour prime minister considering a state of emergency is more rare.

The “Winter of Discontent” destroyed the social contract – despite the loyalty of the union leaders to Labour.

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Tue 13 Jan 2009, 18:37 GMT
Issue No. 2134
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