Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Margaret Thatcher’s demolition job on the industrial might of the British trade union movement helped to generate not only an economic revolution but has also contributed to a transformation in the way the news media reports the world of work.

Journalists who covered the big industrial disputes of the Thatcher decade ended up writing themselves out of the script and by the late 1980s financial news from the City of London had increasingly taken the place of reportage about employment issues and union affairs.

Millions of days a year were being lost through strike action during the 1970s – an era of union militancy which culminated in the so called “winter of discontent” of 1978-9 – but by the end of her Premiership stoppages were a fraction of what they had once been.

Slowly but surely the unions’ strike weapon had been emasculated. Strike ballots were required by law; walk-outs were no longer possible on a show of hands in a car park; flying pickets and secondary action had been outlawed; and most importantly of all a union’s assets were at risk if there was “unlawful” action, as the NUM President Arthur Scargill discovered to his cost in the 1984-5 pit dispute.

Scargill, like other union leaders of his era, had grown used under the previous Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan to employers giving way but Mrs Thatcher, backed by a largely supportive national press was able to prove that the disputes of the 1980s would be won or lost not just on the picket line but also on the back of public opinion and much of the media’s coverage was turned against the unions.

One survivor of the Thatcher decade whose voice was not heard reflecting on the death of the former Prime Minister was that of Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during the fateful pit dispute of 1984-5.

Scargill, now 75, has refused all requests to comment on Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership and his epic struggle with her government. However hard the news media might try, the former NUM President has no intention of assisting journalists to put a post-Thatcher spin on the devastation suffered by the mining communities.

His former wife Anne Scargill had no hesitation in describing how she felt "really, really happy" on hearing the news of Lady Thatcher's death: "She has smashed our communities...she was evil...she has closed our manufacturing industry, she has closed our mines; we are short of fuel, she was intent on smashing the trade uions and she in the end smashed the country."

But from the miners' leader himself there has been no reaction. Comments on his name on Twitter were not found to have been verified and it was left to miners' leaders in the former coalfields to defend the strike.  

The lack of response on Scargill's part is not unusual. In recent years he has rarely answered reporters’ questions and made a point of not talking about either himself or his health; he does appear occasionally in public at miners’ events and has also been engaged in a protracted court case over his continued use of a union owned flat in London’s Barbican.

I could not help but reflect of Scargill’s  absence  as I spent two hours on the BBC’s local radio circuit the morning after her death (9.4.2013), giving interviews to the local radio stations serving the former coalfields of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. The presenters told their listeners Scargill had rejected all requests for interviews and they asked me why.

Personally I was not at all surprised by Scargill’s response. There was no way he was going to be tempted to dance on Lady Thatcher’s grave because he knew he would be forced to try to defend the strike he led, his union’s crushing defeat and the subsequent devastation of the mining communities.

Margaret Thatcher’s decade in power resulted in an economic revolution in the United Kingdom...and also changed the face of the British news media. So successful was she in defeating the trade union movements and in privatising the nationalised industries that a band of reporters who had once ruled the roost ended up writing themselves out of the script. 

The Lost Tribe: Whatever Happened to Fleet Street’s Industrial Correspondents? is the title of the book I published in 2011 charting the demise of the journalists who had hogged the headlines for decades but who then disappeared almost without trace from the reportage of daily news.

Their downfall was not simply the result of the dramatic decline in the number of all-out strikes but also the corresponding and spectacular growth of the City of London and the emerging dominance of financial news.

Margaret Thatcher’s step-by-step assault on trade union power and the break-up of loss-making nationalised industries had terrible consequences for Britain’s industrial heartlands: empty factories, mass redundancies and an unemployment rate that topped three million left terrible scars, not least in the mining communities ravaged by pit closures.

Union membership topped twelve million in the final year of the Wilson-Callaghan government but it was the prolonged strike action of the so-called “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 which paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s general election victory.

Perhaps it was always going to be only a matter of time before an online insurgency combined with direct action forced the government to retreat on a key employment issue and in the process comprehensively upstage the trade union movement.

In the face of a hostile campaign which succeeded in alarming and embarrassing major employers of young people such as Tesco, Burger King, Waterstones, TK Maxx and the Arcadia group, the Minister of State for Employment Chris Grayling had no alternative but to execute a swift U-turn.

Campaigning to stop the removal of social security benefits from 16-24 year olds who dropped out of a voluntary work experience scheme was a cause which union leaders should have championed from the start but their pitiful record in recruiting youngsters employed in fast food, retailing and other service sector jobs had left the field wide open to the political activists behind groups like the Right to Work campaign.

By trying so belatedly to climb aboard the civil disobedience band wagon, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain’s largest union Unite, only underlined the dramatic upstaging of the union movement by a host of direct action groups which use the internet, social networking, messaging and the like to put the frighteners on major employers. 

Their online campaigning – for example by accusing Tesco of taking advantage of “slave labour” – was an illustration of the way the front line for industrial action has been transformed by the ability of activists to mobilise support, whether for a Twitter campaign against Tesco or a protest sit-in at McDonald’s in Whitehall.

After fifty years as a reporter and then broadcasters there is no doubt in my mind as to who were my two most intransigent interviewees: the Reverend Ian Paisley and Arthur Scargill. 

In the 1970s, as a correspondent reporting the Northern Ireland Troubles, I frequently interviewed Paisley, especially during the two week strike organised by the Ulster Workers’ Council which brought down the 1974 power-sharing assembly and executive. Paisley had championed the mobilisation of Protestant power station workers to bring Northern Ireland to a halt.

A decade later I faced an equally defiant– but eventually unsuccessful – Arthur Scargill as he led the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1984-5 strike against pit closures.

I could not help thinking of Paisley, lying in the Ulster Hospital being treated for a heart problem, as I listened to Scargill speaking in Birmingham at a rallyto commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gates on February 10, 1972.

The Battle of Saltley Gates, outside the Saltley coke depot, was a demonstration of the power of the flying picket, the industrial muscle which Scargill mobilised to a devastating effect and which proved so strong that the then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was forced to concede a 27 per cent pay increase for the mineworkers.  

One of my first assignments with the BBC was reporting the rota power cuts of 1972 and their alarming impact was a foretaste of the disruption that Northern Ireland faced in 1974.

Four decades later Scargill told the rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Saltley demonstration that although he was older he was just as determined, ready and willing to lead a “British spring” to bring down capitalism and create a fairer system of socialism.