Socialist Worker

How a wave of struggle rocked the government

by Judy Cox
Issue No. 1782

THE EARLY 1970s were years of working class militancy and resistance. The recently released cabinet papers from 1971 show how top government meetings were constantly concerned with what was happening on the industrial scene. They reveal that strikes played a key role in determining government policy. The Tory government and prime minister Ted Heath began with a clear strategy - to shift a greater economic burden onto the working class. They wanted to cut public spending.

Margaret Thatcher, then the Tories' education secretary, was dubbed the 'milk snatcher' after the government announced the end of free school milk provision for children. The government also wanted to lower pay deals and let 'lame ducks' - failing companies - go to the wall, resulting in mass unemployment. The first test of its pay policy came on 14 January. Post office managers, encouraged by the cabinet, sought to impose a pay cut on their 230,000-strong workforce.

Cabinet papers show how Heath's ministers misread the situation. They believed that the moderate post office union, which had no strike fund, could not stay out more than a week or two. After a week of strike action the cabinet heard that 'reasonable' Tom Jackson, leader of the post workers' union, was 'coming under pressure from militants'. These militants 'were fortified by the promise of further financial assistance from other unions'.

By the end of February hardline industry minister Robert Carr was weakening. He reported that the seven week old strike was 'still remarkably solid'. 'Maybe we were over-ambitious in the reduction [in wages] we were trying to achieve,' he told the cabinet.

Tragically, just as Carr was wobbling, the post workers were being sent back to work. An official 'inquiry' would decide the pay settlement. The post workers gave the Tories a big shock. Rank and file workers had supported the strikers financially. But the trade union leaders refused to organise the solidarity necessary to win. The government's policy of allowing industrial 'lame ducks' to die off was less than successful.

In February the engineering firm Rolls-Royce collapsed. Cabinet minutes show that the government was terrified of what this failure could mean - some 18,000 to 21,000 workers thrown out of work and a massive loss of British engineering prestige. They also feared what the workers' reaction would be in the context of wider union militancy.

The Tories did a rapid U-turn. They nationalised the company the day after it went bankrupt. It immediately reopened as Roll-Royce (1971) Limited. During a phone call US president Nixon admitted to Heath that nationalisation was 'the best of a bad situation'. Then in June Upper Clyde Shipbuilders declared itself insolvent. The cabinet decided that bailing out UCS 'cannot be squared with our industrial policy and would be widely resented in sections of industry'. But by the summer the workers were gearing up to fight for their jobs.

Once again cabinet papers reveal government fear of workers' reaction to closure: 'The announcement of a winding up would provoke considerable unrest and some militant action may be taken.' The Scottish secretary feared 'trade union disruption and sit-ins'.

He was right. In July there was a brilliant occupation of UCS. Throughout the summer hundreds of thousands of workers in Scotland and across Britain demonstrated their support. By October industry minister John 'let the lame ducks die' Davies reached a deal with the UCS shop stewards.

They could have won more, but they did stop the Tories from letting the yards close down. They were an inspiration to the growing number facing unemployment. The Tories continued where the previous Labour government left off in trying to tame militant trade unionism. Their Industrial Relations Bill was an attempt to undermine rank and file organisation.

Industry minister Robert Carr explained that the problem in Britain 'wasn't too much trade union power - it was really too little constitutional trade union power. The shop floor had to be taken over.' This is what the act aimed to do. The TUC called a day of action against the bill for 12 January. Some 100,000 workers took strike action and thousands more demonstrated. This was followed by a 240,000-strong demonstration through London. Marchers chanted, 'Kill the bill!'

At the end of February around 1.5 million engineering workers struck against the Industrial Relations Bill. Cabinet minutes show the government worried in case the legislation provoked more militancy from workers. Carr reported that attempts to use the act to weaken a union would harden, not soften, the union's reaction. But, despite rank and file resolve, the TUC chose to water down its opposition.

Instead of more strikes it organised a half-hearted campaign against registering under the act. Another chance to beat the government was lost. However, the government's biggest test was still ahead of it. In December 1971 the NUM voted to go on strike over pay. The cabinet was confident of beating the miners. It believed that 'support was concentrated in traditionally militant areas and so may not be national. Coal stocks were in any case high.'

But by the start of the next year the Tories' worst fears about facing a powerful, militant group of workers, and losing, were proved right. The miners' strike that started on 9 January 1972 took just five weeks to smash the government's pay limits. It included the marvellous demonstration in February outside the Saltley depot in the West Midlands, where 15,000 workers joined a mass picket. Tory MP Douglas Hurd confessed that workers' struggle had beaten the government. 'The government is now vainly wandering over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to, and being massacred all the time,' he moaned.

Law that fed racism

THE TORY government gave in to the racism whipped up by Tory MP Enoch Powell during 1971. In February he predicted 'an explosion' over race relations. Then home secretary Reginald Maudling told the cabinet that their supporters expected them to 'take visible action to reduce the number of immigrants'. The government introduced overtly racist immigration controls. It clamped down on 'coloured immigration'.

At the same time, it removed all controls from those of 'British stock'. This referred to those with a parent or grandparent born in Britain. Maudling argued that these immigrants 'come from a cultural background fairly akin to our own'. On the other hand, he said, the cultural background of Asian immigrants made assimilation 'all but impossible'. This racist immigration act did nothing to appease the racists - in fact it strengthened them.

Internment and torture

IN 1971 the Tories openly said torture was 'justified' inside Northern Ireland. This was the Tory government's response to the growing Republican movement and discontent among the Catholic population. Many of the government documents around Northern Ireland are still highly censored. But those released show the government's vicious repression of Catholics.

The government originally said in February 1971 that internment without trial would be 'harmful': 'It would be liable not only to exacerbate communal relations afresh but also create a category of political prisoners.' Even the commander of the British army in Northern Ireland, General Sir Harry Tuzo, opposed internment for being 'a political act' which 'could not be justified by any military necessity'.

Yet the Tories gave in to the Unionists' pressure and introduced internment in August 1971. On the first day 300 people were picked up in dawn raids. They were the first of thousands of Catholics to be interned, beaten and tortured. The Catholic areas across the North erupted in revolt. Within 24 hours riots broke out and 15 people were dead.

Just six weeks after internment was introduced, defence secretary Lord Carrington reported to the cabinet, 'It was too early to say internment had failed but it was known recruitment to the IRA was rising.' Growing allegations of torture against the RUC forced the government to call an inquiry which produced the Compton report.

It commended the army's 'discipline and restraint'. Yet it reported that the RUC used 'in-depth' interrogation techniques, supervised by the British army. 'Suspects' were hooded, only fed bread and water, and blasted with loud noise. The committee decided that this 'physical ill treatment' did not contravene accepted British army 'procedures'.

The government increased the repression. In January 1972 the British army murdered 14 unarmed Catholics on a demonstration that became known as 'Bloody Sunday'.

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Sat 12 Jan 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1782
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