The day unions plunged Britain into darkness

Across Britain the 1970s was an era of sky-high inflation and caps imposed on public sector pay rises by Ted Heath’s Conservative government, which infuriated the trade unions.

The most powerful of these was the National Union of Mineworkers as most industries relied on coal power.

Heath became locked into a battle which, ultimately, he could not win.

Miners voted for their first strike since 1926 over wages. For six weeks in January and February 1972 they picketed power stations in a bid to restrict coal supply.

In the power cuts which followed, even the Cabinet in Downing Street met by candlelight, along with families at their evening meal and pub-goers supping a pint.

Advertising display boards in London’s Piccadilly Circus were switched off. The public were ordered to limit heating to one room and keep non-essential lights off.

The Government declared a state of emergency, tens of thousands of people were thrown into unemployment and hundreds of factories had to cease production.

Heath capitulated, to the fury of his Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher, and agreed a 30 per cent NUM pay deal.

Most of the mass power cuts came to an end in early March.

But the following year inflation wiped out much of the miners’ pay boost.

The NUM’s 1973 annual conference demanded a 35 per cent rise regardless of government controls, aiming to claw back reductions in the real value of pay packets over previous years.

Although the strike was heavily defeated in a ballot, the miners imposed an overtime ban to halve production.

At a time of rocketing fuel prices hiked by the oil-producing nations, such action threatened to bring Britain to a standstill.

The response from Heath was swift – but disastrous for his leadership. On December 13, 1973, he announced a Parliamentary order to impose a three-day working week to curb the commercial consumption of electricity.

Heath said the miners – together with the OPEC Middle Eastern oil nations who had raised oil prices 70 per cent – threatened to give Britons their most miserable Christmas since the Second World War.

The PM claimed that, rather than risk a total shutdown, working time was to be reduced to prolong the life of fuel stocks.

Commercial users of electricity were limited to three specified consecutive days of consumption each week and prohibited from working longer hours on those days.

Services deemed essential, including hospitals, supermarkets and newspaper printing presses, were exempt.

Television broadcasts were to shut down at 10.30pm each night and most pubs were closed. Due to power surges, BBC and ITV were forced into staggered shutdowns, alternating nightly, although that was suspended for Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Shorter production times meant shops ran short of food and other goods, sparking panic-buying of everyday items. One retailer said: “I have had a letter from a family who want to fill a room with enough food to last two years.

“They wanted to know the shelf life of tinned products. We are short of some lines, but this is ridiculous.”

  • Support fearless journalism
  • Read The Daily Express online, advert free
  • Get super-fast page loading

Yet recently released National Archives papers revealed the three-day week may not have been necessary at all.

Minutes of a Cabinet meeting on December 20 show that Heath told his ministers that “Government must not appear to be working for a major confrontation with the unions” but must “make it clear that the measures were wholly the result of the industrial action by the NUM”.

A month later, the Cabinet was told coal stocks at power stations had fallen by just 100,000 tons and stood at 15.4 million tons. “Against this background some relaxation of the existing electricity restrictions could be allowed,” the minutes said.

They went on: “The miners had always sought to deplete stocks by action short of a strike, and then impose a total strike when the economy was least able to resist.”

On January 24, 1974, over 80 per cent of NUM members duly voted to strike, having rejected a National Coal Board offer of a 16.5 per cent pay rise.

The strike began on February 5 and, two days later, Heath called a general election under the slogan “Who governs Britain?”

In a TV address, Heath said: “Do you want Parliament and Government to continue to fight against inflation? Or do you want them to abandon the struggle against rising prices under pressure from one particularly powerful group of workers.

“This time of strife has got to stop.

“Only you can stop it. Time to say to the extremists, the militants, and the misguided: we have had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it.” Heath had gambled on the British public responding to a sense of crisis by backing him.

Source: Read Full Article