The unions broke my nose. The house lights suddenly went off, due to power workers’ industrial action, which meant I failed to dodge my brother’s playful but crunching ninja kick in the dark. It hurt like a bastard.
Strikes were everywhere. In my Wembley comprehensive, not only did the teachers strike but my mate’s older brother, a true maverick, started The National Union of Slow Workers. The NUSW stealthily signed up many members, and very nearly succeeded in precipitating a pupil strike.
Despite the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, in the UK of the early 1970s many people were still accustomed to thinking collectively. Anyone in their mid thirties or older would have remembered the catastrophe of WW2 as a time where people of all backgrounds were genuinely ‘all in it together’. After all, bombs, bullets and rockets then – as now – are not choosy. In the UK, the austere aftermath of the war dragged on and on with food rationing, for example, only ending in 1954.
In the 1970s people’s class awareness was far stronger than now. On the TV every night you could see that dockers, miners, factory and manufacturing workers were a force to be reckoned with. Their power came from collective bargaining: that the union would negotiate on wages and conditions on behalf of all the workers in a factory: so if there was no agreement, nobody would work. If there was a dispute, Unions would support each other. All perfectly reasonable, you might think. But ‘flying picket’ unionists, travelling to support their colleagues in an industrial struggle, were also ready to use the strike as a pretext for a punch-up and a confrontation with authorities.
As the 1970s wore on, union leaders failed to take responsibility for their actions. Their collective power, wielded on behalf of their member’s interests, brought down Heath’s Tory government and ultimately, and despite it being sympathetic to their cause, James Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979. The country was becoming ungovernable. Dominic Sandbrook’s Seasons in the Sun colourfully depicts this turbulent time.
My first encounter as a worker with unions was rubbish too. While at school I worked in a hotel at the weekends. Two men came to recruit me. I would have willingly joined their union, except before I’d even replied they threatened me physically and verbally. Even I, who is by nature placid, was forced to invite them to fuck off, which nipped my union membership in the bud.
Margaret Thatcher’s place in history is largely due to taking on the unions, ‘the enemy within’, and breaking them. To do so she had to destroy their power base, which meant closing down ‘unprofitable’ mines, factories and the rest. Here of course is where the undeniable hatred people have for her resides. For in so doing she ripped the heart out of working towns, shattered working class communities, condemning many to poverty and a future blighted by unemployment.
When she came into power I was 19. The years of systematic warfare against working class power that followed seemed to me an atrocity. The human cost was everywhere to be seen. At the time I lived in the midlands, and would drink in a pub called The Wheatsheaf close to Automotive Products Leamington. In the evenings you could see a swathe of skilled workers nurse silent, slowly-sipped pints in the pub having all been made redundant.
I also spent time in Chesterfield, Sheffield, Coventry and Birmingham. Evidence of the loss of jobs, which soared to over 3 million, was everywhere. I graduated in 1982, and was for some time unable to find a job, so signed on too. My girlfriend’s father, a builder, was also unemployed. I wrote this poem about him which I read in pubic a good deal in the 80s. It was a sincere depiction of a real victim of Thatcherism I knew well. I think it is typical of stuff written at the time.
There’s no work in Chesterfield
And a bloke I know will die of it —
A builder with nothing to build and
No-one to hit. At fifty-five
He clenched-up on himself
After planning how to make another start
Where no start exists.
Now he dithers, all day in one chair,
Trying to decide when to pop out for his paper
And if he should bother the Doctor
With his punching, punching heart.
Now we get to the bit that is uncomfortable for me. You see, although my sympathies were all with the left, I am by nature entrepreneurial. I like acting on my own behalf and setting my own agenda. The reason Thatcher was continually voted in was that she also appealed greatly to those in the working class who wanted to, financially and socially, elbow their way forward.
One Thatcherite ruse was the ‘Enterprise Allowance’ which was a small amount of money every week, roughly the same as being on the dole, which would help you start a business. Of course it also bogusly migrated thousands from the unemployment figures. My first business failed, and so did my second. But these experiences nevertheless altered my perspective. I was happier thinking self-reliantly rather than collectively, despite my left wing sympathies.
Margaret Thatcher’s death on 8th April 2013 does not leave me wanting to dance on her grave. What is the point? Where was all this armchair fervour when it was needed? She was a bitter pill for the country. She heartlessly destroyed entire industries and the communities that relied on them in her own country with scant regard for the human consequences of the people she was supposed to represent. But her legacy was to make succeeding governments, even her admirer Blair’s New Labour administration, far more individualistic.
Anybody talking about ‘class solidarity’, or ‘the working people’ these days sounds like a dinosaur. For we all have a taint of Thatcher in us now.
Below stolen from the Daily Mirror. A lone striking miner walks past the police in 1984 in The Battle of Orgreave.