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December 1973: how the Tories sunk their own ship

JOHN ELLISON looks at the miners' strike and Shrewsbury 3 case that led Edward Heath to ask ‘Who governs Britain?’ and the electorate to answer: not you

HALF a century ago, in December 1973, the Edward Heath government was advancing bullishly down a road that was to lead on February 28 1974 to a parliamentary disaster for the Conservative Party, and to a second spell of Labour government under Harold Wilson.

But in December this future was far from certain. The central issue for Heath (“the man with a boat”), against the international backcloth of the soaring price of oil and a curtailment of its supply, was the substantial improvement in wages sought by the National Union of Mineworkers for their members.

Price inflation had bitten hard into the gains made by the miners in their dramatically successful pay-catch-up strike of early 1972; and on September 12 1973, stimulated also by coal’s rising price, their claim for a new settlement was lodged.
 
Coal-face workers carrying out hard physical work in difficult conditions, and at high risk from dust and from pit accidents, however, were not lavishly paid.

But their claim threatened Heath’s wage control policy, weakly upheld as a vital barrier against inflation. It was also, in the eyes of his close adviser, top civil servant Sir William Armstrong, confirmation that the quarter of a million miners were dangerous revolutionaries.
 
A tight-lipped “no” to the miners from the National Coal Board backed by Heath was followed by a ban on overtime work begun on November 12, answered the next day by Heath’s declaration of a national state of emergency. This was an artificial, manufactured, “emergency.”

For one thing, the miners could have been offered an accommodating pay rise. For another, the damaging consequences of a coal shortage arising from the overtime ban would take a while to materialise.

This fake “emergency” was followed on December 13 by the government’s promise from New Year’s Eve of an imposition on much of industry, and on industry’s workers, of a three-day working week. The Downing Street gloves were truly off. Serious concessions to the miners would mean, in the head of “sailor” Heath, that the NUM was governing Britain, not he and his government, and that was “just not on.”
 
On December 3 the papers had announced Heath’s appointment of affable William Whitelaw as his employment minister in the crisis. The Guardian described him portentously as being given the job of “coping with the mutinous trade unions.” The Morning Star put it more bluntly as a “curb-unions job.” The miners were not alone in troubling the government that December. Rail workers and power engineers were engaged in industrial action too.
 
Other events, of course, were also occurring. One was the infamous conviction and jail sentencing on December 19 of three building workers and trade unionists  —  John Mckinsie Jones, Eric (“Ricky”) Tomlinson and Des Warren.

They had been prosecuted for peaceful picketing in Shrewsbury in September the previous year during the first (and successful) official national building workers’ strike  —  or, as the prosecution had it, for unlawful assembly and conspiracy to intimidate.

The sentences were nine months for Jones, two years for Tomlinson and three years for Warren. They were the “Shrewsbury Three,” the most victimised among the full “24” prosecuted. Tomlinson, in a speech from the dock, quoted by the Guardian, denounced the trial as a charade: “This trial is political.”

There had been no arrests at the time and the afterthought arrests were made in February 1973. Warren declared that the case resulted from political pressure on the government by employers and that the verdict was “one more stop along the road to fascism’.
 
On December 17, Labour shadow cabinet minister Tony Benn recorded in his diary: “There was no real coal crisis — it was more a row between the government and the miners, with the three-day week taken as a political decision.”

The Morning Star’s editorial that day agreed: “Those who denounce Heath’s decree putting the mass of productive workers on a three-day week as an incitement against the miners, and not as an economic measure, were confirmed in this accusation by an editorial in Lord Thomson’s Sunday Times yesterday... That editorial had declared: ‘The British crisis is many things but first of all it is an extraordinary act of government…It has…exchanged the politics of consensus once more for the politics of confrontation.’”
 
Downing Street’s belligerence continued, although TUC leaders were encouraging a settlement. If the government was prepared to pay over the odds for oil, why not the same for coal? Such was a TUC leaders’ message at a Downing Street meeting on December 19.

On January 9, the TUC undertook that if the miners were treated as a special case outside pay control guidelines, this would not be treated as a precedent for other negotiations. No deal followed.
 
On January 31, 81 per cent of miners voted for all-out strike action. It began on February 9. Two days previously Heath had called a general election on the theme of “Who Governs Britain?” His calculation was that enough of the voting population would see the light and return the Tories to power with a bigger majority and a free hand to put the miners and others in their place. But on February 28 enough of the voting population could see that the “chaos” was government-driven.
 
During the several months of political turbulence preceding this general election, a “reds under the bed” belief in Heath’s head apparently contributed to his intransigence.

True, the vice-president of the NUM was Mick McGahey, a member of the Communist Party as well as a staunch trade unionist. But McGahey’s first priority as a trade unionist, like the rest of the NUM’s executive, was for a better life for the miners, not the ousting of the Tory government.
 
Dark imaginings were not the sole prerogative of the Conservatives. Labour’s shadow cabinet was not short of conservative-sounding voices too.

One was that of Tony Crosland, a social-democrat inside-and-out, revealed in Tony Benn’s diary on November 28 as saying that he thought the miners couldn’t be trusted. Another was Shirley Williams, who days later commented blandly that trade unions, like political parties, could be wrong.

Harold Wilson himself was careful to avoid more than rare references to “socialism” in his election campaign speeches, preferring to highlight “the social contract” negotiated with the TUC early in 1973.

So it was that on polling day, February 28 1974, the Heath government toppled itself with the electorate’s help (296 Tory seats to Labour’s 301), and “the man with a boat” was soon replaced by “the man with a pipe.”

A day after Labour’s accession to power on March 5, as a minority government, the miners’ national executive recommended acceptance of an offer of a wage increase approaching a third — not much more than recommended by the Pay Board — and the strike was quickly over.
 
Far more “chaos” than that caused by the miners’ strike had been generated by Heath’s Industrial Relations Act of 1971, which even Confederation of British Industry leader Sir Campbell Adamson publicly accepted, just before polling day, needed repeal.

That legislation, broken by large-scale trade union resistance, was gone by the end of July 1974. Labour’s October 1973 annual conference promise, on the other hand, “to bring about a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families,” promoted by a loudly applauded Tony Benn, was to be quietly sabotaged as time passed.
 
Meanwhile, the building workers jailed for peaceful picketing on a September day in 1972 at non-striking Shrewsbury sites to explain their national strike’s purpose, and to encourage joining in (without complaints that day from the police), were supported by a relentless, though unsuccessful, campaign for their release.

Almost 50 years later, in March 2021, the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions of “the Three” (plus another 11), nudged by evidence from archives uncovered by the tireless investigator (and historian of the long campaign for justice), Eileen Turnbull.

Decisive was a police memorandum (denied to the defendants for their trial), which revealed that original prosecution witness statements had been destroyed — justice at last.

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