In the spring and summer of 1972, British miners, railwaymen and dockers each in turn successfully defied the Heath Government. On no previous occasion in British history has the administration of the day suffered such a sequence of reverses from groups of workers pursuing economic demands. The results of these outstanding events took many socialists, at home and abroad, by surprise. That there would be hard struggles in 1972 was clear before the year began, that advances were possible was plain to see, but the scale of the victories which were actually won surpassed most expectations. This article will try to interrogate these events, from the miners’ determined stand to the tuc’s muffled attempts to compromise. Necessarily it will be limited. Any ongoing analysis must at this stage be constrained by the still uncertain upshot of the crisis of the past year. In particular, the economy may expand rapidly as in France after May 1968, or it may return to partial recession as in Italy after the contestazione of 1969. But while it is hard to assess the unity of events that are still unfolding, the continuation of the conflict makes it more urgent to debate its initial lessons.

On 18 June 1970, the man whom even the Conservative Press thought would lose the election won it; his ‘against the odds’ victory meant that Heath took office with minimal political debts. Indeed, the Conservative who had helped him most in becoming Prime Minister, Powell, was also his most outspoken opponent and was isolated on the back benches. In addition, one of the legacies of the swift decline of the Macmillan era in 1963 was that there were only two politicians of any seniority in Heath’s first cabinet: Home, a cipher clinging to the Foreign Office, but popular with the Party rank and file despite his lamentable failure when he had been Prime Minister; and Maudling, whom Heath had defeated in the first-ever leadership contest decided by formal ballot of Conservative mp’s.footnote1 Both Home and Maudling represented a failed past and neither could exercise leverage on the main course of events. Thus, while the reasons for Heath’s election victory (as well as Labour’s defeat) deserve separate study, its effect was a Cabinet dominated by a man who had won power despite many of the forces that ‘naturally’ assist (and mould) Conservative Premiers into office. This gave an individual stamp and, for England, an unusual clarity to the policies and then to the changes of policy that marked the opening years of Heath’s government.

There were three prongs to Heath’s initial strategy. His first priority was external: the orientation of British capitalism was to be re-directed through entry into the eec. Internally, the Wilsonite mechanisms of economic ‘control’—the Prices and Incomes Board, the Industrial Relations Corporation, regional development grants, etc—were to be dismantled and financial restrictions on lending lifted: British industry was to be ‘freed’. Lastly, the trade unions were to be brought ‘under the rule of law’; legislation would restrict national strikes, force union officials to reduce unofficial action and undermine the power of shop-floor militants. Heath hoped that an unfettered capitalism would expand into the new European market, its working class held down by legislation. Central to what Heath called his ‘revolution’ was the retreat of the government from day-to-day conflicts of industrial expansion. In effect, without surrendering budgetary powers over the economy, Heath aimed virtually to dissolve the institutional links which had grown up between government, capital and labour. His was a policy of combining powerful legislation with cabinet laisser-faire, of imposing a strategic line whose tactical implementation would be left to market forces and courts of law. Before analysing this contradictory strategy, it will first be necessary to examine the extent to which it was actually put into practice, and with what results.

There were 20 months between the Conservative election victory and their Industrial Relations Act becoming law. During that time the government, and Heath in particular, came to be loathed by many workers in a powerful and specific way. The feeling about him was that he was ‘unfair’, ‘uncharitable’, ‘faceless and heartless’. The quality of ‘concern’ is much appreciated in the British Isles; sacrifices will be made so long as those who demand them are appreciative. Heath’s administration was not.

An example was its attempt to close the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. ucs was an amalgam of yards integrated into a single company by the Labour Government in 1968. This rationalization had originally been organized by Wedgwood Benn who saw to it that all the old yard owners were generously compensated and given seats on the new board. Naturally a decrepit group of shipbuilders, whose families had failed to invest in their yards for generations and were incapable of running them singly, lost even more money when they tried to do so collectively. Yet by 1971, new management and the beginning of system-built ships had made ucs potentially profitable. As the State was the major shareholder, it stood to get something back from its subsidies. Instead the Conservatives maximized its losses. In October 1970, Davies, the new Minister of the Department of Trade and Industry, cut off the company’s credits. This ruined its cash flow and it never recovered. In February 1971, the credits were restored when the biggest employer on Clydeside, Rolls-Royce, went bankrupt. But on 28 July 1971, Davies told the House of Commons that, after receiving a report from a commission on the future prospects for ucs, he was going to close the company down; 2,500 jobs might be saved. The Conservative benches cheered this announcement which entailed loss of work for a possible 20,000 people in a single city at a time of mounting unemployment. The Labour Party was enraged. It particularly angered Labour mps that Davies showed no sympathy for the men; he would not even say he was sorry. It is easy to see why this attitude should arouse wrath and apprehension in the Parliamentary Labour Party. It removed the possibility of elevating a squalid result of capitalist calculation to the dignity of a national tragedy. Thus it was that one Labour mp could accuse the Conservatives of the worst of all possible crimes: ‘the government has made the class struggle respectable’.footnote2

The government’s action in relation to ucs was particularly provocative because it broke so explicitly with a fundamental bi-partisan goal which had been repeated by every government since the war—commitment to high employment. In the year ending October 1971, 435,000 jobs disappeared.footnote3 Well over a 1,000 people a day lost their jobs altogether and by January 1972 unemployment had risen to over one million. In contrast to Germany, where the inflation of the 1920s had been traumatic, in Britain it was the unemployment of the 1930s which had left a lasting scar.footnote4

The strength of this feeling was quickly made manifest when there were outright closures, or the threat of them. Thus at ucs, following Davies’ announcement, the yards were seized. This action generated a vast burst of publicity and intense local support which in turn initiated a wave of other occupations.footnote5 Following Clydeside’s example, Plessey workers occupied a nearby factory threatened with closure and there have been around 20 such seizures since. These actions generally prevented the owners from moving machinery and realizing the value of the assets, and provided an effective focus for resistance.footnote6 At ucs and elsewhere, workers learnt that occupations could be a stalwart defence against the liquidation of jobs. While the actions were unofficial, unions gave them uneasy support and such occupations have also been peaceful: ‘Managements have been wary of direct legal confrontations with the occupiers (cutting off telephone or electricity is uncommon), mainly because they fear that the unrest might spread to other factories within their group’.footnote7 Reporters have been sensitive to the degree of support such actions have. If working men decide to take control of productive property, without damaging it, in order to preserve its continued use and their jobs, then force can only be used against them at a high political risk. According to the judge in the only case so far in which a writ of possession was granted to the owner of a factory occupied by 20 or so employees: ‘This is a small firm and it would be possible for a small number of people to get them out. But if it was a big factory you might want 2,000 police with tear gas.’footnote8 Occupations have been local affairs, then, not just because loss of jobs from a closure hits the local population, but because employers, police and judges feared that any attempt to crush them would simply draw in widespread solidarity actions. Thus these occupations scared the Government and local Conservative Party officials as well. Nor had they forgotten that the unemployment of the 1930s was one of the reasons why Churchill lost the Election in 1945. But in its early days the Heath Administration did not grasp the likely consequences of its policies. Instead, its confidence was reinforced by a series of successes over badly led strikes.