Extracts from memoirs and diariesby Ian Irvine / April 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
In late 1973 the miners’ strike was causing severe disruption, challenging the authority of Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Parliament still had 18 months to run. William Waldegrave, Heath’s political secretary, recalled:
“So, into that last winter we went: the country rationed on energy and petrol use; industry working a three-day week; No 10 lit by Camping Gaz butane lamps. I argued that we should challenge the extra-parliamentary power of the unions at an early election, running under the slogan, “Who rules?”. Heath hung back from an early, confrontational election, seeing a far wider picture than I did. If he lost, he knew his historic Irish deal would collapse (and so it proved). His achievement of securing British entry to Europe would also be put at risk by Labour’s opportunistic opposition and their promise of a referendum.
“Worst of all would be the kind of victory (we did not doubt it would be victory) he would win. He hated the idea of winning on the divisive “Who rules?” question. He feared letting the right-wing genie out of the bottle, and a return to a coercive Conservatism, with the unions suppressed by the victory of a party representing a hard, militant middle-class. He did not want to see the end of the post-war attempt to make the Conservatives the party of one nation, outflanking class-based Labour. So he delayed.”
Robert Armstrong, Heath’s private secretary, recalled:
“I have a vivid memory of the last meeting with the TUC. Ministers were looking for a guarantee that, if the miners were given a pay increase beyond the counter-inflation policy, other unions would not seek to follow suit. It became clear they could not offer such a guarantee. There was a long silence, as the prime minister considered, and then he finally made up his mind and said the offer did not go far enough, and the meeting broke up.
“I have often wondered whether, if the meeting had adjourned for half an hour, so ministers could have met separately and discussed the position, some compromise might have been found to avert the need for an immediate election, and so create an opportunity to resolve the miners’ dispute, end the three-day week and… hold an election later in the year, when circumstances might be more propitious for the government. That is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history.”