Tag Archives: miners

What did a Britain with nationalised industries look like?


I recently discovered an old school exercise book from a subject called Civic Studies that was part of our curriculum around 15 years of age. We had to write out answers to a series of questions that went like this:

Q: Who supplies our electricity? A: The Central Electricity Generating Board

Q: Who runs the country’s mines? A: The National Coal Board

And so it went on. This was an economy that could be described more as state capitalist than socialist. Civil servants and professional managers and technocrats ran industries that successive government in the post-war period believed were essential to the national interest.

Both Conservative and Labour governments presided over publicly owned and managed industries. Two world wars had revealed the need for better run key industries. There was also a perception that the private sector had under-invested and poorly managed many of these assets in recent decades. British capitalism was deemed to have lost the drive and verve that had powered the Industrial Revolution.

Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party was calling for rail and mail services to be re-nationalised during the 2019 general election. But go back forty years and it would amaze you to see what was under public control – though about to be privatised by the Thatcher government.

Take for example the British National Oil Corporation (BNOC). This was created by a Labour government in 1975 to ensure that the British public would have a stake in any North Sea oil licences and thereby derive a share of the profit from oil and gas exploration. This approach was very similar to what Norway did with the creation of Statoil – a government owned entity that delivered guaranteed pensions to the Norwegian population. It’s now part of a large multinational called Equinor but at the time of writing, the Norwegian state remains the largest shareholder.

The UK, however, went down a very different route. Thatcher created a rather mediocre private sector interest called Britoil that was snapped up by British Petroleum (BP). What’s now forgotten is that BP was a nationalised asset up until 1979 – having been created under a Conservative government in the early 1950s. The BP sell-off was huge and managed by the global investment firm Goldman Sachs.

The North Sea OIl bonanza that never was

British Airways (BA) was created by the government in 1974. The world’s favourite airline – as it likes to claim – was state owned and set up to take over the assets of British European Airways (BEA) and the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). This was a time when most national carriers were owned by governments in Europe. It wasn’t an early sell-off, only being privatised in 1987.

So, the “mixed economy” of state and private run companies was very different to the UK today. Ships were built by British Shipbuilders. Gas was supplied by the British Gas Corporation. Cars were made by British Leyland. And you boarded trains run by British Rail. All of these were privatised over a 20-year period from 1979. This dramatically changed the structure of British capitalism and made the idea of public ownership very alien to younger generations.

As I pointed out earlier, these nationalised interests were run by civil servants and professional managers. Relations between the boardroom and workforce could be every bit as fractious as the private sector. Indeed, some of the biggest strikes of the 1970s were in nationalised industries. And they were often taken into public ownership more out a dire need for reorganisation and urgent bail-out than any grand socialist design.

Such was the case with British Leyland, the car maker. It was created in 1968 by bolting together several auto companies in the hope of creating a British equivalent to General Motors of the United States – and saving troubled brands like Jaguar. But the company lacked a common purpose and the car designs were naff compared to what Ford and GM were producing. That said, I can remember plenty of people driving British Leyland cars in the 1970s. However – it was broken up and most of the brands are now in overseas hands.

During the economic recession of the early 1980s – coupled with a deliberate policy of “slimming down” state run assets for privatisation – there were mammoth job losses. Regardless of your political views, the impact on cities around the UK was seismic. And arguably the aftershocks are still being felt today.

British Steel saw 82,300 jobs shed between 1979 and 1983. The National Coal Board released 36,500 miners between 1978 and 1983 – with many more to go after the 1984/85 miners strike. British Shipbuilders made over 20,000 workers redundant between 1979 and 1982. British Airways also lost 20,000 staff in the same period. This changed the very nature of Britain by degrees from a manufacturing, blue-collar nation in the north and Midlands to communities with more white-collar jobs, “flexible” labour and persistent unemployment in the 1980s.

Being a student union officer during the miners’ strike in 1984 to 1985


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In 1984, the students at Liverpool University saw fit to elect me as Deputy President of the Guild of Undergraduates (student union basically). That summer I began my sabbatical year, which would be far stormier than I could ever have reckoned.

From the spring of 84, the miners had already gone on what would be a one year mammoth strike. This wasn’t your usual kind of industrial action. It was a battle. A war even. Unionised blue collar labour versus Maggie Thatcher.

The miners had brought down the Tories under prime minister Ted Heath in 1974 and forced Thatcher to a climb down in 1981. But….she had bided her time. Coal reserves were built up. And in 1984, Thatcher decided to face down the NUM. For her, this was part of a strategy to break organised labour in the UK. The miners knew this full well regarding themselves historically as a kind of vanguard of the proletariat.

To say the stakes were high would be putting it mildly. So what did we do in the student union? Well, to be honest, students were a bit irrelevant to all the main action. However, my little office soon had a small mountain of old clothes donated by students who wanted to help cash strapped miners’ families.

There were also coaches organised to take students down to picket lines but always rather thinly attended as they did leave at the crack of dawn – around the time most undergraduates were going to bed!

I got to know a couple of miners and one of them, Garry Knowles, was interviewed by me for the student paper. From memory, and I hope I spelt his name right there, he was working at Bold colliery. Bold and Sutton Manor were our two closest pits. Garry somewhat challenged my image of a miner – as portrayed by novelists like D H Lawrence and George Orwell – by being a spiky haired goth.

People put up miners in their homes when they went around the UK to speak at rallies and meetings. There was sometimes a clash of cultures, shall we say. I recall one very middle class woman detailing to us how a very large miner had somehow managed to walk through her French windows without opening them – very drunk at the time needless to say. I’ve no idea what injuries he sustained but her windows were beyond repair!

We also wanted to make donations to the miners but as a student union we were barred by the ultra vires laws – because we were a charity and could only give to bodies with educational aims. The Socialist Workers Party were always goading us to breach the ultra vires laws. But we came up with a smarter ruse.

Apart from being Deputy President of the Guild – a charity – I was also secretary of the area National Union of Students, a body called MASO that was not a charity. So the Guild made a modest donation to MASO that then passed on this donation to the NUM. Incredibly, the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, wrote to the Treasurer of the Guild telling her to retrieve the money from the NUM as it still bore the “imprimatur” of the Guild.

It was decided by the Guild officers that the Attorney General was talking out of his highly partisan backside and we ignored the letter. Nothing happened. And we all knew that the college Conservative association had put him up to this.

Fun times!

Crashing the National Grid for the miners


Seems a rather strange idea now but back in 1984 during the miners’ strike, we were told to fire up as many electrical appliances as possible between 6pm and 6.30pm to crash the national grid. The intention was to force a peak in consumption that would make the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) burn more coal. This would reduce the stocks built up by the government to try and beat the strike. And so victory for the strikers would be hastened.

Well, that was the intention. In truth, I can’t remember anybody going for this ruse. If you did do tell me. Here was the postcard distributed at the time with instructions on what to do.

Miners produce their own version of The Sun and News of the World


During the 1984/85 miners strike, the tabloid newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch – The Sun and the News of the World – took a very hostile stance towards the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Murdoch was about to take on his own print unions so organised labour was in his sights. The Sun put the NUM’s president Arthur Scargill on the front page with the headline “Mine Fuhrer” – geddit?

In response, miners brought out their own right-to-reply version of the Murdoch tabloids that included adverts of support from Murdoch’s print unions and some journalists. That wouldn’t have gone down well with the press baron.

Here, from my 80s archives, is that mock tabloid from the miners:

My student union election poster from 1982 – Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates


Tony McMahonIn my first year at university, I ran for the welfare officer position in the student union at Liverpool Uni.

The Labour Club was heavily influenced by the Marxist policies of the Militant Tendency and so the programme I ran on included calls to nationalise the top 200 monopolies, a £90 minimum wage and a 35 hour week. I think the latter demand probably terrified some of the arts students!

Note the heavy fringe of the time. Think my hair would have been dyed jet black – think Phil Oakey of the Human League.

The poster was drawn with a felt-tip pen. Seems so weirdly amateur now but we had no digital magic back in those far off days.

 

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