The British Disease

Arthur Scargill

After the Industrial Revolution and the commitment to 'free trade' with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1836 British economic growth was confronted by serious squabbles in Europe ... and two world wars. Winning the wars led to British hubris and a belief that the peace could also be won ... by orchestrating grandiose schemes in a flurry of tax & spend, borrow & print ... but costly gluts and queues inevitably humbled the protagonists. The Groundnut Affair was but one relatively minor disaster.

At the time of the miners strikes in 1985 the twin evils of 'restraints on trade' & 'restrictive practices' in Liverpool generated an unemployment level of 27%.

The post war repetition of the ancient political cycle of tax & spend, borrow & print led inexorably to the great inflation of the 1970s and the grovel to the IMF bailout in 1976 ... it was James Callahan who started The Thatcher Revolution at the Labour Party Conference in 1976 -

'We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step'.

The orchestrators of the British Disease were the militant Trades Unions, aided & abetted by some defunct though beguiling economists, who pushed up nominal wages at the expense of productivity and real wages. Relationships which were difficult even for the most agile minds.

The 1976 bailout fiasco resulted in the confrontations of the 1980s with the privileged militant unions and the outlawing of the closed shop and secondary picketing which had eroded the old established institutions of free trade and contract. The inevitable corrective legislation included the 1980 Employment Act against secondary action and the 1982 Act which outlawed the closed shop.

Stockport was the home of Messenger newspapers owned by Eddie Shah. Shah was a friend and great admirer of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and supported by the bigger Newspaper Barons in London. His ambitious business plan was to introduce the new computer technology into the printing trade at his Warrington works to replace the ancient art of typesetting and the restrictive practices of the National Graphical Association (restrictive membership, apprenticeships, manning & quality control). Over time the effects on productivity were dramatic.

Massive cost cutting involved replacing skilled members of the NGA with non-union labour and direct keyboard input into computers. This provoked a dispute at Warrington which set the pattern for the Fleet Street / Wapping disputes ... and the miners strikes.

The Warrington dispute involved mass pickets, secondary pickets and the 'blacking' of all the titles published by Shah.

The police responded with a massed presence and blockades, the confrontation became violent. The Battle of Winwick Quay November 29th 1983 ... then Orgreave in1984 and the Wapping fight in 1986.

Eddie Shah got his injunction. He was the first employer to appeal to the new legislation as the alternative to violence.

The NGA was fined an initial £50,000, followed by a further £100,000 and finally a £250,000 fine after the NGA refused to co-operate with the courts or pay the fines. Eventually in November 1983 the court ordered that the entire funds of the NGA be sequestered.
In refusing to co-operate with the courts the NGA was following TUC policy established in 1982 and re-affirmed in 1983. The NGA turned to the TUC for support but the TUC general secretary, Len Murray, with the backing of the TUC general council, repudiated the NGA and effectively left them isolated in their battle against Shah and the law courts.

The precedent pattern was clearly set at Warrington to be repeated again in the Miners strikes in 1985/6 and at Wapping in 1986.

 

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