In the New Labour era the media discourse on virtually all major political issues of substance has become almost entirely restricted to the confines of the Westminster Village. While the views of the major trade unions which fund the Labour Party are cheerfully ignored, those of big business are taken care of through the channels of privileged access and lobby groups, the awarding of major privatisation contracts and cash for peerages.
There has always been a bit of this going on, of course, but it’s still a bit of a surprise to be reminded just how different the establishment norms were 30 years ago, when a general election was fought over the question of “Who governs Britain?”, strict curbs on wage rises were imposed, states of emergency were declared and sections of the ruling class openly talked about setting up private armies.
In his book Challenge to Democracy, the man who was director general of the National Economic Development Council (NEDC) from 1973 to 1977, Ronald McIntosh, recounts the impact these events were having in the upper echelons of Whitehall in the form of a diary written at the time. Here the tittle-tattle of second rate MPs barely merits a mention. What matters most is what the leaders of the major unions and of the country’s biggest companies had to say.
The key role of the NEDC (or Neddy, as it was known) – under both the Tory government of Ted Heath and the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments – was to come up with ideas for the salvation of British industry at a time when much of it was clearly heading towards hell in a handcart. Not surprisingly, about the best they could come up with was the sacking of thousands of workers and cuts in wages, as a way to make British capitalism more competitive.
But the only way they might have any chance of being able to achieve this aim at a time of unprecedented industrial unrest was to do everything possible to bring leaders of the largest unions on board. Which is exactly what the NEDC set out to do.
What this diary shows with remarkable clarity is the sheer enthusiasm with which TUC leaders such as Len Murray took to their new found role as confidants to CBI and NEDC top brass. It also shows the ease with which left wingers such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon not only accommodated to the tripartite setup but became the main cheerleaders for Incomes Policy.
As McIntosh recalls, “Jack Jones and Len Murray spoke very powerfully at the September 1975 TUC in support of the Labour government’s policy of a 12-month freeze on collective bargaining and for a £6 limit on pay rises, at a time of hyperinflation.” In so doing, they used “arguments which would come easily from the most conventional official in the Treasury or Bank of England”.
The role of the NEDC in all of this is probably a lot less than the author likes to think. Nevertheless, he does provide some revealing insights into the mindset of a ruling class in almost total disarray and into the response of the official representatives of the working class. McIntosh got an early indication of the way things were to go in the second half of the decade, when he met Margaret Thatcher for the first time in 1975. When he commented that she had never seemed to take much interest in Neddy as a minister, she replied, “I went to one meeting and it was a waste of time.”
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