Socialist Worker

How strikes dealt killer blow to government

by Judy Cox
Issue No. 1883

'THE COUNTRY is facing its gravest crisis since the Second World War."

This is what chancellor Anthony Barber told the Tory government in the autumn of 1973, according to secret documents made public on New Year's Day. That government did come crashing down in 1974. It was rocked by working class militancy, as revealed in official documents released under the 30 year rule.

Edward Heath's Tory government was also hit by a massive hike in oil prices coordinated by Arab countries protesting against the US backing Israel in the Arab-Israeli War in 1973.

The Tories' plans to hold down workers' wages, despite high inflation, led to massive confrontations with the trade union movement. For all their anti-union rhetoric, the Tories understood the risks involved in attacking working class living standards. They had been humiliated by the miners' revolt in 1972.

Cabinet records show how Heath's most powerful ministers were forced in 1973 to have detailed discussions about unofficial strikes by 6,000 London dockers and the "politically motivated group" that led the strikes.

When a worker at the Ford Dagenham car plant was sacked for hitting a foreman, workers walked out in his defence. Heath's cabinet discussed asking Ford to reinstate the man to end the dispute.

At just one cabinet meeting in September 1973 there were discussions about a strike at Ford, an eight week old strike at Chrysler's Ryton plant, a strike at Adwest engineering in Reading and the strike threat by 8,000 workers at British Leyland's Longbridge site.

Heath was personally determined to face the unions down and implement stage three of a wage freeze.

Massive protests were planned for May Day. In the run-up a memo was sent to Heath suggesting that, as public transport would be shut by strikes, only essential government workers should be told to turn up for work.

Heath believed that encouraging people to "struggle into work would deprive trade union militants of a considerable triumph".

Some 1.6 million workers took part in the strike, the cabinet heard. The government clung to the hope that it would "clear the air". But by the end of the year the cabinet was again on a collision course with one of the most powerful groups of workers, the miners.

A miners' overtime ban led to coal shortages and threatened electricity supplies.

Heath was forced to declare a state of emergency, the fifth in less than four years. The cabinet was terrified that the miners would galvanise other workers to fight government-imposed pay limits.

Heath's cabinet discussed secret briefings on how to deal with the miners, including a strategy of "appealing to moderate members of the NUM executive and mine workers over the heads of the extremists".

The stakes were very high. A top secret paper by the secretary of state for industry, Peter Walker, outlined the "constitutional importance" of miners' leader Lawrence Daly's "open challenge to the authority of parliament".

But, Walker added, "we have to accept that some people will consider it justifiable". The government rushed through emergency restrictions on electricity use. These measures were, at least in part, about trying to isolate the miners.

A cabinet briefing on the power cut outlines how they could "intensify this to put pressure on the NUM as people are thrown out of work". Heath's cabinet feared the miners would go on all-out strike. They pored over copies of the union newspaper, preserved in the files.

They read transcripts of an interview in which Lawrence Daly predicted that the miners would force Heath to call an election. But the NUM leaders were not united in their desire to take on the government. A confidential memo describes how a "contact on the political side" had supper with right wing miners' leader Joe Gormley.

Gormley's view was "he would like to call a ballot at the time he is confident that the miners will vote against strike action". He was later revealed to have held secret meetings with the security services.

Gormley was wrong, and Daly was right. The miners did strike the following year, and forced the election that brought down Heath's government.


US takeover

THE US government considered using the 1973 Arab-Israeli War as a pretext to invade the Middle East and seize oil supplies, the British government believed.

The official documents uncover those suspicions that US president Nixon was planning to occupy the oil-producing countries, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for around ten years.

Henry Kissinger, Nixon's Secretary of State, also made ominous noises about taking necessary measures to stop the price of oil soaring. The US defence secretary James Schlesinger is quoted in the documents warning that the US is not prepared to be held to ransom by "underdeveloped, underpopulated countries".

The US was possibly going to use the Shah of Iran's troops as a proxy fighting force, according to the Joint Intelligence Committee report produced for the British cabinet. But on balance, the report suggested, "We believe the American preference would be for a rapid operation conducted by themselves to seize oilfields."

The report also raises the possibility that Russia might back a move by Iraq to liberate Kuwait from US invaders.

The "special relationship" between the US and Britain was wearing thin in 1973 because Britain refused to back the US ally Israel in the Arab-Israeli War. The lowest point came when President Nixon put his forces on a worldwide nuclear alert without telling Heath about it.

Kissinger went as far as deliberately misleading the British ambassador, telling him only of a "low level" military alert. Even the spies at GCHQ had failed to tell Heath what was going on-they assumed he already knew about it.


Burying truth

"THE SECRETARY of State for Northern Ireland felt that it was important that the memory of 'Bloody Sunday' should be buried as quickly as possible," wrote a government official.

This meant that the inquiry into the British army's murder of 13 civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972 fell scandalously short of proper standards. There is currently a new inquiry going on which the families fought for.

But the records from 1973 reveal ministers' private concerns that the original inquiry was such an obvious whitewash it would be discredited.

"I think those who are out to show that Britain and her army and 1 Para [the unit whose soldiers fired on demonstrators] in particular were much in the wrong will be able to mount an attack," said Lord Grey of Naunton, the queen's representative in Northern Ireland.

His comments to the Northern Ireland secretary came just a few weeks before Lord Widgery's inquiry was made public in 1973.

Grey criticised Widgery for taking soldiers entirely at their word. He said the Widgery report would only encourage complaints that some of the soldiers had lied, especially over their reports that the IRA had opened fire on them.

Grey's letter listed case by case inconsistencies in the evidence. In the report, Lord Widgery found no proof that those shot had been handling weapons but his conclusion blamed the marchers for the violence.


Ministers gave tyrants a warm welcome in Britain

THE NEWLY released documents show how Heath's government vigorously defended some of the most repressive regimes in the world.

The democratically elected left wing government of Chile was overthrown in a military coup on 11 September 1973, leaving some 30,000 dead. Just two days later, on 13 September, the cabinet was discussing the possibility of recognising the new regime.

The government refused to grant asylum to Chile's ambassador to Britain and his wife and family. They were fearful of offending the Chilean dictatorship so Alvero Bunster was only permitted to stay in Britain for a year. The government also banned left wing Chilean refugees from entering the country.

The British government refused to stop supplying the new regime with arms despite a storm of protest from the labour movement.

The cabinet was horrified when dockers in Liverpool blacked Hawker Hunter jets destined for Chile's military rulers. Heath demanded to be kept informed as the Chilean solidarity movement gained in strength. The cabinet warned arms companies of the "dangers of sabotage".

The Shah of Iran, head of a repressive, tyrannical state, visited Heath in July. A memo reminded the cabinet that British companies held contracts worth £43 million to supply the Shah with arms. In a secret letter the industrialist Lord Rothschild bragged to prime minister Heath that he was getting the Shah interested in buying British nuclear technology.

Hooper, the British ambassador to Athens, called for "business as usual" after the Greek military regime's brutal crushing of the student movement.

Heath played the gracious host to the dictator of Portugal, President Caetano, in July, even as reports of Portuguese atrocities in its African colony Mozambique began circulating. There were big protests in London. The British government helped Caetano manoeuvre to stop an independent inquiry into a massacre by its troops in Mozambique.

The Tory government also resumed direct links with Ian Smith's white supremacist regime in Rhodesia. The racist Smith told the cabinet that the African National Congress won popular support among blacks because of the "natural African reluctance to express an individual view". The British government set up secret meetings with Smith's agents.


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Features
Sat 10 Jan 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1883
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