Sunday, April 21, 2013

The White Heat of Technology

Well, I was intending to write a short passage on my reflections of the “The Thatcher Years” (during which I did very nicely, thank you) after all the fuss had quitened down. It was going to be along the lines that politicians often unjustly receive credit for things that just happen in equal measure to being blamed for things that just happen. But Patsy has done it for me. One thing she doesn’t mention is that it was not Mrs Thatcher or the government that destroyed the Printing Unions (and typewriters) - it was computer technology. The leader of SOGAT at the time now sits in the House of Lords, which is probably where Bob Crow will end up. Here’s Patsy

That was Then and This is Now
I am not a political activist. I have never belonged to a political party. However, I have voted in every local and national election for which I was eligible since I ‘came of age’ in 1968 (it was 21 then).
Whenever I think I am doing something radical, I turn out to be far more mainstream than I could have imagined. When, increasingly concerned about our impact on the environment, I decided to have a punt on the Greens in the European elections some years ago thinking I was a lone voice crying in the wilderness, the Green candidate was elected with a thumping majority. My political opinions appear to be representative of a cohort of people of my age, popularly known as ‘baby boomers’. And watch out, there are a lot of us.
Like many of you, after the death of Mrs Thatcher I have been reflecting on the effect of her period in office on the life of the nation. A lot of nonsense has been aired in the media, both for and against, so I am risking adding my voice to the cacophony in the hope that it will generate more light than heat, which I cannot say is true for much that I have heard and read.
Unlike some of you, I am old enough to remember the decade before the Conservatives were elected in 1979. I graduated in 1969, married in 1972 and had my first child in 1977. In all this time a murderous power struggle between Government and the trades unions was taking place. Strikes were endemic, not just miners but car workers, dockers, steel workers, refuse collectors, power plant employees,  grave diggers – it was easier week by week to list who wasn’t  on strike in the public sector than who was.
Edward Heath went to the country on the platform of trades union reform and did not achieve a working majority.  The Labour government which succeeded him was unable to deal with the situation – not unwilling, seriously unable. Not only did they have no real majority in Parliament throughout the 1970’s but they were, and probably still are, dependent on trades union funding for their very existence. Barbara Castle, the best Prime Minister we never had and the true forerunner of Margaret Thatcher, tried when she was Secretary of State for Industry to introduce legislation to curb the powers of the trades unions. She was not supported in cabinet.
As a result, we had the three day week, which in reality meant homes and commercial organisations could rely on electricity for only three days a week. Power cuts were frequent, random and inevitable. I was working for a merchant bank in the City in the mid 1970’s and we were all issued with calor gas lamps so we could carry on when the lights went out (wartime spirit still going strong).  At home we kept candles and matches in a place where we could easily find them in the dark. I clearly remember my poor mother in the pitch dark, ferreting around in a kitchen cupboard , saying ‘just put the lights on for a moment till I find the candles’. And believe me, all the lights going out in Whipps Cross Hospital while you are in the process of giving birth is no joke.
By the time of the 1979 election we were all desperate for somebody to do something about it. That is why we voted in our millions for the Conservatives. It also explains the surprise result in 1992 – the memory was still fresh. We were most unwilling to give Labour another chance until 1997 when they were promising something new. Unfortunately for the country, it was the same old same old, spend and spend Labour that we had been lulled into forgetting.
Let me make my position clear. I do not believe that the 1979 Conservative government destroyed British manufacturing industry. Before you jump up and down in fury, just listen to my reasons.
For many years countries in other parts of the world had been upskilling (don’t you just love the flexibility of the English language) and were now able to carry out many of our traditional manufacturing processes with great skill. Additionally, without restrictive legislation, they were able to do what we could do quicker and more cheaply (let’s not have a discussion about worker exploitation here, they could and they did and there was nothing we could do about it).
Coal mining was a dying industry. By the mid-1970s most people were cooking and heating their homes with gas and electricity. The last time I saw a coal fire in a house was in 1959 when my grandmother regretfully left her coal-fired range behind in her rented rooms in Affleck Street, Finsbury  and went to live with her daughter in Harburton Road, Archway , where  she learnt the brutal lessons (for her) of cooking with gas. Power stations were using gas and nuclear fuel (another argument brewing here but in the 1960’s nuclear energy was the shape of things to come). Most coalmines in Britain were operating at a loss and, being in the public sector, were supported by public (that’s you and me) subsidies. Nevertheless the miners’ unions, led by a certain Mr. Scargill of Free Flat in the Barbican, were demanding ever higher pay rises for their ‘dirty and dangerous’ work. If the coal mines had been in private ownership most of them would have been closed down years earlier. In 200 years’ time, if man survives, people will regard sending men underground to dig coal in the same way that we now regard sending children up chimneys. The conservatives may have nailed down the coffin lid but the coffin certainly contained a corpse.
Have you ever stood on the shore in Harwich and looked across the Stour estuary to the colossal container port in Felixstowe? You are looking at the result of the constant strikes by London dockworkers for higher and higher pay combined with the increased ability of the rest of the world to provide manufactured goods at a consistently cheaper price and with increasing reliability. As a result the ancient Port of London, active since Roman times, is now a mix of leisure centre, airport and posh flats for highly paid City workers. There is now no such thing as a London Docker. All in 50 years. And watch out, Mr.Robert Crow. Your insistence on pay rises for train drivers which has led to their being better paid than junior doctors with six years’ training  is leading to the introduction of driverless trains, so the London Underground train drivers may well join the London Dockers as exhibits in a museum of extinct life forms. And for those of you who mistrust driverless trains – have you ever been to Disneyland, Thorpe Park, Chessington, Alton Towers?- the shuttle at Gatwick? All rides driverless.
Governments, in spite of what they claim, do not shape events. They strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more They are never pro-active. They react to world events and, most of the time, to changes in society over which they have no control. The true drivers of national economies are the nameless, faceless corporations – not  Nestle, nor the people who own Nestle, nor the people who own the people who own Nestle, nor the people who – and so on. Faceless international corporate bodies whose names are unknown to us but whose products they sell to us every day of the week. What works for them is what we get. Just one example – big business likes cheap labour, it keeps costs down. For that reason big business loves two things in particular: the welfare state and immigration. The welfare state makes up the difference between what corporations pay and what people need to survive. Wealth distribution in its simplest form. Big business also likes immigration.  Immigrant workers are happy to work for little money and that keeps the wage bill down.
As I said earlier, I have voted in every local and national election for which I was eligible since 1968. But I might just have well stayed in bed. The only vote which made any difference was in 1979, and so many of us were voting with me that year that my one vote would not have been missed.
Would you like a prediction based on years of political experience? I think UKIP are going to do very well in the forthcoming local elections. I think the British people are sick of two things in particular: (1) being told that they can’t send undesirables back to the countries where they are wanted on specific charges, thanks to EU rulings and (2) the dilution of their communities as a result of mass immigration (will someone please teach these people how to queue?).
A last note : My dear old dad used to say that a country gets the government it deserves. Perhaps in 1979 we had become so greedy, venal and self-seeking that only a Puritan could show us the way back from the brink.
Requiescat in Pace.

Editor’s Note: The title of this post refers to a speech made by Harold Wilson in 1963. What he actually said was "The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry."


  1. so well written,thank you for making it so easy to read for a "70's inner london education authority lefty lambeth educated person,i for one am very thank ful to Mrs thatcher for the booming years of the 80's when i was just leaving and my prospects were very good.and without this who knows where me and alot of people of my age would be.however i am no longer a blue have not been for 3 or so years, i will be voting for nigel as i would like for my grandchildren if i have any to have good prospects the way i did,but i do fear my wishes are evermore fading.

  2. Just two wee observations. One, whilst what Patsy says about underground trains becoming driverless is probably true, but it will not be because of Bob Crow's activities. Bob Crow has been around for about ten years, but those of us who are blessed to live on Central Line loop between Hainault and Woodford were able to be the guinea pigs for LT development and experimentation of driverless trains way back in the seventies...just good old fashioned technological progress that was planned for the DLR. And second, not being able to send "undesirables" to other countries is NOT because of EU laws....these decisions are made in the European Court of Justice, which was founded well before the (then named) Common Market, is in no way connected to the EU, and was modeled very strongly on British laws.

    Sorry Patsy, but some of your arguments do not bear scrutiny. Perhaps some solid research instead of just emotion next time?

    1. Thank you O Portly One, I was in danger of self-congratulation.

      Yes, I am sure that the idea of driverless trains has long been considered by LT, but the increasing number of strikes by train drivers must have caused them to focus on it and try to bring it forward faster than they otherwise might have.

      And, on your second point, guilty m'lud, of using shorthand terms such EU rulings for rulings by European Courts. However,I think most people would know what I mean.

      Aren't politics about emotion? Don't we say we 'feel' strongly about political issues? I have tried to give an objective account of what it was like to live through a period of political and social unrest, but at the time I was anything but objective, especially if all the lights went out just as I was changing my baby's nappy.

    2. The automatic operation between Hainault and Woodford began before the "seventies". When the first stage of the new Victoria Line opened between Walthamstow and Highbury & Islington in 1968 all the new trains had already operated for at least 6 months on the "test bed" between Hainault and Woodford.

      And experiments had taken place on the District Line between Ravenscourt Park and Stamford Brook as early as 1962. This early experiment in passenger service in London, however, was much later than the automatic operation on the Post Office's own system that began automatic operation of mail trains under London from 1927, having undertaken experiments a year earlier.

  3. Tut, tut, Patsy. Not politically correct at all, at all. You're supposed to welcome an invasion of foreigners, gypsies, mega mosques and suicide bombers with open arms. Anything less and the Thought Police can arrest you for being racist or anti-religious.

    You forgot to mention that a lot of the union leaders in the post-war and Thatcher eras were communists who were more interested in bringing down a Tory government than in serving the interests of their own members. I believe even New Labour still sings "We'll keep the red flag flying here". (Correct me, if I'm wrong.)

    And it was the Tories themselves who finally gave Maggie the bum's rush, not the unions or the commies or the foreigners or the bankers....

    1. I didn't forget, Ian, I just thought everybody knew - Red Ken, Red Robbo, obvious really.

      I didn't refer to the end of Mrs. Thatcher's premiership as that has been well rehearsed in news coverage, tv documentaries and films. I was more concerned with describing the situation as it was when she took over and the relief we all felt at the time, even though some people who voted eagerly for her in 1979 are now keen to distance themselves. However the sight of Geoffrey Howe walking up the steps of St. Pauls may have put the word 'hypocrisy' in a lot of people's minds. At least Neil Kinnock was brutally honest about where he would be spending last Wednesday.

      And finally Ian, I have a real problem with political correctness. Whilst it prevents a lot of harmful things being said, it obliges us to go all around the mulberry bush to say anything meaningful, and gets in the way of honesty and the right of people to express an opinion if they are not articulate enough to dress it up in 'acceptable' language. It takes intestinal fortitude now to call a gardening implement a sharp-edged digging tool.

    2. Yes, Patsy - well said. Howe was not the only hypocrite at St Paul's last week - Heseltine was there too. As to political correctness, the Conservatives under Cameron have become besotted with it - Blue Labour,

  4. Nicely written piece. Patsy's comments on how things were before the Conservatives' 1979 election are most apposite.

    I've heard endless commentary describing how Mrs Thatcher divided the nation - as if we weren't hopelessly divided already. The unions were a tyranny, pure and simple, and they tyrannised the British population in pursuit of their socialist dreams and good ol' fashioned greed (the kind of greed they rail bitterly against if it's possessed by anyone other than the comrades).

    It's interesting that Labour shut down many more mines than did the Conservatives - and amusing that the minister with the most closed mines to his name was none other than Anthony Wedgewood Benn. Of course, Labour ducked the more painful closures - they left them (and the business of reforming the unions) to someone with more backbone.

    I do wonder though if there was any other version of Thatcherismm that might have achieved similar ends but with slightly different consequences along the way. The old conservative (small 'c') in me laments the passing of coherent communities - the tapestry-makers, the brass bands, the family tradition and so on. I don't know how it could have been conserved - I don't know if it even could have been conserved - but it's so important for generations to run smoothly from one to the other that I wish it could have been conserved. To simply pull the rug for under people's feet without offering them the hope of a plan B seems unduly harsh.

    1. The tragedy for the communities to which you refer, Gary, is that they were totally dependent on one economic activity, be it mining, steelworking, weaving or any of the other industries which were being overtaken by goods produced by cheap labour abroad or merely by the advances which made their products redundant.

      The only way this could have been done differently would have been to introduce new economic activity into those communities before the mines, steel plants etc. were shut down. My personal feeling is that this would have taken far too long - a generation or two at least - and that the changes would still have met with enormous resistance from people who felt that their way of life was under attack, even though they themselves were painfully aware that it was dirty and highly dangerous.

      Some of the traditions of those communities - the brass bands, the annual marches with banners - have survived because of rather than in spite of the sudden removal of the industry out of which they had grown. They are the only reminders of the crisis that overwhelmed their towns and villages, and give people a link with their past which they might well have abandoned if the changes had been more gradual.